Dark lessons Myanmar, Syria and Rwanda hold for India

Identification of people with religion, ethnicity, race and community has become so deep-rooted, it has become simple for any government to stoke differences among its people when required

India has not yet reached the depths of Myanmar, Syria or Rwanda of 1994 as far as religious discrimination is concerned, but there is no guarantee it will not unless civil society sheds its somnolence. Representative photo: iStock

Over the last five months, Myanmar (earlier, Burma) has quickly descended from a hopeful democracy into the black hole of military dictatorship. At last count, around 900 civilians have been killed and thousands detained in the ongoing protests for the restoration of democracy.

The irony: this very military headed by Min Aung Hlaing had the full backing of the common Burmese when it indulged in the “genocide” of the Rohingyas in 2017. Many of those on the streets today, who are crying hoarse against the military, were either silent or supportive when an estimated 24,000 Rohingyas were killed in cold blood and their homes burnt down. Some 900,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee from their native Rakhine state where they had lived for generations. Most of them are today are reduced to “stateless refugees” spread across other countries, particularly Bangladesh.

Leading the apologists for the victimisation of the Rohingyas was the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who at the time shared power with the military. Today, she is incarcerated as also her colleagues in the National League for Democracy.

Also read: India, Bangladesh and China can help return of democracy to Myanmar


Myanmar may be the latest, but not unique insofar as dividing people along ethnic, class, religious or racial lines is concerned. The degree of hate that the state succeeded in generating among the majority Buddhist population against the Muslim Rohingyas can be rated as one of the most successful subversive narratives engendered by any government.

Using a patently false history and pushing contrived data, the Myanmar ruling elite got the support of Aung San Suu Kyi to such an extent where even losing credibility worldwide didn’t seem to matter to the once-celebrated democracy activist.

According to the state’s essentially anti-Muslim narrative, the Rohingyas were projected as a community that would in time swallow the entire country and destroy majority Buddhism. The state placed restrictions on their marriages, imposed family planning and prohibited free movement of the Rohingyas besides questioning their ancestry.  The insidious narrative created fear in the heart of the Buddhist majority who, led by monks, demonstrated against the Rohingyas. Eventually, when they were attacked by security forces, almost none came to the Rohingyas’ support, leave alone rescue.

More recently, the boot was on the other foot. The military accused Suu Kyi of electoral fraud and of subverting democracy. The NLD’s protestations fell on deaf ears and the military fairly easily managed to pummel the opposition into submission.

The Myanmar experience is an eye-opener for today’s civil society which is facing similar threats of communal, sectarian and racial polarisation in varying degrees across countries worldwide. With the widespread use of social media, it has become much simpler for governments to spread disinformation, muddy the reputation of anyone they deem a threat and to go to any lengths to perpetuate their rule.

Syria is another country where a peaceful pro-democracy movement was split wide open on sectarian lines by the machinations of the Bashar al-Assad government. When a peaceful uprising for democratic reforms began in Syria in 2011 inspired by similar movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the al-Assad government went into panic mode. The state’s intelligence machinery used traditional fault lines between the Sunni and Shia communities to divide the protests, and it worked.

In the heady initial days of the uprising, all that the security forces did was to treat Shia activists gently, letting them off with no charges lightly after being detained. At the same time, Sunni co-activists were imprisoned and brutally tortured. The Sunnis concluded that the government was being partial to their Shia co-protesters as President Bashar al-Assad was a Shia.

Despite some protesters telling people that it was just a ploy by the government to divide the uprising, the Sunnis fell out with the Shia, fatally weakening the pro-democracy movement. Today, a decade since the uprising began, the al-Assad government is sitting pretty, presiding over a country in ruins.

In pre-social media times, a radio station patronised by the then government in 1994 fanned the infamous Rwandan genocide in which the majority Hutu community exterminated some 800,000 people, most of them belonging to the minority Tutsi community.

