The psychology and politics of the Rohingya issue

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  • Thursday, 30 Apr 2020

While we search for sustainable solutions for this issue, we should not be blinded to basic human compassion and empathy.

The Rohingya are quite similar in at least one regard to all other migrant or refugee groups here in Malaysia: the Myanmarese, the Bangladeshis, the Nepalis, the Indonesians, the Nigerians - the list goes on and on.

They are similar in that there are among them good apples and bad apples.

If we really stop to think about it, in this sense, they truly are the same as any group of humans: Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans, Americans, Japanese, Lebanese, Muslims, Christians, lawyers, engineers, teachers - there are among them all good apples, and bad apples.

In my personal experience, the proportion of good apples to bad apples is more or less the same, in any group of humans.

A friend and colleague of mine recently said that sentiment towards the Rohingya in Malaysia tends to be seasonal - it waxes and wanes back and forth from sympathy to resentment.

There were two incidents that were related to Rohingya recently: the turning away of a boat of Rohingya headed to Malaysia which resulted in 32 deaths, and the allegedly high proportion of Rohingya in certain areas under an enhanced movement control order (MCO).

That said, recent dynamics in the public discourse surrounding the Rohingya have been vastly out of proportion, even following these two cases.

Going by some of the vitriol out there, one might think we were on the verge of being invaded by or facing an internal revolt from millions of Rohingya.

This is of course hardly the case.

Under the MCO, the recent anger towards the Rohingya cannot possibly have come from increased interactions with actual Rohingya.

After all, everyone in the country has in fact decreased their interactions with one another.

Thus the sentiment surrounding the Rohingya is driven almost entirely by information gleamed through social media and Whatsapp.

We live in a post-truth world, where people respond emotionally to and forward messages based less on whether they have evidence of whether it is true or not, and more on whether it connects with some underlying, pre-existing emotions.

One example relevant to the Rohingya may be the photos circulating of Muslims praying en masse in the streets, alongside claims that these were Rohingya blatantly and ‘arrogantly’ flouting the MCO.

It is nearly impossible to conceive that these pictures were really taken in Malaysia during the MCO. Such an event would have created a huge controversy in the mainstream media, and the police would have descended on the event like a ton of bricks.

The more likely explanation is that these are photos from another time. Needless to say, without proper context and verification, we can’t even tell for sure who is in the photos.

Pictures like these are spread in order to create hate against some people. Some of us have had extensive interactions with such people, but I’m certain many have not.

How then, can so many people come to hate a group of people they have not had actual interactions with?

Having worked on my share of online campaigns, it’s not hard to recognise when an issue becomes a big controversy as a result of very careful planning from a coordinated group of people, with very specific goals.

It is hard to ascertain for sure exactly what the goals would be in this case.

Perhaps there are some people who were tired of all the anger online towards ministers peddling warm water as a cure for Covid-19, suggesting women use cute Doraemon voices or spraying disinfectant on empty roads. Or tired of the anger towards how some people in privilege seem to get off easy for MCO violations, while regular Malaysians felt the full brunt of the law.

Or maybe it was just to deflect from the inevitable bad press that emerges from turning away a boat of refugees and causing 32 deaths.

I think there has been a noticeable shift in online attention away from those in power, towards migrants and refugees. One might be tempted to call it a successful attempt to shift the focus of public anger.

Public anger in general is an interesting thing, in a time of MCO.

From the little reading I’ve done about emotional management, I have a feeling that the MCO is affecting us all in various ways.

The hardest hit and the ones by far deserving most attention are those who have lost their livelihoods, and are now struggling to meet the most basic of needs. Then there are those who have very specific medical needs and such who are also facing dire challenges.

But even those who are not struggling desperately yet are likely finding it strange and difficult to adapt to this new reality.

This forced adoption of a new lifestyle is likely to cause various anxieties and discomfort, which for many of us may keep brewing bit by bit, day by day.

Emotions like these tend to find ways of letting themselves out.

The worst cases are those that result in an increase in issues like domestic violence, which we have already tragically started to see.

For others, maybe those emotions come out via lashing out at imagined bogeymen. People who are already anxious, uncomfortable, and ill at ease about a long term situation they are in are easy to rile up.

It’s very common for us to want to find a scapegoat - someone to blame for all the unhappiness and suffering we are enduring.

Refugees and migrants tend to become easy targets to demonise, as they often don’t have channels to make their humanity seen and heard - while the actions of the bad apples are so easy to amplify.

Racism and xenophobia are nothing new to Malaysia, just as they are nothing new in countries and societies all over the world.

All over the world as well, it is often easier to hate than to love - especially during this time of crisis.

That said, if we all did what was easy instead of what was right, society would crumble around us.

I’m not advocating that we treat refugees and migrants as if they were all angels, or as if we had unlimited resources to care for as many people as we wanted.

There are no doubt core issues that need to be addressed, and carefully strategized around.

What I think can be reasonably said at this point however, is that we should be wary of letting misinformation and the difficulties of living under the MCO blind us to basic human compassion and empathy.

We will indeed need to find sustainable solutions along with the rest of the international community, but in the meantime, perhaps we can remember that these are real human beings, enduring truly unspeakable human suffering.

NATHANIEL TAN is probably organising a webinar on the Rohingya issue with some friends. Details will be announced on twitter, @NatAsasi. He can be reached at

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