By James M. Dorsey
Israel and Myanmar, two countries with troubled human rights records and disputed histories of dealing with ethnic and national rights, have set a worrisome precedent by giving each other a veto over what students are taught about the other.
A recently signed education agreement between Israel and Myanmar allows for editing each other’s textbooks as they relate to the portrayal of their own history.
The agreement stipulates that Israel and Myanmar “through their competent authorities, endeavour to mutually verify school textbooks, particularly concerning the passages referring to the history of the other state and, where needed, introduce corrections to these textbooks,” according to a copy of the agreement obtained by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
In doing so, both countries are subjecting education to the partisan political views of a government at the expense of an independent scholarly approach that ensures that students are exposed to the perspectives of all stakeholders or parties to a conflict.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely heralded the deal on Twitter saying: “Education agreement with Myanmar, continuing cooperation with our friends around the world.”
The tweet was designed to demonstrate that Israel was not isolated despite its hard-handed policy towards Palestinians and condemnation by a majority of the international community of US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Without doubt, the agreement includes important building blocks for the promotion of mutual understanding.
The agreement calls for the joint development of “programs for the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons of the negative consequences of intolerance, racism, Anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a part of the school curriculum in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
It encourages the development of an Israeli and Jewish studies programs in Myanmar and a Myanmar studies program in Israel as well as contacts and cooperation between educational institutions and participation in conferences, training courses, and educational and professional study tours.
The timing of the agreement however is emblematic of the agreement’s worrisome aspects that will come to light when dealing with texts related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Myanmar’s policy towards minorities, first and foremost among which the Rohingya.
The agreement was signed as tension between Israel and the Gaza Strip was mounting after large numbers of Palestinian protesters were either killed or seriously wounded by Israeli forces and some 650,000 Rohingya linger in refugee camps in Bangladesh after having fled Myanmar last summer as a result of what the United Nations termed ethnic cleansing.
To be sure, the Palestinians and Rohingya, like the governments of Israel and Myanmar also stand accused of violations of human rights. Amnesty International last month accused Rohingya militants of killing dozens of Hindus in the run-up to last summer’s forced mass exodus to Bangladesh.
Both Israel and Myanmar have justified their actions as combatting terrorism, defending historical rights and correcting historical injustices, a version of events that in both cases has been rejected by a majority of the international community but that both countries would want to see reflected in what students are taught about their histories.
Israel raised eyebrows last summer because of reports that it was selling arms to Myanmar including tanks and Super Dvora III patrol boats used to police the country's border despite the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya.
Images initially posted on the website of Israeli military training and sales company Tar Ideal showed its staff training Myanmar special forces who were involved in the anti-Rohingya campaign in Rakhine state in combat tactics and the use of various weapons. The images have since been deleted.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman defended the sales as in line with US and European Union policy even though both have imposed arms embargos on Myanmar.
On the other hand, the Israeli foreign ministry said last November, months after the Rohingya exodus that Israel had halted arms sales to Myanmar. The statement did not clarify whether this also included the sale of surveillance technology or the provision of military training services.
Speaking in October to The Myanmar Times, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Daniel Zohar Zonshine, expressed concern about the situation in Rakhine state and condemned the violence. “But I try ... to differentiate the economic relations and the situation in Rakhine. At the moment, we don’t connect the two things,” Mr. Zonshine said.
The ambassador advised the Myanmar government “not to let the conflict define who or what Myanmar is.”
The education agreement between the two countries does exactly that for both Israel and Myanmar at the expense of acknowledging rival perspectives of history and ensuring that education produces critical citizens equipped with the skills and tools to make their own independent judgements.
Moreover, the question is whether creating alternative realities and eco chambers for future generations that could result from the Israel-Myanmar agreement is what will resolve bitter disputes that risk spiralling out of control
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom