DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Elliott Prasse-Freeman. He is an assistant professor at National University of Singapore based in Singapore.
Elliott, great to see you today.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Thanks. Thanks a lot for having me.
DEVIN STEWART: Elliott's area of expertise is Myanmar, or Burma, and the plight of the Rohingya, which are an ethnic group in the Rakhine area of Burma, and is now undergoing a kind of migration crisis in Bangladesh.
Elliott, before we get into the current situation about the Rohingya, what is your research topic at National University of Singapore?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Sure. Thanks for asking me because I'll be able to contextualize some of my interest in the Rohingya—depending on how you say it; I don't know if it really matters.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's stick with one. Which one do you prefer?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: rəʊ(h)ɪndʒə. At least that's what the people I have talked to say.
DEVIN STEWART: It seems like every time we record this podcast it changes. So we'll go with a "g" sound.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: I have spent the last 15 years on and off studying Burma. My long-term project was trying to figure out how people who don't have what we might imagine as rights, social activists, nonetheless act to try to get the people in power to change the way they do things.
I did a long-term ethnographic project in 2014 and 2015 to study the way they went about doing that, and try to adduce from those experiences how they think about what might call the "affordances of citizenship."
We tend sometimes in the West, or in America, to think of citizenship as being predicated on or emerging from the formal description of the rights and duties or opportunities that exist in the Constitution or the law.
In Burma it's very different. So there's the formal and then there's a vast difference in terms of how you can actually access those things we might call rights. I focused on the things you had to do, had to perform, in order to get access to the things we might presuppose as being involved in being a citizen.
The reason why this attaches to the Rohingya is that this minority group in the northwest of the country is seen as kind of fundamentally "other," as interlopers, as people who have snuck into the country. Hence, even if they have formal citizenship, they wouldn't really be accepted as citizens, as full members of the polity.
DEVIN STEWART: Got it. So it's kind of like the construction of citizenship in a sense.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: What does one need to do specifically in the case of Burma to become accepted as a citizen?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Basically, you had to have been there before 1824, which is difficult to do. It's also very difficult to prove.
DEVIN STEWART: Difficult to do as in you can't go back in time?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Exactly.
But more importantly, even if you are able to trace a sort of lineage to the time before the colonial encounter—which started in 1824 when the British showed up, actually in this very region; the Rakhine state area, was part of the colonization project—the state essentially says, "There were indigenous peoples there before that period of time, and those are the ones who we will say are citizens no matter what, with the full suite of"—I hesitate to use the word "rights" because that's not quite the way it works—"claims to being able to belong." Everyone else, on the other hand, has a sort of attenuated citizenship that can actually be taken away if they end up falling afoul of the people in charge.
DEVIN STEWART: As a scholar, what is your take on their claims of being citizens?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: You can assess this based on the terms of the state under this indigeneity discourse, or you could assess it under some other set of claims that we might accept as reasonable for being able to belong to a polity.
I think you can actually establish the Rohingya as an indigenous group through both. The issue is whether you capitulate to a fairly impossible set of criteria by trying to establish without a shadow of the doubt that the group that now calls themselves Rohingya is able to trace their lineage back to before 1824.
But what we do know is that this polity in Arakan, that is now called Rakhine, was kind of a very fluid civilizational zone that connected what we now divide between Arakan and Chittagong in Bangladesh, was actually a much broader zone that had a lot of intercourse between different kinds of peoples. In fact, Arakan as a state, as a kingdom, made itself strong by gathering slaves from up into the Bay of Bengal, up into places that we now call Bangladesh, in Chittagong.
So there's a sort of irony in the patriots who now deny the existence of the Rohingya based on the fact that they are merely immigrants that came later. When you look at how these people, many of them anyway, got here in the first place, it was because of these kingdoms. They didn't stop at the border that exists today, east of the River Naf, but rather went all the way up to Chittagong and even beyond.
DEVIN STEWART: Is there a historical academic consensus about the Rohingyas' claims of having a historical claim to citizenship?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: No. That's one of the big issues, that people are still fighting this out, both in terms of trying to find supposedly dispositive sources that are going to prove without a shadow of the doubt, but also in the way that we might theorize these kinds of things.
