Josephat Torner

Josephat Torner (see below) poses at an albino school. Image source: RT

Taken as a broad racial category, black people are arguably the most persecuted and oppressed on Earth.* Within their homeland, Africa, they face grinding poverty, ongoing civil wars and conflict, shoddy education, health care and other social services, intertribal rivalries and discrimination, endemic corruption, indifferent governance and brutal dictatorships. Outside of Africa, the large African diaspora deals with racial profiling, lynching, gang violence, a lack of acknowledgement for their contributions to society and culture, and basically the same problems as in Africa, but less acute. But in one peculiar context, white people actually face persecution at the hands of black people.

These “white people” are albinos, who are born with a genetic mutation that imparts much less melanin than normal. (Melanin is the pigments that give skin its color.) All kinds of animals can be albinos, and all kinds of humans too — but for some reason, albinism is most common in East and Southern Africa. Worldwide, it affects about .00005% of the population, but in East Africa, the rate rises to .0004% — 8 times higher. Tanzania is especially associated with albinos, since they represent .0007% there, or 1 out of every 1,500 people. It’s unclear why this region around the Great Lakes of Africa — encompassing Tanzania, Burundi, part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Malawi — has so many albinos, but it could be because of higher rates of inbreeding in local societies, where marrying cousins or other relatives is not considered taboo.

Albinos live hard lives. Melanin is a natural protection against the sun, so having little of it means it’s easy to suffer sunburns and skin cancer. What’s more, melanin helps you see, so albinos suffer from poor eyesight or even blindness. As a result, African albinos have a low life expectancy — only 15% survive past 40. But it’s unclear whether that life expectancy is due only to their physical condition or due to the persecution they suffer.

Humans discriminate against those who look different from them, and in an area with almost uniformly black skin and hair, people with white hair and skin stand out. Albinos in Africa have a hard time making friends and are bullied in school. They are called names — zeru (“ghost”) being the most common, but also nguruwe (“pig”) or just mzungu (“white”). Their own parents often forsake them, since albinism is considered a curse and having an albino around is unlucky. In the worst cases, albino babies are killed; otherwise, they are often separated from the rest of the family, eating outside, drinking from natural water sources instead of wells, and even getting buried outside of cemeteries. This discrimination means they don’t get much of an education. Employers snub them, since ghosts might just disappear after a few days. So albinos are forced to resort to menial labor where they can work apart from others (“pigmented” people). Menial labor tends to take place outside, with the grim result that albinos tend to die in their 20s from skin cancer.


Image source: Jacquelyn Martin

It’s a bad enough situation already, but it gets worse. The belief that albino body parts have special healing powers has gained currency in recent years, allegedly thanks to traditional Tanzanian healers (sometimes known as “witch doctors”). These healers are still popular sources of authority in rural areas, so plenty of people believe them. As a result, albinos are hacked apart, often in surprise break-ins at night. Sometimes the attackers only make off with an arm or a foot; other times, the albinos do not survive. Their family and neighbors may even be in league with the attackers. Albino women may also be raped, since the healers say that sex with them cures HIV. Needless to say, albino body parts are worthless, but since they can sell for huge prices (up to $75,000), there is ample incentive for chopping albinos up — particularly in rural Africa, where most people would never dream of seeing $75,000.

Albinos moan that they are treated like animals. And indeed, there are parallels to the plight of rare African animals. Elephants, rhinos, lions and other majestic African animals are also hunted for their body parts in the belief that they will impart virility or cure various ailments. These horns, claws and tusks sell for thousands of dollars and give poor Africans a strong incentive to poach despite the protection of armed rangers. But Africa’s animals are some of its most recognizable icons and something Africans are generally proud of across the continent; albinos are obscure, despised and treated as freaks and burdens.

