Elliott Prasse-Freeman argues that a new book sacrifices analytical rigor for antipolitical “objectivity.”
For those who can get past the title of Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides’ Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict (Hurst 2018), there is a deluge of apparently useful data in store. Indeed, the sheer breadth of factual aggregation and the efficient presentation of that information produces a substantive repository, thereby seeming to provide a significant service to those trying to make sense of the discourse on the Rohingya crisis. However, in its adherence to a mendacious ‘objectivity’ that attempts to give equal time to different elite proponents of particular narratives – all while thinking it is conducting analysis – the book fashions a muddled voice devoid of politics and critically, analytical precision.
Just the Facts
The book is divided into an introductory part that seeks to dispel myths about the recent conflict and its origins, a middle section describing the putative Rohingya and Rakhine/Burman ‘narratives’ of grievance, and a final section where it applies and assesses various conflict studies theories. In so doing, it draws upon a significant amount of Burma studies scholarship (from history of Arakan to current anthropology of ethnic conflict), grey literature (NGO reports), and comparative sociology of conflict, all supplemented (we are told) by interviews with Rakhine and Rohingya.
As such, the book aggregates numerous sources not before compiled and discussed together, allowing the authors to introduce a number of underappreciated dynamics. For instance, they discuss in some depth the Burmese state’s exclusionary taing-yin-tha (or ‘indigenous races’) ideology, thereby highlighting how both Rohingya and Rakhine are maneuvering within a broader system that marginalizes them to differing degrees. Relatedly, the authors also illuminate the potency of land, and control of it, as a motivating imaginary in the minds of partisans on all sides.
And yet, often these forays into complexity lead to analytical dead ends – complex dynamics are introduced but then abandoned, glaring contradictions or paradoxes barely acknowledged before being left behind as the book rambles on. Take the issue of the attacks on 30 police outposts that sparked the 2017 ethnic cleansing. The authors write that “the security forces had a legitimate and very serious responsibility to act to maintain law and order. They may have acted disproportionately, but they did need to act” (11). Yet the authors later acknowledge that “given the decades of state-sanctioned discrimination and disenfranchisement… the state” is not “a neutral actor” (40). So on one hand, the authors recognize the enduring context of state oppression and abuse, while on the other, they ignore it. Why not say that the security forces have a ‘legitimate and very serious responsibility to act to resolve the decades of state-orchestrated discrimination and disenfranchisement’?
Or take the aforementioned issue of land, about which the authors write:
The significance of [the] attempt by some Rohingya to carve territory out of Burma, into East Pakistan, cannot be overstated. It has to this day been etched into the minds of Rakhine and Burman nationalists – who deeply fear the central aim of the Rohingya movement today is to have them cede territory to Muslim control. They often cite this as proof that the Rohingya are not a Myanmar taing-yin-tha. No taing-yin-tha would do this. (101)
If this means that Myanmar’s indigenous races would never carve territory out of Burma, this is untrue – most ethnic groups have at one point sought their own states. If this is meant to highlight joining another country, or getting protection from other country in attempts to secede from Burma, then other ethnic groups such as the Karen (vis-à-vis the British) should be considered. If this means to focus on the cession of land specifically to “Muslim” countries, then this needs to be clarified – why is this particularly disqualifying?
Facts out of Fractions
Beyond the ambiguity and absent analysis surrounding such statements, a larger problem emerges: both examples demonstrate how the authors blithely construct facts out of fractions – “some Rohingya” are a synecdoche of all Rohingya; certain things have been “etched into the minds” of presumably all Rakhine nationalists. This slippage (of perceived part to unknown whole) ultimately derives from the authors’ incapacity or refusal to move beyond the dominant narratives told by various elites who are party to the discursive conflict. When the authors write that they seek to “present the perspective of each side in sufficient detail to understand and explore the ways they predominantly present things” (32), they presuppose that there are common narratives that each group coheres around. Each ‘group’ hence gets ‘their’ say, installing each narrative as what all in their represented group ‘believe,’ ‘think’, or ‘feel.’