To give you an example, some folks would say that the Rohingya merely came with the British, because the British after the 1824 colonization brought over agricultural laborers, who were mostly seasonal laborers until about 1880, into this region where many Muslim South-Asian-looking peoples now live.
Now, some assert without evidence that this is the Rohingya that we think of today and this immigration basically subsumed the 20,000, 30,000—we don't really know—community of Muslims who were there before, and essentially the Rohingya today are just Bangladeshis or Chittagongians.
Now, in a certain way this doesn't matter. They have been here for a long time in a way that should constitute indigeneity. But, even that said, if you try to adhere to this very difficult criterion of before 1824, you might question this interpretation that exists without evidence, because right now you have a group calling themselves the Rohingya who have a slight dialectal differentiation from the people in Chittagong. They certainly don't see themselves as Chittagongians.
So you might say, "Well, instead of the people coming into the area subsuming the folks who were there, why not imagine it the way the Rohingya themselves describe it? Imagine those people fitting into the culture that existed in northern Arakan and becoming Rohingya."
So the other tricky part is that this ethnonym, this name Rohingya, doesn't exist much in the archives. In 1799 there's an example of a guy named Francis Buchanan who found it.
But the British, who had a fairly confused classificatory project under their colonial administration, didn't use it. So proponents say, "Well, no name, no people."
But we know, or we theorize, the way ethnicity works doesn't exist just because there is a name or there is no name. So some of us are saying, "Well, let's imagine that these people who they might have called themselves Rohingya but no one wrote it down in the records, and then there were people who came in, they kind of absorbed them, that's the kind of people we are thinking about today when we think about Rohingya."
DEVIN STEWART: That claim among not only the Arakan/Rakhine people, the Arakans—not only the claim from the Rakhine state against the Rohingya, but also the Myanmar national government—there's a claim rejecting their claim to citizenship. It's getting complicated here.
On what basis do the Burmese make the claim against their claim to citizenship? Is it about integration? In other words, there's probably a legal claim, but there's probably another political/cultural claim.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: That's a great point. I think ultimately the fight that is along the lines of indigeneity, or even along citizenship, risks ignoring these very reactionary, blood-and-soil kind of culturalist arguments that say, "These people don't belong here."
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said, "The Bengalis don't have the characteristics of the people of our country."
And yet, if you look closer at the Rohingya practices—if you look at modes of dress, the kind of agriculture they do, the Thanaka face paint that they wear, the wrestling that they pursue that is now called "Rakhine wrestling" but they would call "Rohingya wrestling"—you see a lot of intercourse between these two people, intermarriage for instance.
So what I think I want to stress is that you have these boundaries that have been established that divide these two people as if they are fundamentally different, but they share a lot of the same cultural material. Only recently relatively has there been such an extreme divide that says, "These two peoples cannot exist together."
DEVIN STEWART: My understanding is that the irony is the democratization opening of Burma is what sparked the powder keg, if you will—that's a cliché, sorry—but during the junta the authoritarian government basically kept things under control, and the opening up of the discourse and the sense of instability has allowed the military to exploit the new situation and also to create a political avenue to turn this into a political issue. Is that correct?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes. A lot of things are going at once and it's difficult from an analytical perspective to tease out everything that's going on.
You had a liberalization of land markets and you had an influx in investment, so suddenly there is money flooding in, there's a sense that people aren't getting their hands on it. There's a feeling of precarity or vulnerability that's emerging, which I think plays into the importance of being a member of the nation.
A lot of people are being asked to sacrifice for the nation. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi went to Letpadaung, the site of a famous copper mine where monks were burned by the white phosphorus, and people had their land stolen, and she said: "I have to sacrifice for the country and we have to sacrifice for the country. We can't get rid of these land grabs because it would prevent the foreign investment."
I think interesting things are happening there, where people are essentially realizing: Well, things are going to be bad for a while, but the nation is going to get better, and so I want to have a claim to that. But I can't have my land stolen; I can't till my land anymore. How do I index? How do I perform my belonging to the nation?
One way of doing that is to demonstrate a sort of nationalism and an opposition to these supposed interlopers. So the Rohingya are a useful constitutive outside that allows the group on the inside to perhaps get over some of their internal differences and perhaps perform their belonging to the nation. That's one issue.
