What’s in a name?

Laetitia van den Assum


Advisory Commission on Rakhine State holding a meeting

Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict
Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides
Hurst Publishers: 2018
Yangon, October 2016. As a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi and chaired by the late Kofi Annan, I spent two days listening to a range of perspectives on the history of Rakhine State. I was well aware that some of its elements are disputed and even toxic, but still found myself taken aback by the zeal of several presenters, who rejected all perspectives except their own. This went well beyond being lectured at.

The Commission met Rakhine and Rohingya experts as well as independent scholars. All were meticulously prepared and their work well-documented. By the end of the second day we had accumulated an impressive stack of books and papers to help us in our work. But some of our questions had clearly generated antagonism among Rakhine experts, particularly directed against the foreigners in the Commission. “Our issues are complex and it is difficult for you to understand them,” they told us.

You do not only hear such comments from the Rakhine community. You hear them everywhere in Myanmar, from the villages to the isolation of Naypyidaw, the country’s capital. De facto prime minister Suu Kyi herself frequently berates the world outside Myanmar for its lack of understanding of the complexities that mark her country.

It is true that many outsiders at first find it difficult to grasp Myanmar’s notion of ethnicity and identity, but the frequent references to its complexity are too often intended as conversation stoppers. When you attempt to start a dialogue, the urge to control the historical narrative — and thus collective memory — can become palpable.

To read the rest of this article and to get access to all Mekong Review content, please purchase a subscription by clicking here.

Previous Article

More anarchy

Next Article

Salt-cured limes

More from the Mekong Review