But progress is being made. The UN and Amnesty International have publicized the problem and denounced public apathy to albino persecution and slaughter. Foreign albinos from richer countries, like Canada’s Peter Ash, have adopted their cause as something they can relate to. Local albinos, like Josephat Torner (profiled in this RT documentary), travel and give lectures to villages to fight back against the scurrilous rumors against them and just present an example of articulate, educated albinos to people who don’t know any better. They have also had some success in lobbying governments, particularly Tanzania’s, to take the albino problem more seriously.

In Tanzania’s Lake Victoria region, the area with the highest albino concentration, there are now schools (basically orphanages, since parents aren’t usually interested in raising albinos) dedicated to caring for albinos. There are safehouses where albinos can live in peace, and an entire island in Lake Victoria, Ukerewe, that is far enough away from the mainland for albinos to seek refuge from their tormentors. Donations to schools in Tanzania now include things like sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats to help albinos withstand the sun’s glare, magnifying glasses to help them see, and cell phones for them to use in emergencies. Police are cracking down on anti-albino murders, and there is a ban on traditional healers (even though not all of them spread rumors about albino body parts). Some albinos have even managed to succeed despite the oppression: Abdallah Possi is a respected professor of law and a deputy minister in Tanzania’s prime minister’s office; the Tanzania Albinism Collective recorded an album and toured in Britain; Salif Keita, a scion of Malian** royalty, is one of Africa’s most famous singers. If beauty pageants can be considered progress, a Miss Albino pageant was held in Zimbabwe, further south, in March with the aim of fighting against the stigma of albinism and redefining African standards of beauty; more pageants in other countries are planned.

Albino pageant

The pageant winners. Image source: Zimbabwe Digital News

But albinos still face an uphill battle. In Africa, official directives and laws don’t always translate into enforcement on the ground in remote regions. The vast majority of murderers of albinos get away with their crimes; official crime statistics seem suspiciously low given the climate of fear albinos live in. The price of albino body parts is as enticing to police as it is to everyone else, so it’s easy to pay them off. There is a strong likelihood that rich, influential people fuel the body part trade — there aren’t many Africans that can pay $75,000 for an amulet. The price is high enough that the bold will barge into safehouses or sail to Ukerewe, so albinos can’t really let their guard down anywhere. Skin cancer clinics are extremely scarce. The emphasis on Tanzania has come at the expense of other neighboring countries with similar persecution against albinos; in Malawi in particular, where superstitions about witchcraft are prevalent, albinos are almost hunted with impunity.

Albino campaigners are nearly unanimous in their recommendation: better education. Albino body parts do not really cure anything and have not brought fame and fortune to their possessors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t care about them. Albinos are humans and native Africans just like their neighbors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t ostracize them. And if scientific explanations for albinism were integrated into the curriculum, there would be more concern for their well-being and less exposure to outdoor activities. Education can’t really eradicate superstition — there are many, many examples of old, discredited beliefs that still circulate even in well-educated countries — but at least it would cut back on the prevalence of the most dangerous and cruel misconceptions about albinism.


The Rohingya are probably the most persecuted specific ethnicity.


Mali is in West Africa.



Rohingya fire

Another village goes up in smoke. Image source: Getty Images

The Rohingya of west Myanmar eke out a living on the margins of society, making do with subsistence farming and fishing in primitive conditions. They live in a state of smoldering enmity with their neighbors, the Rakhine, who occasionally pillage and murder them. But the real terror strikes when the soldiers arrive. Hardened by decades of indiscriminate violence against Myanmar’s minorities, they torch whole villages, gun down fleeing villagers, ravish the women, shoot the livestock, and force the Rohingya out of the country altogether.

The persecution of the Rohingya has gone on for a long time, although since Myanmar was such an obscure and isolated country, it was out of sight of the outside world until recently. The current crisis, though, is a serious escalation of their oppression, and it could have (other) dire consequences.

