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    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.