If we are to address the genocidal violence in Rakhine seriously, we have to look beyond the culpability of one personby Faisal Devji / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
In March, the US Holocaust Museum revoked a human rights award it had given to Burma’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her of doing too little to stop the persecution of the Rohingya population in Rakhine. This came hard on the heels of other such revocations, including an honorary fellowship by the Oxford college where she studied, and calls for her to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.
But rather than allowing us to rethink our prior enthusiasm for her heroism, has our desire to hold her responsible for the catastrophe become a gesture by which we wash our hands of all complicity in it? Isn’t our focus on her betrayal of our hopes narcissistic, especially given the fact that we tend not to know the name of the general directly responsible for conducting operations against the Rohingya?
Even those of us who refuse to excuse her silence about—or toleration of—the violence perpetrated by Burmese civilians and soldiers in Rakhine are compelled to consider whether our focus on Suu Kyi blinds us to the most basic understanding of the situation. Why, for example, do their enemies refer to the Rohingya primarily as Bengalis rather than, as the international media repeatedly does, as Muslims?
The name Bengali signals more than an attempt to classify the Rohingya as foreigners or “illegal” immigrants. Displacing terms like “Muslim” and even “Bangladeshi” for a religiously neutral one, emerges from a longer history of Burmese racism and xenophobia going back to colonial times.
This former Buddhist kingdom had been conquered and incorporated into British India in the middle of the 19th century, and its long-established Hindu and Muslim populations joined by Indian newcomers.
Burma’s large population of Hindu and Muslim traders, soldiers, administrators and labourers, many from the neighbouring Indian state of Bengal, became the objects of nationalist hatred, and were attacked in riots through the 1930s until they were finally expelled to India and what was then East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—in 1962. Even today in Burma, Indians, Bangladeshis and other South Asians are referred to by the popular slur “kala,” an Indian-derived word that means “black” but also “foreigner,” without regard to religion or nationality
Targeting the Rohingya, in other words, is part…