The Rohingya as ‘Others’ and Their Desire for a Statehood

Rise in nationalist sentiment explains why Rohingyas are being viewed as the ‘other’ in their own country today.

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 Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, carry an elderly woman in a basket and walk towards a refugee camp in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, 14 September 2017.
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The Rohingya as ‘Others’ and Their Desire for a Statehood

The Muslim identity of the Rohingyas is a fundamental aspect of the divisions between them and the “legitimate Burmese” residents. The Rohingyas themselves claim a local ethnicity, that is traced back to Muslim traders from the Middle East. However, their identity grew firmer around the 15th century, when a number of Bengali Muslims settled in the Arakan region.

Rise in Nationalist Sentiment

During the British rule, the borders between India and Burma grew largely non-existent, and Bengalis were encouraged to migrate to the Arakan, to provide field labour. The majority of these people were Muslims. The vast number of these people created local conflicts between the migrants and locals with regard to jobs and living space. Here, possibly, is where nationalist sentiments developed, and grew opposed to the Rohingyas, who were seen as foreign settlers, ie Bengali and Muslim.

During World War II, the Rohingyas fought for the British against the Japanese, with whom the nationalist Burmese sided with.

This lead to a series of violent exchanges between the groups, intensifying the divide, which became literal when some of the Rohingya Muslims sought to become part of East Pakistan at the time of the Partition.

Their desire to be part of a state separate from the rest of Burma, perhaps added much to the already existing sentiments among other Burmese that these people are fundamentally not of Burma.

In the 1950s, a militant separatist Muslim group, the Mujahid, popularised the name Rohingya for the Muslim population that lived in the Arakan region. This name is now used to refer to this group of people that previously perhaps did not have such a generalisable identity. The generalised identity of the Rohingyas is one that is not just Muslim, but more fundamentally, a Muslim that desires their own state, and therefore, Muslim who desires to not be Burmese. After all, if you do not wish to be a part of Burma, surely you are essentially not.

Also Read: Turkey, Rohingya Crisis & Erdoğan’s Goals as Global Muslim Leader

Fight for Citizenship

In 1982, the military government of Burma, who had been fighting the Rohingya ‘insurgents’ until then, finally pronounced the Rohingya as non-citizens and illegal residents in the state.

Around this time, the Muslim identity of the Rohingyas grew prominent in opposition to the majority religion of Burma, Buddhism, the religion of the Military State. Buddhism therefore, became equivalent to the identity of Myanmar and the citizen of Myanmar. To be Myanmarese is to be Buddhist, and not Muslim or ‘Bengali’.

Around the 90s, the Rohingyas began to claim their ethnic identity as part of the Rakhine region of Myanmar, which goes back to the 8th century Muslim traders from the Middle East.

This claim complicates the issue of the Rohingya identity by remaining suspicious to the state as an insurgent people who seek to take away from Myanmar a portion of its land for themselves.

Even if they desire legal citizenship within the state, they will always be treated as suspicious, owing to the historical narrative that construes their identity as foreign, insurgent, Muslim, Bengali, etc. Therefore, their claim to the right to live freely within Myanmar will not be treated as honest by the State.

‘Forced’ to be Part of Myanmar

So, when the Rohingyas claim to belong to Myanmar, do they actually desire to belong to Myanmar, is the doubt that the State raises. It almost seems as if their identity as Muslims is the very base for their desire to not be part of Myanmar. Therefore, the ideal Myanmarese has to be a Buddhist, to whom the Muslim is a cultural, religious and territorial threat.

The claim to be part of the land of the Rakhine is therefore not equivalent, and sometimes, even opposed to the claim to be part of the Myanmar state.

And in fact, for the majority population, the Rohingyas are not granted their ethnicity as Rohingya, but are classified by the state as Bengalis.

In 2012, the Rohingya crisis re-emerged over a series of violent conflicts between the Rohingyas and the ‘locals’, which drove the Rohingyas into refugee camps, while many others attempted to escape Myanmar to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia.

Currently, it seems like none of these countries are willing to harbour these refugees, identifying them as illegal immigrants, with the intention to deport them back to Myanmar.

However, now the Rohingyas have also lost the option to flee. The military does not allow them to escape their refugee camps within Myanmar, and no other nation is providing refuge, forcing those Rohingyas, who do not desire to be part of Myanmar, to be ‘part’ of Myanmar.

Narrative of the State

On 25 August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked government forces, at which point the Myanmar government prevented UN aid from reaching the refugees. This caught the attention of the international community, which denounced it for violating human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, famed leader of Myanmar, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize received criticism on her government’s position on the Rohingya crisis.

However, in the recent visit that Indian PM Narendra Modi made to Myanmar, Suu Kyi seemed to subtly reveal the state’s position on the current crises, terming the conflicts as acts of terrorism. We cannot ignore the narrative being spun by the state regarding the Rohingya people as Muslim, and the labeling of their response to military subjugation as ‘terrorism’.

Misplaced Criticism of Suu Kyi

The UNHCR mandate on refugees includes what they term ‘respect for the rule of law and human rights’. Here we see the West’s inability to grasp the complexity of the crises when they attempt to negotiate the ‘rule of law’ when Myanmar itself claims that the Rohingyas are terrorists and therefore outside such law, making the atrocities on them legal.

The issue of the rule of law is reduced to criticism of Suu Kyi, who, until now, was seen by the West as a heroine of democracy, although this crisis was just as prevalent when she was gifted the prize. The criticism itself proves empty when we recognise that the Myanmar government is still run less by its democracy, and more by its military, that still possesses a strong Buddhist Nationalist agenda.

The Rohingyas themselves are forgotten amongst the surrounding international drama, and at every point forgotten, in terms of their identity, and their specific conditions. In the bizarre construction of the events up till now, the Rohingyas finally find themselves refugees in their own homeland and their own territory.

(Anas Zaman is an MA scholar in Medieval History at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU and Andrew Korah is an MA scholar in English at Centre for English Studies, JNU. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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