Inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement that is challenging racism and violence in the US, and has spread throughout the world, activists in Myanmar are confronting the entrenched racial discrimination in their own society. An online awareness campaign is underway that seeks to highlight the racist nature and impact of the term, ‘Kalar,’ catalyzing discussions on the way racist terminology and meaning is deeply embedded in everyday discourse.
‘Kalar’ is a commonly-used term in Myanmar, often used in a derogatory way to denote people of darker skin color, often of South Asian descent. It is a historically charged and violent word, with Muslim minorities often described in a mocking or insulting way as ‘Kalar.’ However, it is also used against other religious minorities, such as Sikhs and Hindus. Its’ effect is to ‘other’ those with darker skin, who do not fit into the ideal image of a Myanmar Buddhist, and especially a Burman Buddhist. During the waves of anti-Rohingya violence, whether committed by the state security forces or by mobs of civilians, the term ‘Kalar’ was used to whip up hate and incite violence. It has, however, been in the lexicon of Myanmar language for many decades, as has its perception of being derogatory and insulting. It is not a new phenomenon.
Therefore, the campaign, established and driven forward by progressive youth activists, is bold and thoroughly welcomed by those in Myanmar who stand and advocate for equality and non-discrimination. Facebook profiles have been changed to include the slogan ‘Don’t Call Me ကုလား (Kalar)’. It’s aim is to raise awareness of how this is experienced as a racist and insulting term. As with any progressive anti-racism campaign, whether in Myanmar or throughout the world, it has its detractors. One such detractor is high-profile racist, political party leader and former democracy activist, Ko Ko Gyi, who used a vulgar metaphor to express how the usage of the term ‘Kalar’ is not actually an important issue. As activist and one of the initiators and organizers of the campaign, Zay Linn Mon said “The problem is privileged people don’t see this as an issue.”
Others have become etymology experts in a bid to prove that actually, it means something quite innocent such as simply foreign, or referring to a chair – ‘kalehtain (ကုလားထိုင်).’ Yet the word is used in a violent manner. As a Reuters special investigation from 2018 demonstrates, a typical hate-inciting Facebook post in which the term ‘kalar’ is used is not innocent. One such post highlighted in the Reuters investigation said, “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews, damn kalars!” When the term Kalar is used in the way that this Facebook user did, it is quite clear that they are not referring to a chair. It is not just violent words such as the above. As previously documented by the Burma Human Rights Network in 2017, ‘Muslim-Free’ villages across Myanmar have been in existence with signboards erected to announce that Muslims cannot enter. The word that these signboards use to describe Muslims is, of course, ‘Kalar.’
This campaign was not the only civil society action related to challenging entrenched racism. A statement by Myanmar civil society expressing solidarity with those protesters opposing racism and police brutality in the United States stated: “we, people of Burma/Myanmar have experienced a long history of cultural and structural violence and were projected to develop hatred towards people of different colours, religions and minority ethnicities.” This structural violence, based on race, power and subsequent inclusions/exclusions and differing access to rights and opportunity has been perpetuated by the ruling class of Burman Buddhist elites since independence. It should also not be forgotten that British colonists sought to accentuate differences and create hierarchies based on a racial classifications that served their empire, laying the foundations for racial exclusions.
While entrenched racism will not disappear overnight, campaigns such as ‘Don’t Call Me Kalar’ are vital to raise awareness, challenge deep-rooted prejudice, and offer solidarity to those on the receiving end of racists slurs. ‘Kalar’ is more than just a word, it represents the structures of racism and ethnic chauvinism that are present not just in Myanmar, but throughout the world. However, it is a start, and expressions and actions of solidarity, listening to minorities who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, victimized and are discriminated against, and working together to upend the everyday racism that people experience should be lauded, encouraged and continued. As a first step, there is a quite simple action – don’t use the term ‘kalar.’ As expressed by the Sikh organizer of the campaign, Zay Linn Mon, “When we say we don’t like it, respect that and don’t use it.”
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Arakan Rohingya Union
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Chin Human Rights Organization
By Joint Strategy Team
By Free Burma Rangers
By International Crisis Group
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”