Myanmar is an old country; its history stretches back to the 800s. But it is a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, who conquered the fertile and hot Ayeyarwady Valley and subjugated the other ethnic groups that ring it. The Bamar are proud of their history and especially of the military prowess of their kings, and usually react to any uppitiness among the minorities with ferocity. This tendency has carried on into Myanmar’s modern history, since the country is dominated by its army, which reacts to any problem or threat or hint of a threat violently and ruthlessly.

But even though the Rohingya share this bitter relationship with the Myanma military with other ethnicities, they are different. They are closely related to the Bengalis, the ethnic group that dominates Myanmar’s western neighbor, Bangladesh. How exactly they came to Myanmar is a matter of heated dispute today; the Rohingya stress their heritage in the independent Kingdom of Arakan, when they were invited to serve in a royal court heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Most probably migrated to Arakan later, when the region was conquered by Britain and annexed to its huge Indian colony; the new colonists needed menial laborers for their tea plantations, and Bengalis had a lot of experience with that, especially in the area around Chittagong in southeast Bengal.

So the Rohingya originate from Bangladesh (which used to be Pakistan, and before that, India — but the point is, a foreign country); they are Muslim, while Myanmar is deeply Buddhist; and they are Aryan, while the rest of Myanmar is Mongoloid (basically, they have darker skin and rounder eyes). Their language is closely related to Bengali. They are seen as foreigners by the rest of Myanmar. Worse, they have links with the hated British overlords: as part of the classic imperial divide-and-rule strategy, the Rohingya were favored as enforcers in the colonial regime, which tended to admire Muslims as fierce warriors and loathe Myanma as duplicitous, scheming weaklings. When British rule was overthrown by Japan in 1942, ethnic riots broke out in Arakan as the local Arakanese got their revenge on the Rohingya, with the tacit approval of the Japanese.

Myanmar* gained its independence in 1948, giving the Bamar a chance to restore the national glory that had been tarnished by their humiliating conquest 60 years earlier. This meant seeking revenge against the many Indian migrants who had flocked to the colony and gotten rich at their ancestors’ expense. The Indians were encouraged to go back to India, especially forcefully after the army seized control in 1962. Their wealth made them a tempting target. The Rohingya, on the other hand, were too poor to bother with. They remained in Myanmar, laboring away in their neglected corner of the country and launching an insurgency to unite their area with Bangladesh. The local Rakhine, descendants of the Arakanese, held them in contempt and avoided having much to do with them. In 1982, the Rohingya were even stripped of their citizenship, and to this day are considered Bengalis by the rest of the country (although Bangladesh does not recognize them as such).

The army’s harsh and authoritarian regime, by all accounts, ran Myanmar into the ground. Its socialist, then corrupt capitalist economy impoverished the country. Its xenophobia and paranoia isolated Myanmar from even its neighbors. Its violent impulses dominated its interaction with its subjects. By 2011, the regime could no longer be sustained, and Myanmar has undergone a groundbreaking reform since then that has opened up the country and given its people democratic rights and a better standard of living.

On the other hand, the reform has also exposed how volatile Myanmar’s ethnic relations are. In 2012, a riot broke out in Sittwe, Rakhine’s main city, after a Rohingya was accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine. Dozens of Rohingya were killed, but the main effect of the violence was to drive the 2 communities further apart, with the Rohingya forced into concentration camps (“internally displaced persons camps”). It might be helpful for their own protection, but the camps are poorly guarded, squalid, and by most accounts saturated with an atmosphere of hopelessness and boredom and afflicted by the usual woes of poverty (domestic abuse, substance abuse, petty theft, hooliganism).

Rohingya map

These problems pale in comparison to what happened when the army showed up in October 2016. The Myanma army has a long history of using brute force and terror to subdue rebellious minorities, and it has used the same tactics against the Rohingya. Hundreds of villages are put to the torch; families are terrorized and driven out; torture and rape are frequently used. Children and the elderly are gunned down.

