More From Alder's Ledge

May 9, 2013

A Rose By Any Other Name

Why Their Name Is Actually Important
(part of The Darkness Visible series)

As the campaign of ethnic cleansing drags on in Burma the Rohingya continue to suffer from starvation, easily preventable diseases, and forced isolation. When the Rohingya do anything that the Burmese officials dislike they run the risk of prison time, attacks, and possible death. This is all compounded by the fact that according to the government of Myanmar there aren't any Rohingya within Burma to begin with. And it is this aspect of the genocide that shows where Burma has the most success at carrying out their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

For a government to "cleanse" their country of a given targeted community the end result would be exactly what Myanmar's leaders already claim... the complete absence of the targeted community. The act of attacking the very name of a targeted community gives the state the power to attack without impunity. It robs the targeted community of its very core identity thus breaking apart the unity that arise from ethnic and cultural bonds. This allows the wedge to be driven in and permits the state leverage against their helpless victims. This is the very reason Burma has set out to deny the Rohingya the right to their own name, their own identity.

This act of "cleansing" a society of a targeted community not only robs the peoples of their identity but leaves them helpless. A government who is simply attacking its own citizens is clearly unable to be stopped (example: Syria). It is only when the government's attacks can be linked to the identified stages of genocide that outside organizations can claim ethnic cleansing... or genocide. But if the targeted community officially exist, well the term genocide is difficult at best to apply to the government's actions. And complicity to ethnic cleansing is hard to prove if there is no ethnic group recognized in the first place.

In recent months more prominent leaders have come out with documents and public addresses that state that all either claim the Rohingya are actually "Bengali" or never have existed within Burma before. One of the key figures in this long line of government puppets has been Aung San Suu Kyi. Or to be more accurate, a spokesperson that spoke to the press on her behalf.

(Source: Global Post

Once again the Euro poster child of democracy in Burma upheld the myths that Myanmar has been working so hard at establishing in world history books. Her statement, given through a spokesperson, coincides with the notion that Rohingya are nothing more than Bengali illegal immigrants that either established themselves during British rule or swept over the border as "economic migrants" (a term popular amongst Chinese leaders when talking about North Korean defectors). This once again leaves the world to assume that Suu Kyi truly does believe the propaganda her government has created or is more than willing to help spread it beyond Burma's borders.

However the main theory that Rohingya are immigrants or invaders isn't new. For decades now the Rakhine have been spreading myths like this one to discredit and isolate the Rohingya from the rest of Burmese society. And in an ethnocentric society, like that of Myanmar, the very idea of being an outsider is in ways worse than death itself. Once you have been made an outsider in a society that so desperately craves conformity you have no right to claim any given identity outside that  which has been handed down to you. For the Rohingya this denial of belonging to the Burmese society at large has been a tragic reality since the British left.

For Suu Kyi to come forward with her statements is, in a manner of speaking, an attempt on the part of Burma itself to reinforce the divide between what it means to be Burmese and what it means to be on the outside looking in. It is a divisive step that capitalizes on the fears of Rakhine individuals and the Buddhists population of Burma at large. It is the step that alienates the Rohingya and at the same time degrades them below the level of what it means to be human within Myanmar. In effect, it is the marrying of the first stage of genocide (classification) with the third stage of genocide (dehumanization). A fact that I would believe an intelligent woman such as Suu Kyi could and would understand long before making such damaging statements.

The name, the identity, of any given population is a treasure that cannot be measured. However, as ironically as it might seem, it is also a commodity that is decisively measured when used as a tool against them. Jews, Armenians, Bosnians, and any community who has suffered the tragedy of genocide should be able to understand this. But for the rest of the world it is a tragic aspect of society that they cannot understand until they see it in action. With the Rohingya are sadly showing the world what it means to have the most valuable part of your cultural identity used as a weapon against you.

Enduring a campaign of "begalization" in which they are forced to sign away their cultural identity, the Rohingya are pleading with the world to keep their name. Those who resist the policies Suu Kyi's words lead to are beaten and tortured. Those who resist their tormentors wrath are killed. This is the reality of what it means to be denied the most fundamental rights a community would seek to preserve for its individuals.

If the world was to watch they would see the bravery in the humble resistance. By not signing away their culture, the Rohingya show courage in ways the rest of the world has yet to show. They are already starving as the Burmese refuse them food and water. They are already plagued with disease as the government of Myanmar prevents them access to medicines. And yet the Rohingya hold onto their name.

So what does a name mean? Why would anyone risk their very existence to keep something we in the Western world are trained to overlook?

Shakespeare romanticized the surname in his classic Romeo and Juliet:

"What is in a name? That which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell so sweet;"
~ Juliet

Our surname is after all the first sense of identity that we get beyond ourselves. It is the watermark of our ancestral past that links us to generation after generation of people we often idealize. That name is a point of personal affection and conflict for so many of us. Yet for all the emotions that might boil up within us it is a part of us that most of us could never depart from. It simply has that much of a hold on how we identify ourselves. 

The next form of identity we are often stuck with is also passed down through generation after generation of ancestors. It too has a name. That being the name of our cultural and ancestral past, otherwise known as our ethnic heritage. For many in America it can be as simple as our skin color. For others it could be as specific as the faith our ancestors passed along to us. And for some it is the specific ethnic heritage from where our ancestors immigrated from (ie; Irish, German, Chinese, ext). But wherever the name comes from, it is part of us. We have proven over time in our collective past that is something we are more than willing to fight for. It becomes part of us in ways that we don't realize till it is already too late to change. And at the same time the question remains, why should we?

In that same monologue however Shakespeare gives the reader the essence of what drives us to defend that name. He hints at how others attack that name, and subsequently us as well. 

"Tis' but thy name that is my enemy;"

We aren't built to separate ourselves from the names that are passed down to us. It is part of human nature to cling to the identities we are given from the first breath we take. From those waking moments when we first become aware of who we are and from where we came we find ourselves attached to those parts of our own identity. They are parts of our worth. They are what defines how we see ourselves and how we imagine others see us. So when asked to "refuse our father, and deny thy name" we find ourselves dumbfounded. The most alien of concepts is that of altering our identity to fit the desires of another person (even more alien when it is a faceless figure such as the state). 

For the Rohingya this must be one of the many reasons they find strength to fight for their name... their culture. At the very least I have to imagine that it is a driving motivation, for it is the best way I can describe it; how I can rationalize it. 

In the same monologue Shakespeare's words lead us to a major motivator behind ethnic cleansing. For countries such as Burma it is the name that becomes the enemy. When they are able to isolate the targeted community it becomes the name and not the human being that is subjected to death. By destroying the name of a culture, a community, the attacker can justify their actions without rationalizing their hate. It is that devastating relationship between the first and third stages of genocide that must be made for a government to tolerate the actions it first inspired. 

For this reason alone perhaps Shakespeare had no other way to end his classic play but in tragedy. We aren't capable of making that leap from our identity to betrayal so easily. And that is exactly what it is for those who are faced with this wretched decision. For them it is a betrayal to their own identity. It goes against the long heritage they have with their fathers and their father's fathers. It is a point in time where they are asked to deny their ancestors and take up the facade someone else would forced upon them. It is the cleansing of their name and purges them of some amount of self worth. 

"A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head;
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad thing..."

If you would like to help you can follow the link below and read and sign the petition. Show your support to allow the Rohingya to keep their identity and help fight the Burmese campaign of cultural extermination. 

Petition created by +Jamila Hanan

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