It was like amnesia, or maybe even a cultural lacuna: Burma had erased from its collective memory what had happened to these people, or, more specifically, what the country’s most virulent strains had done in the name of bodily purification. So much so that my grandmother—nearly 75 years later—still felt free to refer to the race of the punished as caste men, outsiders, never once mentioning that they had been subject to abuses and assaults too numerous to catalogue. How weird this seemed in retrospect, and how strangely disgusting that she would focus on the loss of rubies and pearls and lamb vindaloo as the Seriously Traumatic Event Involving an Indian that befell her and our family, rather than this insane, terrifying chapter of violence to which she had borne witness.
Much of Burma’s Indian population fled the country following Japanese occupation in World War II; those that remained were expelled in 1962—an unsurprising (though still foul and heartbreaking) decision on the part of the ruling military junta, which was intoxicated with nationalist fervor. There was so much damage in the wake of this expulsion that Rangoon was never the same again.
I began now to see the outlines of a noxious pattern in the accusations and amnesia. In Burma, it had been the targeting and expulsion of Indians—while here in the United States, it was Mexicans and Muslims and Guatemalans and Hondurans and Nigerians and Syrians (they were most certainly darker, whoever they were). It was the very same fracturing, along the very same lines—sad confirmation that animus and violence and expulsion always end up screwing everyone, even the people doing the expelling. (Ask the Burmese of today whether the expulsion of the Indian minority was a good thing for their economy, to say nothing of their reputations.)
This was an important development for me, in and of itself: I could point to this Burmese tragedy as evidence that the xenophobes here and elsewhere were on the wrong side of history, but what was perhaps more personally noteworthy—what all of this research revealed—was that my folks may have been the ones calling for the deportations and blueprints for the wall. At the very least, they were the ones turning a blind eye to the chaos, a blindness that carried over even into our new start in America, where the Indians remained kalas—even half a century later.
And then there was the narrative of repression and exile that my family had been spinning for much of the past few decades. I’d boasted throughout my adolescence about my grandmother’s status as a pro-democracy activist, her zeal for the righteous cause of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her personal fight for democracy in Burma. But that fervent patriotism, it turned out, was also born of a darker strain of ethnic nationalism.
In July 2013, Time magazine ran as its cover story a picture of the monk Ashin Wirathu, under the headline “The Face of Burmese Terror.” Wirathu is headquartered in Mandalay, in central Burma, and the media refer to him as the “Burmese Bin Laden”—he’s the figurehead for a growing violent Buddhist movement that seeks to destroy the presence of Islam inside Burma’s borders. But the language he uses is basically torn from the pages of the Burmese nationalist papers of the 1930s: “We are being raped in every town, we are being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up and bullied in every town,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.”