Image from "China backs Myanmar on Rohingya issue"
Reposted from Tea Circle (September 27, 2017)
By Soe Lin Aung
By now, the main contours of the recent events in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, are well-known. On August 25, an insurgent group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) (previously Harakah al-Yaqin) attacked police posts in northern Rakhine, eliciting a broad counterinsurgency response from the Myanmar military that has displaced over 400,000 Rohingya people into Bangladesh. As in previous cycles of violence, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has reportedly targeted civilians in its “clearance operations,” leading to allegations of killings, rape, and the burning of villages. The UN’s human rights body has referred to this latest outbreak of violence as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The crisis in, and now, beyond, Rakhine is part of a much longer story of Rohingya oppression and persecution in Myanmar. This history has almost certainly contributed to the growth of the ARSA insurgency. In contrast to its own claims and those of the Myanmar government and media, ARSA comes across as a poor, small, and desperate movement, staging its attacks in a haphazard manner with homemade weapons like knives, swords, and sticks. The Myanmar government and Burmese media, however, have painted ARSA— and in many ways, Rohingya people more broadly— as part of global Islamist networks. In government communications, “extremist Bengali terrorists” is the favored term for the military’s current foe in Rakhine. Notably, the current crisis is unfolding under the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is Myanmar’s long-time opposition leader, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD swept into power in the country’s nationwide elections of late 2015, the first open national elections in generations.
The crisis has generated a torrent of international news coverage, focusing largely on the situation on the ground in Rakhine and Bangladesh. Yet a few broader themes have also taken shape: that Daw Suu is a fraud, having betrayed her liberal principles; that events in Rakhine mainly reflect tensions around race, ethnicity, and religion; and that the history of Rohingya people matters little in the context of humanitarian crisis. While not without their merits, I believe each of these views is misguided. I offer the following three theses in response.
(1) Daw Suu is not a fraud. This is liberalism.
A surprising amount of English-language coverage of the recent crisis has focused on Daw Suu. Commentators have criticized her for being silent on the sufferings of Rohingya people, or even of actively abetting the sufferings of Rohingya people; of not taking a stand against the military’s activities, or again of actively supporting their activities; of coldly calculating that standing with the military, which still holds significant power, is the only way to maintain a foothold for her civilian government; and perhaps most penetratingly, of turning away from the liberal principles— human rights, democracy, and the rule of law— for which she has been lionized the world over since the late 1980s. A veritable genre of white disappointment has emerged in op-ed after op-ed. Whither the author of Freedom from Fear?
This line of critique suffers from a familiar series of flaws. First, it embraces a liberal fetish for “leadership” that is over-invested in politics at the top and the figure of the lonely dissident. It remains stuck in the romance of bourgeois dissent, and it occludes structural analysis and collective agency, which are necessary for any serious attempt to understand and address the situation in Rakhine. The point is not that Daw Suu does not matter or that she could not, or should not, be acting differently. But the obsession with her has become a distraction to the point of becoming unproductive, obscuring among other things the military’s direct culpability here. She herself, one notes, describes herself as a politician not an icon. It is also unclear when, if ever, she has acted or spoken differently on the sufferings of Rohingya people. On this particular issue, she has had no principled position to abandon.
Second, critics of liberalism have pointed out for over a century that liberalism is no bulwark against the most extreme forms of violence, exclusion, and suffering. Thinking with Marx, on the left, and Schmitt, on the right, or more recently, with Foucault, the liberal social contract does not end the war of all against all that supposedly precedes it, as Hobbes for one believed. From class struggle, to states of emergency, to conflicts over power that permeate social life— strife of all kinds continues under liberalism. Black and indigenous thought matter here crucially. Histories of slavery and settler colonialism, both of which continue into the present, teach us it is no exaggeration to say liberalism is premised on violence against black and brown life. As is well-known, the liberal political lineage claimed by Daw Suu is intertwined with those histories and remains so today.
