This article makes two interrelated arguments. First, most politicians, activists and opinion makers in Myanmar see the political divide between the ruler and the ruled — or between authoritarian ruler and democratic forces — as the main problem sustaining violence, conflict, and oppression. However, a second set of divides— inter-ethnic and intra-Buddhist divides— have significantly widened recently, and racism, sexism, and intolerance have become widespread. Second, the planned “political” dialogue pursued as part of the peace process has yet to attend to these “societal” divides, and rising racism and sexism. This lack of attention is ironic in that the very purpose of the peace process is to address a 70-year-old conflict that is rooted in identity-based oppression.
These arguments will be demonstrated by looking at four specific cases: The Myanmar Film Academy Awards, Myanmar Idol Season 2, the “Aung San Bridge” in Mon state, and the case of Myanmar Now’s chief correspondent Swe Win vis-à-vis U Wirathu. These four cases are selected because they are the most recent, but we could easily apply this lens to others.
Myanmar Film Academy Awards
The Myanmar Motion Picture Organization held its annual Academy Awards ceremony in Yangon on March 18, 2017. The film named “Oak Kyar Myat Pauk” won three awards for the Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Film Director categories. Oak Kyar Myat Pauk literally means the grass grown among bricks, therefore “rootless.” The film is about four youth, three men and one woman. Their childhood troubles caused by financial issues, abandonment, and family separation turned them into troubled kids. The three men met each other in jail, and they met the woman, Pauk Pauk (played by Thet Mon Myint), at Paradise hotel, which serves adult entertainment to foreign clients. Pauk Pauk works at the hotel, where she is also an undercover agent against a human trafficking gang.
The film, which at first seems to be highlighting how family troubles negatively affect children, suddenly turns to explicitly-depicted xenophobia. It portrays foreigners (Chinese and Thai) as exploiting Burmese women with the collaboration of Myanmar nationals. The main story is articulated around protecting Burmese women against foreign sexual exploitation.
There are two scenes that indirectly support the main storyline. Both scenes stoke racism by using elements that Burmese spectators can more easily internalize, as they correspond with the racist nationalist attitude. One scene is when one of the troubled young men Tha Gyar (played by Tun Tun) comes home from jail and cannot find his mom. A Muslim family has bought his home and is now living there. The explicit message is that supposed foreigners have taken advantage of his misery and made him homeless. That scene reinforces the “house owner and guest” narrative that portrays Rohingyas (and Muslims in general) as not behaving themselves as guests, but instead insulting the owners. Tun Tun won the best male actor award for his role in the film.
Another scene shows the leading protagonist, Shwe Oak (played by Nay Toe), speaking angrily to the Paradise’s manager (played by Soe Myat Thuzar) about foreigners exploiting Burmese that:
…if the birds live in their own nests and eat their food, there is no reason to have any problems. But if they invade another’s [nest], even small birds must protect themselves as much as they can. If you don’t want any racial issues, like you said, why don’t they stay in their own nests? If they invade other’s [nests], [we] will break their wings and throw them in the sea. Then, politics. I don’t know it either, but I know “maggots in the meat” [quisling] who betray [her/his] home and family and collaborate with thieves…. We are not maggots that open the fence for the thieves. Now I hit the thieves you brought in. I don’t care even if that causes the national problem [implying national political problems involving other countries]. That’s the politics I know.
Whoever Shwe Oak’s nationalist anger is directly or indirectly targeting, the film exacerbates intolerance, group-ism, nationalism and racism but not multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance and a progressive understanding of social justice. The film therefore is counter-productive in bridging societal divides and addressing identity-based conflict.
The fact that the film won three Academy Awards highlights that the issue of intolerance and racism is not just a personal issue for some individuals in the industry, but the industry itself, which officially endorses such theatrical messaging of hate.
