In My Words: The democratic struggle in Myanmar must recognize the rights of the Rohingya

An opinion column co-authored by Professor of Sociology Tom Arcaro and Azizul Hoque, a research associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice at Brac University in Bangladesh, has been published by Bangladeshi media outlets including the Daily Star of Dhaka.

By Tom Arcaro and Azizul Hoque

On Aug. 25, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and those in different parts of the world observed Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day for the fourth year.

Professor of Sociology Tom Arcaro
Professor of Sociology Tom Arcaro

In late August 2017, Myanmar’s military forces, together with extremist anti-Rohingya civilians, committed a deliberate deadly crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which drove away nearly 900,000 people. Thousands were tortured, hundreds murdered, houses were burned, and women and girls were raped. Understanding how this genocide happened is crucial, and addressing the underlying issues which gave way to this horrible event is equally important.

After the Holocaust in Europe, the cry was, “Never again.” Yet genocides continue in modern society. Myanmar is the obvious example, but so are Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Cambodia. The list goes on and the genocides continue.

On the Rohingya issue, we want to make a strong and explicit call to all those who are fighting for democracy in Myanmar right now, and all of those who have given their lives or are now putting their lives on the line to fight the military leaders still controlling the nation. The message is very simple: none of us is free unless all of us are free. The sentiment comes originally from poet Emma Lazarus, but the restatement by Martin Luther King Jr., who argued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is equally on point.

In our view, the only successful outcome of the democracy struggle in Myanmar right now is for the leaders of this struggle to recognize the fact that all in Myanmar must be given full citizenship rights by any newly formed government. That means every ethnic and religious group, including the Rohingya, must be afforded full rights as citizens and, in the case of the Rohingya, the right to safe and dignified repatriation of all refugees back to their original homes, and with appropriate reparations allowing them to rebuild the life they had before the genocide, must be mandatory.

What does it mean to have justice for all? It means that all marginalized groups must be recognized and treated with dignity. Beyond the religious and ethnic groups, which must be granted full rights, those from other marginalized minorities must also be included.

“Othering” is a phenomenon whereby one group sees another group as being somehow different. When these differences are accepted, and there is no sense of enmity between the groups, we arrive at “normal othering.” “Toxic othering,” however, is when there is an unequal power distribution between two groups, and the one with more power asserts its dominance on and begins to treat the other group in an inferior or unequal way. Through this, it is possible to identify the various instances of toxic othering that take place not only in Myanmar, but all around the world.

The image of the Hydra is often used to illustrate all of the various forces of privilege that create marginalization and are the products of toxic othering. These privileging forces include sexism, racism, paternalism, hetero/cis normativity, classism, ableism, ageism and even anthropocentrism.

It is beyond the scope of this short article to unpack each of these marginalizing forces, but we maintain that the fuel for all of these marginalizing forces is the phenomena of toxic othering — when one group sees themselves as superior to another and uses that superiority to marginalize the other group, even to the point of committing genocide. The journey from toxic othering to genocide is not inevitable, but it has happened all too frequently.

The discrimination and hostility that the Rohingya face in Myanmar can be traced, beyond the country’s notoriously brutal military, to the general population that is receptive to an often-virulent form of Buddhist nationalism. These nationalists see the Rohingya as a threat to national sovereignty and the future of Myanmar as a Buddhist-majority nation. Political analysts think that events outside Myanmar also lent credibility to dire warnings of a Muslim takeover and the consequent tide of Islamophobia in the West. Abuse of social media (notably Facebook) helped accelerate the spread of hostile narratives, hate speech and prejudice. Either the military or cunning nationalist politicians, both past and present, involved Buddhist monks to manipulate the public sentiment. The alleged threat posed to the persistence of Buddhism as the religion of the majority of the population began to seem real. A hostile group from Rakhine often promotes the supremacy of Buddhism, and can be Islamophobic, ethnocentric and chauvinistic in its preaching.

By examining the words from Martin Luther King, Jr, we have to take seriously the injustice done to people who are marginalized by each of these privileging forces, keeping in mind that there is a very aggressive intersectionality (i.e. overlapping) among most of these privileging forces. Given the image of the Hydra, it is impossible to tame one head without addressing the necessity of taming all of the heads. That is, to address and tackle the fundamental phenomena of toxic othering.

The premise of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that all humans are deserving of dignity. It begins, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

What we are trying to establish is no different. Understanding and taming the Hydra means working towards achieving dignity for all humans — regardless of the various marginalizing social statuses which have been created through history to represent different groups of people.

The leaders of the resistance movement in Myanmar show promising signs of recognizing what we have pointed out above. Myanmar is in a position to make world history by demonstrating an understanding that a new order in any society must address toxic othering norms, policies, and laws from the past. The bringing about of any social change is neither quick nor easy. But times of transition like this are opportunities that leaders can embrace to accelerate positive social change towards a world where justice prevails and lives of dignity are secured for all humans.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon and Azizul Hoque is a research associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice at Brac University in Bangladesh. Views expressed in this column are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of Elon University.