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Myanmar: Marketing a Massacre

Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
Propaganda depicting the alleged abuses of Buddhists by Muslims, displayed near the monastery of Ashin Wirathu, an anti-Muslim monk, Mandalay, Myanmar, May 31, 2017

Two years ago, in a village just north of the town of Sittwe in western Myanmar, I met a young man who spoke of a friendship with a Muslim boy that was no longer. Over several days in June 2012, that village and others nearby in Rakhine State had served as a wellspring for mobs of Buddhists who, armed with sticks, machetes, and cans of gasoline, laid waste to a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in the center of Sittwe.

The young man, in his mid-twenties when we met, had been away when the attack happened. But he knew many of his neighbors had boarded the buses that shuttled the mobs into Sittwe, where they razed Muslim homes and sent thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to displacement camps, and he sympathized with their decision to do so. His onetime friend had long since stopped coming to the village, and he had no wish to rekindle the relationship. I asked why.

“His blood is different,” he said of the Rohingya boy, who used to sell rice at the local market, and who would on occasion stay over at the man’s house. “I don’t think he is a bad person, but even though he’s not bad, his ethnicity is bad. The group is bad.”

Those events of 2012 had comprised the first wave of violence between Buddhists and Muslims to strike Myanmar as it transitioned from military rule, and they ended with the near total segregation of Buddhist and Muslim communities across much of western Myanmar. Several months later in 2012, I had interviewed numbers of Rohingya Muslims at their new shelters in the camps. But neither I nor a majority of journalists who traveled there had spared much time for the “other side,” the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who had perpetrated much of the violence, but who had also endured, albeit to a lesser extent, attacks by the Rohingya. At that time, what forces, internal and external, had driven the Buddhist mobs to commit atrocities on this scale remained largely a matter of speculation.

I thought of the young man when, starting in late August, another, vastly more seismic iteration of this violence began. North of Sittwe, in a wedge of land about half the size of Long Island, more than 200 villages have been burned and more than half a million Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing a sweeping military campaign initiated as a response to attacks by Rohingya militants on security outposts. The testimony given by refugees—of the summary execution of civilians, the rapes of women by soldiers—has shocked, but so, too, has the jeering, the derision, and the disbelief directed at their claims from among a seemingly broad cross-section of Myanmar society. This has emanated not only from Rakhine State, where age-old communal antagonisms run deep, but from across the country; and not just at the grassroots, but in its high offices.

“Look at those women,” a local minister for border security in Rakhine State sneered recently when pressed on the allegations of mass rapes. “Would anyone want to rape them?”

The popular support in Myanmar for the military’s campaign has revealed a violently chauvinistic prejudice against Rohingya. The strength and near-universality of this sentiment has chafed against the West’s simplistic earlier understanding of the ethnic and religious frictions that have long existed in Myanmar but were obscured both by military rule and by a tendency to view the political landscape of Myanmar in binary terms: a society seemingly unified in its virtuous opposition to its military rulers.

In an effort to understand what drives this collective mind-set—of a majority population, composed of communities with otherwise conflicting interests, appearing to unite behind a campaign of ethnic cleansing—I went back to my conversation with the young man. It wasn’t that the Rohingya boy he once knew had been complicit in attacks on Rakhine Buddhists. The young man knew that not to be the case. Rather, it was that all Rohingya were seen to be acting as one, the individual always in the service of the group. That inability to disaggregate one from the other has provided a lethal rationale for mass violence the world over, and it has formed a central pillar of the propaganda directed at the Rohingya since the late August insurgent attacks. Cartoons of machete-wielding Rohingya babies have circulated on social media, signalling a belief in an inborn malevolence that has had the effect of obliterating any distinction between young and old, violent and nonviolent. It didn’t matter to the young man that the friend, as an individual, had done no wrong. “The group is bad.” 

The mental state underpinning this position has evolved alongside, or been partly fueled by, another development in Myanmar. To see these as merely longstanding frictions now finding new room for expression overlooks the processes set in motion by the communal polarization that followed the 2012 violence, as well as the political transition itself. Alongside the hyper-local tensions in Rakhine State and the military’s assertions of ethnic and religious supremacy, public support for the latest wave of violence against the Rohingya is tied to fears, both real and imagined, of what democratization would bring.

The retreat by both communities into separate enclaves after 2012 gave rise to a consensus on each side of who the “other” was, and what their intentions were. This had the profound effect of reframing the meaning of that earlier outburst of violence. In this atmosphere, even banal, neighborhood disputes—over land, for example, which had long underpinned tensions in that part of Myanmar—quickly took their place in a universal narrative of Muslim invasion and conquest. The Rohingya are widely believed to be illegal Bengali immigrants, whereas Rakhine Buddhists consider themselves the hereditary sons of the coastal plain. Any assertion of rights, political or economic, by Rohingya—let alone an act of violence—is interpreted as a bid to dilute Rakhine State’s ethnic identity, and Buddhism more broadly.

This might help explain the curious paradox in Myanmar of advancing democratization and worsening violence. Nearly seven years after the military relinquished outright power, and eighteen months into the pseudo-civilian government’s rule, an ethnic cleansing campaign has received popular backing. This phenomenon is not limited to Rakhine State, but resonates far beyond it, even among communities that have had little to no contact with Rohingya people. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai once wrote of the part that “larger scripts,” incorporated into local understandings of a conflict, play in shaping the perceptions of that conflict across the entire society. The resentments underpinning the violence might once have been confined largely to Rakhine State, but, the reasoning goes, the recent insurgent attacks by Rohingya militants have exposed an Islamist conspiracy that begins beyond Myanmar’s borders, and threatens to penetrate deep within them. The main communal cleavage in western Myanmar might once have been ethnicity, but the way state and social media have unremittingly pushed the religious dimension of the conflict has had a fundamental bearing on who, far beyond Rakhine State, has rallied in support of what.

To many in Myanmar today, democratization evidently has its perils. The military always hinted at this. During its half-century stewardship of the country, the generals restricted citizens’ rights to such an extent that the rights themselves seemed finite. In an ethnically fissured nation, where some groups were more privileged than others, but all were denied a political voice, the military’s strategy inevitably gave rise to a fear that to empower one community would automatically disempower others. There may well be a powerful ideological, chauvinistic thrust to recent events in Myanmar, with nationalists using their newfound agency to mold a more homogeneous society, free from ethnic “contamination.” Equally at play is a bid by long disenfranchised communities, like the people of Rakhine, to stake a claim in a changing political landscape before others might snatch it away.

That was a fear deftly exploited by the military, and stirred more recently by self-serving nationalist leaders jockeying for power in the new Myanmar. And it may explain in part why the military’s campaign has not lost legitimacy even among those who otherwise espouse democratic ideals: because they see the operations in Rakhine State as being in defense of a nascent democracy whose fruits are understood to be limited. But the other part—how the cleansing of a population, its young and old, can be seen as morally justifiable—requires the fusing of that anxiety over political rivalries with a belief that the Rohingya harbor an innate wickedness that must be excised.

As the dimensions of that perceived threat have mutated during Myanmar’s democratic transition, that conviction is no longer confined to the towns and villages of western Myanmar. Not since the military held total power have the disparate elements of Myanmar society seemed to sing in chorus, unbound by their different geographies. They do so now with a markedly different purpose.