Freelance journalist Francis Wade is a Southeast Asian specialist, who has been lauded by the BBC’s Fergal Keane for his ‘moral courage and intellectual insight’ in relation to his first book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. Who better to chair this session on the Myanmar Tragedy than another journalist with a background in foreign affairs? Hannah Brown begins with the question on many people’s minds – how could Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate, allow ethnic cleansing to happen on her watch now that she is finally in power?
Francis frames this issue as one of perception and projection. We knew her as an icon of democracy, who sacrificed fifteen years of her life to this struggle, but she had never been tested in the field as a leader. Additionally, many of her constituents have strong Buddhist nationalist tendencies. This collective bafflement felt in response to her lack of action is a ‘problem that is as much of our making as it is hers’.
This lack of action, we learn from Hannah, extends to Aung San Suu Kyi not even publicly using the word ‘Rohingya’. So why is the term so loaded? As Francis explains, contested identities are a major part of the furore – using this term would be akin to recognising their indigenous identity (they have a recorded presence in Western Myanmar since the ninth century). A pervasive and nefarious narrative has spread throughout Myanmar: the Rohingya have constructed an indigenous identity in order to pursue their agenda of Islamification and expansion. This myth has become a ‘staple of the public imagination’.
Hannah notes that everything came to a head around the time of the elections; Francis provides the context. As Myanmar had been under one form of occupation or another for a long time, there was a flurry of new political parties, many representing ethnic groups. There had been fault lines running along ethnic and religious lines for some time. Rapid flux, which the elections signified, ‘breeds anxiety that provides for violence along ethnic lines’. It also makes it easy to rally constituents by playing to their fears.
We learn that the violence that occurred in August 2017 was the result of six or seven years of propaganda. The military, a much-detested group among the citizenry, has had its reputation rehabilitated through ethnic cleansing, for dealing with the ‘threat’ of Islamification. Francis spoke to the abbot of a temple in north Yangon – who believed fervently that if Buddhists did not defend their faith now, it would be wiped out and lead to the fall of Myanmar.
The monk’s argument was that violence now prevents greater violence down the line. Francis explains that in Theravada Buddhism, the dominant strain of the faith in Myanmar, intention is extremely important when assessing the merits of the action – in this case the acts are minimised.
Francis’s book was inspired not only by wishing to tell as many people as possible about the atrocities occurring, but also to analyse a collective mental state and how this came about. Even former colleagues, people that Francis admired, who were part of the pro-democracy movement were spouting hateful views about the Rohingya. This was personally challenging. He also acknowledged his own role in the narrative – it is a minority of monks espousing these views, but they are given platforms and so much exposure, as they are reported on by international journalists such as himself.
As for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Francis believes that their return to Myanmar would be very dangerous for them all. There are still some 300,000 Rohingya left in Rakhine state, in an extremely precarious position.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’