In any course of sociological theory we will meet Marx. Certainly his theory of society and economy seems, today, part of history. Yet Marx’s analysis of ‘commodity’ has still some interesting aspects worth of thinking over. This is even truer in the case when instead of objects, the commodities are actually people; or better a people. I have written before about the forgotten Rohingya, highlighting their inhuman condition in Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh, as well as their status of the “gypsies” of Asia.
Today the displaced Rohingya discovered that ultimately they hide an unexpected economic value which can be exchanged and exploited, but not, of course, by them. Bangladesh, a state with an overwhelming majority of Muslims and governed by Muslim politicians, has signed a deal with Burma to import gas and electricity and export back Rohingya.
Indeed, as part of the economic-package, Burma will accept the (forced) reimportation of 9000, out of 200,000 Rohingya refugees living in outcast conditions at the border of the Muslim state. Little matter to Bangladesh that the repatriated Rohingya will face not only dehumanizing conditions, lack of freedom, forced labor at the hand of the military, high risks of sexual abuse and rape for women and children, and impossibility of employment. Bangladeshi politicians believe to be able to kill two birds with one stone.
This despite the fact that the Burmese establishment has insisted that Rohingya are in reality Bengali Muslims since, as the Burmese consul in Hong Kong has explained, ex-cathedra, Rohingyas could not be real Burmese as they are dark-skinned and “as ugly as ogres”.
In Southeast Asia, the case of Rohingya is not just a humanitarian issue but also a political one for the region. Hence at the last Asean meeting, a call was made for addressing the Rohingya status. Yet the Burmese authority explained that they were not ready to accept Rohingya but ready, for “humanitarian” reasons, to accept those who will declare themselves Bangladeshi. This is clearly unacceptable to the Rohingya people and it should be of high concern for the UN that such ‘cultural genocide’ is taking place.
It would be easy to think that if Burma freed itself from the present regime, or if the military junta decided to revert to a more democratic system, as the US hopes, for economic interests, the present life of the Rohingya would be different, safer and they may have their cultural rights respected. Indeed, as the candid comment of the Burmese consul in Hong Kong, General Ye Mint Aungshow, demonstrates, the issue has deeper roots than religious conflict: Rohingya are dark-skinned compared to the “fair and soft” skin of people from Burma, which he said were “good looking as well”.
This is not just General Ye Mint Aungshow’s opinion, but rather that of many Burmese, for whom the color of the skin is believed to match the purity of the soul (through the law of Karma). Not so different to the doctrine of Arianism, in Burma there is a strong belief in ethnic purity, which of course matches in this case a religious purity: Buddhism. Of course, only that Buddhism which supports the military junta, since any monk who thinks differently may well find himself or herself no less in trouble than the beleaguered Muslim Roinhgya.
Burma has various different ethnic groups and the attempt to declare a single racial group can only fail and open wounds which will become infected with the bug of sectarianism. Other than the official Buddhism, marked by an ethnic national-militarism, any other religion faces, with some degree of variation, repression and restriction of worship.
For instance, the regime has embarked upon a major campaign against Evangelical communities. Education is affected too and it has been transformed into one of the main tools of discrimination by the government, aiming to remove the Rohingya identity – an identity which the world has no intention to protect. Why? Because the Rohingya have nothing to give back. Their destiny, as the European Gypsies, is marked by two only choices: total marginalization (or even persecution), or total assimilation as no-class citizens.
I wish to invite my colleagues, anthropologists and human geographers, to focus more on the Rohingya. There is a great need to collect and, through study, maintain the identity of a culture whose future generations may be forced to know their culture through books and photographs. It is not easy, of course, since there is political tension and resistance to overcome.
Yet in the age of global information it becomes more and more difficult to boycott academic research without attracting a negative image. Moreover, many are the refugees whom we can reach and many are the silent stories that need to be told. Historians too can offer their contributions through rediscovering the role that colonialism had in the Rohingya’s destiny, and also by debunking the myth that Rohingya are just unemployed, destitute Bangladeshis.
Today is the first day of 2010. Many of us have celebrated the new year while 9000 Rohingya, the first of many more to come, are not able to oppose the Bangladeshi decision of deportation without any safeguard to their original home, which, like Nazi Germany for the German Jews, has decided that they are aliens who are as ‘ugly as ogres’. This time, however, it is not the shape of the nose to be singled out, but rather the Hindi features, particularly the skin colour.
Tragically, convoys starting from the Bangladeshi border will soon deport the Rohingya, men, women, young, old, healthy, and unhealthy to a uncertain destiny. No external body, agency or Red Cross will be there to witness the deportation. There only exists the indifference of a world increasingly ready to sell souls for more profitable commodities.