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Anthropology, Morality, and the Rohingya
JUSTINE CHAMBERS — is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Anthropology, School of Culture in the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Languages (CHL).
In August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an army base in western Rakhine state, Myanmar, claiming to fight for the rights of Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in western Myanmar. Within a few weeks, under the pretext of “clearance operations”, more than 600,000 Rohingya people fled across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh amidst reports of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and arson by Myanmar’s state military, the Tatmadaw. The United Nations has declared this to be “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. This categorisation is only strengthened in private conversations with humanitarian actors working in Bangladesh, who describe the sheer scale of war crimes that have been committed against civilian populations since August 2017.
And yet the Tatmadaw’s campaign has been disturbingly popular within Myanmar. Many of my friends from fieldwork, including members of other long-oppressed ethnic minorities, have posted in support of what they consider to be a mission to rid the country of illegal immigrants and terrorists. In the midst of the horror, I have been left wondering what my role as a researcher is. Indeed, while the anthropologist in my head cautions me to maintain reflexivity and consider the events more critically, this perspective and my pedagogical training seem inadequate right now.
Ethical Intellectual — The outcome and stance of the scholarly community who work on Myanmar has been divided. Some have been rancorous and moralising on social media and in the academic blogosphere against those who have not taken a stronger position. Often, in moments of crisis like the one we have watched unfold in northern Rakhine state, we are moved to action: to organise, to respond, to speak out. Undoubtedly, the nature of the current crisis demands a concerted and collective response. Many of us have, however, been publicly silent, reflecting in private conversations on the complexities of the situation—careful that in the race to say something thoughtful that we don’t reproduce misconceptions and further falsehoods.
For me, part of this silence was guided by my relationships with people from my fieldwork and ethical considerations related to representation, voice, and politics. As an anthropologist, I also saw it as important to draw out the paradoxes of the crisis and to take seriously the lived social practices which substantiate such atrocities. Indeed, unlike some other disciplines, anthropologists are not tasked with necessarily identifying solutions but with unearthing complexity. We demand time and space for deep reflection. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the Myanmar military was quite literally cleansing northern Rakhine state of Rohingya people in what some have termed the “final solution”. Complexity and nuance may not be the right answer to the horrific questions thrown up by the latest crisis.
Indeed, many of us simply have no sense of how to respond to the horror. It’s beyond belief. It’s beyond words. Colleagues of mine got together to discuss the implications of such a crisis on our research and institutional ties in the wake of the crisis. But beyond acknowledging that past periods have also seen other disturbing events in Myanmar, our discussion largely reflected an inability to comprehend what was taking place in the country we all love.
What can we do? What should we do? Is there anything we can do? These are the same questions, but they resonate in different ways for different people. For a young scholar like myself, who has been working on the country for a shorter period than others, this whole situation has felt like a rupture to the very core of my understanding of a country that I have struggled so hard to know and understand.
While I am heartbroken at the systematic destruction of the Rohingya people, my personal relationships with people from Myanmar have made public stances complicated. I have found it especially difficult to reconcile my experience of Burmese people as unbelievably kind and generous with the vociferous defence many have voiced of the military’s violence against the Rohingya.
Having worked in Karen state, an ethnic minority region, I have found it even more horrifying to see people justify the same tactics that the military has used against their very people for generations. Even though I can grasp analytical answers, they seem to be swallowed up by questions grounded in my own experiences: why don’t the experiences of the Rohingya resonate with Karen people and other minorities who, for generations, have also experienced atrocities at the hands of the Myanmar military? Beyond some brave Karen elites, why do so few of my friends share any sympathy for the plight of those who have been forced to flee amidst terror, burning villages, rape and murder, like they and their own families have experienced?