Tim Frewer shows the limits of liberal analyses of the Rohingya crisis.
The liberal analyst always works in the best interests of “the people”. He himself has no stake in the issue at hand – he merely offers the world his insights. His crisp analysis carefully rummages through events sorting fact from fiction– each false claim uncovered elevating his writing above the humdrum. He weighs up one side against the other. He never takes sides- centrism is his sanctuary. He is always careful to avoid strong sentiments. He always has the long term in mind. His game is truth and objectivity – as long as he is the one producing that truth and policing objectivity. He can always see the entire field where others are blinded or led astray by passions and politics. He determines who’s to blame, who took the wrong path and who is acting short sightedly. But above all he is pragmatic. He knows what must be done to achieve the best outcome for all involved – or the least worse. But his pragmatism is always confined to the safe limits of the liberal worldview. As a man who has been nurtured by state thinking, he naturally tends toward the state as the ultimate fixer and either ignores or looks on with disdain at the struggles of people who have real stakes in an issue.
It may seem unhelpful to engage in a seemingly pedantic critique at a time of such enormous human suffering. Yet the Rohingya crisis has revealed the limits of the liberal analyst where some profoundly unhelpful commentaries and analyses have been produced which not only obscure the politics of the event but even blame the Rohingya for the unfolding tragedy. If conflicts and crisis are revealing of underlying politics and positions, the Rohingya crisis has shown the extraordinarily level to which some analysts, diplomats and academics will go to defend the Burmese state and undermine the Rohingya. When David Scott Mathieson, for instance, stated that ‘pro-Rohingya social media traffic [sic] trades’ in ‘exaggerations, half-truths and fabricated videos and photos of security force-perpetuated abuses.’ Without actually bothering to give any examples, he not only creates a false correspondence between the well-oiled state propaganda machine and Rohingya media, but actively undermines the efforts of Rohingya activists. Several others have since engaged in similar commentaries. Yet the reason why critique of liberal analysis is so urgent during this time of great suffering is its complicity with power. Not only is it highly influential within the thinking of journalists, diplomats and academics alike, but its tendency to polarise the situation and its pseudo pragmatic message of ‘it’s complicated’ have become handmaidens to both the Tatmadaw’s own propaganda machine and to other states like Australia who wish to secure their own interests in Myanmar.
Liberal analysts have similarly stumbled through the question of fascism. Ignoring the large list of very productive work that comes out of actually existing fascisms, liberal analysts have preferred terms like ‘inter-communal conflict’, ‘anti-Muslim sentiments’ and ‘xenophobia’. Like much of the analysis on Myanmar which cannot help take on an orientalist inflexion, analysis on anti-Islam and anti-Rohingya violence and discourse tend to be understood as a lingering primitivistic tendency that the transition to modernism has not yet managed to wipe out. In other instances, it is understood as an elite plot to exploit the masses for political gain. These explanations have always struggled to account for the increasingly populist nature of these sentiments and their coalescence with democratisation.
As Deleuze has famously pointed out, fascism is not confined to either the historical European forms it took with Italian fascism or Nazism, nor is it confined to totalitarian regimes. Fascism for Deleuze is a micro-political movement that inhabits the actions, thoughts, even habits of individuals, yet in distinct ways which reproduce state thinking. As opposed to totalitarianism which is disciplinary in nature, fascism is populist and expressed through flows of desire. Yet fascism does not represent any flow of desire. Fascism forms when the desire of individuals becomes infected with state categories; where individuals take it on themselves to rid the political body of all that threatens it – to sort the legitimate citizens from the illegitimate. Rather than citizens oppressed by soldiers and police, citizens take it on themselves to carry out the duties of police and soldiers – to violently root out all that is illegal and opposed to the state. Elsewhere I have analysed long running Burmese fascisms and their recent renewal.
What is remarkable about the Rohingya crisis and what makes it unique in comparison to the long list of historic ethnic insurgencies is the way in which the Bamar population has organically rallied around the government and military. From anti-government rallies, the last year has for the first time seen mass pro-government rallies. So too, large numbers of Bamar across many classes have been involved in online harassment campaigns of Rohingya activists and anyone who opposes the brutal treatment of the Rohingya.
In this time of suffering it is crucial to remain indefatigable to the political realities of a slow burning genocide. Rather than obscuring the forces and processes that allow large scale violence to occur, it is urgent to keep these forces and their effects at the centre of accounts of the unfolding tragedy. The way events are framed and talked about have important political ramifications at all levels. It is the political feebleness of liberal analysis that makes it ideal as a discursive tool on the part of so many states and actors that wish to remain apathetic towards the Rohingya cause.
Tim Frewer is an Australian geographer whose research focuses on Southeast Asia.