The Rohingya and the World

Ending Myanmar's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya will require confronting both local elites and foreign capital.

An elderly Rohingya man in the Kutapalong camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 25, 2017. Russell Watkins / Department for International Development

In Myanmar’s ongoing massacre of the Rohingya — a two-million person strong Muslim minority — the country’s military has burned hundreds of villages, destroyed thousands of homes, and slaughtered 6,700 people. Gang rape, torture, and infanticide have punctuated the egress of the Rohingya, more than 660,000 of whom have fled from northwestern Rakhine state into Bangladesh. These obscenities have not been occasional excesses but rather, according to a United Nations Human Rights investigation, part of a “consistent, methodical pattern” — an ethnic cleansing.

The horror, in its seeming boundlessness, feels alien. And yet, in its popular renderings, there is also something all too familiar about it. The images of Rohingya enduring injustice blur with images of other groups, enduring other injustices in other places.

Critic Suchitra Vijayan argues that a Guardian photo essay “completely reduces the politics of Rohingya exodus to ‘captivating’ theatre.” An Intercept photo essay asserts that “the best one can say” about the complex Rohingya identity is that it is “rooted in fluctuating kingdoms, Muslim conquests, colonialism, nationalist movements, ethnic cleansing.” Where this statement isn’t simply incorrect (“Muslim conquests,” whatever that could mean, were not part of the area’s history), it is vague to the point of meaningless, revealing the writer’s disinterest in the actual conditions that produced the crisis.

Even more sophisticated analyses fall into a similar trap. Claiming local knowledge of the long-standing sectarian animosities that have ostensibly spurred the ethnic cleansing, these commentators blame democratization for “unleash[ing] deep-seated grievances that had been restrained by the iron hand of military rule” from 1962 to 2011. (Scroll, Foreign Policy, Giazilo, and the Council on Foreign Relations all make essentially the same claim.)

What both arguments miss is that the ongoing ethnic cleansing is a product not only of Myanmar’s internal politics but also the country’s place in the contemporary international order. Foreign diplomats and UN bureaucrats have been slow to try to stem the atrocities, lest they be used to undermine the narrative of Myanmar as a success story. Political actors (often Buddhist monks) have weaponized global phenomena — particularly “war on terror” discourse and Israel’s occupation of Palestine — to construe Muslims in Myanmar as threats to the nation and internment and ethnic cleansing as justified responses. 

But perhaps most critical has been the country’s recent insertion into the global economy and the rush of foreign capital, which have produced a growing gap between capitalists and the average Burmese subject. While more and more are displaced from land and work, the democratically elected government has turned a blind eye, failing to address feelings of precarity and economic rootlessness. Nationalist rhetoric has stepped into the void, allowing marginalized Burmese to feel that they are “building” and “protecting” the nation by expelling the Rohingya.

Seen from this perspective, the ethnic cleansing does more than violently exclude an unwanted population. It also allows those enforcing the exclusion to bolster their identification with the nation state and gain access to scarce resources. Ending the attacks on the Rohingya will therefore require tying national belonging to something other than the zero-sum game of ethnic exclusion.

Who Are the Rohingya?

Burmese nationalists — often led by members of the Rakhine minority, who claim Rakhine state as their exclusive possession — see the Rohingya as a foreign rather than native group.

To make their case, they focus on Britain’s colonial occupation of Myanmar from 1824 to 1947, when it administered the territory as an Indian province. In those years, the free flow of people across the expanse of colonial India (territories today separated into sovereign nation states), combined with Britain’s partiality toward South Asian workers, meant that hundreds of thousands of South Asians entered what is now Myanmar. To nationalists this is proof that the Rohingya aren’t indigenous — they simply arrived too late.

But zeroing in on this period omits all that came before it, turning the colonial era into the effective cut-off point for belonging to the nation. In truth, mainland Southeast Asia has always had migration and intermixing: the supposed ancestors of the majority Bamar people likely came from the Tibetan plateau in the ninth century, absorbing the Pyu; the Mon pushed west from what is now Thailand; and so on.