The whole crisis has understandably sparked an outflow of refugees from the conflict zone. In earlier years, Rohingya would brave the Andaman Sea in flimsy boats and set sail for Thailand or more distant but also more Muslim countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). Now most just head out on foot for nearby Bangladesh, accessible by crossing the narrow Naf River. All face the woes of refugees everywhere: locals unable or unwilling to help them; crowded, dangerous and filthy conditions; difficulty in finding jobs or integrating into society; a tendency to fall into the clutches of unsavory and unscrupulous characters who abuse them in exchange for money or food. Bangladesh has done what it can to provide for their needs, but it is overwhelmed by the latest inflow: over 400,000 since August 25. Bengalis are sympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, but Bangladesh is very poor and crowded already, and most locals hope or assume that the refugees will go back to Myanmar at some point.

Rohingya refugees

Refugee camps are so overcrowded that food (biscuits, in this case) is thrown out of trucks into the crowds. Refugees have died in the stampede. Image source: Reuters

The situation has provoked an international outcry, especially from Muslim countries sensitive to religious persecution. The UN has carried out a fact-finding mission under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and puts the onus on the Myanma military. Protests have been held in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia against the repression. Myanmar is facing increasing international isolation and condemnation. Some NGOs and media outlets, less cautious and diplomatic than governments, label the conflict ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Ayman az-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, mentioned the Rohingya in a rant against persecution of Muslims in South Asia, and there are fears that the Rohingya will be radicalized and gain support from jihadists eager for a war with infidels.

Why is Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya so much? In part it’s because they have never really been accepted as Myanma. To a large extent it is a religious conflict: militant Buddhism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and like others, they see little distinction between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. Wirathu, an outspoken monk with a huge fan following, likes to remind his audiences that Indonesia used to be a Buddhist country until it was swamped by the forces of Islam, and claims (unrealistically) that Buddhist Myanma are being outbred by hordes of Muslim infiltrators. For the Rakhine, they are seen as illegitimate competitors for their state’s scarce resources. I visited Yangon in March to conduct a research project on the conflict, and the Rakhine I spoke with were mostly unsympathetic to the Rohingya. They were well aware of the international sympathy for them and claimed that they were burning down their own houses in hopes of getting food aid. They claimed that there was a thriving black market within the camps. They had little comment on the military assault that provoked the recent refugee outflow, and focused much more on the Rohingya attacks that had provoked it. Most refused to call them “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” in an obvious attempt to deny them a separate identity from Bangladeshis.

Rohingya cartoon

A mainstream Myanma view of the conflict (Aung San Suu Kyi being the figure on the right). See this article if you’re interested in more anti-Rohingya Myanma cartoons. Image source: Okka Kyi Winn Facebook

The Rohingya do have an insurgency fighting on their behalf: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is shadowy and poorly understood. (I have noticed this report is the main source for most articles on the subject.) It is mostly funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and carries out attacks on police and army outposts. It might receive support from the villagers that the army targets. It might grow as the conflict heats up, but for now it is outmatched by the army and the Rakhine militias that pillage the Rohingya alongside it, and it is surely reliant on outside assistance.

The case of Myanmar is an excellent example of the complicated results of a long-repressed society suddenly awakening to democracy and the realities of the modern world. A people long oppressed and terrorized by their army can rally to the same army’s side when it turns on those it considers outsiders. Conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islam, it is easy to see local Muslims as sleeper cells ready to carry out terrorist attacks and bring down Myanmar’s old Buddhist civilization. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a world-renowned icon who endured decades of house arrest for winning an election in 1990, now must heed her people’s demands to stand up to meddling foreigners. She has no wish to confront an army that still controls 25% of the national legislature and a big part of the economy and could easily take over again. And hey, the Rohingya can’t vote anyway.

