SPEAKING FREELY Hate thy neighbor in Myanmar
By David Hopkins
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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's Blood 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.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.