Mya Aye is one of the leading members of Generation 88 – the activists who spent many years in jail for leading pro-democracy movements in Burma in 1988 and 2007. He is also a Muslim. Neat, clean-shaven, thin as a whip, with powerful spectacles, he lives in one of the predominantly Muslim areas of Rangoon, a melting pot since it became the main trade route into the country more than a century ago.
The religion of his family has been of no more significance to his political activity than if he had come from a Catholic or Protestant background. That’s also true of others who took a stand. One man who played a central and heroic role in the National League for Democracy, persuading Aung San Suu Kyi to make her maiden political speech, was Maung Thaw Ka: a war hero and a much-loved author, and one of the few people with the guts and wile to continue teasing the authorities throughout the years of tyranny. He died in jail, in miserable circumstances, effectively tortured to death by a regime that refused to allow him vital medicines. He was a Muslim, too. That was not considered a matter of any interest or importance 20 years ago.
But today the fact that Mya Aye is a Muslim seems to matter, despite his own insistence that it doesn’t. That’s partly because Burma, despite its long isolation, has changed along with the rest of the world. Islamophobia has marched in lockstep with reports from abroad of – and paranoia about – jihadi terrorism.
Today, for the Buddhist bigots, a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim: the people who destroyed Buddhism in India nearly a millennium ago, whose relentless advance has changed the face of formerly Buddhist South-east Asia forever. As a Western diplomat explained: “They think they are the last bastion of pure Buddhism, the Muslims got Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan – now the only country they hold hands with is Sri Lanka…”
“Protecting the religion” is the gentle way this is expressed, but the core message is intolerance. A few days ago, Mya Aye was scheduled to address a meeting in Mandalay with other veteran activists on the issue of changing Burma’s constitution. Militant monks prevented him from speaking – even though he is resolutely secular, and his opinions have nothing to do with the religious culture of his birth.
Just about the most urgent issue in Burma that the outside world wants answers about, is the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Muslims – Rohingya to the rest of us but considered Bangladeshis in Burma – who for decades now have been bottled up, principally in a narrow peninsula in Burma’s far west bordering Bangladesh, without Burmese citizenship and in conditions of squalor and penury, deprived of the right to move around freely or have more than two children. Within Burma this is a toxic issue which everybody, Suu Kyi included, tiptoes around and does everything to avoid mentioning because it touches on Burma’s deepest and most widespread prejudice. The same diplomat described this prejudice as “very dangerous, a cancer in the society. It was always there, and everyone has prejudices, but now it’s metastasising in a very dangerous way.” It demonstrates the way that Burma’s newly regained freedoms are a double-edged sword: even three years ago, naked communal hate speech of the sort that is now commonplace was unthinkable.
So, Mya Aye – democrat and Muslim, punished now by the bigots for the accident of your birth – what do you have to say about the Rohingya? Not a great deal, it turns out. “I’m not interested in the Rohingya as such,” he said, “I’m doing politics not for Buddhists or Muslims but for human beings.” But should the Rohingya be granted citizenship – the fundamental demand of those campaigning for them?
His reply was pregnant. “We need to amend the 1982 citizenship law,” he said – the law which finds no place for the Rohingya as a community. “But I’m very concerned about the risk of Burma becoming a failed state. All citizens need to have an attitude of responsibility and accountability to the state.”
The point is that Burma hangs together, and has done so for roughly as long as England has. In the process it developed peculiar characteristics, in particular the lack of social stratification, which preceded even the arrival of Buddhism: the fact that even today Burmese do not possess surnames reflects the absence of the sort of class divisions taken for granted almost everywhere else. Along with that has always gone a rough-and-ready equality of the sexes. Both of these features were strengthened by Buddhism, which developed partly in reaction to the extreme stratifications of Hinduism, and stressed the individual.
For 60 years the Burmese army tried to hold Burma together by brute force, dividing and ruling in the border areas such as Arakan, where the Rohingya became pawns in an ugly game. Democrats like Mya Aye have given their lives to the belief that the people in this country share enough in common to hang together without brute force. But, as he told me, and as Suu Kyi has always insisted, it’s a matter of give and take: if the state is to become a benign rather than a vicious force, the people have to demonstrate loyalty to it, and play their part in its development. Is that a contract to which the Rohingya would put their names?