In Nineteen Eighty-Four those vaporised – erased from not only the present, but also the past – are designated ‘unpeople.’ As a term, it goes beyond mere dehumanization; it refuses to acknowledge that any trace of that person ever existed. They are without worth, they cast no shadow or leave no mark. In every way they are unworthy of living in that society; in fact, their very existence is a slight against society. The natural corollary is that they must be expelled, as absolutely as possible.
When one goes to Myanmar one may hear people say, as I have, how flattered they are that one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century wrote not one, but three books about them. And the Myanmar government is again channeling Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece – albeit in a way he would have deplored – to rub out the very existence of the Rohingya minority: to make them into ‘unpeople.’
For the first time since 1983 the Myanmar government is carrying out a census to fill the many gaps in their Swiss cheese records. She is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with around 135 ethnic minorities. But the Rohingya, one of the Muslim minorities that lives mainly in the Rakhine State, come in for particularly brutal treatment: they’re regularly attacked, tortured, raped and murdered and, most recently, denied access to medical treatment.
Now the Myanmar government is refusing to count them in the census. This is hardly inconsistent with their prior position; the government has long referred to them as ‘Bengalis’, the implication being that they’re illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the fact that they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations.
And Buddhist fundamentalists continue to stoke these tensions. The loudest and most thuggish of whom is the monk leader of the extremist movement known as the 969, U Wirathu. Last year TIME magazine dubbed him the ‘Buddhist bin Laden’. He’s a racist megalomaniac who has made pronouncements such as these: ‘Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.’
These are not fringe views in Myanmar, nor are there any voices of dissent within the country to counter these slurs. Even Aung Sun Suu Kyi, a supposed advocate of democracy and human rights, has tacitly endorsed the persecution and violence against the Rohingya. She’s been particular slippery in trying to avoid being drawn into the debate, dodging questions with meaningless phrases like ‘those worthy of citizenship should get the benefits that entails’. But her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has not been so careful when it comes to making unambiguous judgments. NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, has said bluntly, ‘The Rohingya are not out citizens.
Well, it’s high time Suu Kyi declared her position too: Is she a politician who hasn’t opposed the violence against the Rohingya because it would be unpopular to do so; or is she the humanitarian who doesn’t see anything wrong in her country’s slaughter of it’s Muslim minority? And if she’s now a politician rather than an activist, one that wants to be elected Myanmar’s next president no less, she should be made to pronounce on the Rohingya.
One gets a sense of how entrenched and overwhelming this racism is when one considers the fact that, after three decades of isolation, the Myanmar government would sooner risk their position in the ‘community of nations’, than count the Rohingya as citizens.
The Myanmar government had originally and repeatedly made assurances to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – the organisation charged with assisting in the execution of the census – that people would be free to declare what ethnic group they belonged to. But at the last minute officials announced that an exception would be made and the Rohingya would not be allowed to do so.
It would be trite to say that this threatens to ‘heighten tensions’ (as the UNFPA has): tensions always run high. Just last week a mob of Buddhist vigilantes ransacked the office of the UN and a number of NGO’s in Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine State. Staff were forced to flee after the mob turned on them, simply because they had been providing humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. And this comes after Médecins Sans Frontières were expelled from the region in February. As aid runs out in the over-crowded camps and with no one to provide medical care, the docile UN’s warning of ‘heightened tension’ may come to represent just how badly the international community has failed to understand how dire the situation is.