Tolerating Fascism: The Myanmar Coup and the Rohingya Genocide
What the situation in Myanmar can teach us about allowing fascist violence in our societies
I spoke with a friend living in Myanmar about a month ago. She talked about how people in her city were coming out to their balconies every night, banging pots and pans as a show of resistance to the military coup that wrested control of the country from the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1st, 2021. That was in the early days of the protests when the military, seemingly caught off guard by the scale of resistance to its power-grab, was still figuring out what to do and mobilizing its forces against the demonstrators.
The military’s planned response has become brutally clear in recent weeks. Lacking any sort of mandate or popular support, it has resorted to increasingly violent repression of the peaceful protests continuing all over the country, reminiscent of the 1988 coup that saw the military slaughter thousands of pro-democracy protestors. This weekend’s round of violence has brought the total death toll to about 80. The situation on the ground is becoming untenable for the protestors, and there are already signs that the conflict is about to move into a new phase.
With no signs that the military intends to give up power, a provisional government has been formed. A Government which has dedicated itself to the overthrow of the junta through “revolution”, and the setting up of a federated state. It has already reached out to and met with various armed ethnic groups in the country. These developments suggest a country on the brink of (or perhaps already in the midst of) a civil war.
While watching scenes of horrendous violence against unarmed people unfold in the streets of Mandalay, Yangon, and other places around the country, there’s a question that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind: how can they do this to their own people? What compels a soldier or policeman to shoulder their rifle, aim carefully down the sights, and shoot an unarmed civilian in the head? According to research done by the New York Times, about a fifth of protestors killed in the conflict so far have been shot in the head. These are intentional killings meant to sow terror and discourage further resistance.
“Practice” is the answer when it comes to some of them. While regular police and military units are actively participating in the atrocities, the deployment of Myanmar’s notorious 33rd Light Infantry Division, which helped carry out the Rohingya genocide back in 2017, was a disturbing bit of foreshadowing. They were present in Mandalay on the first of many “deadliest days” of the protests, when two people were gunned down on February 20th.
The soldiers in this particular military unit have significant experience in brutalizing civilian populations. During the 2017 genocide of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine, these men killed some 24,000 civilians and raped around 18,000 women and girls. They burned down over 114,000 homes and, at times, threw children into the fires. They even used helicopter gunships to attack villages and indiscriminately gun down fleeing civilians. This is what the protestors are up against, and it should come as no surprise; these events are well documented.
The thing is, nobody gave a shit about the Rohingya. There were no protests in the streets of Myanmar’s cities as villages in Rakhine burned while their inhabitants were gang-raped and murdered. There was no significant public outcry, and no brave citizens of conscience facing down riot cops and soldiers to defend the basic human rights of this minority group. The majority population either ignored the genocide or participated in it. They believed the military’s propaganda vilifying and dehumanizing the Rohingya and they were willing to go along with the narrative that what was happening was a counterinsurgency operation targeting dangerous militants. The irony isn’t lost on the protestors as they face down those same butchers and find themselves being labeled criminals and insurgents. There appears to be a deep sense of regret coming from the people of Myanmar about their complicity in the genocide, and a desire to work together with the various ethnic insurgents in the country to form a more representative federated republic if (hopefully when) the military is defeated.
Even Myanmar’s great liberator and bringer of democracy, Aung Sang Su Kyi, collaborated with the military to downplay the events. Avoiding, at all costs, use of the word “genocide”, she too painted the situation as an organized military campaign of violent ethnic cleansing, as part of a counter-insurgency operation against militants. She downplayed the systematic killings and atrocities as isolated instances of disproportionate force. Now she once again finds herself under lock and key at their hands. The fate of Aung San Suu Kyi is a tragic lesson in the wisdom of sharing power with fascists. The coup makes it blatantly obvious that democracy, rather than being firmly established, was only tolerated by the military. They could have done this whenever they wanted.
This whole situation brings to mind the often-repeated but rarely internalized poem First They Came, written by German pastor Martin Niemöller about his experiences in Nazi Germany:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
According to the UN, the Rohingya are among the world’s most persecuted minorities, with their population bouncing between Myanmar, where they are denied basic rights and social services, and refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they aren’t particularly welcome. The government of Myanmar sees them as illegal immigrants, and they often suffer violence and persecution at the hands of local populations. A heartbreakingly visceral example of this took place in the remote village of Inn Din on Sept. 2nd, 2017. The military enlisted the help of some Buddhist locals to round up 10 Rohingya men. They were marched to a hill, hacked with machetes by their neighbors, shot in the head by the military, and dumped in a shallow grave. The youngest was 17.
In order to carry out monstrous acts, a society needs to generate monsters. The world was recently introduced to some of these monsters on TikTok, as the soldiers posted videos of themselves making throat-slitting motions at the camera, threatening protestors, and otherwise reveling in the violence they are committing against unarmed civilians. These young, poorly-educated men have been indoctrinated with a fierce, toxic nationalism. They are able to view other human beings as inferior and unworthy of life. All they are interested in is being pointed at the “criminals” in order to kill them and foster a return to their conception of order and morality. The “criminals” were, at one point, the Rohingya. Currently, everyone is a criminal.
Now, I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way suggesting that what is happening to the people of Myanmar right now is deserved. They are risking their lives to stand up against the monsters taking over their country and will likely continue to do so. Nobody deserves to have a brutal fascist regime forced on them.
But when a population turns a blind eye to, or worse, joins in the persecution of a minority group, it sets a dangerous precedent when it comes to the value of human life. This is not limited to Myanmar. Minorities all over the world are the targets of both state and vigilante violence. This is evidenced by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others at the hands of police forces around the US. It is evidenced by the racist vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the current wave of violence against Asian Americans. I’m not just picking on the United States, either. Racist mobs attacked indigenous fisheries in Canada (the country I grew up in) last year. Here in Germany, the xenophobic far-right AfD party has enough support to have a significant impact on the country’s democratic machinery.
The leadership in many of these countries has been embarrassingly ineffective at dealing with the far-right threat. Justin Trudeau’s response to the attack on indigenous fisheries was muted, did not mention fascism or racism, and painted the whole thing as a simple dispute. Joe Biden, since taking power, has failed to abolish, de-fund, or even reign in ICE; completely caving to them when they put up resistance to his new immigration policies. When it comes to police violence, centrist political expediency has him rejecting demands for de-funding while pledging to actually give more money to already-bloated police forces to spend on unpromising initiatives such as increasing the diversity of the police force. Here in Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer halted a planned research project to look into racial profiling in the German police. On the whole, our current leaders seem to be unwilling or unable to deal with the elements of a revenant fascism seeping into their societies (or the ones that have been there all along).
The interconnectedness of fascist movements around the world was not lost on Maung Zarni, a scholar and dissident from Myanmar, in a Feb. 3rd interview with Democracy Now. When asked what triggered the coup, he suggested that the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, took inspiration from January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol and what he saw as a global ideological climate favorable to far right authoritarianism. This is a problem for the whole world.
I talked with my friend again the other day for the first time in a month. Internet access has been restricted, her city is under martial law for part of each day, and over 200 people are dead. I encourage everyone to pay attention to what is happening in Myanmar. These are the consequences of collective inaction.