In the immediate aftermath of last Sunday’s attacks on security forces in northern Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township, rumours, accusations and outright propaganda quickly crowded out what little was actually known about the situation.
Officials and politicians wasted no time in ascribing the attacks to the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), a group widely believed to be defunct, despite a complete lack of evidence. And many journalists blindly repeated their claims, propagating the agendas of interested parties in a highly polarized conflict.
Others, including the dangerously influential monk Ashin Wirathu, added further fuel to the fire, using Facebook to warn of a “third Jihad”, in a post that was shared more than 6,000 times.
While in some cases the agenda was clear, in others — especially in the case of journalists who readily accepted claims without checking their accuracy — you have to wonder if the reason was that the unverified accusations sat comfortably with their own prejudices, in a country where the Rohingya community has been vilified for decades.
Whether they are characterised as interlopers from Bangladesh or as terrorists, the Rohingya are routinely demonised in Burma. Whether they use actual weapons or the “demographic bomb” of their supposedly rampant reproduction, they are seen by many as a threat to the very existence of the Rakhine, or ethnic Arakanese, community or even the entire Burmese nation.
But Rakhine and Burmese nationalists aren’t the only ones who have hastened to fill the information vacuum with dubious claims. On the Rohingya side, some have blamed the attacks on the Arakan Army, a Rakhine armed group, without providing any evidence to support this assertion. And in the international press, reports of ultraviolent incursions into villages in Maungdaw by the Burmese military have been greeted with some skepticism.
The point here is not to “correct” any of these claims, but to warn against giving them undue credence. Given the lack of information — and the general lack of transparency that still prevails in Burma — we need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions, especially ones that fit with our prejudices, which can never be measures of truth.
For many in Burma, the Rohingya can never be seen as victims: They are always the unwelcome outsiders who impose their presence on others, part of a Muslim “invasion” of Arakan and Burma that must be resisted. For many others, however, the Rohingya can never be anything but victims, subject to systematic oppression by both Rakhine nationalists and the Burmese state since the Ne Win era. Most people’s interpretation of the current events will be coloured by one of these two narratives.
But what both views fail to recognise is that, in the situation of absolute hopelessness in which the Rohingya have been gradually pushed to live, it would be only natural that some people would resort at some point to violence, regardless of what cooler heads in the community tell them and how counterproductive that violence is condemned to be.
However divergent the accounts of what happened on Sunday may be, the underlying assumption that they share is that ethnic groups and communities are “solid entities” that act and behave as one single actor. This is what the scholar Rogers Brubaker termed “groupism” — “the tendency to take discrete, sharply differentiated, internally homogeneous and externally bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis.”
It goes without saying that no ethnic group is a “unitary collective actor”: While virtually all Rakhine are subjected to varying degrees of pressure to shun the Rohingya, their reactions may vary enormously. Some may feel genuine loathing, but others may be merely indifferent or even, in rare cases, sympathetic. Likewise, even though all Rohingya living in Arakan suffer under systematic discrimination, their reactions to this situation are bound to be as varied as their personal stories. Not all members of an ethnic group will react in the same way to the situation in which such group finds itself.
This reification of ethnic groups is one of the most pervasive features of social life in Burma, as in so many other countries afflicted by extreme ethnic tensions and conflicts, like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, India or Sri Lanka. Both internal actors and external observers often see it as the result of ancient grievances, even though many of these conflicts are surprisingly modern. A long history of grievances is often invoked by political actors to keep such conflicts alive, but as Suzanne and Lloyd Rudolph have pointed out, “friendships are as “ancient” as hatreds. This is also the case in Arakan, where, according to historian Michael Charney, Buddhist and Muslim communities have a long history of mostly peaceful and harmonious coexistence before colonial times.
Moreover, ethnic groups themselves as we know them now are often quite new. In the case of Arakan, the emergence of Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic identities as closed, discrete and antagonistic groups is far more recent than is commonly implied. This is arguably the result of historical processes and political decisions, closely related with the impact of the colonial period in Burma and the imposition of boundaries between modern nation-states. But the current reification of ethnic groups always entails a projection into the past: the ethnic group as it is now has always been like this.
In sum, ethnic reification “is a social process”, in the words of Brubaker, and “groupness is something that happens”. But why, in the middle of an acute crisis in Arakan State of unforeseeable consequences, is it important to reflect on these seemingly academic points?
By not seeing ethnic groups like the Rohingya or the Rakhine as unitary collective actors, we are better able to avoid the trap of attributing collective responsibility — which, as so often happens in Arakan State, tends to result in collective punishment. If I believe that the group I belong to is threatened by another group, any action to prevent that will be justified, including cruel crimes against its weakest members.
We saw this in 2012, when 10 Muslims were killed in Taungup in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl killed in another town. This led to a series of terrible waves of sectarian violence pitting community against community, in which Muslim communities living in Arakan, both Rohingya and Kaman, were ultimately punished collectively.
In Arakan, collective characterization of the other community often goes both ways. For instance, many in the IDP camps for Muslims around Sittwe believe that Rohingyas are routinely killed by doctors and nurses at Sittwe General Hospital.
The story has even reached the international media, but the evidence for it is thin, at best. Last November, a woman from one camp told me that all of the dozen or so patients she had accompanied to the hospital returned safely. Nevertheless, the rumour persists, in large part because many Rohingya, after suffering for years from the effects of ethnic hatred and a policy of apartheid, believe that Rakhine doctors and nurses, like all other Rakhines, hate them and want to see them dead.
At work in all these cases is a very similar conception of members of the other group as part of a single entity with a common purpose: the extermination of the group to which one belongs. With most fingers now pointing to members of the Rohingya community as the most likely culprits in last Sunday’s attacks, the ugly spectre of collective punishment against the whole community is more present than ever.
For the Rakhine and Rohingya people who are in the thick of the conflict, it may be very difficult to think in terms other than those which determine a great part of lives. But journalists and other external observers can have no excuse for uncritically repeating narratives that have contributed to bringing untold devastation to both communities for decades.