The second issue is you had a "Global War on Terror" discourse that has penetrated the consciousness of folks in Burma the same way it has in many other ways and Islamophobes across oceans are finding common cause together. The Rohingya have been construed as the thin edge of a broader wedge of global Islam, to which Aung San Suu Kyi herself has even capitulated, saying, "The Rohingya are not the only ones who should be afraid; it's also the Burmese, because people do fear global Islam."
So there are a lot of things in the mix. I don't think violence was necessary, but lots of things came together at that moment.
DEVIN STEWART: And what about the other side of the religious coin, which is something you hear articulated if you travel around Burma, the claim among various Buddhist communities that there is a need to protect the purity of a minority Buddhist sect in the world, that they see themselves as one of the last examples of this type of Buddhism practiced in Burma? In other words, it's not just defensive against outside forces but it's also protecting some type of tradition. What do you make of that?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: I think that political entrepreneurs especially, who have taken Buddhism and turned it into a wedge issue or a way of mobilizing popular support, have been very clever in how they have construed Buddhism as under threat. You see a lot of this discourse in folks talking about how "The rest of Southeast Asia used to be Buddhist, and now look at it." Sometimes they describe Arakan as the "Western gate" that is preventing the hordes or the waves of Muslims from coming in.
In 2012 or 2013, the then-speaker of Parliament, Thura Shwe Mann, went to the Rakhine Nationalities Conference and said, "Thank you, Rakhine, for protecting our culture." What he did there was quite interesting. He both ratified Rakhine as a group, as a kinship group, a brotherly group, and gave them that respect as an individual group. But he also described their broader culture as being different than the Bengalis or the Muslims.
So what you see there is the mobilization of Buddhism as a way of trying to perhaps suppress a lot of differences that the military government has not resolved in terms of the interethnic conflict that has existed in Burma since the time of independence, and even now there doesn't seem to be a good solution for, as the ethnic minorities are still concerned about not getting their fair share of representation under the federal system or resources.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's go to the current crisis, which is on the border between Burma and Bangladesh. Probably our listeners have seen the photos and the videos from that border and the suffering and turmoil and distress that is taking place there.
I want to first start with what caused the crisis in the first place. The government consistently claims that the cause of this particular crisis was a terrorist attack by ARSA. Is that correct?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: That's correct, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
DEVIN STEWART: They attacked, I believe, some police stations.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: The government and/or military and police response was to chase them. What ensued was burning of villages and essentially chasing—was it a half a million people out of—
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: 700,000.
DEVIN STEWART:—700,000 people into Bangladesh, which is like essentially a refugee camp.
That's the official explanation of what's going on. Is that how you understand it; and, if not, how would you modify that?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: There are a lot of theories about what actually went on. Who is ARSA? Does it exist? Is it a false flag attack that the military has used as a way of drumming up a conflict or a threat that they then can justify a response to?
I don't necessarily adhere to that theory. I think ARSA is real. It is blown out of proportion in terms of the threat that it constitutes, and it didn't need the disproportionate response.
So the military used essentially what was a—they oppressed the people to the point where some of them—and actually ARSA seems like it came from outside, that it was a group of Saudi Arabia-trained, or at least diaspora Rohingya who snuck back into the country to try to lead this revolution for, maybe not a new state but at least an autonomous zone, to respond to the oppression that they are facing, and then the state used this as a pretense to drive everyone out, 700,000 people.
Some of the evidence for that is that there was a massive buildup of forces that existed in the area before the ARSA attack. Now, the military could counter by saying, "We just did good intelligence work so we were prepared for what eventually came."
I don't know much about—and I think people are still struggling to figure out—who is ARSA and why haven't we heard from them since; are they still active in the refugee camps? I think those questions are quite open. But I don't study that so I don't know as much about it.
DEVIN STEWART: A number of news reports have pointed to concern among officials—I think in the United Nations and other places—about repatriating Rohingya back to Burma is premature, that Burma is not ready for it, the Rohingya themselves are probably not ready.
How do you assess that situation? How do you assess the viability of bringing them back to Burma?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: One would have to basically have some sort of confirmation that the systemic conditions that led to the misery of their lives essentially under an apartheid regime, and then the more discrete violence that is brought to bear on them by the military, neither of those things would happen again.
I don't see those fundamental conditions having been altered. I was recently in Cox's Bazar in October and spent a couple weeks there. People do want to go back.