Apart from long-term ideological intoxication, the film caused a social media war twice: once in early 2016 when the film was shown in theaters and another in March 2017 when it won the Academy Awards. Many supporters uploaded the entire film on Facebook and Youtube, sharing the specific scene of Shwe Oak’s anger discussed above— both the video file and the text— urging people to watch and read. There were comments using such words as “thief,” “home stealer,” “woman stealer,” “maggots,” and so on. On the other hands, progressive social media users expressed their disappointment, and responding with disapproving comments about both the awards and the nationalist attitudes they represented. There was almost no decent or constructive debate about the issue, but rather just comments thrown back and forth.
The next social media war of intolerance is about the Myanmar Idol singing contest. The finale of its second season took place in March 2017, a few days after the Academy Awards. The two top contestants were Thar Nge and Billy La Min Aye, one male and female respectively. Billy was known to many as a PaO-Karen-Christian girl from Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. Billy received an enormous amount of hate and criticism from angry viewers who swore at her on Facebook using harsh and sexist language. They said she was uptight and selfish, not friendly and considerate enough to her colleagues who were voted out, and also that she was using her beauty to mobilize votes.
On the other hand, Thar Nge, known to be an ethnic Rakhine, received some ethnic identity-related comments, but not as many. One of Billy’s fans wrote that Billy, as a girl from the hills, has not sold natural gas nor seaport to the Chinese – making reference to the Kyaut Phyu seaport project and the natural gas pipeline from Rakhine state going to China. Thar Nge, regardless of his ethnicity, has nothing to do with the seaport or the natural gas; he lives in Pyi Oo Lwin near Mandalay and sells Burmese pea fritters as a low-income earner! Thar Nge won the Myanmar Idol award.
Apart from the social media war of insults and indecency that went on for a few months, observing the show, particularly the last two minutes before announcing the winner, makes one wonder seriously what the entire hall chanting Thar Nge’s name in opposition to Billy, the nervous young lady standing on the stage, tells us about the public psyche regarding who they ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’, and the strong and the vulnerable. Should the audience not show decency and maturity by making themselves appear to be comforting both candidates? Or is the same psyche operates in politics–commitment to the ruthless crushing of opponents in operation here? What if the majority is inattentive to the vulnerable?
There are lessons to learn from the Myanmar Idol. The imported brand of singing contest not only turns out to be a “nationwide affair”, but also indicates how the society is vulnerable to division and intolerance. It also shows how easily people resort to intolerance, prejudice, and hate.
The “Aung San Bridge”
At the time people were waging wars of words on two forms of entertainment, another one was being waged in the context of naming a new Union government-funded bridge in Mon state. The NLD government decided to name the bridge after the late General Aung San, as opposed to originally designated name, “Thanlwin Chaung Sone Bridge”. The Mon people feel outraged by the government decision. They want the bridge to be something that signifies Mon-ness, and gives a taste of Mon state. But the government unilaterally went ahead, while failing to consider ethnic grievances, making people see the bridge naming as part of the ongoing Burmanization of ethnic peoples. The issue has divided those who support the name “Aung San Bridge” and those, mostly ethnic Mon and non-Bamar ethnic minorities across the country, who are against the government decision. There have been various public protests as well as anger on social media.
According to some civil society leaders in Mon state, the divide between Mons and ethnic Bamars has widened, and those who used to collaborate on various issues do not work together anymore. The language used to oppose the “Aung San Bridge”, articulated through identity politics and minority rights, has made ethnic Bamar see the Mon as increasingly nationalistic and anti-Bamar, while ethnic people see the pro-Aung San Bridge crowd as chauvinists opposed to minority rights.
During the bridge campaign came the 2017 by-election campaigns. Locally specific identity-based movement of the bridge campaign entangled with rising nationalism across the country. It is the narrative of “the house owner and the guest”, originally articulated in the context of the anti-Rohingya campaign, traveling to Mon State. A Facebook campaign ad said, “Only the house owner can fix the house. Let’s vote for ethnic parties to protect ethnic rights”.
