Physical appearance?aside from language, religion, culture, and class?is an integral marker in a community of nationalists. The importance of complexion is often overlooked when examining racism across Asia. Rohingya are categorically darker-skinned people?sometimes called by the slur ?Bengali kalar.? Indeed, the lighter-skinned Buddhists of Burma are not alone in their fear of dark-skinned people and belief that the paler the skin, the more desirable, respectable, and protected one is.
The virulent hatred and oppression directed at Muslims extends to any Buddhists who are considered to have helped them. In October 2012, local Rakhine Buddhist men were named, degraded, punished, and paraded around public places wearing handwritten signs that said, ?I am a traitor.? Their crimes? Selling groceries to a Rohingya.
The rose-tinted Orientalist take on Buddhism is so hegemonic that Westerners are often shocked when they hear of the atrocities carried out by militarized Buddhist masses and the political states that have adopted or manipulated Buddhism as part of the state ideological apparatus. Buddhism?s popular image as a peaceful, humanistic religious doctrine immune to dogma contradicts a long history of violent Buddhist empires?from Emperor Ashoka?s on the old Indian subcontinent to the Buddhist monarchies of precolonial Sri Lanka and Siam, and the Khmer and Burmese kingdoms?some of whom sanctioned war with recourse to the dharma. The oppression carried out under Burmese President Thein Sein and his Sri Lankan counterpart, President Rajapaksa, is just the latest from a long line of violent Buddhist regimes.
Prejudice arises wherever communities of different faiths, classes, and ethnicities coexist and interact. But genocide is not an inevitable outcome of group prejudice; there have to be institutional mechanisms and an organized harnessing of forces, generally enacted by the state. Burma?s lay public and political society, while supposedly informed by the worldwide ideals of human rights and democracy that spread across formerly closed leftist polities, have evidently failed to undergo what Aung San Suu Kyi famously called ?the revolution of the spirit.? Instead, they have chosen to pursue a destructive nationalism that is rooted in the fear of losing property, land, and racial and religious purity.
The Burmese state has mobilized its society?s Islamaphobia through various institutional mechanisms, including the state media outlets and social media sites, the presidential office?s Facebook page among them. Burmese-language social media sites, which thrive out of the purview of international media watchdogs, are littered with hate speech. Postings of graphic images of Muslim victims, including Rohingyas, on Facebook?easily the most popular social media website in the newly opened Burma?have been greeted with approving responses from the country?s Buddhist netizens, both within the country and throughout the diaspora. The few Burmese and foreign human rights activists and journalists who dare to speak out against this rising tide of racist, fascist tendencies in Buddhist society have been increasingly subjected to slander, cyber-threats, and hate speech. Journalists have repeatedly expressed dismay over the volume of angry hate email they receive from Burmese citizens whenever stories are published condemning the recent violence.
In a documentary first aired by Al Jazeera on December 9, 2012, Professor William Schabas, one of the world?s foremost experts on genocide and until recently the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, characterized the sectarian violence against the Rohingya as genocide. ?We?re moving into a zone where the word can be used,? Schabas said ?When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that. . . they no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it?s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.?