DEVIN STEWART: That's on the Bangladesh side?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes, that's on the Bangladesh side.
DEVIN STEWART: How does one get there?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: You go through Chittagong or Dakha and then—you can actually fly into Cox's Bazar. It has the world's longest beach and it's a place that people who live in Dakha go for holiday. Oddly, it's the world's largest refugee camp and a resort area at the same time, which makes for a strange scene on the beaches there, for instance.
When talking to people, a constitutive element of Rohingya identity is the life that they lived in Rakhine state, especially the life they lived maybe 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, that exists in historical memory, before some of this deep structural violence invaded their life ways and prevented them from being able to live in the way that they wanted to.
So they do want to go back, but they want to go back—and I want to be very careful about not characterizing what is a very diverse group of people with different sets of needs. I think people too blithely talk about "the Rohingya, what they want," because they have been distributed across lots of space, they have different leaders, they have different goals. In fact, for people to call them "Rohingya" I think both honors and acknowledges their name but also sometimes even forces them to identify in ways they might not want to.
That's a tricky thing to say, in the sense that you want to support people but you also don't want to put them in a position where they are forced to be something that is actually leading to their destruction.
DEVIN STEWART: Sure.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: So that's a really tricky thing.
Anyway, after that slight aside, I don't think people feel comfortable. I don't think they have reason to feel safe to repatriate at this point. That's why you see a lot of resistance in the camps to things like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) trying to distribute a biometric ID card to the people, and they are rejecting it. From elites to widows who cannot read and write, you have a pretty strong movement across the Rohingya, the refugee population actually rejecting this card and saying, "Until it says we're refugees, until it says 'Rohingya' on it, we're not going to accept it because we see it as a way to force us to go back without any semblance of rights or opportunities."
DEVIN STEWART: Meanwhile Aung San Suu Kyi has come under a lot of criticism both in Southeast Asia and also around the world. Two big stories have happened with Aung San Suu Kyi.
One is Mahathir recently pointed to the concern about Malaysia's neighbor—i.e. Burma—is not taking care of this situation appropriately or in a satisfactory way for a country that—is Malaysia majority Muslim?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: He was making the case for treating Muslims well within Southeast Asia.
And then the other big piece of news is Amnesty International took back its top award to Aung San Suu Kyi, saying that Aung San Suu Kyi has been a disappointment to the human rights community around the world, which seems to also further an ongoing narrative of this growing hostility between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Western human rights community, which is pretty ironic since Aung San Suu Kyi, say 10 years ago, was like the poster child, the reigning monarch, of human rights in the world.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes, certainly.
DEVIN STEWART: And now she's a bit of villain, which is quite unfortunate.
What do you make of Aung San Suu Kyi's management of the crisis and how is she doing overall?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: There are at least two ways of looking at it.
One is that she is in a very tough position and she has ended up having to choose between her international human rights commitments and her domestic political constituency who is almost universally opposed to Rohingya as belonging. The military has done a very good job of positioning her in a way that she is going to lose one way or another.
The other interpretation is that we presuppose that Aung San Suu Kyi is on the side of human rights and the Rohingya and is merely in a tough spot. But perhaps we shouldn't. Perhaps she has never really accepted them as belonging in the nation. As a result, even though she is perhaps sympathetic, as maybe anyone would be, toward mass violence, or the associated violence with people being driving across borders, as a good liberal who respects the international order of nation-states she says, "Well, those aren't our people so we don't have to deal with them."
Of course, there are potentially other explanations too. What I think perhaps has happened is that as the military tried to undermine her, she pivoted and said, "Actually I agree with the military," and so she made sure there was very little space between herself and the military, and forged an alliance with right-wing nationalists and the military in which she has indicated that she is onboard with their politics, and the Rohingya are essentially the scapegoats as a result.
Now, I think the Western human rights organizations are particularly wounded or betrayed because they feel like they spent a lot of capital and a lot of time and energy working for her and she has now betrayed them, and I think that's understandable.
But at the same time, one might also say: "Well, you turned her into an icon. You made her something that she wasn't. You perhaps instrumentalized her a bit in terms of achieving your own set of goals." Perhaps that's harsh on them, and perhaps I would reserve more of my opprobrium for U.S. congresspeople who I don't think really cared that much about Burma but use it as a cause célèbre, as the United States cozied up to every military dictatorship in the Middle East and in the "Stans" and such, but were able to say, "Look, we're good on human rights because this photogenic woman is in prison and we support her."