What can the outside world do? It’s hard to say. Western and non-Muslim Asian countries have been reluctant to press Myanmar too hard, out of fear of imperiling its fragile and very young process of democratization. Reviving the national economy (including Rakhine too, maybe) seems to be a higher priority than a million or so Rohingya. China, annoyed at losing influence in Myanmar since its opening, sees an opportunity to regain favor by not criticizing the government for its crackdown and maybe even mediating the conflict with Bangladesh. India, under the Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi, has become unfriendly to Muslims in general and wants to deport the Rohingya that have ended up there.

Given the widespread popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, hostility toward Muslims, and resentment of foreign criticism, there might be little that the outside world can realistically do to sway Myanmar. This might be a golden opportunity for Indonesia to exercise its latent political power: an NGO I spoke with claimed it has a reputation as an honest broker with experience in quelling ethnic unrest and a distaste for the sort of grandstanding favored by, say, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan (who have both used the issue to whip up their voters). Helping Bangladesh, which shoulders most of the burden for caring for the refugees, would also go a long way. And of course, countries could take in Rohingya refugees themselves — although the international climate does not seem very receptive to accommodating Muslim refugees these days.


Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989. I have avoided using “Burma” in this post to avoid needless confusion.


Gay Taiwan

Image source: PinkNews

GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) rights are a mixed bag worldwide. Within a few decades, they have become mainstream and widely accepted in the West, where gay marriage is now becoming normal and gay lifestyles are integrated into urban society. In other regions — especially Muslim countries — homosexuality is seen as a horrible perversion and treated as a crime. It has become 1 of the most glaring symbols of “Western decadence” and “immorality” elsewhere and in Russia, and gay activists cocky after their string of victories in the West run into a steep cliff of incomprehension when they try to spread their values to Africa or Asia.

East Asia mostly sits in the middle of this spectrum. It embraces a wide array of cultures, from highly Westernized ones to conservative Islamic ones. Like other regions, it has its own cultural traditions and sense of native pride that makes it instinctively resistant to gay rights, but it’s also in the midst of deep modernization, which brings it closer and closer to Western norms. As such, reactions to GLBTs varies widely from country to country, but the country in the vanguard of gay rights so far is… Taiwan.

Taiwan might seem like an odd place for a gay haven. It is Chinese in culture, and other Chinese places like mainland China and Singapore are generally unfriendly to gays. China’s Confucian culture places a great emphasis on the family, and not only is a homosexual couple a direct challenge to the traditional concept of a family, it’s impossible for them to have kids. China might be uninterested (at least officially) in having more kids, but no such population control exists in Taiwan. And Chinese culture is famous for its resistance to outside influences.

Why Taiwan is so gay-friendly remains something of a mystery, but there are theories. Taiwanese like to point to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Taiwanese history, from the aboriginal population in the mountains that descends from island Southeast Asia to the Hakka mariners who colonized the island centuries ago to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who colonized a few forts to the Japanese who annexed and colonized it in 1895 to the mainlanders who took over again in 1945. But there are plenty of places with diverse cultural influences, and they’re not necessarily gay-friendly. Besides, it’s not like the Dutch in the 1600s were especially gay-friendly (or the Japanese in the 1890s, or the natives…).

A more likely explanation is the growth of civil society on Taiwan. Although the country was a military dictatorship at first, its societal control was never as harsh as China’s, and its dictators ruled through martial law. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s government, transferred from the mainland in 1949) was founded along liberal republican ideals, and although they weren’t really fulfilled for most of the 1900s, they remained embodied in its constitution for brave protestors to point to. Taiwan has never been as closed as China, and before 1972 it enjoyed a close relationship with America, which meant exchanges of values and students and researchers trained in American universities. Even though political reform was the main goal, other social causes like environmentalism and feminism blossomed on this fertile ground, and each popular success emboldened other groups to change an ancient and seemingly immobile society.

