Oberving Behaviour in Shops
Myanmar and us
I found out a good way to observe the natural interaction of individuals was to sit in various small family-run shops - which were frequently mere extensions of houses - and to return repeatedly to the same locations. Some of these places were a separate enclosed space selling an assortment of simple items alongside the road; others were tiny: only a bench with a few drinks on sale. Many villagers creatively supplemented their income by setting up family-run shops, often staffed at different times by their young children. As time passed, locals got accustomed to my presence and started interacting more naturally.
The Rohingya, in the same way many Bangladeshi people are hospitable to visitors, are friendly and courteous to newcomers. They also want to share their grievances with outsiders and sometimes think they might get help from strangers. However, most adults were spontaneously sociable; others soon opened up after getting over their initial wariness.
The children had a hierarchy dependent on asserting their dominance through small acts of physical aggression. Assertive older youths would admonish those younger, sometimes using a stick, younger children would poke or point their fingers directly into the face of even younger ones to show dominance during heated verbal exchanges.
A lot of this was posturing, testing boundaries, because they knew who was stronger in the pecking order. Occasionally, uncontrolled emotions forced a quick physical response to restore the status quo. This occurred when adult relatives were absent, but continued when other unrelated adults were present who did not care to intervene.
Some children were very fragile, reacting to the slightest feeling of challenge to their perceived status or what they said was correct. No doubt a few had various untreated mental health issues.
A very noticeable feature at each small eating place or grocery shop was how every owner, helper or child assistant running the shop in absence of an adult, possessed a long wooden stick. They used this implement to hit wildly at younger children who crowded around me or did something they didn't like.
At one shop, I commented to a young teenage boy lashing out with his stick on younger children. I suggested that if Rakhine people didn't like being hit by the army, it wasn't good to hit. The woman shopkeeper had been listening. She immediately interposed with a grim face, sharply responding by saying hitting was good. Certainly, no cultural habits would change by mere comments from an ignorant outsider.
One problem with corporal punishment is that an out of control, enraged and dominant person delivers it, with an increased heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and faster breathing rate. Hostile emotions flood the adult with a surge of chemicals including adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone that facilitates aggression, which is channelled at causing damage and harm to the weaker individual, usually a child. These hormones reduce the ability to empathise with the child. The next step in this loss of control may be the use of weapons leading to injury or even death.
One can sometimes see in Bangladesh how quickly getting angry over trivial things leads to unforeseeable consequences under such a system.
Another common related problem is violence at the first hint of a challenge to your reputation. People use "gorom" as an excuse for aggression only because society tolerates it.
Children soon forget the reasons for swearing and hitting, but they hear and copy this behaviour as the norm for conflict resolution. Adults model what children will do in the future. Children see the creation of negative and hateful images that de-humanise a person. They internalise this behaviour, coupled with negative emotions such as rage they feel when meted out personally to them and act likewise when they become older.
Overt, unconcealed bullying of vulnerable children occurred. During Ramadan, I stopped at a small pharmacy to look at the selection of medicines on sale. Everything was quiet. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of the older teenagers jumped towards the young 9-year-old shop helper standing near me. The teenager tried to pull off his shorts whilst other onlooking children laughed uproariously at his shame. He next beat him severely, holding him down and just hitting him again and again over his head and body whilst the boy wailed uncontrollably.
The only reason for this assault appeared to be sadistic pleasure. Other adults nearby made no comment. In fact, they seemed not to notice the event. If the adults use regular beating of weaker people themselves, they probably saw nothing abnormal in what had happened. The onlooking children found it hilarious: their reaction was another part of bullying. A slightly older assertive child joined in with a few beats himself, copying to learn to accept subjugating the weaker and more vulnerable by indiscriminate corporal 'punishment'.
After the boy's ordeal, I waited until I was ready to leave. Knowing that any comment would have little effect, but unable to restrain my urge to say something, I turned to the two sitting adults next to me and asked if the Holy Qur'an sanctions beating during Ramadan. The puzzled men then understood what I meant when I remarked that the teenager had hit the boy.
There was a lively debate about this, as if this was the first time it had occurred to the men it was perhaps undesirable. I used my hackneyed phrase: the army and police hit the Rohingya; they don't like it, so why should they hit each other.
My realistic doubts about any effect a single intervention would have was supported when I returned in the evening to a 'faluja' shop outside the pharmacy. The very nervous 9-year-old instinctively flinched when I made a slight movement in his direction.
I had observed before that if one did any sudden, unexpected movement towards most young children who I met for the first time, they would frighteningly rapidly dart away, possibly expecting to be hit (as confirmed by an overheard explanation from one girl to another when this happened). I said not to be scared, I don't hit. The boy quietly answered, gesturing furtively towards the pharmacist, that the pharmacy owner beats him.
Shortly afterwards, the boy himself suddenly hit a returning cow helper of the same age who had presumably dared to stop to stare at me. The cow helpers were of an even lower social status. I had previously observed the abuse of cow helpers when children of a similar age assaulted them, taking the punishment without hardly any reaction. Social acquiescence through power and status was evident at all levels.
(To be continued...)