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LETTER | The recent outpouring of hatred towards Rohingya refugees on social media has been nothing short of appalling. One "meme" stood out in particular to me - it was an edited comic strip depicting a human and a dog sleeping in a room. The human, who had been sleeping on his bed, ended up sleeping on the floor because the dog had climbed onto and gradually took up all the space on the bed.

I am sure the original comic strip was intended to depict the funny sleeping habits of dog owners and their beloved pet dogs. The edited comic strip, however, painted a different narrative as if the dog had stolen and occupied the bed which is rightfully the human’s. You get the racist idea: here, the human is the "Malaysian" and the dog, "Rohingya".

This set off so many alarms in my head. It scares me to think that there are Malaysians who actually believe that Rohingyas are like dogs but at least I know for certain that these people are outright racists. The scarier ones are those who do not hold such a belief but are willing to go to the extent of likening Rohingyas to dogs just to express their opposition. Persons of this category are willing to sidestep their sense of morality in order to push forward certain agendas.

Either way dehumanisation is never a good thing. In fact, it is often a precursor to escalated violence and hostility against vulnerable minorities: Adolf Hitler had referred to the Jews as rats. During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus have called the Tutsis "cockroaches". The Palestinians were also not spared from being referred to as animals by the Israelis. It follows that such "animals" and "vermins" ought to be exterminated.

This is not to say that Malaysians with negative sentiments of Rohingyas now possess genocidal tendencies. A large majority of arguments against Rohingyas are premised on the idea that they are Covid-19 carriers which is, nonetheless, prejudicial. If we examine closely, the idea is inaccurate because the virus does not discriminate, anyone can be infected with it and become a carrier. It is different if we say that they are more susceptible to Covid-19 because they often left with no choice but to live under deplorable conditions making them more vulnerable to infection than the others.

I find it surprising that despite having a better understanding of diseases and how we could overcome them, we still choose to resort to prejudice. In fact, we fail to see that our hatred towards Rohingyas is counterproductive to the efforts of eliminating Covid-19 as it makes them very afraid to come forward to report a case of infection or disclose contact with positive cases.

I suppose it is not hard to believe that Rohingyas are dirty and diseased if we have little to no contact with them. The brain pieces together a negative representation of them based on biased and inaccurate ideas fed to us by politicians and media. Then we fall into the vicious cycle of having these prejudicial ideas reinforced.

One reckons that Malaysians would understand prejudice better than anyone else on this planet given that, we too, have experienced it at some point of our lives. "Malays are lazy, this is why they are poor and backward." "We already give you citizenship, you Chinese and Indians still want to demand more rights? Ungrateful! Always like to cause trouble!" "Sorry, we rent the house to Chinese only." One would also reckon that Malaysians would understand the pain enough not to cause it unto others and yet, we see the very comments we hate receiving on petitions initiated against Rohingyas.

The trouble with prejudice is that it reduces the humanity of a person, both the good and the bad, into a single living signifier. In this context, nationality or ethnicity becomes the only thing we see in a Rohingya. It is so easy to vilify Rohingyas when we don’t see that, they too, have personalities, interests and ambitions just like us. We have more in common than we think but our ability to empathise is simply shut off.

All I'm saying is Malaysians need to move beyond their discomfort and defence to a more constructive discussion on the Rohingya refugees crisis. It will not go away simply by turning away refugee boats. Afford the issue with the level of thought a regional humanitarian crisis would require. It is honestly better to grapple with the dilemma than dumbing down our God-given thinking abilities by resorting to simplistic prejudicial arguments.

Most importantly, don’t forget that Rohingyas are humans too. Empathy is required to free ourselves of prejudicial sentiments. It is quite different from pity, which often stems from a position of superiority. By being empathetic we acknowledge the common humanity we share with Rohingyas and that builds a mutual sense of respect which crosses ethnic or racial lines.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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