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History and Victimhood: Engaging with Rohingya Issues
By JACQUES P. LEIDER — Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (French Institute of Asian Studies), France
Since the late 1990s, the public representation of the Muslim minority of Rakhine State (Myanmar), widely known as Rohingyas after the 2012 communal violence, has focused on their status as victims of state oppression following an extended track record of human rights violations.
As Rohingyas form huge migrant and refugee communities in several countries of the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, victimhood has increasingly come to define their identity as a persecuted minority. The present article argues that, while victimhood does not preclude the agency, the hegemonic role of a postulated passive victimhood invariably posits one community (and the state) against the other and hampers the possibility of open conversations about rivaling perceptions of the past andultimately the prospect of political dialogue.
In today’s world, the immediacy of humanitarian crises tends to bar a deeper interest in the complexity of the historical roots of a conflict. The deteriorating situation of the Muslim minority in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, a group now widely known as the Rohingya, is a case in point. They have been presented as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world due to a track record of human rights violations, while the local Islamic history and the emergence of Muslim nationalism at the margins of Muslim Bengal (East Pakistan/Bangladesh) and Buddhist Burma (Myanmar) has barely begun to inform international understanding of the regional conflict. The present article argues in favor of historical research as a prerequisite both for understanding the nature of the conflict and for keeping opportunities for competing historical interpretations alive. It also contributes to the ongoing question of collective representations of “voiceless” non-Western victims as deprived of political agency.
Mainstream account of a binary conflict between a Buddhist state’s security apparatus backed by xenophobic nationalists on the one hand, and a disenfranchised Muslim population on the other has supported a description of Rohingya victimhood that today holds a hegemonic grip over Rohingya-related debates and conversations
The article supports the argument that victimhood is a form of agency, but, as in the case of the Rohingya crisis since 2012, it bears the risk of encapsulating people and isolating them from their historical context. The Rohingya entered the awareness of a global audience in 2012 when communal violence led to the internal displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims and the death of several hundred in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Thousands more died in mid-2017 under the brutal onslaught of military attacks. Muslim Rohingya victimhood due to human rights violations blamed on the Myanmar state was thereafter firmly anchored in the minds of millions of people who had never heard about the claims and grievances of the Rohingya.
Given the pervasive lack of knowledge about the region and its multi-ethnic population, partly due to the limited body of existing scholarship, one might have expected a surge in inquisitiveness and public interest in the socio-political history of the Muslims, no less the Hindu and Buddhist communities living at the border that connects South and Southeast Asia. Yet it did not happen. Over the last five years, it has looked as if international decision-makers and the general public were largely satisfied by echoing sensations of horror and engaging in a mix of protests and condemnations, as the media highlighted the humanitarian plight of the internally displaced people in Rakhine State.
The coverage illuminated a dismal record of human rights violations and more recently, the dramatic episodes of the third mass flight in thirty years, in which several hundred thousand Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh. Between 2012 and 2017, outrage became the norm and Rohingya victimhood became conspicuous with headlines on their discrimination, the humanitarian disaster and a lingering crisis that bears important regional dimensions –the boat refugee emergency in the Andaman Sea in early 2015 is still fresh in the mind.
Outside the country, the rationale behind the crisis has been loosely structured as a narrative that sets the Myanmar state, and more particularly its security apparatus, allegedly driven by racist motives, against a religious minority deprived of basic rights and a proper livelihood. Having grown accustomed to a relentless, repetitive news cycle of gloom and despair depicting the condition of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the public in the Middle East, the West, Southeast Asia and beyond, did not recognize much change for the better after the first democratic elections took place in late 2015. Although no communal violence took place in Northern or Central Rakhine between October 2012 and October 2016, the international perception was that the situation was not improving. The military interventions that followed violent attacks led by a new Rohingya militant organization triggered a mass flight of several hundred thousand in August-September 2017.
These latest events enhanced the portrait of the desperate Rohingya people, and Myanmar’s Buddhists came collectively under fire. It was not just the army, indicted as cruel and unrepentant, and not just a government, run since 2016 by a former political opponent, described as politically inept and ethically challenged, but the majority of the country that was suspected of latent Islamophobia and accused of actively or passively condoning the military’s counter-insurgency strategy. More specifically, members of the Buddhist population of Rakhine State, sporadically evoked in the news, have been portrayed as nasty henchmen of the military.
This mainstream account of a binary conflict between a Buddhist state’s security apparatus backed by xenophobic nationalists on the one hand, and a disenfranchised Muslim population on the other has supported a description of Rohingya victimhood that today holds a hegemonic grip over Rohingya-related debates and conversations among diplomats, political leaders, the media and the international public. Worked up by human rights defenders, the accounts of Rohingya victimhood early on led to calls for retributive justice targeting the state and its security forces.
Claims of victimization have a long tradition in the political discourse of the Muslims of Northern Rakhine State and reach back to the period of the Second World War. However, victimhood was not the defining marker of the ebullient Rohingya movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Only in the 1970s did their self-projection as victims of an unfair state become a key element of the political rhetoric of militant Rohingya organizations. They called for ethnic recognition by the Burmese state, but also increasingly for international recognition of their discrimination and victimhood. In contrast to the 21st century, victimhood had not yet become the most prominent marker of Rohingya identity.
Victimhood — A victim is a person who suffers harm and injury from an adverse or hostile force. This may relate to traumatic experiences of aggression and a persistent loss of security. The victim evokes feelings of sympathy and empathy and may be entitled to legal protection. Victimhood is a complex term that implies both explicit and implicit understandings of a violent relationship in which not only one, but several parties may claim simultaneously victimhood. It is this complexity that we need to have in mind when critically investigating the victimhood of the Rohingya.
The resulting essentialization of Rohingya victimization furthered an international perception of Rohingya identity as an identity of primordial victimhood that seemingly lifted their condition beyond a need for historical contextualization
Efforts to attain international recognition of the victimization of Rakhine Muslims claiming a Rohingya identity have been raised by Rohingya political organizations for over 40 years. Due to the feverish international attention forthe perceived injustice endured by the Rohingya after Myanmar’s process of political opening in 2011, international recognition of Rohingya victimhood has been widely established, in particular for those people who have left or been driven out of the country in recent years.
This was not the case in 1976 when the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) deplored in a pamphlet that “to our greatest misfortune the outside world is still quite unaware of the savage and covert plan of the Burmese government to exterminate us from our homeland in a barbaric and illegal way contrary to all norms of International Law and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights…” One may note that this text was written years before the ratification of the 1982 citizenship law that severely reduced the access of many Rakhine Muslims to citizenship. Texts, such as the RPF, draw attention to the fact that the subjectively emotional victimhood of the Rohingya and their victimization by an oppressive state as a legal construct are historically layered and reflect a complex process that has not yet been investigated. ##