Understanding Myanmar’s communal violence

Photo: AP

Photo: AP

There is a division between international and local aid workers over contrasting reactions to Buddhist–Muslim tensions. But dismissing the views of others as ‘crazy’ leads nowhere. 

Last year I had the accidental experience of examining attitudes toward incidents of violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar.

It was accidental in the sense that I had not set out to explore this issue at all. I was doing my PhD research on how people – who are involved with work on fostering democracy – tell the story of Myanmar’s democratisation.

But as I spoke to Western aid workers, Myanmar activists and NGO workers about democracy I found that they often linked back to examples of Buddhist-Muslim tensions. As this continued to happen I realised that the way people reacted to news of communal violence was closely related to the wider story of democratisation that they told.

Some people – most commonly Western aid workers – told a wider story of democratic modernisation based on liberal values and institutions and how communal violence was an awful affront to the core value of human rights. And in some cases, anti-Muslim attitudes were portrayed as being associated with a ‘crazy nationalism’. Some aid workers even said that they simply couldn’t talk about the issue any more without getting too emotional.

Another common story – within some circles of activists and NGO workers in Myanmar – was that a central element of the country’s democratisation was about unity.

While they may not have been supportive of the violence itself, there was concern of a growing influence of Muslim communities in Myanmar, and that this was a threat to the Buddhist majority, and therefore the core value of unity. There was a sense that some international actors simply didn’t recognise the fear that people felt about this.

In both stories there was an internal logic that linked attitudes to communal violence to wider assumptions about what a democratic country should look like.

A few decades ago, political philosopher WB Gallie made some important observations about the way people argue over certain ‘essentially contested concepts’ – like ‘democracy ‘ or ‘justice’ – which are contested in their very meaning. Gallie thought that we also should admit that logically (and culturally), a concept like democracy can actually mean a whole range of different things and be supported by different values.

Gallie didn’t assume that everyone has to agree, but rather wanted to highlight that there should at least be recognition of other forms of ‘common sense’ that might be embedded in other positions.

Further, he thought that alternate logics could even serve to shift or sharpen our own arguments. His concern was that if we don’t recognise the essentially contested nature of concepts like democracy then we enter the ‘chronic human peril’ of underestimating the arguments of others.

Turning back to attitudes to communal tensions, there appears to be some mutual lack of recognition of alternative ways of conceptualising ‘democracy’. On one hand, the rights narrative can dismiss concerns about unity in the country. On the other hand, the unity narrative can dismiss the logical place of rights.

I am not suggesting that all perspectives on democracy, or all reactions to communal violence in Myanmar are valid, or even logical. There are certainly some positions that may well be ‘crazy’.

But simply failing to prioritise all the tenets of a liberal democratic idea of rights is not necessarily a sign of ‘perversity’ or ‘lunacy’. There are clearly different forms of democratic logic.

In the end, labelling opponents as ‘crazy’ has a finality about it that can be comforting. In contrast, entering into the logic and arguments of others can be disturbing.  As Gallie hoped, this process of entering into the common sense of others can also lead us to see things differently – our own ideas can be sharpened.

Of course some kind of neat reconciliation of different narratives about democracy – and about communal violence in Myanmar – is highly unlikely.

But dismissing the ideas of others as ‘crazy’ leads us nowhere.

Tamas Wells is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, an aid consultant and moderator of the Paung Ku Forum, an online discussion site on civil society, aid and development in Myanmar.