What’s in a name – Discovering Leo in Arakan?
By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Leo Strauss is an iconic figure among American neoconservative ‘intellectuals’ that are believed to be the ‘brains’ behind launching two pre-emptive wars in the last six years that have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like his spiritual mentor, Machiavelli, Strauss thrusts his readers to consider whether ‘noble’ lies have any role at all to play in uniting and guiding the people. Are ‘myths’ required to provide people the raison detre for a stable society? Or should all men and women examine on their own those “deadly” truths? For a reader, it is not difficult to guess Strauss’s preferences.
Leo Strauss’s notion of political myth, ‘noble’ lies, helps us to comprehend the modus operandi of many movements that are fascistic, authoritarian and xenophobic. [Note: Carl Schmitt, one of Strauss’s associates before he left Germany, is a precursor of fascism and essentially an advocate of war for war’s sake that has had a significant impact on many modern-day neocons.] Myanmar is a perfect example of this 3-combo. Strauss makes perfect sense to fathom the often hard-to-follow, convoluted arguments made by his foot soldiers among the ultra-nationalist, racist, bigots of the Arakan and Burmese polity that try to de-legitimize any non-Buddhist connection to this historical landmass—sandwiched between what is now known as South Asia and South-east Asia—that was and still is lived by peoples of various races, colors, languages, cultures and religious persuasions.
So I am no longer surprised to read the Rakhaing mythical caim that the word “Akyab” is derived from the Hill Arkyeik-taw, “Arkyeiktaw-kone.” Truly, it does not need a rocket scientist to understand that the apologists for poisonous ultra-nationalism among the Rakhaings are purely delusional and are running out of their wits to find any real connection that would justify such untenable position. They do not see how such ludicrous claims make them appear more like lynchpins justifying criminal activities of the hated Myanmar regime than objective academics. Such twisted arguments do not enlighten anyone except recharging the already mesmerized myopic “rats” who want to blindly follow their [Rakhaing version of] “Pied piper of Hamelin” - to the sea of oblivion, ignominy and utter xenophobia. Truly, as much as there are symbols of oppression within Myanmarism at the national core level we also see its ugly ghost at the regional level, e.g., through Rakhainization in the state of Arakan.
Funny indeed that those Rakhaing xenophobic claimers have the audacity to claim themselves as scholars! If a PhD degree from a third-rate school - that does not require scholarly thesis work and advanced graduate studies, and publications in non-peer reviewed journals or magazines would enable one to tout oneself as a scholar, it would make a mockery of scholarship.
More importantly, education is supposed to make us wise and analyze things objectively without bias. A genuinely learned scholar would have known to filter out ‘noble’ lies or ‘myths’ from truths, away from looking through his/her foggy lenses; educate people about harms of one-sided, narrow-minded approach to their version of ‘history’ that polarizes a multi-racial society into warring camps; and, thereby, knocks down the doors of xenophobia, fascism and resulting discrimination that ensues; and gravitates his/her people to become unifying forces that are progressive and beneficial, respectful of human rights and mindful of the positive contributions of various elements within the mosaic of the society. But we don’t see any of these true marks of enlightenment within the Rakhaing pretenders. Their activities promote the evil goals of the ruling Junta in Burma. Naturally, they are not in the list of ‘undesirables.’
For many objective scholars of the region, it is long known that the re-naming of many roads and towns inside Burma, including the very name of the country to Myanmar, has everything to do with the past. What is commonly passed on as the Burmese chronicle tradition, as we have seen, is essentially a history of war and Triveda Buddhism, each piggybacking on the other to justify its ends in a feudal setup under rulers that were often ruthless, murderous and authoritarian, with an unsubtle urge to totally obliterate its foes. But there is also the agrarian history of pluralism and inclusiveness, especially during the Mrauk-U dynasty in Arakan that integrated various communities.
Unfortunately, since its independence from Britain, Burma is on the process of re-engineering her past. Under despotic military regimes, she likes everything that has to do with her connection with Theravada Buddhism and Tibeto-Burman origin. She is, however, at odds with her ‘other’ past – the non-Buddhist alliance, minorities living inside the Union of Burma. Therefore, while she solidifies her ties with the former is actually possessed by an obscene hysteria to dislodge and dismantle symbols of the latter that are viewed as national embarrassment. Thus enter the government-orchestrated and sanctioned pogroms in the scene to ethnically cleanse the vast territory of its ‘undesirable’ minorities – Rohingyas, Karens, Mons, non-Buddhists, etc. The government cannot do it alone. It needs its ‘intellectuals’ - the Julius Streicher, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt - to provide the necessary backdrop for its evil actions.
That role is sadly fulfilled by many opportunistic ultra-nationalist academics, both within and outside the country. With their ‘scholarly’ work, they play the devil’s advocate and the government agencies complete the task. So, Muslim towns inside Burma that once dotted with Muslim shrines, schools and mosques, [the historic Sandi Khan mosque in Arakan was destroyed by Rakhaing and Burman ultra-nationalists in 1942 during Japanese occupation of Arakan], are calculatingly demolished and destroyed to make rooms for Buddhist identity. But structures alone are not necessarily as significant as names of historic places, cities and towns! So, Akyab – a Farsi name, meaning ‘one river’ signifying its Muslim legacy, the capital city of Arakan - had to go. Akyab is renamed Sittwe (much like Bombay in India had to settle for Mumbai and Madras for Chennai at the altar of Hindu ultra-nationalism there)! One wonders if Akyab’s name was Rakhaing in origin to begin with, why was there so much jubilant celebration with the name change among the Budddhist Rakhaings!
Such renaming of historic places, to obliterate its ‘problematic’ past, appeases the crowd well, breeding nostalgia around ultra-nationalism that is sure recipe for division and hatred. The mob forgets who is victimizing them. Instead of the obvious - the powerful gun-trotting junta, they go for the weak - the ‘other’ people about whom they already have been brainwashed to imagine the worst and their symbolism. Like drug-addicts, they bemuse themselves with the false and misguided notion that victimization, enslavement and forced expulsion of the ‘other’ people would solve their day to day problem. The formula played out by the Myanmar regime is a clever one—win-win for itself by buying-in the legitimacy that it lacks and its partners-in-crimes – the xenophobic ideologues and their marauding foot soldiers.
The attitude of ultra-nationalist ideologues is really criminal. They follow the same logic and leave behind the same trail of revisionist history to steer one group, the majority with real power, to gang up on the targeted minority to bring about their desired results by hook or crook. To them, the ends justify the means. Time and again thus they try to justify the criminal gains of their particular time in history by ignoring, rather deliberately obliterating, past historical connections where people mingled from various tribes, groups and nations through borders that were once porous, and led to the current reality.
As regional specialists—like the distinguished historian Professor David Ludden (now with NY University and previously with the U Penn)—have repeatedly shown through the massive scholarly works that bear their names – rather than having one singular origin, South Asia and South-East Asia have always included many peoples and cultures which had different points of origin and departures and followed distinctive historical trajectories. What is promoted by ultra-nationalist, narrow-minded revisionists, pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colors and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilize one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. The so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.
Will the revisionist historians reflect upon this fact and amend their ways to make a more inclusive world in our time?
[Dr. Siddiqui is a human rights activist who has authored six books. He lives in Pennsylvania.]