Ethnic cleansing begins with seeing a group as less than human
At the start of this year the Myanmar military confessed that several of its soldiers killed 10 unarmed Rohingya at the coastal village of Inn Din in Rakhine state.
Apparently, these men -- suspected as terrorists -- were captured by villagers. Yet instead of taking them to the nearest police station, which is protocol, the villagers along with security forces not only executed the men -- but buried them in a mass grave.
I imagine that scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The one where Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) and his team execute a group of Nazis -- brutally and one by one.
Of course in this case, the victims were not fictional Nazis but innocent Rohingya men. In real life, the villagers hacked two of the captives with swords; the rest were shot dead by security forces.
This all happened on the morning of September 02, 2017 (I hope you don’t remember what you were doing then).
While the Myanmar military announced action will be taken against those involved, such “breach of protocol” raises serious questions about the current repatriation pact between Myanmar and the UN (there was already a prior agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh).
Now, I was going to make a sardonic joke about if there are a few bad apples in the army, how do we know the whole batch isn’t bad? And pretend -- like the Myanmar military -- this was the only incidence of violence in the last year.
But even as I wrote it, the words felt too hollow, too empty. Because we all know it’s not just a few bad apples: Because across the Naf river, less than a couple hour’s flight from Dhaka, a genocide occurred. That eight-lettered word coined in 1944, demarcating the eradication of a people group based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
And it terrifies me to no end that the current plan is to send them back, as if the problem was one of logistics and not of ethnic cleansing (although, even as I write this, it is unclear how willing Myanmar actually is in bringing back its second-class citizens).
The current plan -- framed in the language of bureaucratic development -- focuses on “voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable” return. Yet there is no guarantee of protection, nor an explicit pathway for citizenship.
Voluntary or not, if the Rohingya return, they will be returning to a living nightmare, a land of their own ghosts.
Back into the heart of darkness
The right of return is not just about safe passage; it’s about how the Rohingya people are imagined by the state of Myanmar. As long as the Rohingya are seen as outsiders, as not belonging, they are in danger.
Like many others have written, for the Rohingya to return -- they have to belong in the most fundamental sense; and I couldn’t agree more.
As contemporary French philosopher, Étienne Balibar, argues -- and I realize I am doing that thing where you take an incredibly complex thinker and try to summarize their thoughts in barely a few words, but still -- ethnic cleansing is the extreme logical conclusion of societal racism.
Of course, this isn’t to say that all instances of societal racism will inevitably lead to ethnic cleansing; but such racism is a necessary precondition for genocide to occur. Before you can “eradicate” a people group, you have to first learn to see them as less than human.
Such was the case for the Jews in Germany, the Hutu and the Tutsi respectively in Burundi and Rwanda, the Bosniaks in Srebrenica, and so on and so forth. It was even the case for Bengalis during the time of East and West Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, every society has their pretend monster, the marginalized group that does not belong. The “other” that becomes the cause of all societies woes, a constant and perpetual scapegoat.
For the US at present, it is mostly likely the figure of the Mexican immigrant that represents this “outsider.” For France, it is most prominently the North African, and for North Africa it is the sub-Saharan African.
Such a “figure” allows unjust elements of society to continue, because it allows for a scapegoat. Instead of blaming the rich and powerful, we are taught to blame the weak, those we learn to see as vile.
If the Rohingya return as is, it will be back into the heart of darkness. The “most friendless people in the world” will once again find themselves in an abyss from which there is no escape.
Among the 10 slaughtered on Spetember 2, 2017: Five were fisherfolk, the two wealthiest shopkeepers, one was an Islamic teacher, and the last two were high school boys.
They were held in a school overnight, and on early September morning brought to a hill to be killed.
You can see them all in the photo. It’s devastating to look at, and I’m not sure what good saying their names does, but you can find them online if you wanted.
It’s almost cliche at this stage to reflect upon Bangladesh’s own birth by fire, a country that too emerged from unspeakable acts of violence.
And let’s not forget, in the eyes of the Myanmar soldiers, those killed at Inn Din weren’t Rohingya at all -- they were Bengali.
M Mostafa is a writer for Dhaka Tribune.