Put differently, what we see today in Rakhine is a feature of, not a bug in, liberal politics. The supposedly universal valence of human rights, democracy, and rule of law has not only not prevented vast atrocities over time. It has made them thinkable; indeed, it has made them possible. By framing a schema of acceptable moral-political conduct, it also excludes those who are seen not to comply (“extremist Bengali terrorists,” for example), turning them into a target. This liberal formula for conflict has become especially prevalent since 2001. Islam did not become the limit point of liberal universalism in one day on 9/11. But since then, there can be no question that liberalism has been internal to the imperialism of Western powers in the Islamic world in particular. For some time now, the old Maoist slogan has been revised: it is democracy that grows from the barrel of a gun. The problem, in other words, is not that Daw Suu is not actually a liberal. The problem is that she is.
(2) Capitalism matters, but not in the way it’s been discussed so far.
In recent years, several attempts have been made to integrate political economy into analyses of violence against Muslims in and beyond Rakhine. It is fair to say these attempts, for the most part, have been schematic, ill-informed, and heavy-handed— as indicated by the substantial, if not substantive, criticism they have received by researchers and activists in Myanmar. A Guardian piece in 2013 argued that violence in Rakhine the previous year was “most likely triggered by the simmering tensions wrought by” large-scale land and resource grabs in Rakhine. Then in an article this month, a group of researchers raised concerns over the “root causes” and “vested political and economic interests” that are “contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar,” and not only in Rakhine. Over the past year, meanwhile, the noted sociologist Saskia Sassen has written several articles on Rakhine, including one quite recently. Highlighting land and resource politics rather than race or religion, she asks, in particular, “whether religion gives us the full picture of what is happening now.”
On Twitter and Facebook, these contributions have been dismissed for being overly simplistic and light on evidence. Sassen’s article in the Guardian, for example, leads with a false tradeoff in the headline between religion and “business:” “Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion?” Across these articles, the style of the claim tends be one of actual causes revealed— as in, everyone is talking about religion, but in fact the true cause is land and resource politics. The claim seems to reject the lived experience of violence and discrimination*, which apparently bears little relation to capital, and ignore the nationalist discourse of monks, lay people, and even government officials whose language has contributed to recurrent cycles of violence against Rohingya. Yet the articles’ implicit separation of categories like race, religion, and capital is unsustainable (see below). More directly problematic is the issue of evidence. Sassen cites 1,268,077 hectares of recent land allocations in “the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar,” but data from Forest Trendsthat support that figure make no indication that those allocations are in northern Rakhine, i.e. where most Rohingya lived (at least until the most recent violence). It is more likely that land allocation at that scale would be tied to the special economic zone (SEZ) project in and around Kyaukphyu, in southern Rakhine, where few (but some) Rohingya live.
Perhaps some of these articles’ shortcomings are owed to the genre limitations of short articles for public audiences— and surely to headline writers working hard for page views. But it is also clear that these articles have opened up political economy in a way that challenges others to follow more carefully, and in greater depth. Indeed, the amount of criticism Sassen in particular has received on social media may be symptomatic of a refusal to seriously consider political economy in Rakhine, if not elsewhere in Myanmar as well. A certain history of left politics is at stake— accessible here only in thumbnail form, admittedly. Since independence in Myanmar, the country has seen a long but failed Communist insurgency, a formally socialist dictatorship built on anti-Communism, and the rise of a liberal opposition movement that has rallied around the cult of Daw Suu. In a broad sense, the space for structural analysis geared towards anti-capitalism has been very narrow for quite some time. Meanwhile, the government has put out two stories recently officially stating the crisis has been either unrelated to (one article) or bad for (the other article) the economy in Rakhine— an indication of concern for the opposite perspective. These are reasons not to avoid questions of political economy, but rather to cautiously build out those approaches based on thick data and grounded experience.
