Gerard McCarthy and Buddhist Burmese monks

Gerard McCarthy and Buddhist Burmese monks

Myanmar: Narratives of communal violence

31 October 2017

In Myanmar last year, Gerard McCarthy spent hours talking with local merchants who had gone village to village dispersing propaganda sermons from Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu.

In 2013 Wirathu featured on the front page of TIME magazine as the face of Buddhist terror.

He is something of a spiritual leader for those who circulate widespread anti-Muslim narratives in Myanmar.

“We just sat with these people who were espousing these stories,” said McCarthy, Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Centre.

“We sat with people for hours.”

In November, alongside Dr Nick Cheesman, he will speak at an ANU conference on interpretive approaches to understanding communal violence.

“The biggest thing that frames people’s perceptions of Myanmar is communal violence and issues around the Rohingya, but also the status of Muslims,” McCarthy said.

“Listening to these people you get past the initial ‘we hate Muslims’ and dig into what’s going on,” McCarthy explained of his field work.

Muslims, he argues, have been portrayed as deviant, cast as outsiders and blamed for any array of crimes – what anthropologists might call ‘folk devils’.

He unpacked the myths and rumours circulating about Muslims in a co-authored article on gendered rumours earlier this year.

“It’s economic grievances – people are fundamentally angry that the authoritarian period saw them suffer so much as a result of economic mismanagement, a weak education system and the military junta’s greed.”

The projection of prevailing narratives in Myanmar sees Muslims become the scapegoat for these economic grievances, McCarthy argues.

“And it’s not factually true,” he said.

“It doesn’t just come from this idea that primordial tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have always been there.”

There is, actually, a long history of collaboration between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.

“But the Rohingya are the most extreme expression of this perception of Muslims being the other,” McCarthy said.

“Really listening to people’s narratives and how people place and understand communal violence within a larger perspective and a larger narrative is essential.”

His ongoing research on distributive politics and inequality in Myanmar seeks to do just that.

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