Hate narratives and democracy in Myanmar

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It’s been three years since widespread rioting and clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State left 200 dead and thousands displaced.

But while the fires from burning villages have gone out, the hate and distrust still smoulders; particularly if you look at what devout Buddhists are saying about Muslims in Myanmar.

That’s what Matt Schissler from Oxford University’s Myanmar Media & Society Research Project has been doing, interviewing people about Buddhist-Muslim conflict in six cities across the country.

“Religious conflict wasn’t always framed as religious conflict,” Schissler told the 2015 Myanmar/Burma Update’s communal violence session. “But among Buddhists there were two clear trends in what they were saying.

“Muslims are violent, and they are a threat to Myanmar, both the nation and individuals.”

Schissler also highlighted how interviews revealed Buddhists would often make universal claims about Islam, including that the Koran encouraged violence. These beliefs would then be supported by reference to international events, like the rise of Islamic State.

“Personal and local experiences, like disputes, were also used as proof that Islam and Muslims are violent,” he added. “People could also hold contradictory views; a commitment to peace but tolerance of communal violence at the same time.”

And while Schissler acknowledged that statements about Muslims made by Buddhists could be viewed as hate speech, he was quick to point out that it was not the only factor fuelling religious violence in Myanmar. Equally important were notions of truth and untruth, which made carefully examining stories about violence even more important, as well as memory and history.

“What is clear is that there is no reference to history to justify religious conflict,” said Schissler. “People also said that they were only worried about religious violence and Muslims since riots of 2012.

“Perhaps the conflict is a contemporary issue not defined by prior set of relationships and circumstances.

“But what happens when memory of past co-existence is forgotten. And what happens when memory is a process of re-remembering?

“We need to be careful how we talk about this issue; because we can feed into these processes of memory.”

In the same session Tamas Wells, a PhD researcher from the University of Melbourne, highlighted how different reactions to communal violence in Myanmar were posing serious questions about its democratic credentials.

This was highlighted with the fallout from Aung San Suu Kyi’s interview with the BBC in which she failed to condemn the violence in Rakhine State and denied that Muslims had suffered from ethnic cleansing.

“Western aid workers felt that values and vision of democracy in Myanmar were being questioned,” said Wells. “But reactions to violence were guided by assumptions about what a modern democracy in Myanmar should look like.

“There was also a view that democracy could only happen if there was unity; if people put aside difference.”

Wells warned that some in Myanmar saw this stress on unity as potentially oppressive, and that it breeds authoritarianism.

“Some activists are concerned that communal violence is reinforcing some undesirable aspects of Myanmar political culture,” said Wells.

Meanwhile, he noted, the government seemed to be benefitting from ongoing communal violence and the greater stress on unity.

It all goes to show that narratives on violence and absolutes on what Myanmar’s democracy should look like are hard to reconcile. But be reconciled, they must.

James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala.