It’s been a few weeks since I last posted here, a longer gap than usual. Events on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border have created a fraught context for writing on the country’s past; it has become imperative for historical work to address the bleak humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya. Returning to my research with the escalating exodus of refugees in the background has given me a renewed sensitivity to the implicit racial positions adopted in the primary sources that I have been looking at. At the same time it has prompted perennial questions about the purpose and relevance of my research at this current historical conjuncture. As a result, the present is perhaps inflecting my analysis more strongly at this current moment. Either way, this 1920 article from the Burmese nationalist newspaper Thūriya has provoked some thoughts on the defensive responses to the crisis which I have seen online that claim that the Rohingya, and not the Burmese military, pose the real threat.
The article is from the weekly gossip column of the pseudonymous “Town Mouse”, whose musings on colonial Yangon life I have discussed on this blog before. This particular piece is distinctive because, rather than overhearing the conversations of people, Town Mouse is listening in to the chatter of two cows. They are discussing their worries and sharing stories of animal hardship, and not only the difficulties faced by their own species. When one cow complains of having to drive carts, their friend gives examples of “corringee kalar” (a term for southern Indians with pejorative, if not derogatory, connotations) torturing and killing crows. Their greatest worry, however, is Thingyan, the Burmese new-year water festival. During the festival, after being tormented by Burmese children twisting their tails and singeing them with flames, they believe that they will be led to “kalar” slaughterhouses for a grizzly end.
One cow suggests that they attempt to make a break for it, with their friends the ducks, chickens, pigs and goats, with the aim of escaping to a Buddhist monastery for protection. There are many facets to Town Mouse’s piece that I could draw out—such as the gendering of the animals as female—and there are caveats about the inadequacy of my translation skills, but in the current context what struck me was the implicit position that the reader was invited to adopt. The readers, implicitly defined as Burmese Buddhists, were invited to save the animals this Thingyan from the threats facing them of ill-treatment and eventual death; the latter a threat that was ultimately embodied in the Indian. Nation, race and religion were interwoven in this exhortation to Burmese Buddhists to treat animals humanely. To be sure, Town Mouse was not calling for any anti-Indian actions and there is no hint of biological racism or grotesque racial caricaturing in the article. Nevertheless, there was a subtle invocation of the Burmese nation as Buddhist achieved, in part, through characterizing the foreigner, the “kalar”/Indian, as a threat. It is the invitation to protect the national (in this case, vicariously through protecting animals) from a racial threat that I wish to unpick.
Writing about the initial acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers who had been videotaped beating the African-American taxi driver Rodney King, the theorist Judith Butler wrote a short chapter titled “Endangered/Endangering” that sought to explain how it was that jurists watching the video could possibly “see” King as the threat. She argued that this reading of the video was made through a white worldview in which black men were already figured as aggressive and violent. Viewed through this schema, every blow that King received from a police officer was seen, not as violence against King, but as evidence of the potential violence that King’s body represented. The police officers were enacting the violence black men were thought to embody. Locating the threat in the body of the prone young man, instead of the four police officers wielding batons against his body, meant ignoring (and reinforcing) the structural power of white supremacy in the US. Butler called this unjustifiable fear “white paranoia”. For me the dynamics outlined in Butler’s chapter resonate with some of the online responses I have seen casting doubt on the evidence of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
The evidence that the Rohingya are facing ethnic cleansing is overwhelming. There have been United Nations’ reports detailing atrocities including the killing of children and the gang-rape of women (including the flash report of February 2017), there are satellite images of razed villages (several of which corroborate the investigative reports of newspapers and independent human rights organisations), and there is the brute fact of over half-a-million people fleeing the country in desperate conditions. And yet, on social media some have cast doubt on the veracity of this evidence through vague and wildly conspiratorial references to “Bengali fake news”. Several objects in need of protection often appear organically confused in these defensive responses: the nation, religion, the military, and even Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The threat to these endangered objects is not only viewed as the Rohingya/”Bengali” population but an ill-defined Islamic global network, one that is poisoning international opinion against Myanmar and undermining its sovereign right to protect itself.
This is a paranoia akin to that dissected by Butler. The Rohingya are bound up in the same transference between “endangered” and “endangering”. Granted, on a global scale Burmese national identity has nothing that even approximates to the authorial power of whiteness—and the Rakhine population as a whole have suffered considerable marginalization. Nevertheless, on a national scale, Burmese Buddhism constitutes a majoritarian identity with attendant structural power. That both Myanmar and Buddhism can be construed as in a position of vulnerability and weakness in relation to the Rohingya requires barely tenable stretches of credulity when it comes to the evidence. It is a position that to me recalls the comparatively subtle, almost innocent, invitation from Town Mouse back in 1920 to imagine oneself saving the nation (through its animals) from racial threats. I am not saying that there is a straight-line that can be drawn between these very different historical periods, but there is perhaps a genealogy to be analyzed of the ways in which the nation had been constituted through its apparent racial threats.