Writing for New Mandala this week, Lee Jones indicates what a more careful approach might look like, raising questions over Sassen’s claims about the present and turning more towards historical factors. I would argue there remains more to be said about the present and recent past. First, as the authors of the articles above would surely ultimately agree— and as Jones does also suggest— the relations between race, religion, and capitalism are hardly mutually exclusive. To wit: the 2012 violence near the SEZ in Kyaukphyu displaced more Kaman Muslims than Rohingya Muslims, and there is no indication that violence had any direct relation to the SEZ project. In fact, when I visited Kyaukphyu in early 2013 for research supporting struggles against the SEZ, I saw clearly that at least one large camp for displaced Muslims was actually between Kyaukphyu town and the main SEZ area. Had the explicit, direct cause for the violence been one of land grabbing to make space for the SEZ— a dynamic suggested by Sassen— it failed miserably, creating an IDP camp that actually impinged upon the area around the SEZ. However, it seems more than likely that the violence “benefited” or resulted in (even if it was not directly a catalyst for) processes of capital accumulation in the area by Burman and Rakhine elites. Similarly, the economic zone recently announced for northern Rakhine— which has drawn bewilderment on Myanmar social media in the past few weeks— may not have any immediate roots in recent cycles of violence in the area. Still, it is a sign that businesses are willing to sink investment into areas being “cleared” of Rohingya inhabitants. The Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement has also specified that burned villages in the Maungdaw area will be “redeveloped” as “government managed lands” according to the Natural Disaster Management Law.
In addition, it is worth noting that amid significant Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in Rakhine— namely the port, industrial, and pipeline projects based in Kyaukphyu— the Chinese government has signaled their support for Myanmar’s military crackdown. The Chinese ambassador to Myanmar reportedly “strongly welcomed” the Tatmadaw’s clearance operations in a recent speech in Myanmar, arguing that stabilizing the region fundamentally benefits the security of Chinese investments. Stabilization, of course, means displacing and dispossessing Rohingya people who are seen as potential threats to the orderly accumulation of capital, most recently through their association with Islamic extremism. Newly open land, expropriated people killed off or herded into camps, and sustained discussions over re-populating northern Rakhine with specifically non-Muslim people— these are the basic dynamics of primitive accumulation and settler colonialism. A longer history of land politics here is certainly relevant as well. One recent article discusses how colonial land relations, namely the zamindari system introduced by the British, fueled conflicts over land that have set people against each other in this region for over a century.
The point I would like to make is not quite that all of the focus on religion is wrong, especially since narratives from people caught up in this crisis— whether Rakhine, Rohingya, or otherwise— suggest they experience it as a conflict primarily between people of different religions. My argument is not, as Sassen and others above seem to suggest, that these people are wrong, and need to be talking about capitalism instead. (In India, for example, dismissing religious identification simply as a kind of false consciousness has had disastrous consequences for radical politics.) Rather, the point is that all of these things might benefit capital indirectly rather than directly. It is not a question of capital’s hidden internal logics being expressed in seemingly religious conflict, but rather a series of heterogeneous processes that ultimately contribute to capital accumulation for emerging dominant classes. One might think of capitalism’s history in this way more generally. Riots and pogroms over race and religion have always left ruling classes to appropriate the space and property of subordinated groups. That appropriation may not have been experienced by anyone as the cause of such pogroms, but over time it fed the making of class differences, and the hardening of inequalities, whether under liberalism, fascism, or indeed socialism.
Two still stronger arguments could be explored. One is that, as Chris Chen argues about the US, the history of capitalism is intertwined with racialization. Race is not an onto-biological given that overlaps with capital from time to time; it is maintained and reproduced in relation to apparently neutral economic processes. “Two dynamics have reproduced ‘race’ in the US,” he writes, “since the mid-twentieth-century anti-racist movements: first, economic subordination through racialised wage differentials and superfluisation; and second, the racialising violence and global reach of the penal and national security state.” Chen invites us to think how capitalism works through, rather than in spite of, that which seems beyond it (racialization, perhaps religion as well, and the formal monopoly of violence held by the state), reconsidering the apparent separation of a politics of class and a politics of race or religion. “Social” identity versus “economic” class: this distinction is itself a product of capitalist accumulation, for Chen, and as a relation these two should be seen as mutually constitutive.
