In two months, over 600,000 Rohingya have poured out of Myanmar, many bearing bullet wounds and marks of sexual violence. They are fleeing Myanmar’s brutal military response to insurgent attacks in late August.
The country has seemingly united behind the military. Brazen displays of ethno-nationalism have been met with shock by outsiders, as they clash with the narrative of Myanmar as a democratic success after half a century of direct military rule.
Journalist Francis Wade helps explain how such deadly paroxysms of rage erupted in a new book published a few days before the attacks. Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of the Muslim “Other”describes an earlier episode in the long-simmering conflict – communal riots in 2012 pitting Buddhist Rakhine against their Muslim Rohingya neighbors.
Wade argues that a toxic combination of ethnic antagonisms rooted in colonial rule, the military’s xenophobic nation-building agenda and a powerful, radical Buddhist lobby have produced a deeply fissured society, one that allowed for the dehumanization of the Rohingya.
Rather than a casualty of these conspiring forces, democracy has helped precipitate the crisis, Wade argues, exacerbating anxieties about who does and does not belong in Myanmar’s changing political order.
Refugees Deeply: How did Myanmar’s small Muslim population – only about 4 percent of the country – come to be seen as enemy number one?
Francis Wade: I think it’s important to draw a distinction between Myanmar’s Muslims more broadly and Rohingya Muslims. There are two central cleavages in the conflicts in Myanmar: one being ethnicity and the other being religion. It seems that the Rohingya are a group that is maligned both ethnically and religiously.
You have these concentric circles of belonging in Myanmar and in the center, you have the Bamar Buddhist core … the sense of belonging gets weaker and more perilous as you get further out. Some minority ethnicities have been assimilated more than others, while non-assimilated minorities that also happen to be non-Buddhist are farther away. Then you have groups like the Rohingya who are totally rejected beyond the farthest fringe.
Refugees Deeply: Your book starts with the communal conflict in Rakhine in 2012. How would you compare that to the current crisis?
Wade: This [latest violence] is predominantly a military campaign, whereas 2012 and 2013 were more communal, at least in their expression. The degree to which the military encouraged and facilitated that violence is still up for debate. There was certainly a degree of organization, but how high it went up is difficult to say.
The worrying thing about this current crisis is that it’s state-backed and it’s utterly indiscriminate, utterly brutal. It indicates the weight of the antagonism and loathing that the state in Myanmar has for this quite vulnerable population.
Refugees Deeply: What is Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in this crisis?
Wade: It’s difficult to say what game she’s really playing. There are people who say that she shares the prejudice toward the Rohingya [but] she’s never really been drawn on the issue. Apart from the odd unsavory comment, she’s quite careful about how she approaches it.
She definitely doesn’t want to antagonize the military by criticizing it. She’s also sort of beholden to this Buddhist nationalist lobby that would see any defense of the Rohingya as tantamount to support for them which, in a way, could be political suicide for her. There’s no one in a position of power in the country who’s willing to speak up even meekly in defense of the Rohingya.
Refugees Deeply: The military has called its current crackdown a counter-terrorism effort. Do the decades of institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya undermine that claim?
Wade: When you deny citizenship to a community, deny them political rights, limit their access to healthcare, limit their access to education, restrict their freedom of movement, etc. you clearly don’t want those people there.
It strikes me that the attacks in October 2016 and August 2017 provided justification for finally converting this structural violence into something more raw that is intended to drive them out of the country.
Refugees Deeply: Why do you think the idea that Rohingya do not belong took such firm root in Myanmar?
Wade: I think much of it has to do with the regime’s nation-building efforts and the maneuvering of Rakhine politicians and political figureheads going back to the 1960s and 70s. They were always adamant that this group doesn’t belong, though it didn’t always result in violence and segregation. The two communities interacted for a long time up until [communal violence in] 2012.
I think it also partly comes down to the anxieties about how democratization would affect the cohesion and stability of society. [Nationalist groups] Ma Ba Tha and 969 were very good at articulating the fear that democratization will bring in new ideas that challenge the old order, threaten upheaval and threaten to change social norms.
It’s the one thing that seems to have united what were once very disparate, antagonistic elements of the society and the state. There appears to be an element of racism in it because [the Rohingya] have facial features that are more aligned with subcontinental groups, and there’s long been a fear that Myanmar will be overwhelmed by cultures from the subcontinent. Add this to that the fact that they’re from a religious minority, and the fact that they’re an ethnic minority; it’s kind of a perfect storm.
Refugees Deeply: It’s also a perfect storm timing-wise, with the democratic transition involving the determination of who does and doesn’t belong in Myanmar’s future democracy.
Wade: Exactly. We’re seeing this process play out in its most insidious form now. To pursue the perfect nation or the ideal national community, you have to rid it of any obstacles or contaminants. That’s where the cleansing word seems to have particular merit. You get rid of the unwanted and, in doing so, you clean up society.
Refugees Deeply: Who do you think Myanmar’s democracy is being carved out for?
Wade: It’s for those who most closely align with the state project that keeps Bamar Buddhists at the center of society and it emanates out from there … The project that the state has pursued since independence is to build a sense of unity under one flag and those who don’t subscribe are either pushed to the edges, weakened, or faced forced assimilation. The military and other nationalist forces still peddle this myth of a contiguous community of people, the myth that underpins nationalism, but obviously this doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.
Refugees Deeply: You end your book in Buthidaung, a town in northern Rakhine, with a glimpse of intercommunal cohesion: Rohingya and Rakhine watching football together. Do you see that as something that could be possible again?
Wade: I haven’t been back to Buthidaung for some time, but my understanding is that the town center is still intact to a certain degree and not all Rohingya have been pushed out from the town itself [in contrast to the bigger township]. That speaks to the idea that when you have these communities that constantly interact, including after an episode of violence has occurred, then it makes the project of segregation that much more difficult to achieve. Once you start separating groups that are divided along lines of religion or ethnicity, then it makes it so much harder to bring people back together.
What’s happened over the past two months however is not just separation – half the [Rohingya] population has been pushed out of the country altogether. The resentment that that’s going to fuel within the Rohingya community is quite frightening.
Refugees Deeply: Where do we go from here?
Wade: My sense is that the government will make it very difficult for Rohingya to re-enter to the country. While numbers may be allowed back, the government will use these as “proof” that theirs wasn’t a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
One positive outcome that can be taken from this – if it can be called positive – is that the world has woken up to the fact that just having [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] National League for Democracy (NLD) take power is by no means going to fix the problem. It brings much greater scrutiny to the nuances between different communities that were obscured for so long. Popular prejudices have infected the pro-democracy movement just as much as conservatives within the country. And we’re now waking up to the fact that Suu Kyi isn’t the cure-all, and democracy isn’t the elixir that remedies all the ills of society.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.