The granting of free speech by a Burmese government attempting to reform – and inexperienced in the attendant complications of doing so – has provoked an unexpected outburst of explicit, popular, legitimized, hatred directed at a single targeted community, the Rohingya.
By David B. Kanin
The ongoing communal violence in western Myanmar is an example of public sentiment fomenting killings, burnings, and attempts at forcible expulsion against the wishes of a surprised and unprepared government. The country’s erstwhile military rulers (or at least a critical mass of them) are engaged in an effort to re-enter international good graces and very much have wanted to avoid the sort of atrocities underway in Rakhine State. President Thein Sein has attempted to engage international experts, diplomats, and organizations – to include representatives from concerned Muslim states and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – in conflict management. However, public revulsion of the Muslim Rohingya community has led him to back away from doing much more than send in more troops in an attempt to keep Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya apart.
This inter-communal conflict involves the usual components of economic competition and racism, but is unusual in the level of domestic animus against the Rohingya, a people who have lived in what is now western Myanmar for generations (perhaps for centuries). Rakhine Buddhists and many in the Burman majority ethnicity consider them unwanted Bengali interlopers, and successive governments have denied them citizenship or any lesser political status. The Buddhists insist they are the victims of violence they blame on the beleaguered Rohingya. Spokesmen for the Kachin minority in northern Myanmar – where an insurgency has been underway for more than a year – decry international calls to help the Rohingya and ask why foreigners are so concerned about this benighted people and not about Kachins and other groups at odds with the regime.
The Rohingya certainly cannot look to the sainted Aung San Suu Kyi for any sympathy. This lionized winner of the Nobel Peace Prize says almost nothing about the problem, except to claim that both sides are responsible for the outrages. It is not clear she shares the widespread popular hatred for these people, but she certainly is as insensitive to their suffering as are so many others in the country.
For its part, neighboring Bangladesh disavows these fellow Muslims. In fact, militaries on both sides appear to cooperate in attempting to prevent Rohingya refugees (and smugglers attempting to subsist under horrendous conditions) from moving back and forth across the river that divides the two countries. Some Rohingya continue to live in boats between the two banks.
Open media do not always produce global citizens
To a considerable degree, the continuing virulence of the popular effort to victimize the Rohingya is a direct result of the military regime’s decision to relax the decades-long repression of its citizenry. Lessening of restrictions on the media has led to public expression of – among other things – widespread, hostile opposition to the presence of the Rohingya. This is not a case of the government whipping up atavistic sentiment to distract a population from resentment of long-term tyranny. Once people in Myanmar became aware they could express their views more openly many in Rakhine State and elsewhere used social and traditional media to make clear their distaste for the Rohingya. This led to a variation on the “flash mobs” and ethnic riots phenomena so well analyzed by Donald Horowitz (Duke University). Local Buddhists discovered their hostility toward the Rohingya was legitimate in the Myanmar context. In the wake of the initial violence, Buddhist monks led demonstrations and joined in the collective verbal abuse directed against the country’s 800,000 or so Rohingya.
One way to think about this is to compare the plight of the Rohingya to the rejection of Roma in much of Europe (and not just eastern Europe – recent riots against the Roma took place outside Marseilles). The difference is that the Roma at least have some room for physical movement and can count on the support of some fellow citizens and of various government bodies and NGOs. The Rohingya are hemmed in and are largely on their own.
The media elsewhere served to spark the only significant move to help the Rohingya. Last summer, news organs and social media from Indonesia to North Africa expressed outrage at what often was termed “genocide” (as I have written on this site, that word is invoked so often that it is becoming meaningless). Casualty figures, which at the time actually were in the dozens, were reported to be in the thousands, leading to an outburst of anger in the Muslim world.
Only then did Arab and other Muslim governments take up the cause, demanding that Myanmar’s authorities stop the violence, protect the Rohingya, and accept interventions by Muslim officials and NGOs to help deal with the problem. Iran was the only country in which government outrage preceded and, perhaps, organized popular demonstrations on behalf of the Rohingya. No Muslim voice made any demands on Muslim Bangladesh to help these people out.
For a little while, the plight of the Rohingya became the kind of cause célèbre that Bosnia was in Muslim media of the 1990s. Thein Sein at first agreed to permit the OIC to open an office in Rakhine State, but then reversed himself in the face of fierce domestic public pressure against the idea.
Only after all of this action in the Muslim world did the US, European Union, and other powers mostly focused on doing business with the reforming regime in Myanmar begin to pay serious attention to the problem. China expressed ritual desires for action by the Myanmar authorities, but otherwise remained riveted on its concern that Western governments and businesses could eclipse Beijing’s longstanding dominance of Myanmar’s foreign trade.
The killing seemed to stop by the late summer, but has broken out again over the last couple of weeks. Once more, Buddhist monks have led demonstrations and shared in the spread of inter-communal anger, while Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to celebrate her celebrity and remain aloof from the problem. Once again, Bangladesh has demonstrated it wants nothing to do with the Rohingya.
The difference this time is that – so far – there has been much less outrage expressed in the Muslim world. Al Jazeera and a few other media outlets have paid close attention to the Rohingya, but many others among the national and local media outlets have not yet reset their sights toward a situation they initially helped bring to international attention.
Make no mistake – the usual playbook of Western governments, NGOS, “development” theorists, civic activists, and others concerned with human rights (which has only a mixed record anyway) will not work in Myanmar. This is not a simple case of economic rivalry or an effort of so-called ”ethnic entrepreneurs” to spoil what too often are assumed to be the naturally benevolent relations among neighboring or intermingled religious, ethnic, or otherwise differentiated groups.
In this case, the granting of free speech by a government attempting to reform (and inexperienced in the attendant complications of doing so) has provoked an unexpected outburst of explicit, popular, legitimized, hatred directed at a single targeted community. Rakhine Buddhists, other Burmans, non-Burman peoples in Myanmar, and even the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi do not feel the need for civic education. They know whom they hate, why they hate them, and why it is necessary to disgorge them. International pressure on the regime will continue to amount to pushing on an open door, and the regime likely will improve its ability to control the violence. However (as with the Roma) any effort to inculcate an attitude of acceptance of the Rohingya as fellow citizens – or as people deserving of even a less political status – is going to be a tough slog.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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