The thousands of Burmese monks taking to the streets in protest against military rule in September 2007 became one of the defining images of the last decade. Five years later, the monks have been marching again. But this time around it's not human rights and democracy they've been calling for, but the deportation of 800,000 ethnic Muslims from Burma.
Their demands come in the wake of failed attempts by President Thein Sein to garner international support for the resettlement of the Rohingya, the beleaguered ethnic minority who were involved in heavy rioting in western Burma three months ago. Images of hundreds of monks joining civilians as they marched in support of Thein Sein's policy -- ironically the largest protests in Burma since 2007 -- have shocked those who revered the men in saffron robes as bearers of a democratic ideal untainted by politics and self-interest and as immune to government trickery.
But recent months in Burma have shown that our depictions of the pro-democracy movement are not as black and white as we led ourselves to believe. In contrast to five years ago, when monks rallied against the manipulated brand of "nationalism" that affiliated the political opposition with foreignness, they now support it. "Democracy is not fully practiced in our country yet," said the leader of the protests, Wirathu, after police attempted to disband them last week. "We can't even support the president freely."
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That statement is one of many examples of the glaring irony surrounding the anti-Rohingya movement. Ashin Htarwara, head of the All Burma Monks' Representative Committee, said in an interview in July that Rohingya were "taking advantage" of the "humane" treatment offered by Arakanese "to commit murder, rape and robbery. I would like to urge those people [Rohingyas] to go back to their native land."
Amid all this, the role that the president, a former top general, played in the bloody crackdown on monks in 2007 appears forgotten, as do the parallels between the former junta's treatment of monks and its attitude towards the Rohingya (both are communities that at one time or another were targeted by the military as a threat to "national unity").
The concept of nationalism, and how the Burmese regime has deployed it over the years to divide and rule the opposition, is key to understanding the crisis surrounding the Rohingya. The nationalist discourse was used to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the regime branded a foreign stooge, and the generals cited local traditions and customs as a way of accusing the outside world that it did not "understand" Burma during times of heavy repression.