Written by James T. Davies
Upwards of 600,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims have now fled from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State into Bangladesh, driven out by Myanmar security forces’ “clearance operations”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has described these operations as akin to “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
The Rakhine Buddhist population, although recognised as a national race, are also a historically marginalised minority in the country… and Rakhine State falls behind most of the country on every socio-economic indicator.
The recent operations are often read as a response to attacks on 25 August, in which militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army assaulted police outposts killing 12 Myanmar security forces personnel. The attacks were conducted shortly after the government committed to implementing recommendations made by Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. A recent UN report, however, found that the military began clearance operations “as early as the beginning of August”, and found that the military was operating with the apparent objective of preventing the return of Rohingya communities.
The persecution and exclusion of the Rohingya is of course not new. Approximately 250,000 Rohingya were pushed to Bangladesh from northern Rakhine State by military operations in 1978 and again in 1991/92. The frequency and scale of violence and displacement are considerably different on this occasion, however, and should be read in the context of recurring instances of communal violence since 2012 and the ongoing political transition. The previous five years have seen segregation, polarisation and violence between communities, as well the increasing definition of the political community to the exclusion of the Rohingya.
To understand why these atrocities are occurring now, and why they are directed towards the Rohingya, these questions must be considered from both historical and contemporary angles. In particular, the violence should be understood in the context of the historical exclusion of the Rohingya and the reinterpretation of the nation under democratic transition.
The increased exclusion of the Rohingya and Muslim communities more generally has come at a time when questions of the Myanmar nation have been increasingly opened. Debates over the constitution, federalism and citizenship have characterised this period of political transition. These are questions of who belongs to the political community – and who does not. A transition towards a more democratic system begs these questions, but can provide few answers for them. Buddhist nationalist organisations, promoting an exclusive form of nationalism based on Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, have stepped into that space and have become increasingly vocal and influential political actors since the political opening in 2011.
As previously noted by Paul Staniland on IAPS Dialogue, the Rohingya have been targeted during this period due to their historical definition as outside of the political community. While other minorities may have had their place in the nation contested, their political membership was not. Crucially, the Rohingya fall outside of the 135 officially recognised “national races” or taingyintha, meaning citizenship is restricted and the Rohingya are excluded from civil and political rights. Rohingya communities contest their exclusion, and point to evidence that they have been in the area for centuries.
The country’s predominantly Burmese Buddhist constituency see the Rohingya as Bengalis – interlopers from Bangladesh who pose a threat to the stability of the nation. To many, the exclusion of the Rohingya, and even violence against them, appears to be justified on these grounds – the historical ethnically-defined conception of the nation. Myanmar’s Ministry of Information tweeted on 6 October that villagers were leaving because “they want to join others of their own race in Bangladesh”.
Nationalists across the country spread such a discourse, while more moderate politicians and other elites have been reluctant to challenge them. This was perhaps most evident when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy refused to run any Muslim candidates in the 2015 election. This serves to strengthen narratives of Muslims as a threat and consolidates their exclusion.
Tensions between communities were strengthened under decades of oppressive military rule. The Rakhine Buddhist population, although recognised as a national race, are also a historically marginalised minority in the country. Some 26,000 Rakhine Buddhists, Hindus and other minorities have also been internally displaced by the recent violence, and Rakhine State falls behind most of the country on every socio-economic indicator. The Rohingya population is viewed as a tool the Myanmar state has historically used to oppress the Rakhine. There are deeply held fears that if the Rohingya identity is accepted by Myanmar it will come at the cost of Rakhine land and identity.
The risks of the current crisis are mammoth. In 2015, upwards of 100,000 Rohingya took to boats seeking asylum in Malaysia and Thailand – with tragic humanitarian consequences that could be repeated in the wake of the recent violence. Furthermore, little hope for the future among Rohingya communities will only work to the favour of militants operating in the area. Only Myanmar can ultimately solve this crisis. Doing so will inevitably require the promotion of a more inclusive conception of the national community. Without it, those displaced to squalid camps on the Bangladesh border will have no home to come back to.