The “house owner and guest” discourse travels not only to Mon state, but also to different parts of the country. For instance, some activists in Shan State speak of “house owners who became tenants” to refer to the way the Shan State government convened the Shan State region-based dialogue in Taunggyi between April 23 and 25. The State government convened the region-based dialogue with the approval of Dr. Tin Myo Win, chairperson of the Union-level Peace Commission. The government did not consult with political parties, ethnic armed groups, and Civil Societies based in Shan State. Instead, it planned the region-based dialogue unilaterally, just four days prior to the dialogue on April 23. Many members of the Shan State dialogue supervisory committee were unaware of the planned dialogue until April 21st. The government also organized prior township-level dialogues and district-level dialogues in one to two days. In some places, participants were invited by phone or Viber. In some places, they were invited just two hours ahead of the dialogues — which were not really ‘dialogues’ or ‘debates’ anyway.
For the Shan State-wide region-based dialogue in Taunggyi, political parties were required to submit the names of representatives in less than a day, and position papers on politics, economics and land/environmental issues in less than two days. Stakeholders in Shan State felt that they were not given time for preparation, but instead were forced to follow the rules of the game set by the government.
It is even worse for ethnic Shans as they have not been able to convene Shan ethnic-based dialogue due to the government not allowing the dialogue to take place in Taunggyi (or Panglong). Shan communities feel the government’s convening the region-based dialogue in Taunggyi is inattentive to their grievances. Equally disappointing for the Shan State Civil Society Forum Committee— a collection of representatives from various civil society organizations— is that they were not invited to the dialogue. The invited civil society representatives were not allowed to submit papers nor participate in discussion.
In short, the questions over representation, decision-making, implementation, and the potential consequence of the dialogue are not only puzzling for many in Shan State but create a sense of loss over the process. The activists speak of the fact that the Shan State region-based dialogue was supposed to be their own affair, but local stakeholders were invited as ‘guests’ and forced to accept the rules of the game set by the government, which is seen as the Bamar government — an outsider. In short, people felt that outsiders are dictating the house affairs, and the house owners have instead become powerless tenants.
The major religious divide in Myanmar has traditionally been between the majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities. Religious cracks within Buddhist communities were rare until the 2015 general election campaign, when the political cracks between supporters of the NLD and the junta/USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) were partly articulated around religion. Buddhist nationalists, banding together as Ma Ba Tha, supported the USDP in the name of protecting race/religion, while the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, still nationalists, rejected Ma Ba Tha’s religiously-loaded political campaign. By that time, many people came to realize that Ma Ba Tha was using Buddhism to mobilize supporters for the USDP against the NLD.
The crack was amplified in February this year when Myanmar Now’s chief correspondent Swe Win raised a question regarding Ma Ba Tha’s possible link to NLD lawyer U Ko Ni’s assassination. Also, when the leading Ma Ba Tha monk U Wirathu publicly thanked the assassins of U Ko Ni, Swe Win criticized him, which led U Wirathu’s followers in Mandalay and Yangon to sue him on charges of defaming Buddhism and U Wirathu. U Wirathu’s supporters warned him to apologize, but Swe Win criticized U Wirathu in a press conference instead. Swe Win requested the Ministry of Religion and Culture to comment on whether what he said about U Wirathu amounted to defamation. The ministry issued a statement on the 5th of April saying that it did not. The USDP and 8 other political parties accused the Ministry of interfering in the judiciary, and that such interference can result in unnecessary consequences. Ma Ba Tha also issued a similar statement, indicating that the ministry is responsible for any unnecessary consequences.
Earlier, on February 9, U Wirathu delivered a sermon in former President Thein Sein’s home village Kyon Ku, in the Irrawaddy Division, that Buddhist women should marry dogs (or alcoholics or drug addicts) instead of ‘Kalar’. He said dogs are as capable as ‘Kalar’, and that he would send monks to fulfil the women’s desires. The sermon took place in defiance of the regional government’s ban on him preaching in the region.
This outraged Buddhist communities, including women, some of who have spoken out against his preaching. U Min Hlaing filed a case against U Wirathu at Dawpong court in Yangon Region (which the court rejected on the basis that the sermon took place elsewhere).