Francis Wade, author of the new book Myanmar’s Enemy Within, describes how language has been used to falsely justify violence against the Rohingya minority by convincing many Burmese people that the Rohingya pose a serious threat.
A remote corner of western Myanmar has become the site of one of the twenty-first century’s most extreme manifestations of identity conflict. Close to 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled a pogrom launched by Myanmar soldiers in August last year and now reside in a spreading refugee camp in Bangladesh. They poured across the border to jeering and derision from a sizeable cross-section of the Myanmar population, and the accounts they gave to human rights investigators once in Bangladesh were met with scorn and disbelief inside Myanmar. “Look at those women,” a local minister for border security in western Myanmar told the BBC late last year when questioned on repeat accusations of rape of Rohingya women by soldiers. “Would anyone want to rape them?”
The minister’s comments were not unusual. A deep suspicion of the Rohingya has fused with a common perception of them as subhuman, one that has become a staple of the popular imagination in Myanmar. The result is a lethal, and now mainstream, narrative of the Rohingya as conspirators, one that seeks to flip on its head the victim-aggressor dynamic. Rohingya are not the victims, so it goes, and their sob stories are bogus; rather, they are invaders, and the people of Myanmar are supporting a military campaign to defend against these aggressors. This narrative has been fundamental to shaping how violence towards Rohingya is interpreted inside Myanmar, and therefore who rallies in support of whom.
The campaign of killings and burnings by the military, which Médecins Sans Frontières estimates caused at least 6,700 deaths in the first month alone, 730 of whom were children under five, has drawn high-level accusations of ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. The indiscriminate nature of the violence hasn’t however shifted public opinion inside Myanmar—rather, the accounts given by Rohingya have fuelled a popular denialism and animated the view of Rohingya as deceitful. Their identity itself is seen as a fabrication by Bengali immigrants to gain citizenship and subordinate other indigenous Buddhist groups. Therefore, everything they do—all the lies they tell—is in pursuit of this goal.
In an ethnic and religious context as volatile as Myanmar’s, the relentless peddling of that line has meant Rohingya can be targeted not because of what individuals have done, but because of who they are and what the group represents. Identities often evolve via antithesis, against others, and this creates a binary social landscape of “us” and “them”, outsiders and sons of the soil. The religious aspect to the violence in Myanmar, where the majority Buddhist population fears besiegement by Muslim cultures from the subcontinent, gives this an added, even more precarious, dimension: against the alleged impurity of Islam, Buddhism is seen as sacred. If Islam goes stronger, a pure Buddhist culture will be contaminated.
Monks, the traditional upholders of virtue in Myanmar, have promoted theories about the origins and intentions of Rohingya as vigorously as anyone else. The reverence they command and the inviolability of their words has helped their theories crystallise into “facts”, which have then singled out Rohingya as targets for hatred, against whom violence is deemed legitimate.
There may be no provable causal link between dangerous speech of the kind targeted at Rohingya and violence that all too often follows it, but language does play a vital role in framing perceptions of a group. The “violent hierarchy”, as Jacques Derrida might have put it, of religion and ethnicity in Myanmar has greatly influenced the degree to which one identity is seen to be superior to another, and what is at stake if that hierarchy were to be upended. Fear of a reversal in the status of identity groups has provided a classic trigger for past campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide elsewhere in the world, and these anxieties are present in the discourse surrounding Rohingya, and Islam more broadly, that has evolved across the democratic transition in Myanmar.
What is said, and who says it, therefore effects how one might inwardly reconcile the use of violence. Some of the tools of language used in Myanmar have been implicit: by not ever referring to Rohingya by their name, instead insisting they be called “Bengali”, everyone, from high-level officials down to grassroots activists, have partaken in their symbolic erasure. This is not overt hate speech, but is found in the “nuances and shades of meaning” that subtler discourses allow for. It is harder to detect than the overt summons to violence, but its effect is equally insidious.
Elsewhere the language has been explicit. Prior to a wave of mob attacks in 2012 between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine, leaflets were circulated around towns in western Myanmar warning of the threat that Rohingya posed, and what measures should be taken to counter it—economic boycotts, segregation; any means to protect the race and faith. Aid groups were accused of “watering poisonous plants”—that by assisting the Rohingya, they had kept alive a toxic presence in the state. Newspaper headlines bestialised Rohingya, who were reported to be “prowling around” outside towns, like a pack of wild dogs readying for attack. Ethnic Rakhine I spoke with in the subsequent years who had either supported or participated in attacks on Rohingya often referenced them using epithets strikingly similar to those that circulated on leaflets prior to the attacks.
The particular way Rohingya are framed in the public imagination in Myanmar has therefore been key to extending the violence beyond just an elite project to one that has included widespread civilian support, if not direct participation. Buddhists from across the country have rallied behind attacks on a community they may have never come into contact with, orchestrated by a military whose institutional malice was for so long known and felt by all in Myanmar. This can only happen when that community is cast as a greater threat than a freely abusive military, and the discourse surrounding the Rohingya has, like that which marked out the Jews in Nazi Germany and the Tutsis in Rwanda, determinedly raised over Myanmar the banner of conquest and subordination at the hands of a conniving foreign entity.
Such is the popular support for the military that it appears these discourses have won the contest over identity in Myanmar. They have become the dominant version of the country’s history and, appallingly, appear to be guiding visions of its future. If the processes that have precipitated the forcible transfer of nearly 700,000 Rohingya—a component of ethnic cleansing—have been tolerated by most all rungs of state and society in Myanmar, then so too would their elimination be tolerated.
By refusing to condemn the military and by rubbishing the claims made by Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office has given the green light for those attacks, and has partaken in the creation of precisely the necessary enabling environment for mass violence. We’ve seen the language of annihilation, of identity war, being used in state media without censure. One article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper in late 2016, eight months after the Ministry of Information came under civilian authority, alluded to the Rohingya as “human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench and for sucking our blood.” The same references to a parasitic presence on home soil were made by the Nazis.
Myanmar’s political and legal institutions—parliament, the courts; those that should act to counter dangerous speech—are in a state of infancy, and remain captured by conservative nationalist forces. This is the peril of early democratisation. When institutional weakness meets a context in which emerging political elites are jockeying for power, and know the gains to be made from driving communal antagonisms, mass violence is only ever one step away. The more clear-cut warning signs of such an event—the physical isolation of a target group, mob attacks, impunity for attackers—indicate that the storm is near. But it starts long before that, in the newspapers and televisions and in the mouths of nationalist agitators. “You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots,” the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said. “It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.”