Another argument follows from what Chen calls “superfluisation,” and which elsewhere has been considered with respect to what Marx called the “absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx claimed that over time, a “stagnant” surplus population— workers permanently without access to a wage— would emerge essentially from the supply of labour growing faster than the demand for it. As observed by the independent communist journal Endnotes, he failed to foresee the opening of new lines of industry that absorbed a growing labour supply in his time. Yet the global trend towards deindustrialization (relative to the total proletarianized population) beginning in the late twentieth century seems to have vindicated this theory, even beyond the rich countries where this trend has been most evident. Endnotes and Chuang— a similar collective, this one focused on China— have shown that even in China, construction (often of unprofitable “ghost cities” and roads to nowhere) accounts for a substantial portion of new labour in “industry.” Manufacturing jobs, meanwhile, have barely compensated for the shuttering of state-owned enterprises and the decline of China’s industrial northeast. Researchers on South and Southeast Asia, meanwhile, have argued that peasants forced from their land are more and more likely to become redundant to formal capitalist reproduction. For scholars of postcolonialism like Kalyan Sanyal and Partha Chatterjee, the making and management of this surplus population is among the most pressing political questions in postcolonial societies already riven by differences of class, caste, and ethnicity. What processes drive dispossession today, and what happens to the surplus populations produced?
Sassen’s articles in the Guardian and the Huffington Post do not quite approach these questions, but her article in the journal Sociology of Development does. She argues that a new phase of advanced capitalism has created flows of human migration that will not be incorporated in, but rather will be largely excluded from, the processes and logics of capitalist development today. “These are people in search of bare life,” she writes, “with no home to return to.” Unaccompanied minors from Central America, migrants coming to Europe from Syria and elsewhere, and Rohingya displaced and dispossessed in Rakhine are the examples she highlights. As with the other articles, this one would benefit from a more careful analysis of the evidence in Rakhine (and perhaps elsewhere). And like other scholars tracking new and often violent dynamics of exclusion— Sanyal, Chatterjee, and Li among them— Sassen takes emerging surplus populations to be radically exterior to capital in a way that may efface their continuing subordination to certain capitalist logics. The article’s strength, however, is that it reads events in Rakhine in relation to new and larger structural patterns. In the process, it invites closer attention that might more adequately scale these patterns and derive some significance for developing political responses.
Indeed, attempts to build solutions that ignore political economy will fail to address accumulation patterns that, putting it mildly, are impoverishing some and enriching others across Rakhine State and beyond. The recommendations of the Annan Commission, for example, regrettably treat continued primitive accumulation in Rakhine— even intensified accumulation in the form of the commission’s call to “invest heavily” in large-scale infrastructure projects— as a solution to rather than cause of recurring cycles of violence in the region.
This question of political responses opens the final point here. Given the relevance of Rakhine to debates over capitalist development, it is time to consider how an anti-capitalist politics can and should be part of attempts to address and redress the suffering of Rohingya people. Anti-capitalist politics have always been central to left critiques of liberalism that recognize liberalism’s tendency to maintain and reproduce the suffering of those who have been expropriated, exploited, or excluded. In addition, the structural analysis implied by anti-capitalism stands to situate the Rakhine crisis within broader systemic processes, mitigating against a prevailing tendency to read events in Rakhine as utterly sui generis— separate, for example, from liberal imperialism in the Middle East, an aberration from orderly democratization, or unrelated to wider transformations in global capitalism. Attempts to analytically “contain” violence against Rohingya in these ways should be resisted.
Concretely, structural analysis makes clear similarities between different systemic locations, making it possible to recognize shared struggles between people facing comparable forms of oppression. Gayatri Spivak, for example, has suggested that Rohingya people and those who stand with them might best build solidarity with similar grounded struggles, such as the struggles of Palestinians against Zionist settler colonialism. An internationalist politics of this kind stands to avoid treating Rohingya people as mere victims, breaking with the victim-savage-savior formula that dominates the liberal politics of advocacy. This also means thinking beyond simply promoting Rohingya leadership within liberal civil society settings. These settings have nurtured appeals to world leaders oriented towards achieving civil and political rights for Rohingya, particularly citizenship. This work too often fails to address the grinding material deprivation Rohingya people face every day— or it treats those conditions only as reflections of rights violations that should be addressed first. Meanwhile, as in Europe, the U.S., and beyond, the failure of liberals to address material conditions creates a vacuum in which more conventionally violent politics may take root, whether a desperate insurgency in Rakhine or revanchist right populisms elsewhere.
(3) Decolonizing historical research is more important than ever.
History has its limits in the context of humanitarian crisis, perhaps especially so when debates over history hinge on questions of identity. As Jonathan Saha has asked recently, is it really possible to know how people saw themselves in the past? And even if it were, should it matter when survival itself is at stake? Surely not— although for some people in Myanmar, the violent expulsion of Rohingya people is justified by a belief they are recent migrants from Bangladesh. It is barely hyperbole here to see history as a matter of life and death, hence a subject one cannot afford to ignore.
