Dr Maung Zarni flew in from London to Kuala Lumpur to testify as an expert witness before the International Peoples Court Tribunal on the genocide committed by his native country Myanmars military forces against the Rohingya.
He spoke to Prothom Alo's joint editor Mizanur Rahman Khan on 21 September 2017. They subsequently also communicated by e-mail for the following interview.
Dr. Maung Zarni was born in 1963 into a Burmese Buddhist family in Mandalay, a year after General Ne Win came to power in a military coup.He has been a human rights activist for nearly 30 years and has written extensively on democratisation, Islamophobia and Rohingya genocide. He was educated at the universities of Mandalay, California, Washington and Wisconsin from which he earned his PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in 1998.
He has had wide academic involvement at the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard, UCL-Institute of Education and other prestigious institutions. The Parliament of the Worlds Religions honoured him with the ‘Cultivation of Harmony Award’ in 2015 for his interfaith human rights activism worldwide. The Myanmar government and media outlets have denounced him as ‘national traitor’ and ‘enemy of the State’ for his opposition to the Myanmar genocide.
Prothom Alo: How do you see the Myanmars latest quest to resolve the Rohingya crises?
Maung Zarni : Aung San Suu Kyi has assigned three civil diplomats to handle the issue abroad. Thaung Tun, her national security adviser, just about 10 days ago went to New York and delivered his North Korean-esque unbelievable official remarks at the recent Security Council, denying everything factual and documented about the genocidal killings and expulsion of Rohingya. He was a former interpreter for the retired dictator Senior General Than Shwe and ambassador to the Philippines.
Then Kyaw Tint Swe, a key civilian career diplomat who has spent entire career serving the military regimes since Ne Wins time, is now Suu Kyis minister for the state counsellors office. He helped take the wind out of the sails in May 2008 when the regime came under enormous pressure to allow access to the cyclone victims stranded without emergency relief or drinking water. He came to Dhaka to deceive Hasinas government about the Suu Kyi government’s intention to take Rohingyas back, in order to diffuse international pressure and divert the attention away from the genocidal persecution in his country.
Then Win Mra, a Rakhine careerist in the foreign affairs ministry, like the other two, has climbed the ladder by defending the militarys human rights records at the international meetings in New York, Geneva, etc. He now heads the so-called National Human Rights Commission, which does not respect the rights of Rohingyas to self-identify.
The generals themselves are incapable of mounting self-defence credibly in any international forums because of their poor education and limited command over English.
Suu Kyi is surrounded by these men whom I would not hesitate to call poisonous snakes.
Prothom Alo: Are you optimistic about the resumption of repatriation?
Maung Zarni: The repatriation proposal is a tactical move by the regime, whose ultimate strategic scheme is to destroy the Rohingyas existence, history, identity and legality. If in doubt, read the 25-year collection of UN documents, human rights documentations and press clippings going back to 1978. And Rohingyas do not want to go home. Would you, were you a Rohingya?
Prothom Alo : You joined in a discussion with Suu Kyi at a London School of Economics (LSE) roundtable. Did she utter the word ‘Rohingya’ in the meeting?
Maung Zarni: The LSE roundtable was held on 18 June, a week after the first bout of violence in Rakhine in 2012. No, she did not utter the word ‘Rohingya’ nor did she weigh in on the issue of persecution. Precisely because she was unprepared to handle this emerging global concern, I was pre-assigned to address the question that was pre-submitted in writing as the attendees sent in their questions that they wanted put to her.
Only a few days ago in Oslo, Norway, the US National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Anthony Kuhn confronted her with the question, Do you know if Rohingyas are Myanmar citizens? Her response was I dont know.
Prothom Alo: Can you give us any instance where she had mentioned the rights of the Rohingya?
Maung Zarni : A fellow Burmese dissident Ko Aung, who met with her after the LSE meeting, was one of the organisers of her first ever visit back to UK since 1988. According to Ko Aung, she agreed with my stance that Rohingyas deserved full citizenship of our country, but she did not agree that they should be recognised as an ethnic group of Burma.
That was the view I also had back in June 2012 as my knowledge about the international law granting the minorities of different countries the right to self-identify was not adequate or accurate. Furthermore, my understanding of the genocide as an identity-based attack on an ethnic or religious group was also inadequate and inaccurate.
