Eight times Myanmar took a leaf out of Israel's repression handbook

Eight times Myanmar took a leaf out of Israel's repression handbook
Comment: The parallels between the military and political repression of Rohingya and Palestinians are striking, notes Muhammad Shehada.
8 min read
17 Oct, 2018
Myanmar's military leadership enjoys the support of Buddhist monks [AFP]
Amid ever-growing denunciation from the international community, Myanmar's long-rooted ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya minority found companionship and support, if not inspiration, from Israel and its lived experience of persecuting Palestinians.

Since the most recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar, the Israeli government not only
armed the "Tatmadaw" Burmese military forces responsible for ongoing textbook genocide of the Muslim minority in the northern state of Rakhine, but also signed a bilateral agreement to literally re-write history; of how the each country is being represented in the other's books and literature.

The Israeli embassy in Myanmar proudly states
on their website that "Israel and Myanmar share more than meets the eye". Although the site highlights how both countries declared independence in 1948, it leaves absent the fact that declaring independence in both countries came largely at the expense of native populations living within their territories, resulting in 70 years of state-sanctioned persecution against such "unwanted" peoples.

The following illustrated practices involved in this persecution help signify the convergence of both states.

Exclusive Citizenship

Deemed the "defender of Buddhist faith", a citizen of Myanmar should be both Burmese and Buddhist, while Israel's newly approved infamous state-nation law defines Israel as "the defender of Jews", an exclusive homeland for the Jewish people.

While a symbolic minority of Muslims in Myanmar and Palestinians in Israel were absorbed into civil society to sustain an image of tolerance for those who
"integrated", Myanmar's inclusion of 135 races in its national identity essentially excludes the 1.7 million Rohingyas. Myanmar's 1982 definition of citizenship established three classes: full, associate and naturalized citizens, none of which applied for the disenfranchised Rohingya.

Similarly, in Israel, more than four million Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza who live under Israel's sovereignty and military occupation, also have no citizenship, aside from a symbolic passport and non-sovereign Palestinian Authority.

Labelling Minorities as Muslims/Arab

Myanmar prefers to describe the Rohingya groups targeted for persecution only as "Muslim", where it's extremely frowned upon and troubling to use the term "Rohingya" - to the extent that even Pope Francis was forbidden from using the word when he visited the country.

This generalised term of mis-labeling someone's religion and personal beliefs as their citizenship creates a misleading impression, advocated by the state, that such groups belong elsewhere in the Muslim world, ie: neighbouring Bangladesh.

Similarly, Palestinian minorities in Israel are exclusively referred to as "Arabs" instead of their actual distinct indigenous identity. The Israeli mainstream even often refers to the Palestinians residing in Gaza and the West Bank merely as Arabs. This maintains the frequently preached Israeli propaganda that there are 22 Arab countries to harbour their fellow Arabs (Palestinians), but that the Palestinians are the spearhead of Arab countries wanting to destroy Israel.

3. '
Illegal Immigrants'

Although strong historical records show that Palestinians and Rohingya are indigenous to their lands, both Israel and Myanmar call them "immigrants", who have no entitlement whatsoever to any inch of the land upon which they have lived for centuries.

Every Burmese regime since Myanmar's independence has labelled the Rohingya 'illegal Bengali migrants'

In 1799, a Scottish doctor who travelled through the region of Myanmar
documented the indigenous presence of the natives of Arakan; "Mahommedans" or "Rooinga", who called their state "Rovingaw", and whose presence in Arakan dated back to the 13th century.

However, every Burmese regime since Myanmar's independence
has labelled the Rohingya "illegal Bengali migrants" who allegedly swarmed on Myanmar during and after the British mandate.

Identical labelling of Palestinians as "Arab migrants" who allegedly also "swarmed" during and after the British mandate of Palestine on "a land without a people for a people without land" is extremely popular in Israel today. This of course overlooks the fact that Israel's founders, such as David Ben Gurion or Golda Meir
were immigrants to Palestine who carried Palestinian passports.

4. 'Existential Threat'

In 2009, after media attention on the
Rohingya "boat people", the Burmese Consul General to Hong Kong dehumanised the Rohingya victims as "ugly as ogres" whose "dark brown" complexion contrasted with the "fair and soft" skin of the "good looking" Burmese.

Since Israel's inception, similar slurs were used in reference to Palestinians; whether
Ben Gurion's "We Look at Them Like Donkeys" statement or Netanyahu's labelling of Palestinians as "beasts", Israeli officials have always held Palestinians in contempt no less extreme than that of Myanmar's attitudes towards Rohingya, as less human.

The very existence of Rohingyas in Myanmar and Palestinians in Israel is widely considered a threat to the national identity. Buddhist monk U Wirathu, who was
praised by Myanmar's Former President Thein Sein as a "son of Lord Buddha", stated in a 2013 interview about Rohingyas: "When you leave a seed from a tree to grow in a pagoda, it seems so small at first. But you know you must cut it out before it grows and destroys the building."

