Myanmar and us
Uncovering Religious Bigotry
When travelling to an ethnic community some distance from Mrauk U town, we passed various villages alongside or near the road. The driver told me some were Muslim villages.
The driver explained that I couldn't visit any of the Muslim villages. I asked why not. I had found no official information about this. He replied that the government had met with all the guides to instruct them neither to do any tours of Muslim villages nor to take any tourists there.
After more questioning, the driver thought it was because the government worried that IS supporters would try to infiltrate into the villages in disguise. He said not one single driver would take me there even if I paid them $100. It was very dangerous.
When I noticed a man with a beard seated at a particular tea shop, I innocently indicated we should stop there for tea. My assumption he was Muslim was correct. I got to chat with a few Muslim customers.
It was easy to make basic conversation in Bangla. The local Rohingya language included some Sylheti dialect words, which made it easier for me to follow (e.g. bade for later, Birishoitbar for Thursday, guwa for betel nut, enda for an egg, bala for good, etc.). Other people later informed me they could understand some of my Bangla. Although some words were not in the Rohingya language, locals had overheard it from individuals who came trading. Occasionally, there would be others who spoke more Bangla because they had previously worked in Bangladesh.
After chatting for a while, I heard the Rakhine Buddhist driver refer to the Muslims as "Khular". I asked him about this word. He said everyone called them Khular. Surprised, I queried this: do the Muslims want to be called Khular or not. The driver found the idea they may have preferences difficult to understand. The opinions and feelings of Muslims seemed not to count; what the Rakhine Buddhists thought only mattered. He eventually said they all wanted to be called Khular because they didn't want to be called Muslim. This also sounded disingenuous. I said in Bangladesh they liked to be known as Musalima. He dismissively said it is different here.
I asked about Kaman Muslims. At first the driver maintained the Kaman were all Buddhist - though he admitted under pressure that some may call themselves Muslim, that was their choice - and anyway according to him, they lived in south Rakhine.
Later when the topic came up again in discussion, the driver referred to a certain village as a Muslim village. I challenged him why he had now used Muslim not Khular. He answered because I am a tourist. I was used to this word.
I asked several Rakhine Buddhist people, including a hotel owner in Mrauk U, what they referred to the Muslim people as. They all pointed out that they are called 'Khular', which according to them meant Muslim. They clarified that this similar sounding word was not 'khala' (black). The Rakhine adults all said their (Rohingya's) language was Muslim. I realised I would need to ask the Muslim villagers themselves to find out more.
Explaining my intention, the driver replied that it was extremely dangerous for me to go to the Muslim villages. If the law enforcers saw me, I would be followed, stopped and questioned for a long time because they were afraid of journalists. The village people may get in trouble for talking to me.
If the army - who had complete authority in this area - stopped me, then anything could happen. The military could hold me for many days. They would search all my bags. He said the news coverage would affect tourism very negatively (the driver was clearly also thinking about his income even though there was a complete dearth of tourists). He implored me several times not to go.
Back in Mrauk U, the hotel owner confirmed what the government official had earlier told me that communal troubles completely split the communities. She said she had childhood Muslim friends whom she mixed with before 2012, but then all of this stopped. Almost as a token offering to me, the hotel owner mentioned how she still visited one Muslim friend during festivals.
The Rakhine hotel owner launched into one of her favourite themes: Muslim procreation. Probing me, she said that she knew of a family with two wives but now the Muslims were having only two children. This remark was contrary to what I had heard regarding most Rakhine people's negative feelings about large Rohingya families (and the irrational fear of being overrun by a higher rate of reproduction). After I did not react, she added that she thought the wealthy ones were having five children. I explained it was the other way round; poor people generally had more children.
The hotel proprietor continued reconcilably, saying she wanted all the groups to live in peace. She declared that the Muslims around Mrauk U were peaceful. In her opinion, the ones near the Bangladesh border had recently crossed the border illegally. They were from Bangladesh. She said trouble had started in 2012.
These opening remarks seemed fairly innocuous compared to the vehemence many Rakhine spoke about the Rohingya. During the following days, she slowly stepped out of her guise of being conciliatory towards me, to reveal some true feelings.
The hotel owner wanted to know if Bangladeshis in other countries caused a problem. When I mentioned peaceful coexistence in various European nations, it dumfounded her. Her reaction showed how a stereotype leading to xenophobia can be created in common people, in this instance by falling for the negative 'foreigner Bengali' label generated in part by scapegoating, rumour and isolation.
Ironically, it sometimes works the other way too. One hotel owner in Bangladesh informed me how it was dangerous to go to Myanmar. He then rattled off all the negative characteristics of the Myanmar people, lumping everyone into one homogenous mass. Lack of contact between groups makes prejudice and stereotyping easier. It reduces empathy.
After a pause for reflection, the Myanmar hotel owner went on to say, Brunei was a rich country, the Muslims lived peacefully there, didn't they.
When I was leaving, she suddenly asked me animatedly about the difference between Bengali, Bangla and Muslim. After I had explained the differences, she quietly appeared to accept my definitions.
This shows that with the right input, people's attitudes can be changed. Though one must be mindful that this hotel owner was someone who has interacted with certain tourist opinions and may want to say favourable things because of her business interests.
During the night in Mrauk U between about 10 p.m. and 10.30 p.m., I clearly heard the Myanmar army fire a series of loud artillery salvoes into the nearby countryside. In the morning, the locals confirmed it had been the Tatmadaw. This wasn't the only night with the sounds of shooting.
To be continued...