The Wrong Side of History

Spearhead Analysis – 19.09.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

In his book ‘The Dark Side of Democracy’, Michael Mann presents a very interesting thesis; that murderous cleansing is in fact a modern phenomenon, one that can be attributed to democracy as a system. It is here that he clarifies that his case isn’t one against democracies, and he doesn’t propagate that all democracies routinely engage in murderous cleansing, but that the democratic system carries with it the possibility of the tyranny of the majority against minorities. This is tied with the concept of nationalism, one that can be dangerously politicized, used for ethnic and national forms of exclusion, through the institutions of democracy, citizenship, welfare and the likes.

In understanding the word democracy, the word demos in Greek translates into ‘the common people’ – in totality meaning rule by the ordinary people. In our civilization. Michael Mann states, ‘people’ also means ‘nation’, or another Greek term that is ethnos, an ethnic group – “a people that shares a common culture and sense of heritage, distinct from other peoples”. Therefore, if the ordinary people are then to rule the state, and if their identity is defined in ethnic terms, then its ethnic unity will most probably overshadow the sort of citizen diversity essential to a democratic system.

If this is actually the case, then the question that remains is this:

If such a people rule, what will be the fate of those belonging to a different ethnicity?

The Rohingya

There is much being said about the plight of the Rohingya’s in Myanmar, and much that is not. The UN has branded it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, China has voiced support for a military crackdown that has been slated by the US, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina has made it clear that it’s none of her business, but has simultaneously proposed a joint military operation with the Myanmar army against the Rohingya ‘fighters’. There is little compassion among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim group identified as ‘Bengalis’ – a synonym for illegal immigrants. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence as a rights defender speaks volumes.

Amid all of this is a narrative that’s floating around, one that suspends the rights of the ‘Other’ – the weaker identity, through a rhetoric of national security that necessitates violence for every day survival.

Ashin Wirathu, an influential Buddhist monk based in Mandalay, who takes pride in calling himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’, is the face of the cause of the Bamar, the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar. He is also the leading voice of the movement that sees Muslims as “hordes” encroaching Burma, linking them to Islamist terrorism, and in his words:

“Muslims reproduce like rabbits; they want to kill us with swords; they want to conquer us — we have to defend ourselves and our religion”

This is a classic example of mobilizing populations through rhetoric of identity-based politics grounded in narratives of ethnic persecution. The use of violence to exert a sense of dominance to protect the ‘motherland’ by ‘uncivilized’ ‘usurpers’ to drive rampages is a lesser refined version of the argument used by first world countries to describe their economic woes in light of foreigners coming in and stealing their jobs.

Taking from Edward Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’, the Rohingya Muslims in this case are viewed in a morally and culturally inferior way, which allows for the demarcation between the civilized Buddhists and the uncivilized Muslims. The images of the ‘racial others’ as objects to be despised result from cultural and social constructions through a process of ‘race thinking’ which rests on and requires the use of violence in order to civilize, and to ensure the security of the self. It is here that the ‘Other’ is equated with animals, as is done in the case of the Rohingya Muslims, where they are equated with rabbits – further dehumanizing them as a people, and instilling hatred and paranoia amongst the Buddhist majority.

The insistence of drawing distinctions is what adds to the incidence of these differences being used as a political weapon used to disintegrate the society. It is by means of the innate difference of the ‘other’ in terms of his appearance, as well as his religious and cultural values that inferiority is awarded to him. Once state of exception measures are taken, moral indifference or disengagement creeps in wherein a development of detachment from the other begins through his exclusion from the boundary of law and basic consideration. In post-colonial theory, this sort of thinking, with catchwords like “they are different than us”, allows violence against certain identities considered necessary for the state and society to preserve itself.

It is through narratives like these, those propagated by Ashin Wirathu and many like him, that tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have been fuelled in the Rakhine state, fostering the belief that Islam is taking over the country to instate Sharia law and leave Buddhists as a minority. 

So what is the cause of Suu Kyi’s silence?

Many are of the opinion that in a country with a 90 per cent Buddhist majority where there is little to no sympathy for the Rohingya Muslims, voicing support for the cause would be political suicide for Suu Kyi’s party with the parliamentary elections taking place soon. This would leave her completely incapacitated in the likelihood that she wont land a place in the government and consequently fight for the Rohingya cause. According to Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre:

“Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists are looking at the electoral maths”

While many sympathizers are justifying the actions of Suu Kyi by attributing her silence to the strength of the monks, the probable backlash of the Buddhist majority, and the stronghold of the army which still runs a chunk of the government, others are not so sympathetic. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called it “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country”, and while others have excused her silence they have questioned her on pushing the propaganda that the Rohingya who have fled to save their lives were in fact burning their own homes.

And in the current climate, where the world is hell-bent on building walls and scapegoating Muslims of all sorts for their socio-economic and political failures, it is rather convenient for her to do so. In the words of Rafia Zakaria:

“…the cruel underlying logic is the same and much of the world agrees with it: all Muslims are potential terrorists and hence none can truly or really be victims. All the persecution they undergo is hence deserved, never culpable and always entirely justifiable”

Calculated Steps

The picture that the Myanmar government seems to be painting is this: that those that are being persecuted are out of the necessity to defend their land against “extremist terrorists” from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), blames these militants for burning down the houses of the Rohingya, and deny any culpability in their persecution.

And it is this narrative that the ARSA needs to debunk, one where their actions justify the violence of the Myanmar government, especially in an international climate where Islamophobia is rampant, and could easily be demonized and thrown into the category of Islamic terrorists. This does not mean that the actions of ARSA determine the response of the Myanmar government; Myanmar has used violence as a tool to persecute, oppress and silence the Rohingya for decades, and will continue to do so.

The international community has to play a stronger role in resolving the issue of the Rohingya once and for all, and not just resorting to simply ‘condemning’ actions of the Myanmar government and leaving it at that, but devising policies to ensure their rehabilitation. In the presence of forces ready to exploit those seeking help to understand and strengthen their identity, it would be careless of the international community to leave such a large vacuum where the Rohingya could easily be exploited. Moreover, considering that refugees, illegal immigrants, and the likes are on the foreferont of the new security challenges that the world faces today, the international community should work on short-term rehabilitation and settlement, as well as long-term strategies to assimilate these people into society to ensure that they don’t become pawns in an even greater game of violence.

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