Discussion on Rohingya crisis offers insight into political state of Myanmar

On Monday, Oct. 23, assistant professor from the Department of Creative Writing Charmaine Craig, associate professor from the Department of Gender & Sexuality Studies Tamara Ho, and assistant professor from the Department of Ethnic Studies Emily Hue, participated in a public panel discussion from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the CHASS Interdisciplinary Building 1109. The panel discussed the persecution of the Rohingya people from the country of Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma.

Craig began the discussion by explaining how the “ethnic majority nationalism in Burma” has created a tense division of the different ethnic minority groups. In the early 1920 Rangoon, Burma colonial era, Indian dock workers were murdered by ethnic Burman laborers. The main reason behind the massacre, explained Craig, was due to their belief that “the Indians had no place in Burma, they’ve been imported to Burma during the colonial era by the British, and so they wanted them out.” This event ignited a racial conflict and led to the formation of a new nationalistic group called the We Burmans Association.

Aung San rose to prominence in the 1930s by becoming leader of the We Burman Association and creating a political movement, Burma for the Burmans, to keep the country exclusive from the British as well as the minority groups who had settled there due to British colonialism. This group created a military, trained and based in Japan, known as the Burman Independence Army (BIA), and fought alongside the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

The army, according to Craig, “practiced genocidal tactics, though not necessarily under Aung Sung’s purview, targeting minority groups in particular — the Karens, the Chinese — in horrific ways. For example, 400 Karen villages were completely wiped out in the span of four weeks, burned all of the inhabitants, killed and pushed into mass graves.” In addition, there was speculation of the existence of a top-secret program in 1948 called Burmanization that had an aggressive campaign for assimilation, more specifically, blood assimilation. This campaign urged Burman men in the military to impregnate Shan women in order to slowly dilute their ethnicity in their progeny. The authenticity of this program is unknown but it highlights an example of how the Burmans urged for assimilation in their country in regards to race.

Since the emergence of the BIA, there have been waves of genocides and ethnic cleansing in Burma that still continue today, and with Aung San Suu Kyi as the new leader (after her father had been assassinated in 1947), it calls for attention of other political leaders and humanitarian groups on the resettlement of the Myanmar refugees and what Suu Kyi’s political stance of the ethnic minority disenfranchisement would be, given her well-known history for the fight of the Burman democracy has been for the past two decades of political turmoil.

Hue followed up the discussion by offering a few talking points to consider on the crisis in Burma. “We should think about the historical context of what’s going on and we should also consider about the meanings of race, ethnicity, nationalism and how they’re written onto this particular group,” stated Hue. “We should also consider how this may get amplified or aggravated when we think about the resettlement (of the Burman refugees) on other groups.”

The panel concluded the individual presentations with Tamara Ho providing additional details about Myanmar. She explains that a lot of the current crisis is occurring in the Rakhine state, west of Burma, adjacent to Bangladesh and India.

The Rohingya, along with 135 other distinct ethnic groups in Burma, have been fighting for autonomy, pushing for their own language, cultural practices, religion and politics to be practiced. However, Ho explains that assimilation is the main goal of the Rohingya Salvation Army, and anyone who steps out of bounds is bound to repercussions. The RSA has been attacked by Western government for being small and unorganized, but Burman media shares they may have covert ties with al-Qaeda and other secret organizations that may make them more alarming than they may seem. In spite of Suu Kyi’s silence on the genocides, Ho shares that many Burmans have great support for her fight for Burman independence and regard her as a hero for democracy.  

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