Burma out of the boxes

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

From their immersion in the Burmese powder keg, author Frédéric Debomy and cartoonist Benoît Guillaume have brought back an investigation in the form of a striking comic strip: ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, breakthrough of the extremist monks of Ma Ba Tha, swaying of the fallen icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of nationalists and the army, denial of human rights and confiscation of those of women… In Aung San Suu Kyi, Rohingya and Buddhist extremists, the two authors take a humanist and unprejudiced look at a nation that has been torn apart for decades. This story in drawn images, truly animated, unfortunately has nothing to do with fiction.

How do you explain the popularity of the Buddhist nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha and its sulphurous leader Wirathu?

Frederic Debomy: A set of factors explains it, including the anti-Muslim sentiment that has become widespread in Burma. There is a confusion between nationality, ethnicity and religious affiliation, and this idea that the Rohingyas are not Burmese, because they are neither of the majority Bamar ethnic group nor Buddhists. This feeds a nationalist disease, but also a fear of the extinction of Buddhism in the face of the supposed increase in the number of Burmese Muslims - the "Kalar", an insult that can be translated as "bougnoules" -, yet ultra-minority . The monk Wirathu has been surfing on it since it appeared in 2011 during a phase of political “opening up”, orchestrated and controlled by the military.

The Burmese population has suffered a lot since its independence in 1948, there are many frustrations. By taunting Muslims, including the Rohingyas, Wirathu designates scapegoats for his people. Since this draft opening, which gives more freedom of expression to Burmese citizens, many have let off steam via Facebook, the main network for the circulation of information in the country, allowing everyone to vent their anger.

Benoit Guillaume: I discovered Wirathu from photos showing him either with a menacing face, distorted by anger, or absolutely calm and stoic. This man truly has many faces. I remember one of the “fixers”, these guide-interpreters for foreign journalists, with whom we worked. He was a Muslim and had met him before. Despite the fact that he didn't like him, he admitted that he gave off a certain aura. Hence its iconic status.

What is the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and Ma Ba Tha?

Frederic Debomy: I have no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi is suspicious of Ma Ba Tha. Wirathu had clearly campaigned against the "Lady" during the 2015 legislative elections. She perceives this nationalist movement as a scourge - one can also wonder about the fact that she herself shares certain nationalist ideas - found a very strong echo in Burma, hence his hesitation to fight Ma Ba Tha firmly.

“By mocking Muslims, and more particularly the Rohingyas, Wirathu designates scapegoats for his people. » Frederic Debomy

Its lack of responsiveness to the situation of the Rohingyas during the outbreak of violence in 2017 (1), is explained, among other reasons, by the fact that the human rights violations committed by the Burmese army have existed for a long time. It was not a new episode, unfortunately. I don't want to defend her, but I think that Aung San Suu Kyi started from the principle that she had no hand in controlling the army and that, therefore, it was better to stay in power in order to advance small steps rather than adopting a frontal attitude. We can, however, question his reading of the situation and deplore his authoritarianism, which does not encourage him to listen to news that does not suit him.

You point out that Burmese Buddhism is not limited to Ma Ba Tha, as evidenced by the action in favor of the reconciliation of the Buddhist monk U Wi Thote Da. Still under police surveillance, he had sheltered 800 Muslims in his monastery at the time of the 2015 riots.

Frederic Debomy: This monk was placed under surveillance for derisory reasons. In 2017, two foreign journalists (2) were arrested for filming Parliament with a drone. Previously, they had interviewed U Wi Thote Da, among other people, to feed their investigation, which earned him in turn to be watched for simply agreeing to testify! U Wi Thote Da's only concern is living together. Unfortunately, in Burma, pacifist monks are not the most vocal… (3)

Today, what is the position of the monks of Ma Ba Tha on women: do they still oppose to them this concept of “Phon”, a spiritual force of which they would be deprived?

Frederic Debomy: Without a doubt. This concept translates the idea that men have a kind of spiritual power that women do not have, thus justifying male dominance. There is in particular this belief which says that if we place women's underwear on top of men's underwear, the man will suddenly be deprived of his “Phon”! In our comic, we also talk about these extremist monks who pushed for the adoption of a law preventing Buddhist women from marrying a man of another faith. In general, Burma is a traditional society, where the place of women is hardly enviable...

What shocked you the most during this investigation?

Frederic Debomy: What always strikes me is seeing people who have fought for human rights and democracy, like this well-known media journalist Democratic voice of burma, make nauseating, stupid and rude remarks against Muslims. That people, who have often shown courage in their journeys, have failed to rid themselves of hatred. Conversely, I was also struck by these individuals, from civil society, who speak out, in difficult contexts, to move the lines. Hope comes from them.

Benoit Guillaume: I was also marked by some of these human rights activists whom we had met three years earlier; despite their perseverance and refusal to give up, they were morally dejected, in particular because the situation had not changed despite the election of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Why did you choose the graphic narrative to testify?

Benoit Guillaume: The comic strip makes it possible to present a story, an immersion, more accessible, more fluid, to the general public. The graphic narrative is a genre that is practiced more and more, with many variants, ranging from the intimate and poetic look to pure field investigation. For me, the most complicated was to illustrate the scenes of violence, because some were untenable, but also complicated to reproduce since I discovered them on poor quality videos. The drawing makes it possible to testify while remaining at a distance.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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