Religion generally plays a big role in opposition to GLBT rights, and Taiwan is a more religious country than China. But the main religion is the unnamed Chinese religion, which is more tolerant of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles in general. There is also a folk tradition in Taiwan (originating from Fujian on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan) of a rabbit god, Tu’er Shen, who was originally a man executed for eyeing a handsome mandarin too much. The god protects gays and is worshiped at temples — a tradition wiped out in mainland China but quietly thriving in Taiwan.

Taiwan has accordingly enacted legal protections for GLBTs steadily since the 1990s. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against them, they are allowed to serve in the military, and they can change their legal gender. Concurrently, there is a widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. Pai Hsien-yung portrayed Taipei’s gay scene in the 1960s with his novel Crystal Boys way back in 1983; since then, world-famous director Ang Lee has made The Wedding Banquet, about a Taiwanese-American who ends up getting married to a woman because he can’t admit to his parents that he’s gay (it’s a hilarious movie, by the way), and lesbian relationships have been portrayed in movies like Blue Gate Crossing and Spider Lilies. Taipei’s gay pride parade has grown from a modest 1,000-person march in 2003 to East Asia’s premier gay event, with 80,000 participants last year. A McDonald’s commercial about a son coming out to his father (in a McDonald’s, naturally) drew nearly universal support. Public opinion polls have mixed results, as usual, but support for gay marriage regularly tops 50% (at least).

Fairly or otherwise, gay marriage has become the ultimate litmus test for how accepting of homosexuality a country is. While it is now widespread in the West and Latin America, it is still too much for East Asia to handle. But Taiwan pushed for gay marriage in the ’00s, when the movement to legalize it built momentum in the West. Despite opposition from Christians (who are a small minority in Taiwan) and older Taiwanese who saw it as an assault on their culture, the movement gathered steam. The Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party in Taiwan and the main embodiment of the reformist movement, embraced the idea. In 2015, its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took the bold step of endorsing gay marriage in a Facebook post.

This year, Taiwan has come closer than ever before to finally adopting gay marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on May 24 that the Republic of China’s constitution’s guarantee of equality meant that gay marriage has to be recognized. It’s now up to the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to pass the laws or amend preexisting ones, and this looks likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Court ruled that it would recognize gay marriages within 2 years anyway. The ruling has been preceded (as in other countries, like America and Mexico) by the gradual legal recognition of homosexual partnerships in municipalities across the island, including almost all of Taiwan’s west coast, where most of its people live.

The dawn of gay marriage in Taiwan, when it formally comes, will be a landmark moment in East Asian history, since Taiwan — a small, overlooked island despised by its massive neighbor — would be the first country in the region to do it. The question then is: Will others take notice? Taiwanese culture subtly influences China, and there is a GLBT movement there too… but the Chinese government hates any sort of grassroots organizing, and it’s typically conservative when it comes to “public morality.” Japan and Taiwan have close and warm ties left over from their colonial relationship, and Japan also has a thriving gay scene and widespread social acceptance of homosexuality… yet it also has a much more reserved and private culture and GLBTs are expected to “get over” their flings and move on to more serious relationships and assume their adult responsibilities. Singapore is another advanced, modern Chinese country with a big, visible gay community and a famous “Pink Dot” event… but it continues to ban homosexuality. Thailand is famously accepting of GLBTs and “alternative lifestyles,” but it’s currently ruled by a conservative military junta with a dim attitude towards homosexuality.

It’s hard to say how quickly East Asia will embrace GLBT rights. Taiwan’s example has emboldened GLBT communities elsewhere, and the example of the West suggests that grassroots pressure will only grow. But religious conservatism in India and Muslim countries remains powerful. Given the Western and Latino origin of the gay rights movement, many non-Westerners are suspicious that homosexuality is really a latent human condition and consider it an unwelcome cultural import. And even the more liberal, Westernized East Asian countries prefer to tacitly accept GLBT culture without going so far as to recognize gay marriage. This just makes Taiwan’s achievement — in a Confucian society only a few generations beyond dictatorship — all the more remarkable.