Written by Ibtisam Ahmed.
The ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar has led to a crisis that, despite being decades in the making, is worryingly unexpected in its scale. Criticisms of ethnic cleansing coupled with an exodus of nearly 500,000 refugees is plunging South Asia into a bleak situation. Yet one of the biggest mistakes that continues to be made is viewing the plight of the Rohingya as an isolated incident of racism.
When Myanmar eventually gained its independence in 1948, the new regime’s persecution of the Rohingya was couched in terms of correcting Britain’s favouritism towards the Muslims.
Even viewing it through the lens of the 1982 nationality law which did not recognise the Rohingya among 135 naturalised Burmese ethnic groups only considers part of the historical roots behind their oppression. Four key global events helped shape the current crisis and understanding them is vital if countries around the world, including the UK, are to make any meaningful moves towards correcting the situation.
The First Root: Colonialism
British colonialism is at the heart of so many geo-political issues in South Asia that it is almost a cliché to point it out. That said, there are specific elements of the Rohingya crisis that can be traced back to British rule, and not just in terms of wider issues of colonial power dynamics. Arakanese Muslims had fled what is now Myanmar in previous instances of persecution by Theravada Buddhist militaries and dynasties. Many had been scattered across Bengal and colonial paternalism and humanitarianism played an important part in creating the settlement of Cox’s Bazaar in 1790 (in modern-day Bangladesh) to help house them.
Unfortunately, this positive attempt at helping the refugee community was offset by two British policies that undermined the Rohingya’s right to return and self-determination. The first was the wider rhetoric of anti-Muslim sentiment that the British East India Company and, later, the British Raj used to legitimise its power. At the time of the rise of colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent, the biggest political entity was the crumbling Mughal Empire. British rhetoric painted the Mughals (and Muslims more widely) as outdated and barbaric, particularly when courting Hindu powerbrokers by suggesting that the British arrived as liberators rather than invaders.
Crucially, this rhetoric was also applied to Myanmar after its annexation into the Raj, even though the demographics there were completely different. Muslims were a minority in both numbers and political clout, but the continued stereotype of them as oppressors entrenched a consistent hatred of them among the majority – paradoxically made worse by the fact the British were going out of their way to help disenfranchised Muslims (thus continuing the assumption that the Rohingya had more influence than they did). When Myanmar eventually gained its independence in 1948, the new regime’s persecution of the Rohingya was couched in terms of correcting Britain’s favouritism towards the Muslims.
The other pivotal event in colonial history was the 1911 census. Although a small document in the grand scheme of things, its incorrect categorisation of the Rohingya continues to be used as proof of their outsider status. Specifically, the fact that the Rohingya were registered as an Indian ethnicity rather than as an indigenous Arakanese group was used as historical proof that they should not be included in the ethnic groups of Myanmar during the 1982 nationality law discussions. This means that the central legal aspect of the community’s ostracisation can be traced to the early 20th century before Myanmar was even an independent state.
The Second Root: World War II
This is somewhat tied in with colonial dynamics but deserves its own analysis. In World War II, a large proportion of Myanmar’s population either actively sided with the Japanese or attempted to remain neutral in order to use the conflict as a means to further the anti-imperial movement. Funded by Japan, the Burma Independence Army (BIA) successfully defended what was seen as local interests, an image consolidated in later years by its rejection of fascism and Japanese control when it became the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League.
But the BIA did face local opposition in the form of conscription to the British Army. The largest proportion of Burmese volunteers to Britain’s war effort came from Arakanese Muslims (including the Rohingya) because the Crown promised to further the cause of Arakanese autonomy once the war ended. Unfortunately, this promise turned out to be false – and only fuelled the perception that the Rohingya were separate from the rest of Myanmar’s population, a fact that led to the brutal Arakan Massacres of 1942.
The Third Root: Cold War Dynamics
Although not a part of the proxy wars fought between the US and the USSR, Myanmar became embroiled in the Cold War politics that pitted the Western powers against China. Myanmar’s military junta and its approach to socialism proved to be fertile ground for Chinese diplomatic expansion. Economic projects like hydroelectric dams and power plants were agreed on between the two governments in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Local communities in the Rakhine state and wider Arakan region protested against these and successfully prevented two specific plans in 2001 and 2002 from being completed. Although this was done by wider Arakanese communities and solidarity between different ethnic and religious groups in the region, Muslims (especially the Rohingya) served as useful scapegoats for a regime that was struggling to maintain international relevance.
Although countries like the USA and the UK did not actively contribute to this misconception, it was easier for them to allow Muslims to take the blame as the alternative would have been a wider targeting of Arakanese, including Buddhists, and the potential loss of their political foothold with the National League for Democracy in the region. The global climate of Islamophobia also played a part in this, which brings us to the final historical root.
The Fourth Root: The War on Terror
Since 9/11, there has been a global backlash against Islamic fundamentalism which has led to a complicated cycle of violence and exponential extremism worldwide.
Throughout the 21st century, this has allowed many governments to gain legitimacy with Western superpowers despite appalling human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. Narendra Modi’s India is a prime example of British and American support of an increasingly fundamentalist government that is justified by the fact that it is supposedly tough on Islamist terrorism.
Even the Awami League, currently the ruling party in Bangladesh and the one global government that is taking a fully humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis, was not immune from this. Its flawed 2014 elections received very little international condemnation because the alternative would have been providing a platform to Islamist political parties.
Similarly, Myanmar’s longstanding stance that the Rohingya are harbouring extremists is without a doubt part of the reason the crisis did not receive much international attention in its early stages. In particular, the regime’s success in falsely equating the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) with pan-Islamic terrorism has led to countries like Malaysia treating the Rohingya as a national security threat rather than an oppressed minority.
It is crucial to view the Rohingya crisis as a wider consequence of global power dynamics and geo-politics. These roots are in no way a suggestion that Myanmar has no culpability or moral responsibility for the situation, nor that blame for the current situation can or should be shifted elsewhere. Indeed, this analysis has actively left out the overzealous and militant Theravada Buddhist nationalism that precipitated the current crisis – not because it is irrelevant but because examinations of that phenomenon are abundant.
But it is equally important to avoid a myopic view of the crisis which ignores nuance in favour of an easy way out. If that continues to happen, any solution will end up being short term and it is only a matter of time before violence against the Rohingya flair up again – if it ever dies down in the first place.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a third-year Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and IR, the University of Nottingham. A member of IAPS, his work looks at the ways in which the British Raj conceptualised itself as a utopia and the often toxic legacies it has left behind. He tweets @Ibzor Image credit: CC by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús/Flickr.