Conflict Analysis – The Rohingya Case: Policy Recommendations

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Conflict Analysis – The Rohingya Case: Policy Recommendations
Adheip Rahul Rashada  — is MA Candidate in International Conflict and Security.

Introduction to the conflict:  In the context of the modern system of nation-states where territories are demarcated, an individual without a national identity is an irregularity. This is because people cannot escape being connected to a state even when a state does not recognize them’ (Farzana).1 The debate about identity formation is important as it ‘demands an exploration of how the state practices its sovereignty and suppresses the voices of the citizens’ and non-citizens’ experiences of conflict to produce the state’s unity.’ This process usually results in the failure of the state to resolve cases of violence, generation of forced migration and the creation of stateless peoples (Farzana).

As we see in many state-centric conflicts today, both citizens and non-citizens have to forcefully emigrate from their country (of origin) to neighboring countries that are usually reluctant in letting them enter. They flee to avoid violence, persecution, and other existential threats which are often produced by the governments (Farzana). The problems also don’t end when people choose to flee. In addition to the loss of a ‘familiar socio-economic, natural, and political environments,’ involuntary migrants such as the refugees and asylum seekers often face humanitarian problems at their newly arrived destinations. As a result, ‘displaced people worldwide are largely marginalized’ (Farzana). Examples of such displacement arising out of state action would include; ‘the flight of Tibetans from China to India, the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils to India, Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the immigration of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh and India etc.’

The state-centric conflict that we will be looking at is that of Rohingyas in the Arakan region of Myanmar/Burma. (Refer to Map1.1 in Appendix). ‘As Muslims with a culture and Chittagonian dialect of their own, residing in a predominantly Buddhist province of the Arakan (also known as Rakhine, ‘an isolated province in the western part of the country across Naaf River as boundary from Bangladesh.’, the Rohingya are a minority within a minority’ in Myanmar’s ‘diverse ethnic landscape’ (Al-Adawy 2013).

According to the Rohingya narrative of history, the Arakans had an independent kingdom before it was occupied in 1784 (by the Burmese) and the right to be indigenous to the region is justified in their literature although the claims of the antiquity of existence in the Arakan is quite questionable. Based on evidence, their roots can be traced back to migration form Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), which was triggered when the British empire took over the jurisdiction of the province at the conclusion of the First-Anglo Burmese War. Further, the British colonial records refer to the migrants as Chittagonians.  “The usage of the term ‘Rohingyas,’ now generally used to refer to the Muslims in the north of the Rakhine state”, signified in its essence a political movement prominent during the 1950s which endorsed “a socio-cultural understanding of Muslims in Arakan as a separate ethnic group fighting for political autonomy.” In the larger scheme, it was a step in the process of legitimization of the right to self-determination over the region. This core belief also led to the formation of a political consciousness of distinct Muslim interests in the region which was a precursor to a succession of militant organizations trying to achieve the same13. Regardless of the truth value of their historical narrative, the longevity of the ‘Rohingya’ presence in the Rakhine region gives them a substantial claim for the right to be recognized by the Myanmar government along with the right to reside in the Arakan region.

In the post-independence period (after 1948), Myanmar has experienced a myriad of ethnic conflicts. Rakhine and Rohingya insurgencies erupted in the two decades that followed. As Fanon15 puts it, decolonization is an unsettling and a violent process resulting from years of oppression by the colonizers. This has certainly been the case in Myanmar where latent inter-ethnic struggles in the region have manifested into violent confrontations in recent history. One of the main reasons for this is that while one ethnic group had the means to gain a significant advantage (through state recognition), the other didn’t. The apparatuses of the central government in Myanmar were occupied by the majority ethnic group, the Burmese in the de facto ‘dictatorship’s seizure of power in 1962’ that gave institutional agency to the Burmese to secure their right to self-determination. The Burmese clearly had no intention of being inclusive of the Rakhine and especially the Rohingyas. As a result, today they are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.

This institutionalization and thus legitimization of Burmese power was followed by propagation of narratives (commonly accepted among the Burmese) that portrayed Myanmar as a nation for Buddhists (Lian H. Sakhong and Paul Keenan). The amounted to the 1982 Citizenship Law after which Myanmar officially recognized 135 ethnic groups in its Constitution, the Burmese as a majority followed by seven major minorities (Shans, Karens, Buddhist Arakans, Kachins, Chins, Kayas and Mons) 17. The law extended the benefits of citizenship only to the 135 groups it considered to be a part of the nation. ‘By denying citizenship, the government imposed several official and non-official restrictions on all of Rohingya.’18 The imposition of these restrictions meant that the Rohingya people lacked the ability to acquire necessities such as food and shelter. It also meant that they bore the brunt of state retaliation in the several cases of armed conflict between the insurgent ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) and the Burmese government without having the capacity to either be represented or defended. While the inception of the inter-ethnic conflict could be traced far back into history, the crucial reasons for the current state of the conflict can be attributed to the recent changes in the country’s constitution (ratified in 2008) which was followed by a process of democratization (Hussain 2017).

A problem that is central to the Rohingyas is the ambiguity that is often found with the formation of their political identity. They are in a state of national limbo (Haque 2017). Out of approximately 2 million Rohingyas in Myanmar, about 800,000 live in the Northern Rakhine state and about 500,000 have migrated to the other parts of the world. A further estimate of 500,000 now live in Bangladesh. While they claim that they have the right to access all the facilities that a Burmese citizen is entitled to, the Burmese government uses rhetoric that paint them as outsiders and the other (by calling them Bengali, illegal immigrants and ostracizing their historical experiences in the region) with no legitimate right to reside in the region. The rhetoric in the country of destination, usually Bangladesh and India also paint them as temporary residents or outsiders and despite acknowledging their refugee status and the existential threat that they face at ‘home,’ they intend to eventually push for their return.##

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