Human rights activist Maung Zarni has been exiled from his native Myanmar (Burma) for speaking out against the military’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
Q For people from Myanmar, or Burma as you often call it, being politically active comes at a high cost. You, for instance, were unable to visit your dying father and can’t return to see your mother. What values do you hold that made you willing to pay that price?
A It was my upbringing by my parents. If I did something they disapproved of, that was bad behaviour. But if I denied what I had done, that was worse, and that’s when I would be punished. I just absolutely cannot stand blatant lies.
Q How has this value influenced your activism?
A In Burma, we’re dealing with the type of lies that destroy millions of lives. For me, speaking out on the Rohingya issue wasn’t as difficult as getting involved politically in the first place, three decades ago. In those days, I had concerns about whether the Burmese embassy knew about the activism I was doing as a student at the University of California. Would they harass my parents? I was living with those concerns for a long time. Gradually, I found myself doing more daring things. Then, finally, you cross a line and oppose the regime publicly, and you cannot go back.
Q You founded the Free Burma coalition in 1995 to oppose the military dictatorship. There have been significant, nominally democratic political reforms in recent years, but the military continues to hold tremendous sway. How do you feel about Myanmar’s leadership today?
A There was a period [beginning around 2004] when it seemed to me that there were good elements within the military who wanted the same things as I did for the country. For a window of three or four years, I attempted to work with the generals. I helped them meet foreign diplomats and officials [to start normalizing Burma’s relations with the rest of the world], but I expected something in return. For instance, they would need to remove the restrictions on the internet — a little indication that they were prepared to allow the people a greater degree of freedom. I saw few gifts from them; it was just take, take, take. I finally knew it wasn’t going to work after they blocked emergency aid to cyclone victims in 2008. The Americans, the British and others had sanctions on Burma at the time, and the Burmese suspected that the Americans would launch an attack if their aircraft were allowed in. An estimated 140,000 people died. When that happened, I stopped interacting with the military. The contacts I had at that time are now shoo-ins for the number-one positions in the administration.
Q So you personally know a lot of the people in power in Myanmar?
A I do, and on the civilian side, I also know the people who write articles justifying the atrocities against the Rohingya. Some of them were like younger brothers to me when we were studying together in the United States. They were activists, like me.
Q How exactly are people justifying the military atrocities, which include killings, widespread rape and razed villages? Apparently they’re using Buddhism to do so?
A There are very elaborate justifications drawn from Buddhist theology and philosophy. [Last October], one of the most influential monks gave a three-hour sermon, about 20 minutes of which he devoted to justifying the killing of infidels. This monk would say that non-believers are only half-human, so even if you kill them by the millions in defence of your faith, that does not amount to bad karma. The venue and audience for his sermon were significant: it was to a group of hundreds of special commanders at a military training school, in a massive hangar.
Q Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be a peaceful religion?
A Westerners are often disturbed when they hear that Buddhists are doing this, and that’s because of Orientalism. There are two versions of Orientalism: one of them romanticizes the Other, and one demonizes and dehumanizes the Other. We Buddhists are subject to what I call “positive Orientalism.” Religion is both an individual and a social practice. When something becomes social, it always has latent political potential.
Q Since the violent military crackdown began last August, more than 600,000 Rohingya civilians have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. When you went there to meet with refugees, one man burst into tears to see a Burmese Buddhist who cared about Rohingya Muslims. Is it important to you to build religious bridges like this?
A Of course, although I actually just use Buddhism as a marker [of my ethnicity]. I’m essentially a humanist.
Q Do you see any role for interfaith activists in helping with the situation?
A I don’t know. Interfaith activism sounds rather soft, but actually, I think we’re talking about intellectual revolutionaries, people who can think across civilizational or faith lines. If Buddhist monks or Christian or Muslim clergy come with an attitude of “We want to have interfaith dialogue, but we’re still the best,” then that’s not going to work, because you’ve got to be able see through to the essence of the other person.
Q You don’t have much hope in the United Nations Security Council, which you’ve called “paralyzed.” Do you see hope anywhere?
A I have hope in people in general. I think that institutions can only mobilize through individuals. There are so many people with something to contribute. Maybe they can mobilize wider public opinion as church communities or filmmakers or whatever their background may be. At the same time, I’m not romantic about the prospect of seeing this resolved. I mean, we’ve got over 40 foreign ambassadors sitting in the capital of Burma where all the genocidal decisions are made, and no one is able to bring themselves to confront the government. No one is saying, “This must stop, and here’s how we think it could be done.” And many of the embassies, instead of talking about the survivors and the victims, refer to the region. They talk about “the crisis in Rakhine State” rather than “the Rohingya people.” They comply with the Burmese government’s demand that these people not be addressed by their own name.
Q Because to call them “Rohingya” would give them legitimacy?
A Yes. The Rohingya were officially recognized as part of the Burmese ethnic tapestry, with full citizenship rights, from the time of independence from the British in 1948, well into the 1960s. What we are hearing today from the Burmese government, including [State Counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi, is that they’re actually illegal Bengali migrants and that there is no such group as the Rohingya.
Q Like other minorities in Myanmar, the Rohingya have some antigovernment militants among them. You’ve argued that Myanmar’s leaders are trying to use this to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community, by claiming to target an organized terrorist threat. What makes this narrative effective?
A They’re saying they’re defending a sovereign state, and everybody understands that, especially their main audience of sovereign governments. Throw in “national security” or “anti-terror effort,” and they’re given a huge benefit of the doubt. But look at the facts on the ground. If the militants were really linked to any major terrorist network, they would be carrying AK-47s or better, not machetes and bamboo spears.
Q It sounds as though all of this offends the sense of truth your parents instilled in you.
A It’s an insult to common sense.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story first appeared in The Observer’s April 2018 edition with the title “Burmese dissident speaks frankly about his country’s persecution of the Rohingya.”