Israeli Minister of Justice Aylet Shaked
similarly referred to Palestinian mothers as giving birth to "little snakes" and called for their slaughter.

Furthermore, Palestinians and Rohingyas are both frowned upon as a demographic threat or "population bombs". While
U Wirathu said in an interview, "[Rohigyas] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them… They would like to occupy our country, but I won't let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist", near-identical statements are popular in the Israeli mainstream.

While competitively persecuting Palestinians and Rohingyas is a boast to political popularity, both targeted groups are used as a strong slur to delegitimise Israeli/Burmese political opponents. In Myanmar, politicians accused of having anything to do with "Muslims" come under extreme attacks, while in Israel the "Arabs voting in droves" sentiment
was conjured up by the sitting prime minister to win popular support through fear-mongering.

5. Systematic Expulsion and Settlement Expansion

Palestinian and Rohingya areas are both subject to military rule, segregation and imprisonment in cantonised enclaves.

In Myanmar, the militant "State Law and Order Restoration Council" (SLORC), launched Operation Pyi Thaya (Clean and Beautiful Country) in 1991, which forcefully displaced the Rohingya population to "strategic villages" near military bases and settled Buddhists in their place.

As part of this operation, and until today, the Burmese government implemented the "Four Cuts" strategy of denying ethnic minorities food, shelter, security and land.

Such operations clearly mirror Israel's continued systematic displacement of Palestinians and expansion of settlements, in addition to its blockade on Gaza which deprives its two million inhabitants of basic life requirements.

To make things worse, NaSaKa, a military force formed in 1992 exclusively governs Rohingyas, while Palestinians are under the similar control of the Israeli military's
COGAT office.

Under NaSaKa, about 40 "model villages" called "NaTaLa", were built on Rohingya ruins, to house more than 10,000 Buddhist settlers. These Buddhist settlements required both the expulsion of Rohingya and their forced labour. Whereas in Palestine, Jewish settlements built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and even private properties, are also constructed by Palestinian labourers, forced to obtain a special work permit from COGAT.

The result is that Rohingyas are de facto imprisoned in small enclaves in the north of Rakhine, while Palestinians are confined to cantons in the West Bank and an open-air prison in Gaza.

The de facto stateless Rohingya and Palestinians are both subject to severe travel restrictions. Palestinians in the West Bank need a virtually unattainable permit from the Israeli military to visit Gaza and vice versa, let alone Jerusalem. Similarly, Rohingyas are not only prohibited from traveling to the Arakanese capital of their state, but even visiting a neighbouring village
requires a government permit to travel.

Such travel restrictions on Rohingyas and Palestinians severely limit their ability to obtain medical treatment or education abroad, let alone family unification or enjoying the minimum of a decent life.

Disavowed Diaspora

Making Palestinians and Rohingya enclaves unlivable eventually leaves them with one option; escape as final resort for survival from state brutality. However, more than six million Palestinians and 1.5 Million Rohingyas in the diaspora are denied the right of return to their homeland.

Rohingyas escaping to or returning from Bangladesh are considered illegal, as they have no passports due to their lack of citizenship

escaping to or returning from Bangladesh are considered illegal, as they have no passports due to their lack of citizenship. Similarly, Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967 still have no official passports and are now being targeted by Israel for their very status of being "refugees".

State-Sponsored Violence

Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to almost daily harassment, looting and violence, sometimes lethal, by Israeli settlers heavily protected by the Israeli army.

Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO, documented that when settlers assault Palestinians the Israeli army stands aside watching, and even assaults Palestinians who would try to defend themselves against settlers' violence.

Similarly, in the 2012 riots in Rakhine State, entire Rohingya villages were burned and hundreds killed by Buddhist gangs, while the military not only watched silently without lifting a finger, but also actively disarmed "the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves",
according to Human Rights Watch.

8. Blurring Ethnic Cleansing as 'Misinformation'

In the wake of brutal Burmese military operations in 2016, during which more than 600,000 Rohingyas fled their homes, villages were burned, and hundreds were killed, Myanmar's spiritual and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, tuned down the rhetorical discrimination against Rohingya and adopted a softer approach, identical to that of Israel.

Suu Kyi claimed that the Rohingya were perpetrators of violence and claimed rhetorical sympathy with "Muslims". She opted to blur the picture of Myanmar's ethnic cleansing of Rohingya by arguing that "terrorists" were to blame. General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Myanmar's armed forces, also marketed the extreme violence against Rohingyas as a response to "attempt of extremist Bengalis in Rakhine State to build a stronghold".

Identically, the past three Israeli military assaults on Gaza, the most recent of which killed more than 2,600 Gazans and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, were all labelled "wars on terror", where Israel claimed rhetorical sympathy for Gazans and blamed all violence on "terrorist" Hamas.

Through such common practices, the systematic ethnic cleansing against Palestinians and Rohingyas continues openly with minimum international criticism.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.