On Monday, November 20th, 2017, LMSAI, Asia Center, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study are co-hosting a panel discussion on the Rohingya crisis. Since late August more than half a million Rohingya Muslims have left their homes in western Myanmar, in what the UN describes as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
The panel for “Mass Violence in a Changing Myanmar” include journalist Francis Wade, activist Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, refugee Mohammad Mustak Arif and moderator Kate Cronin-Furman, who have all undertaken extensive research on the ground in western Myanmar.
Francis Wade spoke to LMSAI about his motivation for organizing a panel discussion and the reception of his recently published book “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence And the Making Of A Muslim ‘Other.’”
Why did you decide to discuss the Rohingya crisis in a panel?
Although it’s only recently that this issue has come to public attention, there is a sizeable community of scholars and activists, both inside and outside of Myanmar, who have been watching developments in the country for a long time now and who can offer valuable insight into the crisis from various angles. I and the organisers were particularly keen to have both Rohingya and Rakhine come together and speak on this issue, and we’re very lucky to have been given the rare opportunity to do so, particularly given how stigmatised and, frankly, dangerous it is for people from either side of the communal divide to interact right now.
You have been on a book tour, giving seminars and panel discussions regarding your book. What have been the most compelling questions that you have been asked?
The hardest question always revolves around where we go from here. The situation is Myanmar is incredibly complex and multi-layered, and the growing resentment coming from inside Myanmar towards the international community regarding this crisis makes engagement increasingly difficult. My belief is that acquiring a nuanced understanding of how these deep prejudices have developed, and what the various motivations behind the military’s campaign of violence against Rohingya are, is the first step towards finding a path forwards. There seems to be a broad understanding among the crowds I’ve spoken to that the more material responses being tabled by governments—sanctions, economic development, and so on—will do very little to tackle these deeper processes, although I’m not sure to what degree that’s registering in policy circles. So my response to this question invariably begins with the need to better understand the many layers of the crisis. But after that, so much of the work needs to be done from within the country, not outside. The leverage that foreign governments have is very limited.
What are common misperceptions about the Rohingya crisis abroad and within Burma?
There seems to be a popular belief that this is primarily a religious conflict, I think particularly as a result of the role of monks in goading violence against Rohingya. But that misses the fact that there’s also a volatile ethnic cleavage at play here, as well as political motivations. Nationalist politicians see incentives in driving violence such as this, given how it often causes ethnic constituencies to rally around representative leaders, and which can then theoretically translate into support for ethnic-based parties. What’s also been realised too late I think is that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party—and what we used to call the pro-democracy movement—share many of the same prejudicial convictions that we thought to be largely the domain of the military or other conservative forces. This is the one issue that seems to unite people across other conflicting lines of interest.
What does Myanmar teach us about experiments in democratization?
Firstly that democratisation is often an incredibly fragile process, where different visions of what a democracy should look like, and which democratic gains will go to who, are contested, and violently so. Moreover, in Myanmar’s case, it’s been a moment of realisation that the so-called pro-democracy movement that was breathlessly supported by western nations during military rule contains influential elements that have a deeply illiberal, conservative agenda, particularly when it comes to ideas of equality among communities that many had I think presumed to be an obvious component of its vision for a democratic society.
How has your book been received in Myanmar as compared to Western countries?
It’s tough to say because I’ve had a hard time finding outlets that will sell it inside the country, given the subject matter, but I’m working on it. I hope it will be read. A book allows for room to explore the nuances of this crisis in a way that journalism often doesn’t, and I’ve purposefully featured a lot of voices of a key constituency that isn’t getting much air time in the general coverage, which is the perpetrators or supporters of violence against Muslims. Understanding their motivations, without excusing them, is key to understanding the crisis.
The panel discussion will take place Monday, November 20th, 2017 at 5pm in Tsai Auditorium.