Myanmar and us
Trouble in Mrauk U
I visited more Rakhine houses in Mrauk U.
At one house, the husband started talking about my smooth skin. He wanted to see my arms (covered by a shirt). Many Myanmar people admire and prefer light skin - with the obvious implications for any darker skinned Rohingya. The man said his darker skin was not as nice as my skin.
I pointed out how darker skin was much better for a sunny climate and offered protection, avoiding risks of skin cancer. This snippet was to no avail. The Rakhine guide accompanying me said all people preferred a light skin. I recounted that I find the same prejudice amongst some Bangladeshi people; it causes negative psychological stress to those who are teased about their dark skin. Your body forms part of your basic identity. You can't change it like clothes if not in fashion.
I gave an example of a young boy in Dhaka who is called "African" by his two older sisters. The father has dark skin, the mother and sisters have fairer brown skin. He has to endure this constant teasing as nobody thinks it anything other than a "joke". The other implication, quite lost on those sisters, is the way they are being racist by lumping every country in one continent under a single derogatory label.
The lack of anti-racist policies both in Myanmar and Bangladesh schools is an indication that racism may be consciously acceptable, if not subconsciously, too. Muttered "ching chang", "ching chung pung" or similar taunts by certain Bangladeshi youths towards those perceived as Chinese, is another example, which people do not publicly challenge.
Racism can never be a joke. The defence of good intentions or not meaning harm cannot excuse racism. Sometimes people may be honest when they say they 'didn't mean it' but this doesn't alleviate the injury caused by racist remarks. The victim has rights to be treated with dignity.
We must remember that in human rights law and anti-racism education, intentionality is irrelevant. The effect of the action on a person has to be considered and takes precedence. Nor does ignorance justify racism or mitigate the effects of people's actions. If you did not intend to kill someone, will that absolve you of responsibility?
It shows the importance for schools to teach tolerance and respect to combat negative cultural stereotypes. Kindness and respect reduces violence too. Teaching respect towards others is important when students are locked into inappropriate behaviour patterns learnt at home and from the local environment.
The teasing of that child who had dark skin is tantamount to bullying. Anti-bullying policies in schools are another vital area, often neglected. Bullying in schools is widespread; it has a huge negative impact on a student's mental health and academic performance. Just think of how endemic casual name calling and teasing are. It starts from the youngest classes (later on graduating to cyberbullying and stalking).
The problem is when educators are bullies. They may have little empathy or sympathy to deal with such issues, tolerating it instead of dealing with it. Sometimes they are judgemental, making matters worse by jumping to immediate unfound conclusions. You may see this process in a family context where there has been a dispute with a neighbour's child: some parents believe their child without investigation or disbelieve them without taking time to investigate properly, imposing quick, harsh sanctions.
We went to a local house on the outskirts of Mrauk U. The guide showed a small black hole in the ground at the back of the ground floor room. Wood and earth-filled cement bags surrounding the sides almost concealed the hole. The dark opening led to a rectangular underground chamber where the family could take refuge from the army. They could draw a wooden cover over the hole.
The guide said that the army had a habit of coming during the night and indiscriminately firing into houses to scare the people. Every house in this area had one such emergency shelter, reminiscent of bomb shelters during wartime.
The guide explained how he had to prepare sweets and biscuits ready in advance to give to his young children in the shelter to stop them making a noise in case the army detected them. His 2-year-old son was difficult to control and keep quiet even with soothing words and sweets when he became terrified of the army's presence in the middle of the night.
The guide said he had to have all his valuables (money, mobile, gold, etc.) ready in a bag to take into the hole. If the army came, he angrily declared they would steal everything they could see from the house.
In another house, the family refused to have a photograph of anyone of them next to the hole. The family said if the army saw the picture, they would shoot them.
An older adolescent girl explained how they had a vegetable patch some 4 km out of town. One day when she arrived to her patch, she hadn't noticed the army standing near her field. The soldiers pointed their guns at the girl. They demanded to know why she had come and all her family details. She could eventually leave with the warning never to return. The family lost all their vegetables, which had been a valuable source of income - the army had taken the lot.
The army also sometimes just shot into the holes, as they did to a nearby house one night, killing one teenage boy and wounding others. All the occupants of the local houses could only sleep fitfully. They woke up at any slight sound, afraid and ready to flee at a moment's notice into their underground shelters.
We walked along a road near the houses we had visited. The construction efforts going on in the line of houses surprised me. Piles of material were heaped along the side of the road. The guide explained that they were filling bags with soil and sand to absorb the soldiers' bullets, using the bags around and over their hiding holes inside the houses.
On the word of locals, air force jets and long-range guns had fired into the grounds of a nearby ancient Buddhist ruin. I observed the marks still visible on the tree and sentry box nearby. The guide said the army had tried to blame the AA caused this act of sacrilege. He said the army did not fool the local people, as they weren't fooled when the army went around firing indiscriminately into the town centre one night, even targeting a bank. The army later quickly returned to remove the evidence in the bank's CCTV, which had captured the true story.
This policy of intimidating the local population seemed to have turned the common people against the army. Every person I spoke to in Mrauk U condemned the army.
Rakhine students completely dominated one coaching centre in Mrauk U. The most fluent English-speaking student explained how he wanted to be a computer hacker; that was his ambition. When talking about the curfew, the student said the Bamar army was very bad. After I asked why he retorted, the Bamar army was fighting the Arakan people and killing them.
(To be continued)