June 19, 2020

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK and her research and analysis focus on political prisoners and repressive laws. She writes for Frontier Myanmar on the controversy over offensive language used against Muslims in Burma:

In defending “kalar” as a friendly term, many Myanmar social media users are failing to listen to people who are merely asking to be treated with respect.

I had a friend who used to call me “kalar ma” or “Amina”, a common Arabic name. Although I repeatedly made it clear that I did not appreciate his “joke”, the baiting persisted and he even explained to me that the nickname “Amina” suited me well because I am “a little kalar ma”. While he thought he was being was funny or endearing, I found it disrespectful to be told to accept a jibe based on my religion. He wouldn’t have called me that if I were not a Muslim and if I lacked thick eyebrows or other features associated with people of South Asian heritage. 

Unfortunately, though, this exchange reflects how people in Myanmar society often behave with each other. We grow up thinking it is okay to call each other names based on our religion and ethnicity or the way we look. That is why I truly admire activists who started the “Don’t call me Kalar” campaign on Facebook this month to change these social norms that so many of us find offensive.

The campaign has sparked renewed debate over the word kalar, a racial term that is largely used to distinguish people of South Asian descent from the so-called national races of Myanmar. For people who were born and grew up in Myanmar and know no other country, it is hurtful because it effectively brands us as an outsider.

No longer calling people kalar would not solve the problem of institutional discrimination in Myanmar, but it could be an important first step. If people are reluctant to even drop offensive name-calling habits, then what hope do we have of becoming a country where ethnic and religious minorities are treated with respect and dignity?

Read Wai Hnin Pwint Thon’s article

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