Manufacturing misrepresentation: from colonial time to Rohingyas

Ridwanul Haque | Published: 00:00, Nov 10,2019

Ridwanul Haque, Rohingya, manufacturing consent, misrepresentation, politics of representation, colonisation, scorch-earth policy, Amartya Sen

Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Ukhia, Cox’s bazar. — John Owens/Wikipedia

In order to dominate and repress a group of people, power quarters have resorted to policies of defaming and ‘othering’ of targeted communities. Since colonial time to the recent Rohingya incident, in all of the cases, the powerful needs more power, needs more resource to own or share; but to do all of these, it has to legitimise its wrongdoings by representing its preys in derogatory ways, writes Ridwanul Haque

Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror.

—    Amartya Sen, in Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Destiny

TYRANNY and capitalism altogether can be very potent and life-threatening at once. The mixture can produce nightmarish situations just like explosive chemical substances do to the minds of the beholders. Weaponise identity, use it and witness ‘thy kingdom come!’. We have a lot of examples of this.

When for the very first time Spanish settlers landed on the new world or the America continent with colonial ambitions, they had religious doctrines in their hearts and hands, and verses in their mouths. Hernan Cortes, Juan Diaz de Solis and Francisco Pizarro were among the spearheads during the initial expeditions who had consent from the colonial centre to carry out full blown endeavours. 

Such colonial expeditions aspired to establish control over colonial lands and precious metal mines. For these, they drew inspiration from religious texts which said something like ‘proselytise the infidels to god’s religion’; after each expedition they use to bring pamphlets — written account of what they have seen through their colonial eyes — back home. The pamphlets depicted the new world natives as uncivilised, unproductive and infidel. Depiction in such derogatory means manufactured consent for other Spanish people who never went to the colony but supported such expeditions.

In the USA, the British colonialists defeated the Spaniards and won the land to rule. To unite European people they took the idea of ‘white supremacy’ and created ‘otherness’ for both — the slaves they took with them and the natives of the lands. During late 19th century, Reverend Josiah Strong wrote Our Country that was sold over ten thousand copies. The book showed how Anglo-Saxon race was world’s best in every way, and why should it run such expeditions.

After they settled in and came to different pacts with the native Red Indians, the native were sanctioned their holy lands and also announced those territories as Red Indian reserves. The natives had to move into those places, built their abodes and started agriculture and cattle-raising. Finally they could think of some solace for a while.

But, no! Then, the colonialists introduced ‘scorched-earth policy’, the same thing followed by the settlers too. They use to deploy soldiers to nearby Red Indian villages’ water sources so that they could not have access to drinking water and irrigation sources and declared war against the natives. In between, the soldiers set fire on the waiting-to-be-harvested crops of the Indians. Then the Indians had nothing to do but give up fighting at any moment and went away to some other places.

The defeated Red Indians’ children were taken into boarding schools ran by the settlers. There they were taught that their ancestors’ culture was that of uncivilised and gauche and had to laugh at it, and hate it!       

Colonial expeditions conducted in South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines saw different approaches. The colonisers stigmatised the lifestyle the native led there as ‘lazy’; that they had vast amount of fertile lands and temperate weather but they did not like to work; they were lazy. Projection of such images about the natives gained consent of the people living in the colonial centres. In Philippines, the missionaries played the vital role and became successful in making Christianity the major religion of the state.

The way how a person or an area or a community or a group of people is represented or depicted by the wanna-be-exploiter class, can be instrumental in exerting more power in future. Even this sub-continental people were deemed as ‘unable to rule themselves’ — that was why the colonialists had to come here and ruled us for two hundred years!  

In Bangladesh, the hill people are also represented as undeveloped, uncivilised, aggressive, primitive et cetera. So, development and civilisational progress are necessary in the Chittagong Hill tracts. Extraction of stones from nearby rivers and streams of their villages is necessary in making roads. Hundreds of streams died in this way losing capability to hold water in dry season as stone collection destroyed it. This is sheer orchestration of scorched-earth policy in silence.

Even in schools, the text book reads ‘wine and rice are Chakma people’s staple foods’, ‘Hill people eat pork’. In a country where majority of the population take pride in addressing themselves as Muslims, such an orientation given to its posterity has its own advantage. By doing all these every future generation is growing up with negative impressions against the hill people. The presence of the state and its forces in exemplary ratios build up support base through such representations. Posters and signboards can be seen almost everywhere promoting harmony and giving an impression like — hill people are the ones who always opt to fight.

Myanmar has been showing unprecedented level of such applications against the Rohingyas in recent times. The Rohingyas were relegated to its third class citizens, were deprived of necessary education, voting rights and many other human rights. After going through such maltreatment for several decades, they lagged far behind other communities. Devoid of education they had no skill to develop and that has made them feel insecure and also made unaware of birth control.

Then the Myanmar’s non-democratic, despotic, tyrant military dictator started its brand of identity politics. By saying ‘the Rohingyas breed like sea-urchins’, ‘they are illiterate’, and ‘they are aggressive’ — the dictatorial regime created a derogatory image of the Rohingyas that also caught the eyes of many Burmese people and manufactured consent among them to conduct drive against the Rohingyas.

The Myanmar military needs to prove its legitimacy in ruling the state. It needs to choose its own enemies of the state, declare war against them and earn the legitimacy to rule the state. Initially, there were monks who held peaceful protests against the military junta and their activism went demotic. This infuriated the military government and made it think differently. It started to build its version of ‘Caesaropapism’ where religion is subordinate to the state and the state can use religion to reach its goal.

There were also monks who expressed strong allegiance to the government. The junta picked some of them to make an organisation which can control religion for the military’s interest. Thenceforth, the organisation started to perform like a watchdog in both religious and political activities. If any monk stood against the government’s agenda, he was de-robed; he had to take off his monk-like attire.

The newly founded religious organisation started to publish fabricated stories, hate speeches against the state-made-enemies, and Burmese people started to believe in these. The climax reached to such a peak that people turned against the Rohingyas and helped the military to conduct drives that made them homeless and stateless again. The Rohingyas started to fly away to Bangladesh and took refuge. And the stories afterwards are well known as international media had dug deeper to unfold more of the atrocities the Burmese government has been perpetrating there in Myanmar.

In all of the cases, the powerful needs more power, needs more resource to own or share; but to do all of these, it has to legitimise its wrongdoings by representing its preys in derogatory ways. It is an agenda that should not go unnoticed from the history. Tyrannophilia — expressing love for the tyrant and giving intellectual basis for unleashing tyranny, comes to the fore by the tyrannophilic intellectual minds.

We should not concur with such agenda settings. If we do not stand by the side of the oppressed, if we do not decipher the behind the scene stories, one day we will fall prey to such agenda and nobody will be there to stand by our side.

The Rohingyas need to go back to their homeland as soon as possible, but they need security assurance to live like other citizens have in their country. They need to get human rights fulfilled. We need to pressurise the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingyas with proper treatment. We have to raise our voice against the Myanmar’s military government’s atrocities. We also need to support the Burmese people who are fighting against its business class, greedy, tyrant and power hungry military government.

Ridwanul Haque is interested in political economy and cultural anthropology

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email