MANDALAY, Myanmar — With anti-racism protests gripping the United States and other countries, young activists in Myanmar see it as the right time to challenge racism in the Buddhist-majority country.
Launching a campaign called “Don’t call me ‘Kalar'” on Facebook, the effort seeks to end the use of a term that historically referred to people from the Indian subcontinent. But today the K-word is often used as a racist term for people with dark skin.
The word has helped fuel hatred against the Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority who are denied citizenship in Myanmar. Thousands of Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh by violent military assaults.
A group of young activists started the anti-racism campaign by changing their profile pictures. They told ucanews.com they were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement protests that rippled globally following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died when he was pinned to the ground by a Minnesota police officer.
Zay Linn Mon is among the activists. He said the campaign aims to highlight racism in Myanmar. “Does the Indian community accept this word? The problem is privileged people who don’t see this as an issue,” Zay Linn said.
He said the term also has been used to describe Tamils and Muslims. Parents often warn their children that “a big Kalar” will come and get them if they misbehave.
“What we are aiming for with this campaign is not to use a word that the community dislikes. Our campaign doesn’t support violence against those who continue to use the K-word. This is just the beginning and we need to push for the issues of minorities,” Zay Linn explained.
The campaign has attracted widespread support, but obscenity-laced criticism has been directed against the activists. Some critics have accused the activists of stirring up racial hatred while seeking publicity.
One comment said: “Dark-skinned people were called the word as a cute nickname used among good friends who adore each other.”
Prominent politician Ko Ko Gyi, who spent two decades behind bars in the struggle for democracy, wrote on Facebook June 10 with a couple of seemingly benign sentences that used the term.
He mentioned spilling chickpea (kalar peh) curry on a chair (kalar htine) and reading 18th-century Burmese historian U Kalar.
“I haven’t heard of any cases of anyone using the term to insult and discriminate against another person. Don’t stir up problems about traditional vocabulary,” he said.
Yangon-based activist Moe Thway said the campaign meant “Don’t call me Kalar” and not “Don’t use the K-word.”
“If the community or an individual doesn’t like to be called that word, don’t use it,” he wrote on Facebook.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has decried injustice by reflecting on the George Floyd case which ignited global protests.
“It felt the pain; it proclaimed injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. As members of the same body, we feel the joy of others, we feel the pains of others,” he said in a homily June 14.
“Unity in diversity, dignity in diversity. We are a graceful people,” Cardinal Bo said, adding that “equal opportunities for all will bring unity to the nation.”
A sprawling patchwork of indigenous groups, Myanmar is home to 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities. Divisions along ethnic and religious lines remain deep.
Myanmar emerged from decades of iron-fisted military rule in 2011 but religious violence has marred its transition to democracy.
Since June 2012, the country has seen several bouts of violence, especially targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state who have been labelled “Bengalis,” meaning that they are illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.
In recent years, nationalist movements have given the word an extremely derogatory connotation. Kalar is used by ultranationalists and religious fundamentalists to attack Rohingya Muslims.
In the Burmese language, Indians are typically called Kalar. The origins of the term itself are disputed. The Myanmar Language Commission traces the etymology of the word to the Pali term “kula,” which means “noble,” “noble race” or “pure.”