Precolonial kingdoms depended on extracting labor from peasants, and because peasants regularly fled this form of exploitation, monarchs had to replenish their labor reserves by fighting sporadic, but perpetually necessary, slave-gathering wars. Slaves became a stunningly high percentage of various precolonial kingdoms’ populations.

That’s where the Rohingya come in. Arakan kings, who occupied both present-day Rakhine state and Chittagong, deported Muslim slaves “back” to contemporary Myanmar — where they’ve resided for generations. The irony, in other words, is that today’s Rakhine nationalists can only blame their supposed forebears for the historical presence of Muslims in Rakhine, whom the Rohingya can plausibly claim as their ancestors.

Other nationalists will concede that Muslims arrived in Myanmar before the colonial cut-off date, but argue that “Rohingya” is a political identity formed in the 1950s. This group often cites the work of Jacques Leider, who insists that ethnicities are natural rather than political. But scholars like Jonathan Saha have refuted this notion, riposting that “there is no ethnic identity that is not also, in part, a political construction.” “It is not only Rohingya ethnicity that is a political construct,” he writes. “[S]o too is Bengali, so too is Rakhine.”

It is here that a second irony emerges. Because ethnicities are political, they are often fostered in conditions of conflict or contestation. The people who came to see themselves as Rohingya were compelled to do so because their ability to live a dignified existence was violently threatened. The ethnicity “Rohingya” was formed in the crucible of World War II–era internecine conflict, state-sponsored eviction, decades of severe repression, and the removal of a previous designation, “Chittagonian Muslim,” from the unofficial list of indigenous races. It is the Rohingya’s very persecution that created the identity that Burmese nationalists now abhor.

But while the Rohingya have been forcibly locked out of Burmese society for decades, popular mobilizations against them are largely new, coinciding with the democratic transition. So what’s behind the recent upsurge in violence?

Islamophobia’s Work

Strikingly, Myanmar’s various social groups are all united in their hatred of the Rohingya: in addition to the Rakhine, the majority Burmans and even other minority groups — who have themselves suffered state exclusion — have joined in the vicious campaign against the Rohingya.

It is difficult to explain this widespread animosity without mentioning the war on terror, which has not only bred Islamophobia but made it seem reasonable.

Nationalists present the Rohingya as a collective Trojan horse, claiming that the abject conditions the minority group lives in generates international sympathy, allowing them to accumulate resources, consolidate and slowly expand territory, and bribe border officials to allow in Bangladeshi Muslims. In this telling, the Rohingya are a channel that lets the mass of global Islam flow into Myanmar.

This kind of bald-faced Islamophobia extends to the very top. Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has declared that her country is afraid of “global Muslim power” and implied that the Rohingya are the local vessel bearing that threat.

“Global Muslim power” and similar narratives have potency because they fit into right-wing stories that proliferate around the world and shepherd Islamophobia into the mainstream. Indeed, in response to condemnations of the Rohingya crisis, Burmese nationalists have pointed to the West’s own treatment of Muslims as justification for their actions.

Citizens and politicians insist that they just want Myanmar to be like Israel, using the latter’s funding of the Myanmar military — not to mention its false equation of Rohingya militants’ alleged crimes with Myanmar’s — as evidence of shared values.

Nationalists emphasize how the West has handled ethnic cleansing in the past: a meme circulating this fall with the headline “Have you ever heard Jews want[ing] to come back to Hitler?” reads:

They said ‘Myanmar committed Ethnic Cleansing.’ At the same time they also urge Myanmar to accept those Bengalis back who left Rakhine, Myanma [sic]. Why do they want to send these people to the place where there is Ethnic Cleansing?

These arguments hold that secular institutions cannot pacify, let alone sublimate, oppositions based on race and religion. By pointing out that the West chose colonial occupation (in the Middle East) over Jewish reintegration (in Europe) after the Holocaust, Burmese nationalist discourse turns Western support for Zionism into a weapon against egalitarian universalism.

