‘Groupism’ and sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence

The Myanmar Times - - News - CAR­LOS SARDIÑA GALACHE news­room@mm­times.com

IN the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Oc­to­ber 9 at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces in north­ern Rakhine State’s Maung­daw town­ship, ru­mours, ac­cu­sa­tions and out­right pro­pa­ganda quickly crowded out what lit­tle was ac­tu­ally known about the sit­u­a­tion.

Of­fi­cials and politi­cians wasted no time in as­crib­ing the at­tacks to the Ro­hingya Sol­i­dar­ity Or­gan­i­sa­tion (RSO), a group widely be­lieved to be de­funct, de­spite a com­plete lack of ev­i­dence. And many jour­nal­ists blindly re­peated their claims, prop­a­gat­ing the agen­das of in­ter­ested par­ties in a highly po­larised con­flict.

Oth­ers, in­clud­ing the dan­ger­ously in­flu­en­tial monk U Wi­rathu, added fur­ther fuel to the fire, us­ing Face­book to warn of a “third Ji­had”, in a post that was shared more than 6000 times.

While in some cases the agenda was clear, in oth­ers – es­pe­cially in the case of jour­nal­ists who read­ily ac­cepted claims with­out check­ing their ac­cu­racy – you have to won­der if the rea­son was that the un­ver­i­fied ac­cu­sa­tions sat com­fort­ably with their own prej­u­dices, in a coun­try where the Ro­hingya com­mu­nity has been vil­i­fied for decades.

Gen­er­ally char­ac­terised as in­ter­lop­ers from Bangladesh and of­ten as ter­ror­ists, the Ro­hingya are rou­tinely de­monised in Burma. Whether they are ac­cused of us­ing ac­tual weapons or the “de­mo­graphic bomb” of their sup­pos­edly ram­pant re­pro­duc­tion, they are seen by many as a threat to the very ex­is­tence of the Rakhine, or eth­nic Arakanese com­mu­nity, or even the en­tire Burmese na­tion.

But Rakhine and Burmese na­tion­al­ists aren’t the only ones who have has­tened to fill the in­for­ma­tion vac­uum with du­bi­ous claims. On the Ro­hingya side, some have blamed the at­tacks on the Arakan Army, an eth­nic armed group, with­out pro­vid­ing any ev­i­dence to sup­port this as­ser­tion. And in the in­ter­na­tional press, re­ports of ul­tra­vi­o­lent in­cur­sions into vil­lages in Maung­daw by the Tat­madaw have been greeted with some scep­ti­cism.

The point here is not to “cor­rect” any of th­ese claims, but to warn against giv­ing them un­due cre­dence. Given the lack of in­for­ma­tion – and the gen­eral lack of trans­parency that still pre­vails in Myan­mar – we need to be very care­ful about jump­ing to con­clu­sions, es­pe­cially ones that fit with our prej­u­dices, which can never be mea­sures of truth.

For many in Myan­mar, the Ro­hingya can never be seen as vic­tims: They are al­ways the un­wel­come out­siders who im­pose their pres­ence on oth­ers, part of a Mus­lim “in­va­sion” of Rakhine and Myan­mar that must be re­sisted. For many oth­ers, how­ever, the Ro­hingya can never be any­thing but vic­tims, sub­ject to sys­tem­atic op­pres­sion by both Rakhine na­tion­al­ists and Myan­mar since the Ne Win era. Most peo­ple’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the cur­rent events will be coloured by one of th­ese two nar­ra­tives.

But what both views fail to recog­nise is that, in the sit­u­a­tion of ab­so­lute hope­less­ness in which the Ro­hingya have been grad­u­ally pushed to live, it would be only nat­u­ral that some peo­ple would re­sort at some point to vi­o­lence, re­gard­less of what cooler heads in the com­mu­nity tell them and how coun­ter­pro­duc­tive that vi­o­lence is con­demned to be.

How­ever di­ver­gent the ac­counts of what is hap­pen­ing in Maung­daw may be, the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion that they share is that eth­nic groups and com­mu­ni­ties are “solid en­ti­ties” that act and be­have as one sin­gle ac­tor. This is what the scholar Rogers Brubaker termed “groupism” – “the ten­dency to take dis­crete, sharply dif­fer­en­ti­ated, in­ter­nally ho­mo­ge­neous and ex­ter­nally bounded groups as ba­sic con­stituents of so­cial life, chief pro­tag­o­nists of so­cial con­flicts, and fun­da­men­tal units of so­cial anal­y­sis.”

It goes with­out say­ing that no eth­nic group is a “uni­tary col­lec­tive ac­tor”: While vir­tu­ally all Rakhine are sub­jected to vary­ing de­grees of pres­sure to shun the Ro­hingya, their re­ac­tions may vary enor­mously. Some may feel gen­uine loathing, but oth­ers may be merely in­dif­fer­ent or even, in rare cases, sym­pa­thetic. Like­wise, even though all Ro­hingya liv­ing in Rakhine State suf­fer un­der sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion, their re­ac­tions to this sit­u­a­tion are bound to be as var­ied as their per­sonal sto­ries. Not all mem­bers of an eth­nic group will re­act in the same way to the sit­u­a­tion in which such group finds it­self.