Take the supposed “Rohingya narrative” (my scare quotes): the authors present a number of texts written in English by Rohingya elites, many of whom live in the diaspora. These are taken as evidence, implausibly, of what all Rohingya people think. While it is possible that those representations diffused throughout Rohingya communities, cohering into common shared narratives, we learn nothing about any such modes of transmission – are such texts at all relevant for people who do not read them, either because they are not literate in those languages, because those texts do not circulate, or even because they are opposed by people on the ground? Such inquiries are elided in this account.
Instead, ‘the Rohingya narrative’ is merely asserted, installed for contestation by ‘Rakhine’ academics or politicians, who deny it and indeed the Rohingya themselves. And because the Rakhine not only reject these narratives, but the ethnonym Rohingya itself, the authors put Rohingya in the infamous scare quotes of the book’s title. Because this, we are told, is what all Rakhine think.
The ironies abound. The exact things that should be put in scare quotes – “Rohingya narrative” and “Rakhine narrative” – to indicate that their potential distance from their ostensible referents, are casually accepted as representative. Yet, in my fieldwork with Rohingya refugee communities in Cox’s Bazar, with stateless Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and with Rohingya in Yangon, I have found a broad range of actors – from local leaders speaking Burmese and English to illiterate farmers speaking Rohingya – who reject many diasporic Rohingya narratives that claim to speak for them. So when Ware and Laoutides assert that diaspora Rohingya mobilization “has raised the hopes of Muslims in Rakhine of international support for their cause” (215), the absence of a single example of such hopes voiced by Rohingya in Rakhine is even more striking.
And yet, even as the Rohingya narrative goes unmarked, Rohingya itself – a sign that should not alone be circumscribed by the scare quotes of delegitimization – is. Meaning that, while the Rohingya have an exonym for Rakhine (Magh), and like all ethnicities the referent ‘Rakhine’ is floating and evolving in terms of its meanings (as suggested by scholar Kyaw Min Htin), the authors do not mark Rakhine in that way. Take, for instance, the statement, “It is widely agreed that the Arakanese [Rakhine] began migrating into Arakan around the ninth century, and gained control of the region in about the eleventh” (112). The problem here is that the people who migrated were not Arakanese at that moment – if they have to be labelled, we might call them Mranma, the shared ancestor of Bama and Rakhine. It makes no historical sense to stove-pipe into the eternal past the current contours of ethnic group identities. The upshot is that while the authors insist on deconstructing the Rohingya ethnicity and ethnonym, they take the Rakhine as pre-formed, existing always-already.
Why? Part of this is the unreflective acceptance of what is supposedly ‘widely agreed’ upon. The other issue is more insidious. Here the authors, in a perverse attempt at ‘objectivity,’ bow to bigotry, employing the risible rationale that capitulating to one ethnic group’s rejection of another’s ethnonym is the grounds for a productive dialogue between them. Call this the soft bigotry of low expectations about bigots.
The definitive irony here is that there are reasonable ways to question both the Rohingya and Rakhine ethnonyms – to deconstruct their terms, the politics around them, how they have evolved and for what reasons, who feels interpellated by them and when they might reject the labels – but because the authors do not mine the depths of daily experiences of actual members of these groups, we cannot perceive such ambiguities, caesuras, and ambivalences.
Hence, the useful observations in the book – including how repressive policies that have prevented Rohingya communities from accessing family planning services have produced the same ‘demographic security dilemma’ so feared by state elites (147); that it is impressive that the Rohingya have remained mostly non-violent especially when violent mobilization has been so successful in earning groups “a seat at the table” (152) – are crowded out by this fundamental mis-orientation.
Indeed, perhaps most striking about this book, putatively about the Rakhine and the Rohingya, is how little we learn about the actual people, how few of their voices are included. Hence, while the authors suggest that the “communities need to re-learn how to live together, side by side, peacefully” (12), their book only serves to fortify the fault lines dividing them.
For more of Elliot’s recent work on this subject, see here for an upcoming book chapter with co-author, Kirt Mausert. (forthcoming, Kyoto University Press)
Elliott Prasse-Freeman is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology / Sociology at National University of Singapore. He has conducted long-term fieldwork on contentious politics and social movements in Myanmar and is currently working on a new project focusing on Rohingya political identity amidst mass violence and dispossession.