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The cries of Byai Phu

Everyone, it seems, has heard of Rafah, but few people know about what is happening in Burma, the East Asian country renamed “Myanmar” following a military coup in 1989.

Myanmar armed forces prepare to crack down on peaceful protesters, Feb. 28, 2021. Credit: R. Bociaga/Shutterstock.
Myanmar armed forces prepare to crack down on peaceful protesters, Feb. 28, 2021. Credit: R. Bociaga/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Civilians forced to sit in the open for two days, with no sustenance, under a blazing sun. Soldiers handing bottles filled with their own urine to those begging for water. Men bearing tattoos deemed to be politically offensive screaming in agony as their skin is burned off with lighted petrol. Soldiers, many of them drunk, demanding shovels to bury the bodies of those whom they executed. Women, men and children beaten brutally when answering questions barked at them by the soldiers, irrespective of what actually came out of their mouths.

I wish I could give you the details of the demonstration this weekend that’s been organized to protest these foul atrocities, but there isn’t one. These horrors didn’t afflict Palestinians in Gaza, and they weren’t carried out by Israeli troops. They occurred in the village of Byai Phu in the state of Rakhine in the far west of Burma, the East Asian country renamed “Myanmar” following a military coup in 1989. An account of these atrocities—not the first time something like this has happened during the brutal civil war that’s raged for three years and likely not the last—was tucked away in the corner of the BBC News website last week, which I happened to stumble on.

Everyone, it seems, has heard of Rafah, but few people know of Byai Phu, and those who have heard of it now will probably forget its name within a day or two. Yes, life is cruel, and for millions of people around the world, it’s an unceasing struggle to keep themselves and their families alive and afloat amid economic crisis, war and political repression. But that rather trite observation cannot, must not, be the final word.

Instead, let me speak plainly and bluntly. The cause of Palestine has become emblematic of the sickness at the heart of Western culture. It has become a fixation and an obsession, fueled by the ludicrous notion that the presence of a Jewish state and the absence of a Palestinian one “from the river to the sea” is the only explanation for the persistence of conflict and strife in today’s world. The terrible vice that is tunnel vision has become a virtue, something sacred, and challenging this dogma will get you “canceled” in progressive circles.

For the Iranian terror proxies in the Middle East, this state of affairs is cause for delight. “[S]ignificantly, the U.K. youth showed greater interest unfolding of the war on Gaza than in other global conflicts,” the pro-Hezbollah website Al-Mayadeen observed in its report of a June 5 opinion poll showing that 54% of Britons between the ages of 18 to 24 believe that Israel has no right to exist, compared with 21% of the same age group who think the opposite. The same article crowed at the statistic that 38% of young Brits are “very interested” in the war in Gaza, while only 19% feel the same about Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

We’ve periodically seen similarly worrying polls about how Israel is regarded throughout the first quarter of the present century. But what’s different, and what makes the question “why?” more urgent now than before, is that Israel is facing a proximate existential threat from Iran and its regional allies. What’s also different is that the world’s authoritarian states are much more emboldened now than they were 20 years ago, bolstered by the puerile notion among many Westerners that there is no essential difference between a country like the United States and one like North Korea.

If you were to ask the same audience whether they believe North Korea, which I’ve described in the past as “not so much a country, but a concentration camp with a seat at the United Nations,” has the right to exist, my informed guess is that the answer would either be “yes” or bemusement that the question was being asked in the first place. They wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care that North Korea is an artificial entity carved out at the close of the Korean War, or that the state exists to service its unchallenged dictator, Kim Jong-un, and his inner circle. Equally, the fact that one of the most grotesque forms of torture practiced in North Korea involves detainees being forced to watch their families being beaten and raped wouldn’t disturb too many of these Palestine Firsters, especially as North Korea vocally supports the Palestinians.

Part of the explanation for this is, of course, antisemitism, which artfully molds itself to fit in with the political agendas of every new generation. It’s also rooted in the notion that human beings aren’t fundamentally equal and equally deserving of the same human and civil rights, irrespective of where they happen to live. The nasty authoritarian streak that courses through progressive circles these days determines that the state—and not the individual—is paramount. If a persecuted or terrorized individual happens to be a citizen of a state damned as an ally of Western imperialism, then they deserve what’s coming to them. It’s not just Israelis, and by extension, Diaspora Jewish communities, that have suffered from this distinction; Ukrainians, Kurds and Burma’s various ethnicities are among those who have suffered from it, too. “All eyes” turn to Rafah because Rafah is being targeted by Israel, and Israel is, according to this schema, the link between police violence against black people in America, or Muslim communities in Europe, and the Palestinians, who—just like Jesus Christ—suffer for all of us.

By the end of this year, if not sooner, Israel may well find itself mired in a new war in Lebanon since Hezbollah shows no sign of ending its terror campaign to make the north of Israel an unlivable zone. There lies the rub; Israel’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, but each time it does so, its reputation takes another pasting. As the tentacles of the Iranian octopus—Hamas, Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq—squeeze around Israel’s neck, the bitter reality is that many of our own neighbors will enjoy the spectacle. The discourse of peace and equality has been replaced by a fetish for war (“resistance”) and hierarchies of race and religion (“liberation”).

That’s bad news for us, but even worse news for the people of Byai Phu.

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