This was the first post I wrote on Facebook directly criticizing Aung Zaw. It’s about this cartoon, which I saw shared by a former colleague from The Irrawaddy. There was a strongly negative reaction to it from other media, beginning with this piece and culminating nearly two years later with this in-depth story from The Financial Times (a screenshot of which appears below, in case the story is behind a paywall).
When I worked with the Irrawaddy, the editor would sometimes come up with an idea for an editorial cartoon and commission an artist to draw it. The cartoon would then go to the copy editors, who were expected to provide a caption in English. The problem was that the original idea was often so poorly thought out or so badly communicated to the artist that we were at a loss to understand the cartoon ourselves, much less make sense of it for our readers.
I don’t know if Aung Zaw, the editor, is directly responsible for this gem, but it certainly has the hallmarks of something he would come up with. It depicts a dark-skinned “boat person” jumping a queue ahead of several members of Burma’s “national races” (i.e., ethnic groups officially recognized by the Burmese government). The dark-skinned man belongs to the ethnic group that dare not speak its name — the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living mostly along Burma’s border with Bangladesh. (These days, they live mostly in internment camps, since a series of pogroms that began in 2012 left tens of thousands homeless.)
What makes me think this was Aung Zaw’s idea is the fact that I’ve heard him on several occasions describe the Rohingya as “opportunists” — suggesting, I suppose, that he believes they are playing on international sympathy to gain some unspecified advantage at the expense of others. The other reason this looks to me like one of his weak attempts at political commentary through visual humor is that it doesn’t really make any sense. What does the queue represent? Are the Rohingya trying to win official recognition ahead of the other ethnic groups depicted here? That’s an unlikely interpretation, since the other groups are already recognized. So are the “boat people” just trying to get more than their fair share of handouts from international donors? Also a ridiculous suggestion, since they have been treated like pariahs almost everywhere they’ve gone, and inside Burma, there has been a concerted effort by the authorities to ensure that most foreign aid does not reach the Rohingya camps.
Earlier this week, the NY Times ran an editorial condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s “democracy icon”, for her cowardly stance on the Rohingya, following reports that she had asked the US embassy not to use the dreaded “R-word” lest it upset some rabidly racist “nationalists”. A day or two earlier, I actually wrote a comment somewhere defending Suu Kyi’s silence, since it seems to me that her enemies (the people who used racial enmity to hold on to power for decades, and who would be more than happy to do the same again now just to increase their influence) are trying to lure her into a political minefield, with potentially disastrous consequences for the whole country. I may be wrong in thinking that silence is the right response, but I don’t believe that she is motivated by racism herself (as many have suggested) and I don’t think caution should be confused with cowardice.
In any case, whether you regard Suu Kyi’s stance as cowardly or not, there is only one way to describe this attempt by the Irrawaddy to pander to Burmese prejudice with a cheap joke at the expense of Rohingya boat people, who die at sea by the hundreds every year trying to get the hell away from Burma: utterly contemptible.