The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.


(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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