Current News

Hate thy neighbor in Myanmar

These children of Rohingya-people in a camp in
Sittwe to flee attacks in Rakhine region of Myanmar. The conflict which
threatens the stability of the country as a whole is in the process of major
upheaval. PHOTO: SOE THAN WIN / NTB SCANPIX

David Hopkins

May 9, 2013
BANGKOK – A
constructivist view of international security posits that the threats and
insecurities of states are not objectively present or absent but socially
constructed. Actors or organizations with a sufficient degree of legitimacy or
public profile have the capacity to identify, or create, real or imagined
threats through “speech acts” aimed at convincing a target audience –
the general public, the military, legislative branch, etcetera – of an
ostensible security reality.
This approach,
which emphasizes the extent to which security issues are constructed through
language, is pertinent for examining the role of political, civil society, and
religious leaders in Myanmar. These leaders have fueled and exacerbated recent
anti-Muslim violence through racist and provocative language that portrays
Muslims as a threat to state sovereignty and Buddhist tradition.
During the violence
between Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, also known
as Arakan state, which broke out in June 2012, various public figures,
including government officials, made statements depicting the Rohingya minority
as an existential threat. President’s Office Director Zaw Htay claimed in a
Facebook post that armed “Rohingya terrorists were infiltrating Myanmar”.
88 Generation
Students Group leader Ko Ko Gyi remarked that Rohingya were “invading our
country”. Rakhine Nationals Progressive Party chairman Aye Maung said that
the Rohingya posed a threat to all “Arakan people and other ethnic groups”.
Local media organizations also participated in the threat-construction process,
dutifully endorsing the government’s inclination to describe Rohingya as
terrorists. For example, in June, The Voice Weekly referred to “Bengali
terrorists” and Eleven News Media ran with a headline referring to
“Rohingya terrorist attacks”.
Such bigoted or
misleading pronouncements have significant consequences, with the potential to
influence the actions and attitudes of the general populace. The demonization
of Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, creates the conditions for violence,
encouraging the rage of anti-Muslim mobs who envisage threats to their
livelihood, culture, and religion.
The belief that
Muslims constitute a threat appears nonsensical, not least for the fact that
Muslims make up only around 4% of Myanmar’s population. However, as the
philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues, what enrages the perpetrators of racist
violence is not the “immediate reality” of the subject of
vilification, but the socially constructed, symbolic image or identity that the
subject has come to represent and that is constructed, sustained, and
“made meaningful” through language.
The
“Muslim-threat” discourse is a project with an array of participants,
including Buddhist monks, many of whom have acted more like agents of the state
than the Sangha in propagating anti-Muslim views. The Buddhist monk U Wirathu
is a key figure in the so-called 969 movement which advocates the shunning of
Muslim businesses in the name of Buddhist nationalism.
In the immediate
aftermath of deadly anti-Muslim violence in Meikhtila, Mandalay Region, which
killed 44 people in March, U Wirathu warned of a Muslim conspiracy to take over
Myanmar. He has also claimed that Muslims would destroy the Buddhist race and
religion and urged government action against Imams who “brainwash children
with hate speech against Buddhism”.
Such blind
religious nationalism only serves to legitimize violence and empower the
Myanmar government to proffer disturbing and illogical panaceas to curb unrest
– such as Thein Sein’s proposal to deport Rohingya to a third country (in
response to which hundreds of monks in Mandalay held a rally of support). U
Wirathu and other likeminded monks who cast themselves as defenders of the
Buddhist faith simultaneously defend the right of the government to marginalize
or persecute the followers of other faiths.
A recently released
report by the commission formed by President Thein Sein to investigate the
violence in Rakhine State in 2012 also makes a significant contribution to the
depiction of Rohingya as a national security threat. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
given the evident bias of some commission members against the Rohingya
(including the aforementioned Ko Ko Gyi and Aye Maung), the report fails to
deviate from the state-led populist narrative of Rohingya as illegal immigrants
typically motivated by extremist Islamic teachings and disruptive to the social
fabric of Buddhist Rakhine society.
One of the most
strikingly prejudiced aspects of the report is its overt disavowal of Rohingya
identity. The report refers to the Rohingya only as “Bengali”,
reinforcing the widespread belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya are illegal
immigrants from Bangladesh (a belief that the report itself cites as a key
source of tension in Rakhine State), and symbolically undermining their claim
to Myanmar citizenship. In using the “Bengali” designation, the
report echoes the xenophobic lexicon of the Myanmar government and the mobs who
have led anti-Muslim violence.
The report’s
recommendations to address the unrest in Rakhine State are firmly targeted at
countering the supposedly disproportionate Muslim presence and influence in the
state. The report identifies that ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State
feel threatened by the “rapid population growth of the Bengali
population” and recommends implementing birth control programs among
Muslims in the state. It also calls on the government to confront extremist
teachings – “especially in religious schools for Muslim communities”;
double its security presence in the region; and “make clear its intention
to take decisive action against all illegal immigrants”.
These
recommendations are completely at odds with the demographic, political, and
human rights reality in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya currently languish
under repressive government restrictions on marriage, education, freedom of
movement, employment, and a contemptible two-child population control policy.
They also ignore
the overwhelmingly anti-Muslim/anti-Rohingya nature of the violence in 2012,
during which whole Muslim neighborhoods were razed, over 120,000 Rohingya and
other Muslims displaced, and scores killed in a campaign recently described by
Human Rights Watch as amounting to ethnic cleansing.
The propagation of
the “Muslim threat” discourse serves the Myanmar government in
various ways. It may justify the enduring political and security role of the
Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), the militarization of regions deemed unstable,
and the ongoing monitoring, control, and oppression of civilians in the name of
upholding national security. The military-dominated Union Solidarity and
Development Party may seek to take advantage of the so-called threat to argue
that it is best-placed to safeguard security and stability in the country ahead
of 2015 elections.
Anti-Muslim
sentiment may also serve to foment Buddhist nationalism, benefiting the
Buddhist-Burman majority state institutions. The government may seek to harness
burgeoning notions of Buddhist solidarity, which are consolidated in opposition
to a common enemy or “other” (unambiguously described by U Wirathu as
“evil Muslims”) to legitimize its rule and dilute the reality of its
own failings.
Plainly put,
Muslims in Myanmar may offer an alternate scapegoat on which the proverbial mob
can project their grievances. The state-led discriminatory attitudes, polices
and treatment of Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, seem designed in part to
uphold the maxim of the judge in Cormac McCarthy’sBlood Meridian, who states:
“What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of
enemies.”
David Hopkins is a
researcher based in Thailand. He received a Master of International Relations
from the University of Melbourne in 2011.