This reifi­ca­tion of eth­nic groups is one of the most per­va­sive fea­tures of so­cial life in Myan­mar, as in so many other coun­tries af­flicted by ex­treme eth­nic ten­sions and con­flicts, like Rwanda, the for­mer Yu­goslavia, In­dia or Sri Lanka. Both in­ter­nal ac­tors and ex­ter­nal ob­servers of­ten see it as the re­sult of an­cient griev­ances, even though many of th­ese con­flicts are sur­pris­ingly mod­ern. A long his­tory of griev­ances is of­ten in­voked by po­lit­i­cal ac­tors to keep such con­flicts alive, but as Suzanne and Lloyd Ru­dolph have pointed out, “Friend­ships are as ‘an­cient’ as ha­treds.” This is also the case in Rakhine State, where, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Michael Char­ney, Bud­dhist and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties have a long his­tory of mostly peace­ful and har­mo­nious co­ex­is­tence be­fore colo­nial times.

More­over, eth­nic groups them­selves as we know them now are of­ten quite new. In the case of Rakhine State, the emer­gence of Rakhine and Ro­hingya eth­nic iden­ti­ties as closed, dis­crete and an­tag­o­nis­tic groups is far more re­cent than is com­monly im­plied. This is ar­guably the re­sult of his­tor­i­cal pro­cesses and po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions, closely re­lated with the im­pact of the colo­nial pe­riod in Burma and the im­po­si­tion of bound­aries be­tween mod­ern na­tion-states. But the cur­rent reifi­ca­tion of eth­nic groups al­ways en­tails a pro­jec­tion into the past: The eth­nic group as it is now has al­ways been like this.

In sum, eth­nic reifi­ca­tion “is a so­cial process”, in the words of Brubaker, and “group­ness is some­thing that hap­pens”. But why, in the mid­dle of an acute cri­sis in Rakhine State of un­fore­see­able con­se­quences, is it im­por­tant to re­flect on th­ese seem­ingly aca­demic points?

By not see­ing eth­nic groups like the Ro­hingya or the Rakhine as uni­tary col­lec­tive ac­tors, we are bet­ter able to avoid the trap of at­tribut­ing col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity – which, as so of­ten hap­pens in Rakhine State, tends to re­sult in col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment. If I be­lieve that the group I be­long to is threat­ened by an­other group, any ac­tion to pre­vent that will be jus­ti­fied, in­clud­ing cruel crimes against its weak­est mem­bers.

We saw this in 2012, when 10 Mus­lims were killed in Taung­gok in re­tal­i­a­tion for the rape and mur­der of a Bud­dhist girl killed in an­other town. This led to a se­ries of ter­ri­ble waves of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence pit­ting com­mu­nity against com­mu­nity, in which Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in Rakhine State, both Ro­hingya and Ka­man, were ul­ti­mately pun­ished col­lec­tively.

In Rakhine State, col­lec­tive char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the other com­mu­nity of­ten goes both ways. For in­stance, many in the IDP camps for Mus­lims around Sit­twe be­lieve that Ro­hingyas are rou­tinely killed by doc­tors and nurses at Sit­twe Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal. The story has even reached the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, but the ev­i­dence for it is thin, at best. Last Novem­ber, a woman from one camp told me that all of the dozen or so pa­tients she had ac­com­pa­nied to the hos­pi­tal re­turned safely. Nev­er­the­less, the ru­mour per­sists, in large part be­cause many Ro­hingya, af­ter suf­fer­ing for years from the ef­fects of eth­nic ha­tred and a pol­icy of apartheid, be­lieve that Rakhine doc­tors and nurses, like all other Rakhines, hate them and want to see them dead.

At work in all th­ese cases is a very sim­i­lar con­cep­tion of mem­bers of the other group as part of a sin­gle en­tity with a com­mon pur­pose: the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the group to which one be­longs. With most fingers now point­ing to mem­bers of the Ro­hingya com­mu­nity as the most likely cul­prits in the Oc­to­ber 9 at­tacks, the ugly spec­tre of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment against the whole com­mu­nity is more present than ever.

For the Rakhine and Ro­hingya peo­ple who are in the thick of the con­flict, it may be very dif­fi­cult to think in terms other than those which de­ter­mine a great part of lives. But jour­nal­ists and other ex­ter­nal ob­servers can have no ex­cuse for un­crit­i­cally re­peat­ing nar­ra­tives that have con­trib­uted to bring­ing un­told dev­as­ta­tion to both com­mu­ni­ties for decades. – A ver­sion of this ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in DVB Car­los Sardiña Galache is a Span­ish free­lance jour­nal­ist in South­east Asia.

Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw

Peo­ple walk through down­town Buthi­daung in Rakhine State.

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