Burma and the Rohingya Crisis: We Can Oppose Ethnic Cleansing Without Accepting Simple Answers

Rosalie Metro finds persistent truths in the midst of (everyone’s) biased discussions of the Rohingya crisis.

It had been several years since I had seen my Burmese friends, and I knew the Rohingya crisis would come up. When it did, they looked at each other apprehensively, then one of them spoke up: “You might not like what we have to say.”

My friends are Burman Buddhists. I got to know them in the early 2000s in the context of the pro-democracy struggle, which they enthusiastically supported. In those days, Aung San Suu Kyi was considered beyond criticism by many people in the opposition movement. In the Western media, Suu Kyi was practically deified.

Her fall from grace in the eyes of the world, and the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts that speeded it along, have left many people disoriented. Foreigners like me, who have studied or lived in Burma, may find themselves suddenly at odds with Burmese friends or colleagues who interpret recent events in Rakhine State very differently.

Having had this experience before, I felt prepared. I was interested to know more about what might lead like-minded people like us to draw contrasting conclusions. So we hesitantly continued our discussion.

My friends didn’t deny that Muslims from Rakhine State were suffering; they sympathized with them. They just weren’t sure about the specifics. 400,000 refugees? 600,000? A million? All at the hands of the Burmese army? All those people fleeing for their lives? Genocide?

Ironically, some of their skepticism came from their own experiences of crossing the border into Thailand in the 1990s, accompanied by many people in grave danger, and also many escaping grinding poverty, seeking educational opportunities, or with justified uncertainty about what the future in Burma held.

It might seem obvious that a variety of causes contribute to mass movements of people. Yet my friends knew suggesting that anything other than direct threats by the Burmese military led Muslims to leave Rakhine state could be interpreted as an attempt to absolve the army or impugn the Rohingyas. In this highly politicized atmosphere, questioning the motives of those crossing the border left them open to accusations of anti-Muslim bias.

My friends didn’t express strong anti-Muslim biases. But implicit preferences for Burman Buddhists would not be surprising to uncover even in democracy-loving people like my friends. Just like white people in the US (including me), Burman Buddhists have been exposed to subtle and overt messages since birth about their superior position in the racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchy.

These implicit biases are distinct from but related to the virulently anti-Muslim Burmese-language Facebook “journalism” that has shocked many foreign observers. My friends were even more critical of those openly racist diatribes than they were of international reporting on the crisis.

Ironically, some reports in Western news outlets—however well-intentioned—may foment anti-Muslim extremism. Case in point: Aung San Suu Kyi noted in her recent speech at the ASEM Foreign Ministers Meeting that “[c]onflicts around the world are giving rise to new threats and emergencies; illegal migration, spread of terrorism and violent extremism, and even threat of nuclear war.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning Burmese journalist working for the AP, Esther Htusan, paraphrased her words as, “the world is facing instability and conflict in part because illegal immigration spreads terrorism.” The AP issued a correction, but not before many people (including me) tweeted indignantly about it. Aung San Suu Kyi blaming illegal immigration for the spread of terrorism fit perfectly into an overarching narrative that casts her as anti-Muslim, which is why I and others believed she said it.

This example illustrates a point my friends were trying to make: some journalists, whether foreign or Burmese, may be so eager to ferret out Suu Kyi’s supposed anti-Muslim biases that their own biases become apparent.

But bias doesn’t cancel out bias. The fact that the AP misreported Suu Kyi’s speech doesn’t mean she welcomes the Rohingya with open arms. In fact, the conflicting biases we have (and all of us have some) interact in unpredictable ways.

For instance, I learned about the AP’s mistake in a fact check in the Irrawaddy. This news outlet, whose coverage I’ve depended on for years, and which was formerly applauded in the West, now stands accused of spreading “anti-Rohingya propaganda.” The Irrawaddy was justified in pointing out the AP’s error, but that doesn’t mean that that its journalists were acting as disinterested observers. The fact check not only corrects a misleading story, but also scores a point against the dominant media narrative that Suu Kyi is biased against Muslims (which it seems to me she is).

Of course, I’m not a disinterested observer either. In this conflict, there are no disinterested observers. But there are unintended consequences.

For example, the AP’s mistake could lead moderate Burman Buddhists to get so frustrated with mainstream media coverage that they drift toward anti-Muslim extremism. The Irrawaddy’s fact check could provide fuel for anti-Muslim extremists who want to discredit all Western reports on the suffering of the Rohingyas. The Myanmar government’s disturbing over-reaction to this incident could endanger Esther Htusan or other journalists working for foreign news outlets. These consequences may not be intentional, but the biases of all people involved clearly affect how these situations play out.

It is still more dizzying to consider that even if both sides reported only accurate facts, bias would still be involved in selecting which facts to report. As far as I can tell, Western media reports on the Rohingya crisis are mostly correct, and I applaud the journalists and organizations that have brought the world’s attention to this humanitarian crisis. But many aspects of the situation are under-reported. These additional truths go against the story of good and evil that has become familiar in the West—and for which Western audiences seem to hunger.

For instance, it is also true that Buddhist abbot U Visudda sheltered 800 Muslims in his monastery in Meiktila in 2013, peacefully standing down a mob of his co-religionists. It is also true that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) pressured Rohingya civilians to attack a military outpost. It is also true that the soldiers killing Rohingya babies and raping Rohingya women may be children themselves. It is also true that Rakhine people—and many other ethnic and religious minorities—have faced discrimination by Burmans for decades (centuries?). It is also true that the idea that Burma has a certain number of distinct “national races” is a legacy of British colonial divide and rule policies. It is also true that ordinary Burman Buddhists have been manipulated by leaders who capitalize on their prejudices. No ethnic or religious group of people bears all of the blame for this humanitarian crisis, just as no group is uniformly innocent.

And it is also true that Westerners (like me) are once again taking that classically arrogant Western role of explaining to Burmese people what’s really going on in their country.

As I sit at my friends’ kitchen table listening to them express skepticism about the accusations of ethnic cleansing that I fully believe, all of these truths swirl around us.

But I can acknowledge these truths while also clearly stating that human rights abuses are wrong and must be stopped. Regardless of what you call the people fleeing Burma, regardless of whether they left because of violence by the Burmese army, because of threats by ARSA, or because of the inhuman situation they have been facing due to years of discrimination, they deserve the world’s help—as do all people in similar situations. Regardless of whether Western media reports about these phenomena contain biases or exaggerations, the people who have faced abuse need assistance.

We all have biases. The fact that people have biases doesn’t mean that what they are saying is untrue. We all do and say things that have unintended consequences. Let’s investigate them rather than denying them. And let’s not allow any of that to delay us from helping people in dire need.

Like the friends I mentioned earlier, I am apprehensive that you, reader, won’t like what I’ve said here. This issue is so sensitive that making any substantive comment on it leaves me open to criticism—criticism that I welcome and am determined to learn from. Let me be the first to say that there are limits to what an American, based in the US, with an imperfect grasp of Burmese language, who has never been to Rakhine state or Bangladesh, can understand about this conflict. Over years of doing research on Burma, I have gotten used to looking back on my first impressions, even my second and fifth impressions, as hopelessly simplistic. I’m sure this issue is no different. But that doesn’t mean trying to understand each other’s perspectives is useless. I believe it’s the only thing that can lead to wise action.

Rosalie Metro is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has been conducting research on Burma since 2001. Her first novel, Have Fun in Burma, which follows a young American woman’s attempt to intervene in the Rohingya crisis, will be published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2018.