Democracy and Dispossession

Yet while war on terror rhetoric is certainly potent, it does not explain Myanmar’s mass violence. Here we must consider the recent political transition and economic changes that have swept the country.

In 2011, the military regime that had ruled for a half century gave way to a quasi-civilian system. While the military still maintains control of key ministries, as well as 25 percent of seats in parliament, Suu Kyi and her party now enjoy nominal power.

But high-level political changes haven’t improved the living conditions for the average Burmese. Recent legal reforms have formalized land markets and facilitated foreign investment, sparking land grabs, debt dispossession, squatter clearances, and military-enforced counterinsurgency relocations. Many people have lost their land, still the most valuable resource in a country that remains 70 percent rural.

Allies of the junta now own massive tracts, and the government has promised to convert ten million acres into agribusiness development, industrial zones, and resource extraction projects. The newly available land also functions as an investment site for over-accumulated capital (from illicit drugs or gems industries, for instance). Whereas peasants were once dispossessed and then welcomed back as sharecroppers, today they often end up taking short-term jobs at dangerous extraction sites until the land is used up and they’re forced to move again.

These dislocations have intensified feelings of precarity among Burmese of all faiths and ethnicities. In my years of field research with grassroots activists, I repeatedly heard this vulnerability described as an absence of authority, leadership, and security. People continually asked, “Who will take responsibility for our lives?”

With weak state institutions and inadequate interventions from elected officials, people’s identity — based on ethnicity, religion, or indigeneity, and often shorthanded as “member of the nation” — becomes a potent response to their precarity, allowing them to access resources.

At the same time, people now excluded from the economy are taking on new roles — and becoming “deserving subjects” — by forcibly excluding others. This goes beyond attacking alleged foreigners. Demagogues have reclassified basic activities like eating, marrying, loving, and working as central to protecting the nation, making them duties good patriots can and should fulfill.

Meanwhile, the international community is offering up policy responses to this fraught new landscape that are likely to exacerbate the underlying problems. For instance, note how Derek Mitchell, former US ambassador, describes the rationale for removing economic sanctions:

Now [Suu Kyi] is the head of a democratic government or a democratic government in transition, she needs to deliver, democracy needs to deliver . . . What do we have in place that is getting in the way of her being able to deliver? I think [the US] felt the sanctions . . . were in the way, so they wanted to get rid of that, to help her deliver investment, jobs, and all the rest that would allow democracy to continue on and she would be empowered.

If we’re to believe Mitchell, foreign investment fuels democratization. But precisely the opposite is true. When investment flows into extractive industries, elites capture the proceeds and channel them into ethnic-based patronage, intensifying intra-group acrimony.

It is not surprising, then, that Burmese nationalists are claiming that the Rohingya are stealing land and are organizing colonization projects of their own. It is also not shocking — but deeply tragic — that the state itself has followed up its expulsion of the Rohingya by stealing their crops and giving them to “the nation.” Last month, a press release announced that Rohingya rice will go to “develop the state,” while the Rohingya themselves — if they are repatriated at all — will go into camps.

Ending the Massacres

What, then, is to be done? The situation is undoubtedly bleak. As scholar Allen Feldman has pointed out, violence, once it has erupted, becomes an autonomous, “self-legitimating sphere of social discourse and transaction.” The collective memories of bloodshed saturate northern Rakhine state, making it hard to imagine Rohingya and Rakhine living in peace again.

Many have rightfully pointed out that a fundamental shift must take place concerning Rohingya in particular and discourses of belonging in general. But all too often these observers provide no plausible path to achieve this transformation; many instead fall back on the risible (and elitist) insistence that better education is a panacea for racism.

A more effective approach would be to foster a pro-poor politics that reduces political and economic dislocation. This would have to go beyond making the average Burmese feel less insecure (and thus less likely to violently exclude those they perceive as competition). It would also have to provide the foundation for an identity of belonging tied to something more than imaginaries of blood and soil. Rather than the Muslim boogeyman, it would have to focus on the real culprit: the elites extracting resources, selling off the country, and benefitting from the deadly internal divisions we see in Myanmar today.