Burma (Myanmar)


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by Kevin Fogg

In the last week, as protests have flared around the Muslim world about the film Innocence of Muslims, Indonesia has not been left out. Protests in Jakarta and Surabaya (the capital and second largest city, respectively) on Friday and Saturday were led by the group Hizbut Tahrir. Today more violent protests flared at the US Consulate in Medan and again at the US Embassy in Jakarta, where police arrested four instigators from the frequently-unruly group Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front).

Since democratization in 1998, Indonesians (especially those in Jakarta, but also in other cities) have not been shy about protesting. Protests in front of the American Embassy (which also faces the central square in Jakarta and the site of most major protests) are not uncommon, but other countries are also frequently the target of protests, including majority-Muslim countries like Malaysia. Most of these protests about overseas issues have no impact on government policy, or on the issues that they are protesting about, but one case this summer shows the flip side of the coin: protests that became productive in international relations

Indonesians were outraged at news in June and July about sectarian clashes involving the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. These deaths were not the worst in the ongoing struggles of the Rohingya–involving denied refugee status, limitations on international aid, years of discrimination, and other woes–but the opening of the press in Myanmar allowed news on the conflict, which fed into Indonesian Muslim outrage. Not sparing anyone in their anger, Indonesians even loudly criticized Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi for not paying enough attention to this issue. This led in August to several demonstrations across the country, even including the leader of the national Indonesian Ulama Council. Indonesian attention has kept up since the initial news, too, with the largest Islamically-minded paper in the country hosting a special page for news on the “Rohingya Tragedy,” with new articles almost every day. (more…)

Since the revolt of the monks against the military junta in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, all the Western mass media have focused on the long history of oppression in this South Asian country, that, I suppose, few of us really know about. While in Italy this summer, I saw people wearing purple T-shirts in the streets, at the universities, and organised protests at the Burmese embassies in support of the ‘Buddhist monks’. This struggle for freedom recently saw its first victims, and there is a general fear that the new protest will be as unsuccessful as the attempted revolution in 1988. Yet the attention is very much focused upon the courage of the ‘peaceful’ monks.

From an anthropological viewpoint, the revolt in Burma is particularly interesting for one specialised in Muslim societies and communities. There are two elements that most attract my attention. First of all, how this revolt is represented by the Western mass media and secondly, the near total lack of reference to the drama that the Muslim minority, the so called Rohingya Muslims, have experienced in the last three decades. There are some hard stereotypes which affect how the mass media represent religions, and consequently, how ordinary people understand religions. To make a long story short (and of course this means to over-generalise), religions are still understood through a Manichean vision: peaceful versus violent, good versus evil, true versus false. Of course, in the majority of cases, political correctness has transformed the vehement apologetic diatribe of Middle Age origin. Today, the Manichean discourse is passed to the mass media audience through latent or manifest stereotypes, which essentialize religion into a ‘real thing’; a powerful cultural artifact from which actions derive. So in this made-for-CNN scenario, Buddhism is the most peaceful religion; Islam the aggressive and violent; Christianity the confused one. (more…)