Saha also points to a further set of issues, though. He discusses how research by the historian Jacques Leider has been used to support claims that Rohingya people have no rightful place in Myanmar today. Leider has consistently argued that “Rohingya” constitutes a political rather than an ethnic identity, and dates to Myanmar’s post-independence period as such. He finds little archival evidence for the notion of— and hence dismisses the possibility for— an older Rohingya identity.This kind of archival positivism, “textualizing” history, resembles the kind of Orientalist scholarship that was central to colonialism itself. For Edward Said, mistaking the image for the real, the textual for the referential, is the signature of Orientalist scholarship, which “shares with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system.” Leider’s unfortunate distinction between politics and ethnicity has been picked up by the former diplomat Derek Tonkin, among others. Tonkin has used Leider’s work to deny legitimacy to the citizenship claims of Rohingya people under Myanmar’s legal framework.
No one will argue that decolonizing the category “Rohingya” is today’s most urgent task. Yet it seems significant that in recent weeks, Leider’s writings— or more accurately, mainly his 2012 interview in the Irrawaddy— have been shared, posted, and circulated among defenders of Daw Suu and the military’s actions in Rakhine. The reasons are clear enough. Still, breaking with this colonial historiography means breaking with much historical research in Southeast Asian Studies. As one study of J.S. Furnivall’s work suggests, the tendency to read societies as collections of distinct units of race and ethnicity —as in the plural society in colonial Burma, for Furnivall— is one that remains characteristic of scholarship in Southeast Asian Studies. This is in stark contrast to scholarship in South Asia, where the knowledge work of colonial scholar-bureaucrats, on caste in particular, has clearly been shown not just to have described society, but to have justified and maintained colonial rule. (One notes that in his central description of the plural society in Burma, Furnivall explicitly analogizes it to India’s caste system. Like civil servants writing on caste in India, Furnivall used the plural society both to characterize society and rationalize a continued, if reformed, imperial project.)
The break between South and Southeast Asian Studies continues in the present. For while South Asianists have subjected colonial knowledge production to sustained critical examination, leading scholars of Southeast Asia have mainly celebrated the work of scholar administrators like Furnivall, taking up and mobilizing his handling of race and ethnicity. As the study of Furnivall notes, “Understanding colonial and post-colonial South East Asian society as composed of these blocs is still a dominant paradigm to the discipline of South East Asian Studies.” Rather than examining these categories and questioning their genealogies, “South East Asianists have used the category of ‘race’ and have attributed internal strife to divisions drawn along ethnic lines, thereby inhibiting the use of other sets of criteria by which to interpret South East Asian society.”
Perhaps most centrally, it is Benedict Anderson’s work that resonates in this context. Arguably the leading Southeast Asianist of his generation, he lavished praise on Furnivall, even crediting him with founding the very idea of “Southeast Asia” as a discrete area of analysis. More substantively, Anderson’s attempt in the 1990s to disentangle a politics of ethnicity from a politics proper to nationalism shares with Furnivall a fundamental tendency: seeing distinct ethnic units (a politics of “bound serialities”) as detracting from the rightly universal ideals of classical nationalism. That is, Anderson shares with Furnivall a desire for a unitary national subject, the perils and pitfalls of which Chatterjee, for one, has demonstrated at length.
In Myanmar, meanwhile, the historiography of “Rohingya” remains embedded in a colonial politics of knowledge. The implicit conception of ethnicity is textual not experiential, bounded and apolitical, essentially stable over time, and pre-given as a set of categories that simply exist (or do not) depending on their archival trace. This given-ness of ethnicity, this positivism of social categories, means refusing ethnicity’s (actual) imbrication with politics and political transformations— with potentially devastating consequences. It becomes possible to view ethnicity as “contaminated” by politics, and hence illegitimate, contributing to the erasure of people at the level of knowledge amid their erasure in practice. Elimination in knowledge and in practice: that relation is integral. Resisting one is bound up, at least in part, with resisting the other.
Soe Lin Aung is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.