Branding genocide: The Rohingya as ‘Islamic terrorist’

Our identity as a nation was forged through suffering one of the worst genocides in modern human history. It isn’t surprising then that almost half a century later our major political parties still rely predominantly on their roles in 1971 as their integral brand element. What is surprising, however, is that collectively as a nation we still recall those horrors and instead of letting them diminish our humanity, as post World War II Israel clearly has, we do the exact opposite. Our people as well as our politicians, including our honourable prime minister, have stood beside the Rohingyas as they face genocide today.

The plight of the Rohingya people is neither new nor very simple in nature; however, a significant amount of it has to do with identity, and ‘branding’. The current crisis started when in late August at least twelve members of Myanmar’s security forces were killed by Rohingya insurgents, but the real problem goes back much further. Racial tensions between the Burmese population and the Rohingya traces itself back to the days of the British Raj and typifies the long-term violence that has succeeded the Raj’s ill tempered policies, and the ridiculousness of Radcliffe’s carving of South Asia.

Rakhine, originally Arakan, was mostly contiguous with Bengal. Hence, the primary racial issue stemmed from cultural-linguistic identity, and not religion. Since the wars in Afghanistan and concomitant geopolitical turns in the Middle East, that saw the radicalisation of countless groups, the Rohingya issue started taking a religious turn. This too was largely due to the branding of certain radical organisations as ‘Islamic terrorists’. It didn’t help that the Rohingya Patriotic Front, which later became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, were trained by the Afghan Taliban in the 1970s.

In 1982 the military government in Myanmar took advantage of this largely negative brand of ‘Islamic terrorists’ and made revisions to their constitution to deny the Rohingya population citizenship status. That was the watershed moment when the Rohingya truly became a stateless race. The stigma of the ‘Islamic terrorist’ brand is leveraged even today by the military, which does not want to cede power to a democratic government, be that under Suu Kyi or anyone else, and profits from creating a fear of terrorist forces within Myanmar.

This kind of branding of the hapless Rohingya people provides the general populace in Myanmar, which comprises of a large Buddhist majority, the perfect target to blame for all their woes. This is alarmingly similar to the reaction of Nazi supporters in early twentieth century Germany against Jews, or West Pakistani nationalists in 1971 against Bengalis. The Nazis back then tried to push the Jews into France, the Pakistani military junta pushed Bengalis into India, and today the Rohingyas are being pushed into Bangladesh. History, sadly, keeps repeating itself.

Geopolitics also plays a crucial role in all of this. Myanmar is rich in mineral resources, which is important to many global giants, but more importantly Rakhine state itself has now become of great geographical import to both China and India.  Over eighty percent of China’s crude oil and thirty percent of its natural gas passes through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Seas, which is bogged with security issues concerning the US and its allies. Rakhine provides China the possibility of an integral alternative route using overland infrastructure, including pipelines. India too would like to pursue an alternative trade and supply route to its eastern states that is not completely dependent on the Siliguri corridor; the recent strategic impasse with China in Doklam clearly demonstrates the urgent nature of that need. So both the regional powers are focused on Rakhine.

The military government of Myanmar is rather unlikely to risk the resource benefits of being in this enviable position of being courted by multiple regional powers. The tragic result of the ruling elite’s greed for power and resources is unmitigated genocide. And the negative branding of the Rohingya people makes it difficult, well nigh impossible, for politicians within Myanmar to take a strong stand in support of the Rohingyas.

Suu Kyi’s lack of empathy or lack of show of empathy for the Rohingya has faced harsh criticisms the world over. While it is impossible to argue whether she does or does not empathise with their plight, it is important to understand that branding her an unholy, Hitler-esque, character serves no useful purpose. Thanks to decades of propaganda spreading the negative Rohingya brand, any politician in Myanmar siding with the Rohingya will lose the support of the majority, and in so doing will lose any effective influence to bring about change anyway. The military too would no doubt like to see Suu Kyi’s popularity diminish.

What the world needs to do now is not revile the politicians in Myanmar, but fight the negative ‘brand’ that Myanmar’s military propaganda has created. The Rohingya will not find acceptance in Myanmar until the world can convince the people of Myanmar that their current perception of the Rohingya brand is the result of vile lies and manipulation.

Both India and China would be wary of supporting any direct initiative against the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue, because of their own interests. However, they could rather easily be persuaded to work with us on this branding initiative, and could both wield their significant soft-power in Myanmar.

The Rohingya crisis is one of the worst global crises of our time, and it needs manifold solutions. Rebranding the Rohingya in the eyes of the people of Myanmar is one angle and need to be approached with urgency and in earnest.

Source: bdnews24

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