Myanmar's Outrageous Racism Excused

The reputation and so-called solidarity the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hit a new low this week with the Myanmar envoy to Hong Kong indulging an extraordinary racist outburst against brown people from his own country. Undiplomatic though his words were, they are the sort of remarks that come easily to the lips of some other Southeast and East Asians for whom brown skins have always been a sign of low class if not actual racial inferiority.

Consul General Ye Mint Aung wrote to his fellow diplomats in Hong Kong explaining that the Rohingyas were not actually Myanmese and were not accepted as one of the ethnic groups of his country, or indeed as citizens. He wrote: "You will see in the photos that their complexion is 'dark brown'" in contrast to the complexion of Myanmese which was "fair and soft, good looking as well."

He went on to claim that his own complexion was typical of a Myanmar gentleman and fellow diplomats could contrast their "handsome colleague" with the "ugly as ogres" Rohingyas whose pictures were in the newspapers.

The Mynamese belief in racial purity and the superiority appearance of pale skin, as well as not being Buddhist, seem the basis of refusal to admit the Rohingyas as citizens even though they have lived in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) division of Myanmar for hundreds of years. Doubtless it would have been better for them if the British imperialist had drawn the map between Bengal and Burma differently but that border hill country is an ethnic patchwork. In reality the Rohingyas speak a version of Bengali and have a physical appearance akin to Bengalis.

It seems that the Mynmar representative can issue crude, written racist remarks not only about his fellow Asean members but which are deeply offensive to their populous neighbors to the west – Bangladesh and India.

Judging by the way that Thailand has been treating these stateless refugees, calling them economic migrants and pushing them off in engineless boats, with possibly hundreds dying at sea, Thai officials seem to agree with their Myanmar colleague that such dark-skinned "ogres" should not be allowed even to stop temporarily in Thailand in their search for security. Thai Prime Minister, the suitably "fair and soft" complexioned fourth generation Thai Chinese, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has been vocal in defending the army's murderous actions and calling the Rohingyas "economic migrants" despite their denial of citizenship in an Asean country.

The cringing attitudes shown by Asean towards Myanmar and the racist attitudes of some Asean countries is stunning. While pushing off the Rohingyas, who anyway wanted to go to Muslim countries, Thailand has turned a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, "fair complexioned" Myanmese who work as cheap and expendable labor on Thai building sites and fishing boats. As for Asean, which supposedly now has a Human Rights agenda, it does nothing.

Malaysia once had a sympathetic attitude to the Rohingyas. Some 10,000 to 20,000 now live there having originally been offered succor as oppressed Muslims. But Malaysia has shifted towards appeasement of Myanmar and a suspicion of foreign workers generally, Muslim or not, despite the role that undocumented foreigners play in the economy.

Asean is supposed to discuss the Rohingyas refugee issue at its end February summit in Thailand. But do not expect anything other than platitudes, let alone any action to help these stateless people or condemn Myanmar for its flagrant display of racism and religious bigotry.