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Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Rohingya and other outsiders

When the British arrived they set about categorising cultures and races [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 December, 2017

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Comment: This is not the first time the demonisation of 'threatening' communities has prepared the way for slaughter, writes Robin Yassin-Kassab.
I recently had my DNA analysed to illuminate my geographical ancestry. My mother is English and my father Syrian, so you'd expect at least two locations to show. 

As it happens, I contain western European, Caucasian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, Irish and Iberian, with small amounts of Scandinavian, North African and South Asian.

This demonstrates not only that I am a mixture, but that my parents are too; that everyone is. It reminds us that ethnic distinctions are accidents of cultural history rather than markers of race or even of family purity. It means very similarly mixed blood flows in the veins of those who consider themselves in nationalist terms, for instance, as distinct Arabs, Kurds or Turks.

Ethnicities are fluid, yet European empires and postcolonial states sought to name and thus delimit them from historical flux. When the British arrived in the state called Burma or Myanmar after the Bamar, the dominant group, they set about categorising cultures and races, considering the two categories to be almost interchangeable.

In the 1931 census the British named 139 ethnic groups. By 1982, independent Burma's military junta had reduced this to 135 "national races" qualifying for citizenship.

The Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state are not included, though they are the descendants of Indian and Persian traders who first arrived here over a thousand years ago.

Their numbers increased when early Burmese kings raided Bengal for slaves, and during British rule when workers came from India. Today the Burmese state denies their existence as a community, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

It reminds us that ethnic distinctions are accidents of cultural history rather than markers of race

In recent weeks at least 620,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes. Villages have been torched, women gang-raped, untold numbers have been hacked or burnt to death. A United Nations official called it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Since independence, the Burmese state has followed a policy of national homogenisation by subtle and overt discrimination, privileging the dominant Burman ethnicity - 60 percent of the population - and aggressively harnessing Buddhism to the national identity. (Here of course we are discussing Buddhism as an organised institutional and political reality in one specific context, not commenting on the Buddha's actual teachings.)

Read more: Rohingya Muslims trapped in Myanmar's 'apartheid' regime for decades

Ruled by military dictatorship from 1962, the state waged war against Kayin and Karen insurgents, among others, and launched campaigns to convert animists and Christians. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indian residents were expelled in the 1960s. The Rohingya were obliged to carry foreign registration cards after 1978.

Over the last decade, though the military still controls security mechanisms and much of the economy, power has been transferred towards an elected civilian administration. Simultaneously, the long-closed Burmese economy has been opened to foreign penetration.

In Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other', his excellent contextualisation of the current slaughter, Francis Wade asks a question relevant to any country experiencing a process of partial democratisation: "Should the forces that inevitably result from liberalisation, and which can aid the opening of a country as much as they can imperil it, be constrained, or should they be allowed to run free?"

The Burmese liberalisation was washed through by a hyper-nationalist wave which continued and developed the junta's old discourse. During its long reign, the military spent less than three percent of the national budget on health and education, but expended enormous efforts on an exclusionary and paranoiac nationalism.

Organisations of hate-preaching monks spread fear and resentment of Muslims. One such is Ma Ba Tha, or the Organisation for Protection of Race, Religion and Doctrine, which operates private high schools and is tacitly sanctioned by the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party. Ma Ba Tha agitated for the 2014 Protection of Race and Religion Laws.

The Nazi parallels are explicit. Wade quotes a November 2012 editorial in the Burmese magazine Development Journal: "Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews, but they were probably heroes to the Germans. In order for a country's survival, the survival of a race, or in defence of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or in-human acts may justifiably be committed."

The propaganda repeats with local variations the global Islamophobic narrative. Individual Rohingya men and women are identified with their group, and their group is identified with nefarious plans for conquest, either by terrorism or by outbreeding the non-Muslim natives.

Monk organisations tour anti-Muslim films through Buddhist villages, blaming "Islam" for international outrages from 9/11 to war in Syria, until ordinary Rakhine and Bamar people see in their former neighbours - those fishermen and farmers impoverished like them - the foot soldiers of a grand Muslim conspiracy against Buddhist south east Asia.

Once the abused people are perceived as an insidious threat to race and religion, violence against them is justified as self-defence. Then anything goes.

During the 2012 massacres, mobs of strangers arrived to catalyse the violence against Rohingyas. This, more even than the refusal of police and soldiers to intervene to stop the killing, suggests the state's collusion in the pogroms.

In 2012 Rohingya were cleansed from urban areas and thereafter confined to ghettoes and camps, all their legal and political rights denied. They were not permitted to vote in the 2015 elections, and were subjected to what Wade calls "a system of racialised health care, purposeful and carefully designed, in its most extreme form".

By now Muslims of the Kaman ethnicity were also forcibly confined to their villages. People referred to Muslims in general as kalar, a racial epithet meaning dark-skinned or of Indian appearance.

The military spent less than three percent of the national budget on health and education, but expended enormous efforts on an exclusionary and paranoiac nationalism

In 2013 the violence spread from Rakhine state to Meikhtila, a trade centre in central Myanmar where the Muslims are the same Bamar ethnicity as the Buddhists. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed. Muslims were beaten dead in the streets. Monks participated in the killing.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the 2015 elections after blocking Muslim candidates from standing on its ticket. Since then it has consistently failed to defend the Rohingya.

On the contrary, Suu Kyi and others have refused to even name the Rohingya. During the latest, most intense, bout of cleansing, Burma's civilian leaders have only obfuscated and denied, and have done nothing to stop or slow the slaughter. They are absolutely complicit in these crimes.

Rohingya refugees who have lost homes, possessions and family, and who are currently crowded in camps in Bangladesh, need urgent practical assistance. They also need concrete political support, but are of course unlikely to receive it.

Notwithstanding Receb Tayyip Erdogan's rhetorical intervention, the "Muslim" states are only capable of organising to defend their own elites, and are more likely to extend solidarity to a fellow oppressor than to the oppressed.

They also need concrete political support, but are of course unlikely to receive it

Syria's state Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, for instance, not content with whitewashing Bashar al-Assad's mass murder of Syrians, also weighed in on the Rohingya, describing them as a "security threat", and the Burmese state as victim of "big propaganda" by the West.

But the West isn't very relevant and doesn't much care. (If westerners thought Syria, on the Mediterranean, was too far away to properly understand, there isn't much hope for the Rohingya).

China, whose economy profits from Burma and whose voice therefore counts a great deal, doesn't care at all about human rights. If it did, it wouldn't oppress Muslims in Xinjiang or Buddhists in Tibet, nor rule so arbitrarily over its other citizens' lives.

We should pay close attention to the sorry tale of the Rohingya and the Burmese state, first for its own sake, but then to help us consider other societies.

At some time or other in the modern period every major religion has been reconfigured to an intolerant identity politics. Ethics, philosophy and mysticism have been reduced to an ideological conception of "values", then sacrificed on the altars of states or state projects.

This includes the religion, or civilisational heritage, of the secular West, which "populists" boil down to a vanishing essence under immediate and omnipresent threat. In Europe and North America the demonisation of "threatening" communities has prepared the way for slaughter several times before.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and author of The Road From Damascus, a novel. 


Books he has contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. His book reviews and commentary have appeared in the Guardian, the National, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast and others, and he often comments on Syria on TV and radio.

He blogs at qunfuz.com and pulsemedia.org

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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