DEVIN STEWART: Interesting.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Did Aung San Suu Kyi actually have a choice on how she dealt with the military?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Good question.
I think that what one would need to do is to establish that there were actions that she could have taken that she didn't take. For instance, when she was speaking about the recent violence she initially said there were some things that could have been done a little bit better, which in itself is pretty weak tea. Then, recently she gave an interview with NHK in which she said that she couldn't recall making that statement and couldn't imagine anything that could have been done differently.
That's just one example of many. People tend to say, "Oh, she has been silent on the issue." Well, if you listen to what she said, she has been pretty vocal, and none of what she has said has actually endorsed the Rohingya as a group worthy of protection by an integration into the state. That, I think, is more disturbing than perhaps her equivocation, just the actual things she said against them.
DEVIN STEWART: Was that a viable political move, though, to go and support the Rohingya?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: That's a great question, and that's something we don't really know about because we haven't seen the potential repercussions.
Now, Aung San Suu Kyi herself talks a lot about "freedom from fear," and that was the title of one of her books, and she talks about how true politics is overcoming her fear to do what's right. So one might say that she has become a victim to her own fear, thinking that she doesn't have the moral suasion to convince her constituents to actually look out for these people who want to be part of the nation, or she just never really saw them as belonging in the first place. It's difficult to say because we didn't see her try.
I believe that her power is such that she could have convinced a lot of people to at least open their minds about this. But I also don't believe that she could have transformed the minds of people who have been in a kind of a drip-drip-drip way over the last 50 years, and even before, exposed to a kind of propaganda, an "othering," against especially Muslim and dark-skinned people that has become baked into or a constituent of a sort of common conventional wisdom in Burma, and that is going to take longer to deal with.
DEVIN STEWART: That point about propaganda is interesting. You've probably met some of the Generation 88 people. They're not like a bunch of multicultural tolerant types. They hold biased views against other people as well.
Where did you see this propaganda coming from, who was exposed it, and what was the effect? It seems to be a widespread view among even the most "enlightened" parts of Burma.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: This is something that I think historians are going to have to do the fine-grained work to really tease out the many different connections that exist.
The question I always pose is: How could people savvy enough to dismiss the propaganda that construed Aung San Suu Kyi as a traitor and the democracy movement as trying to foment anarchy also buy into the propaganda that presented ethnic minorities in general, and the Muslims in particular, as a fundamental threat to the nation?
You might argue that part of it is that people were able to observe folks like them who really didn't like living under a military government and said, "Well, clearly this propaganda doesn't match up with my reality," whereas they didn't really know the Rohingya who were very far away. Alternatively, they were able to see "Global War on Terror" discourse that presented Muslims in general as threats.
That's how I make sense of that aspect.
DEVIN STEWART: You said something like 50 years of propaganda. You're implying that the government, currently and perhaps before, had a consistent theme there. Is there an element of consistency politically?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Thanks for reminding me of that part. I wanted to talk about that too.
During the British colonial administration you had a lot of clerks brought in to run the colonial administration, and then many laborers to run some of the industrial areas came from South Asia. So then you had this kind of idea that people from the West were exploiting the economy, taking jobs from the Burmese.
Then you had a sort of religious discourse that the Muslims are threatening Buddhism. So you have essentially through a slur—sometimes a slur, sometimes just a descriptive called gallah. Gallah laminates religion and skin color together, so it puts together this idea that these foreigners from the West are going to "take our women"—that's often the phrase that's used—"steal our jobs, and convert or basically destroy our religion." There were riots in the 1930s during the colonial era. These things continued throughout.
The Chettiars, which are a group that came from southern India—who I don't think were Muslim actually; they were mostly Hindu—were essentially exploiting the people through the discourse that emerged at that time.
So you have arguably a historical genealogy or historical trajectory basically connecting the violence today to what happened before. You see this in some of the songs. The songs at what you might call nationalist Buddhist rallies today are actually the same songs that were sung during the colonial period in which they talk about the Chettiars or the people from the West, the South Asians, coming to steal our land, steal our money, steal our women.