During the genocide, the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM)  publicly identified Tutsis by their names and addresses to enable the majority Hutus to locate and kill them – in a 100-day frenzy of blood-letting.  Neighbours turned against neighbours, relatives against relatives until all relationships were assessed only in terms of Hutu or a Tutsi. Much of this has been extensively documented. Sadly, civil society appears to be a sitting duck – eternally vulnerable to state-sponsored propaganda that seeks to divide them.

Identification of people with religion, ethnicity, race and community has become so deep-rooted it has become simple for any government to stoke differences among its people when required. With the advent of the Internet and social media, the ease has multiplied exponentially.

India too, while not yet in the same league as any of the examples quoted above, is in the throes of an extensive socio-communal polarisation, the likes of which has rarely been seen in the nearly 75 years since Independence. While there is no denying that politicians of almost all hues have used extant fault lines in society to their benefit, the current wave of divisiveness is arguably reaching levels not seen before.

Take, for example, the law against cattle slaughter, which is in vogue in several states. The repercussions go far beyond the stated purpose. The law appears to have willy-nilly given the licence for pro-Hindutva vigilante groups to attack and lynch members of the minority Muslim community involved in the cattle trade. If the rule of law was followed, anyone suspected of flouting its provisions should have been prosecuted as per law, not become the target of a lynch mob.

For individuals to be killed summarily by vigilantes amounts to sheer brazenness and extra-constitutional entitlement. A data count by IndiaSpend, quoted in the Hindustan Times, stated that “Muslims were the target of 51 per cent of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86 per cent of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many of 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and about half the cow-related violence – 32 of 63 cases – were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”

The cattle-related lynchings have given rise to suspicions whether the anti-slaughter laws were actually meant to target individuals from a particular community than for the stated purpose of protecting cattle.

A section of civil society, among those who are non-Muslims, has attempted to protest and that appears to have had some impact. The negative publicity was probably among the reasons for the NCRB (National Crime Record Bureau) to drop data (of 2017 that was released in 2019) under the sub-head of death due to mob lynching. That has, however, not made much difference on the ground, as cases of lynching continue to be reported in the media now and then.

The ruling BJP has promoted the idea of Hindu victimhood which has won it enormous dividends electorally. The vast Hindu majority middle classes appear only too willing to swallow the narrative. This, despite the fact that they comprise around 80 per cent of the population, and that it would be quite a task for anyone, least of all the minority Muslims or Christians, to threaten their way of life in the country.

Also read: Myanmar heads towards catastrophe, global silence is ominous

Since 2014, there has been a spate of laws that have directly targeted minorities. It started with the ban on cattle slaughter in many states, restricting inter-faith marriage calling it “love jihad”, and pushing for an NRC (National Register of Citizens) with the stated reason to weed out Muslim infiltrators but in reality pushing the community on the defensive. And, topping this with the amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) where religion for the first time became a criterion (by leaving out Muslims from three neighbouring countries) for granting citizenship.

Hate speeches against the minorities too have gone unchecked. While all this time, the majority community was largely silent, and even complicit, the latest attempt to bring in coercive family planning laws appears to have upset even sections of the majority Hindu community. Clearly, in the process of targeting one community, sometimes collateral damage can affect the majority community too.

Paradoxically, all this is happening when the country is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic which does not discriminate based on human notions of religion, caste etc. So too the continuing price rise, an economic slump and spiralling joblessness which has affected all.  At a time like this, it is beneficial for the government if people spend time fighting one another rather than question its ability to govern efficiently.

Similar to a magician’s sleight of hand, while the government entices its population to focus on spurious issues like “love jihad” and, now, “family planning” the real opposition including the media is dealt with, but covertly.

It may not be a coincidence that in recent months the government has floated new laws that shorn of its national security veneer reveals a worrying encroachment of the overall democratic space, including the right to free expression.

India has not yet reached the depths of Myanmar, Syria or Rwanda of 1994, but there is no guarantee it will not unless civil society sheds its somnolence. The majority community might be of the belief that it is safe, but then one must not forget the oft-quoted words of German pastor Martin Niemoller which ends with “…then they came for me.  There was no one left to speak for me”.