Prothom Alo : Did you ever talk to Suu Kyi?
Maung Zarni: I did talk to Suu Kyi, by nothing substantive.
Prothom Alo: Is it possible to recall the exact words that she used in the LSE meeting on the Rohingya problem?
Maung Zarni: She did not say a single word about Rohingya to me, directly. So it was a second hand account I heard first hand from my colleague Ko Aung.
Prothom Alo: Is it not significant that at least she had demonstrated her willingness, although not publicly, to give citizenship to the Rohingyas?
Maung Zarni: Yes.
Prothom Alo : Did not she utter anything in the days of her pro-democracy and human rights movement about the rights of Rohingya , Kachin and Muslims other than Rohingya?
Maung Zarni: No, she did not say anything specific about Rohingyas rights during her human rights movement days. But Rohingyas supported her overwhelmingly. She travelled to North Rakhine, met with Rohingya activists and communities when she was campaigning for her National League for Democracy party for the first time in 1989. Rohingyas in fact joined the NLD and founded a local NLD office to support her.
Prothom Alo : What was her policy to woo Muslims voters?
Maung Zarni: She made the unilateral decision not to field a single Muslim candidate on her NLD ticket in 2015. The early human rights movement of Burma was not infested with this level of vile anti-Muslim racism. Many of her key advisers and supporters were Muslims in the early formative years of the opposition following 1988 nation-wide uprisings. Some of them such as the writer and ex-Naval commander Captain Ba Thaw (aka Maung Thaw Ka, penname), were tortured to death for their support of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Prothom Alo: Was the captain Ba Thaw Muslim?
Maung Zarni: Yes, naval commander Ba Thaw was a Burmese Muslim from upper Burma town called Shwe Bo, but made his career in the Burma Armed Forces and lived in Rangoon.
Prothom Alo: Is it true that Rohingyas opted for the Japanese side during the World War II and for Pakistan during the Indian partition in 1947?
Maung Zarni: No, Rohingyas stayed loyal to the British. Rakhine Buddhist nationalists sided with the fascist Japanese occupiers during World War II.
Yes, a faction of the Rohingyas, led by a Rohingya Muslim officer in the British Army, did seek to join East Pakistan on the eve of Burmas independence. But the overwhelming majority of Rohingyas were peaceful and collaborated with the Burmese Army to put down this Rohingya secessionist movement. That was one of the reasons the Burmese Army embraced Rohingyas as a peaceful ethnic community and supported their call for ethnic minority recognition as Rohingya, distinct from 16 other Muslim communities scattered across the country.
Prothom Alo : What about ARSA? How do you see the alleged secessionist movement by the Rohingya people?
Maung Zarni: I don’t know about the ARSA, but the Rohingya secessionist movement is not exceptional or unusual for ethnic minorities. Rakhine Buddhists were fighting for their sovereignty which they lost to the Burmese feudal state on 1 Jan 1785. Other ethnic minorities such as Karen Christians also sought independence, and so have the Kachin, Shan, Karenni, etc. at various points in the countrys post-independence history. It is racist and unfair to keep portraying the Rohingyas as seeking a separate territory for themselves.
Prothom Alo: There is a perception in some quarters among the Bangladeshi people that Rohingyas are keen to get autonomy and that could irritate the Burmese authorities.
Maung Zarni: Indeed, no Rohingya leader, inside or among the diaspora, is demanding anything special for Rohingyas. They only want to live in peace, with basic human rights and legal citizenship, which they enjoyed fully in the 1950s and 1960s in western Burma where their roots have been put down for generations. It is patently false to say - as a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Burma claimed in his Dhaka Tribune interview recently - that once Rohingyas are recognised as an ethnic group they would be entitled to an autonomous status.
There are many ethnic groups that are officially considered ethnic groups of Burma, but only a handful are granted distinctly ethnic region status.
Prothom Alo : What about the response of Burmese monks to the crisis? Do not you see anything positive happening to embrace the Rohingyas within the territory of Myanmar?