DEVIN STEWART: Before we wrap up here and talk about what's next for Rohingya, I just want to push you a little bit more on this propaganda point, because that's one of our research themes here.
What I'm understanding from what you're saying is that this flow of migration from the West to Burma provided a scapegoat, in a sense, and there are songs, and there is probably rhetoric and so forth.
Is there an understanding of who is using it and to what advantage? In other words, are these local politicians, are they government officials, are they school teachers, are they journalists? Who is propagating the propaganda?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: That's a great question. This gets into the issue of Facebook causing genocide—and I say that tongue in cheek because you see a lot of reports in the Western media, and even from Frontline to John Oliver we hear that Facebook was involved in this.
What happens a lot is there is an idea that Facebook was allowing hate speech, like actually "go out and kill the Muslims," to basically propagate and flow across the Burmese Internet.
What I think is more insidious—and something that my colleagues Matt Schissler and Matt Walton have identified—is we might call this "hate baiting" rather than "hate speech."
Someone says, "Hey, look at this image of the Taliban stoning this woman. Let's make sure that doesn't happen here in Burma." It's ostensibly about mobilizing people to a cause and making them more aware of what's going on in the world. Is that hate speech? Is that something that Facebook should remove? So it gets into a trickier question of what actually people were just talking about here.
Recently there was an exposé in The New York Times that found there were 700 Burmese military officers sitting in a lab in Naypyidaw taking over Burmese fanzine sites on Facebook and essentially seeding, not hate speech but more this hate-baiting kind of stuff, nationalist information or rhetoric, to try to essentially poison the well, poison the infrastructure of Burmese Facebook communication.
DEVIN STEWART: To what end, do you think?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: People are still trying to figure it out. In the most recent violence the hate speech didn't really have anything to do with that. It certainly produced a polity that was generally okay with what went on, you could argue, but I think a lot more work needs to be done to figure out what exactly was going on and how people accessing maybe more information or different kinds of affective content, content that motivates you, actually crosses the line into mobilization to violence. I think that that link hasn't really been established.
What I would also say is that people often assume that Burmese Facebook is people getting the wrong information, getting fake news, and the intervention could be epistemological, like just give them the better news and make sure they don't get the fake news.
But in this broader context that I'm talking about of precarity, when people need to demonstrate their bona fides as good members of the nation, I think what's happening is people aren't spreading hate bait as a way of telling people, "Hey, actually look out for this." They are rather performing a subjective stance, saying, "I'm the kind of person who defends the nation," and they are doing what I would call nationalist labor, where they are building the nationalist infrastructure online every time they decide to forward or create their own post talking about the dangers that perhaps foreigners are bringing to the country, or the need to protect Buddhism, or the need to be good patriots.
DEVIN STEWART: A lot of themes that are familiar in the United States these days.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Exactly, and that's what's important about it. I think that both places can learn from each other.
DEVIN STEWART: Elliott, thank you so much.
Before we go, any final thoughts on the future of Rohingya?
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: I do have one. Going back to this indigeneity discourse, it's almost an impossible task to establish that you were there 1824, and it's almost a losing battle—to play is to lose.
I think the challenge is to reorganize Burma's idea of what it means to belong that focuses on the material engagements that Rohingya for instance—and that includes ethnic minorities—have pursued in their participation in the nation for the last hundreds of years. In the case of the Rohingya they were active in the independence movement, they were active in 1988. They have demonstrated that they have suffered and struggled under the military regime. And they are committed to a future in the nation; they're not committed to having their own land or going off to Bangladesh; they want to be part of what's going on in Burma in the future.
I don't know that there is any hope that that can happen after this recent phase of violence that would make reintegration so difficult. To be honest, it's pretty irresponsible to force people to go back and say, "You must resist ethnic cleansing. You can't allow yourself to be resettled in other countries." It's unfair to make them do that.
But at the same time I do think that the only answer to Burma's citizenship dilemma is to make citizenship mean something that isn't on one hand empty formal citizenship, and on the other indigeneity, which is almost impossible to establish.
DEVIN STEWART: Elliott Prasse-Freeman from National University of Singapore, thanks again so much. You have really educated us and taught us a lot today. Thank you.
ELLIOTT PRASSE-FREEMAN: Thank you for having me.