CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 8 December 2018

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Southern Asia’s year of worshipping dangerously

Of course, it is almost impossible to get past the ongoing visceral horror of the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya people; over 650,000 of them brutally forced from their homes onto the margins of existence into crowded, inadequate, life-threatening refugee camps.
 
The stark images from the teeming camps near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, seem like those from the past. Yes, how quickly people forget the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of Bengali Hindus that were forced out of Muslim Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) after its successful civil war against what is now Pakistan in December 1971.
 
Yet the plight of the Rohingya now represents very much the present and, most disturbingly, the future—not just for Myanmar but, as the example of the Bengali Hindus portends, for much of South and Southeast Asia.
 
The core reason is that the less than holy, politically heady mix of religion-charged nationalism is not Myanmar’s story alone. Far from it. It is the story of the rising religious nationalism that is once more making its presence felt in South and Southeast Asia.
 
We have seen this before in the decades after World War II, first with the bloody partition of India in 1947. 
 
Lately it reared its ugly head in the Sri Lankan civil war, where the majority Buddhists battled the minority Hindu Tamils from 1983 to 2009, and in the serial civil wars that have racked Myanmar, pitching the Buddhist centre against increasingly Christianised ethnic minorities in the east, north and west and now against the Rohingya. Many of these conflicts that were once almost exclusively ethnic in origin are now being supercharged with religion.
 
The reasons for the rejection and ejection of the Rohingya were stealthily laid by a military that remains the most powerful force in the country. They were ignored as best forgotten barley two year ago when the country was writhing in the hope of a false dawn: the ecstatic celebration of a new, better future after Nobel Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, swept to a landslide victory in November 2015.
 
The chickens of prejudice have now come home to roost.
 
There are as many detailed, authoritative versions of who the Rohingya are, how they got to Rakhine State and whether they really belong, as there are theories as to what, mentally, may be up with the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Whatever the truth may be, it is not relevant in the face of the ill-treatment, violence and inhumanity visited on multiple generations of these people.
 
Whispering campaigns claim the Rohingya want an independent state in northern Rakhine, where many hundreds of thousands have previously lived harmoniously with local ethnic Rakhine. It is claimed they have a considered campaign of using an exploding population to take over the region. They have been accused of economic imperialism largely because many Rohingya have traditionally been traders in an area with a language and culture similar to neighbouring Bengal.
 
Many of these tropes and insinuations have been used as a mass human weapon to generate fear and hatred, spread with the help of hardline Buddhist monks. 
 
These accusations are widely believed to be backed by the military and increasingly wrapped in the Buddhist religion, which in turn is being wrapped in Myanmar’s national flag.
 
This has helped poison an otherwise kind and generous people. The ethnic Barmans who ruled the peripheries long before the British came to the country 150 years ago have been effectively brainwashed into a near-universal, casual racism-cum-religious bigotry against the Rohingya—and increasingly other Myanmese Muslims, mainly remnants of the Muslim Indian diaspora that spread alongside the British empire.
 
Whispering campaigns among a poorly educated community, shuttered from the world and cloistered in fear of one of the most insidious police states of the post-war world, started the job. Every two decades or so under more than 70 years of effective military rule, there has been a purge of Rohingya, sending hundreds and thousands back.
 
And here’s the pointy end. Many countries which most loathe the treatment being meted out to the Rohingya, as well as Hindu and other smaller, mainly non-Buddhist ethnic groups, are promoting their own forms of religious nationalism: Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in India, Najib Razak’s ethnically and religiously apartheid Malaysia, the rising Islamic nationalism inside Indonesia’s opposition parties, and Thailand’s Buddhist nationalist military junta’s continuing dirty and very bloody civil war against Muslim separatists in the south.
 
Many of these places will see elections this year. Significant provincial elections in India and Indonesia will be precursors to national polls next year. General elections will be held in Malaysia and Bangladesh late this year or early next year. Thailand’s junta has promised elections in November this year but it has been promising elections following the May 2014 coup d’etat every year since 2015. 
 
Cambodia too is having elections now that its prime minister-cum-dictator, Hun Sen, has dissolved the opposition. He too could easily co-opt religion as a next step. And a mid-year poll is due in the region’s terrorist anti-Christian hotbed, Pakistan.
 
Expect the tinderbox combination of each nation’s majority religion, stitched ever more closely to a supercharged nationalist message, to play an increasingly prominent role where the ruling classes, rather than the people, will be the winners. UCAN