Maung Zarni: Absolutely nothing positive is arising out of the predominantly Buddhist civil society. The societal response to the genocide of Rohingyas makes me think Myanmar society today is far more thoroughly brainwashed and genocidal towards Rohingyas than Nazi Germany at the height of Hitlers power, for there was serious resistance from the conservative elements and German communists towards the Nazi genocide. But there is no such resistance in Burma today. There is, however, a parallel between the collaborating role the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, played in the Nazi genocide and the cheer-leading role the Buddhist Order, by and large, has been playing.
It is chilling that the men and women who call themselves monks and nuns help popularise the genocidal view towards Rohingyas. The main problem is the Burmese public, including monks, have been subjected to this extremely effective state propaganda which portrays falsely Rohingyas as illegal Bengalis, who are land-grabbing, extremist Islamists hell-bent on setting up an Islamic nation in North Arakan or Rakhine with help from Bangladesh and the Middle East. The public and the monks are completely delusional and fear-stricken, and they do not know the realities of Rohingyas and what the countrys military is doing to this Muslim community for nearly 40 years.
Prothom Alo : Were the Rohingyas given the status of indigenous ethnic minority in 1948 amended citizenship law as Kula or Kala not as Rohingyas?
Maung Zarni: In the amended Citizenship Law all inhabitants of Arakan were mentioned under the single ‘indigenous’ category, Arakanese, which included both Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims, as well as other smaller ethnic communities.
Prothom Alo: Certain information and photographs indicate that you have had good relations with the Burmese junta. Will you explain?
Maung Zarni: Three generations of my extended family have served in the Burmese Armed Forces since its founding under WWII Japans patronage in 1942. My late great uncle Zeya Kyaw Htin, Lt. Col. Ant Kywe (recipient of Maw Gun Wun or National Chronicle 1st Class), was deputy chief of the predominantly Rohingya administrative district called Mayu in 1961, at a time when Rohingyas were recognised as an ethnic group of the Union of Burma, with full political citizenship, by both the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu and General Ne Win.
I initiated the Track II (diplomacy without a license) between Myanmar military and international entities including several Western governments and the International Labour Organisation, between 2005 and 2008. I returned only briefly to Burma where I had three meetings with Lt Gen Myint Swe in 2005 and 2006. But my Track II was carried out in UK where I returned to hold the visiting fellowship at Oxford 2006-2008. I stopped the initiative for engagement with the military when the regime blocked emergency aid to the Cyclone Nargis victims in May 2008.
Prothom Alo : We are curious to know about your photograph with the present Burmese Militarys General Chief of Staff Gen. Mya Tun Oo.
Maung Zarni: The photo was taken at Dagon Hall, Ministry of Defence in Yangon on 29 Oct 2005. Gen. Mya Tun Oo was the liaison officer between Myint Swe and me. He was a Lt Col at the time. I had a meeting with the then Lt Gen Myint Swe, who was my host, when I returned to Burma ending 17-years of my exile in USA, in order to work with the government to push for re-normalisation of Burmas foreign relations with the West.
Prothom Alo: Do you have any comments on the top brasss view on the crises?
Maung Zarni: The Burmese generals approach the Rohingya issue from their institutionalised perspective: Rohingyas do not belong in Burma as they falsely think that the Western Burma never had Muslim presence and that the pocket of Rohingyas is a threat to Burmas national security.
Prothom Alo : Do you recall anything from your past engagement with the top brass that has some relevance in present situation?
Maung Zarni: No, during my four years of engagement with the Burmese top brass (2004-2008), Rohingyas were not a concern to them. In fact, I was as ignorant as an average Burmese. So the issue was never discussed. I didnt even know the extent of the persecution or Rohingya history or identity back then.
Prothom Alo: What about Myanmar’s attitude towards Bangladesh?
Maung Zarni: I suspect there was a negative attitude towards a new independent state of Bangladesh for two reasons: One, the close ties between Pakistan and Burma armies. Pakistan continues to train hundreds of Burmese military intelligence officers. The Burmese military has built strong ties with Pakistan since the two countries independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively. Two, the generals are absolutist statists, who oppose secession of regions both in principle and reality.
Bangladesh and Burma have never had any genuinely positive ties since 1971.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Maung Zarni: Thank you.