For Burmese Americans like me, children of exiles who left the country in the 1960s or 1970s as a brutal military regime seized power, nationalized industries and expelled nonethnic Burmese, it was hard to know Burma. This was a country that closed itself off to the rest of the world and slowly sank in the decades after our families fled, taking with it the left-behind artifacts of our existence — silverware and photographs and books — that might have provided some greater detail about who we had been, what life had been like. It was all swallowed up in darkness, lost to us in the West.
Instead, my family reminisced wistfully about the scent of frangipani blossoms and the charming traditions of the British middle schools that remained even after British rule ended. They instructed me in the rudimentaries of the Good Burma (primarily made up of educated, cosmopolitan Burmese) and the Bad Burma (uneducated, brutish soldiers). I accepted these stories as fact: Burma was golden, until something went rotten and my family had to leave.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, represented the Good Burma, and she was our totem. My grandmother could be found protesting in front of the Burmese Embassy in Washington, pounding the hot pavement for a few days every August for the anniversary of the 8-8-88 student-led uprising, in solidarity with her countrymen and -women who, like Suu Kyi, were either incarcerated or denied the right of public protest. Suu Kyi’s infallibility for my Burmese family was akin to JFK’s infallibility for my father’s Irish-Catholic clan. There was no questioning her decency, because there was no question that she might be anything but decent. This unswerving belief was a form of Burmese identity, something concrete fashioned from negative space.
How, then, do we Burmese Americans understand what has happened in recent months, what Suu Kyi has sanctioned through inaction and denial and obfuscation? Burma, led by both its military and civilians, is engaged in genocide, a systematic slaughter of its Muslim minority. In the past eight months alone, some 14,000 ethnic Rohingya have been killed. Seven hundred thousand have fled a terrifying brutality: babies stabbed to death or tossed alive into fires, grenades thrown through the front doors of homes, mothers gang-raped and slaughtered. Suu Kyi alone could not have stopped this killing, but that is beside the point: She has refused even to acknowledge it. “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” she said last year. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”
Instead she has questioned whether the Rohingya are even citizens of Burma: In 2016, her spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, told the New York Times, “We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups.”
Last month, as the Burmese government sentenced seven of its soldiers to 10 years in prison for the killing of 10 Rohingya men last year, the victims were still described as “terrorists.” And the Burmese reporters who uncovered the slaughter remain in jail: On April 11, a court refused to dismiss charges against U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo for supposedly violating the country’s Official Secrets Act. They face up to 14 years in prison.
Suu Kyi is among the many Burmese who consider the Rohingya to be Muslim outsiders from India and Bangladesh, despite the fact that they have been in Burma, by some accounts, since the 7th century. The implication is that these outsiders somehow deserve their expulsion, that their religion marks them as terrorist threats worthy of a gruesome demise.
That such a bloodthirsty campaign is being waged by Buddhists has sometimes been a source of shock to the rest of the world. But for those of us in the West who had pinned a part of our national identity on Suu Kyi and her struggle, it has prompted introspection: Where did this violent strain of Burmese nationalism come from, and what does it mean for us?
As it turns out, the roots of this particular Burmese intolerance run deep. For the better part of the last century, ethnic Burmese saw Indians, many of whom were Muslim, as intruders. While Suu Kyi’s celebrated father, Aung San, helped secure independence from the British, he was complicit in demonizing Burma’s Indian minority as a scourge on society. He co-signed pamphlets that painted Indians as rapacious outsiders, stooges of the British who were greedy to control the Burmese economy while remaining a “privileged minority.”
Never mind that Indian labor actually propelled much of the Burmese economy at the turn of the 20th century and that these Indian workers often lived in squalid conditions. Unknown thousands of them were systematically targeted and hundreds killed in riots in the 1930s, a sick foreshadowing of what would become of the Rohingya nearly a century later. This feeling, that there was something poisonous about this subgroup, and that they fundamentally did not belong, was a belief freely espoused by Good Burma.
My family had not yet left Burma when this sustained violence gripped the capital city — we could not offer immigration as our defense. But in all the nostalgia I grew up with, this chapter was never mentioned, nor did we ever consider what became of Burma’s Indians. Could we not have known that the seeds of Burma’s present despair had been planted in our time, by our heroes?
For as long as I can remember, we imagined ourselves to be free of Burma’s failings, as if we had somehow been able to leave all the darkness behind when we started anew on American shores. But that same nationalism that gave us an identity and supplied us with righteous cause is now bringing shame and horror upon the country and on our house. It pinpoints our heroine in its bull’s eye and forces us to acknowledge that the monster lies in us, however dormant. After all, Good Burma today supports Suu Kyi’s position — her sanction of genocide may have cost her globally, but in Burma it remains good politics — and aren’t those people us, in some way? For my Burmese family in the West, this has been a time of reckoning and confusion. We are shamed, but where is the outrage from our fellow exiles, our former countrymen?
When Burma remained shrouded, Suu Kyi was an icon whose struggle allowed me to forge something personally meaningful out of the fury of her saga. Only now do I realize how lax was my accounting, how fraudulent my indignation: I had never bothered to look deeper than the slogans and placards, the keychains and T-shirts that bore her beatific image. Like so many children of immigrants, I romanticized what we’d left behind, believing only America, not our homeland, to be a broken place with a cresting wave of dark nationalism.
Here, then, is the rot on the underside of our Burmese story, a decay that attends any truthful accounting of a place and people. No country can merely be the province of frangipani blossoms and golden light, after all. If there is something to learn from this mournful episode, it is the danger that we, as a society, repeat these horrors and injustices, decade after decade, when we construct identities that are too rooted in simplicity, too reliant on nostalgia, too ready to embrace heroes who stand atop pedestals fashioned from lies.