Identity and the Rohingya Question in Myanmar


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Identity and the Rohingya Question in Myanmar
By Cui Yue, Bright Lumor Mensah –  Corresponding author, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) Jilin University, Changchun, China.   

United Nations has described the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Over the years, the Rohingyas have clashed with the security forces of Myanmar, resulting in their deaths, internal displacements and migrations to other countries especially Bangladesh. Though they have a large population of 1.5million in Rakhine state, the Rohingyas are neither considered citizens of Myanmar nor Bangladesh-effectively rendering them stateless.

 The question that is relevant to ask is who are the Rohingyas? What is their identity? Where do they come from? What are their conditions and aspirations? What has been done and can be done about it? This paper explicates the identity question, and links that to the recurrent ethnic clashes in Rakhine state. The paper also identifies the bottlenecks that impede peace in Rakhine state, and offers recommendations for improving the security situation in Arakan and the whole of Rakhine state.

A 19-year old Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp in Bangladesh once said, “I was born in Burma, but the Burmese government says I don’t belong there. I grew up in Bangladesh, but the Bangladesh government says I cannot stay here. As a Rohingya, I feel I am caught between a crocodile and a snake” (Frontières-Holland, M. S, 2002:1). The question of the identity of the Rohingya remained topical and has provided the basis for many ethnocentric attacks in recent times. Even though there are close to two million Rohingyas living mostly in Rakhine State, they are not considered citizens of Myanmar or any other country.

The president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in October 2012 asked the UN to resettle the Rohingya in other countries, saying, ”We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities, and we cannot accept them here.” During the 2014 Myanmar census, the government banned the word ”Rohingya” and asked for registration of the minority as ”Bengalis”. In other words, the national identity of Myanmar has been constructed exclusively of the Rohingyas. It is important to note that Myanmar is not a homogeneous country. In fact, there are officially some 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar. These ethnic groups differ in many ways including culture, language, and looks. Officially, the Rohingya are not considered one of these. The fact is they are not considered citizens of any other country. The current stateless status of the Rohingya has effectively exposed them to various despicable human right abuses and conditions.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are the world’s most persecuted minority. Every year, there are reports of ethnic clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and the government forces or some Buddhists of Myanmar. According to Adam Simpson “the Rohingya, based predominantly in gas-rich Rakhine (Arakan) State, have not only been oppressed by the Bamar majority (Berlie 2008) but also by the Buddhist Rakhine and other ethnic minorities” (Adam Simpson, 2004:4). The questions that have often been asked is why are the Rohingyas being persecuted in Myanmar? Why is it difficult for the rest of Myanmar to identify with the Rohingyas as citizens? Is the identity crisis of the Rohingya the reason for the truculent attacks and recurrent ethnic conflicts? What are the factors fuelling these recurrent ethnic and violent clashes resulting in loss of numerous lives and property? These questions regarding the status, conditions, nationality, and abuses of the Rohingyas are collectively referred to in this paper as the Rohingya question. This paper considers the concept of identity and examines the identity crisis of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.


It is fair to say that the concept of identity is perhaps one of the most nebulous concepts in international politics in spite of the fact that it has enjoyed recurrent usage over the years. Like many other social science concepts, scholars have failed to attain a definitional consensus of the term. In many cases, lenses of religion, culture, ethnicity, common history and race are used in explicating, conceptualizing and clarifying specific identities. Thus, identities are usually constructed around states, regions of the world, cultures, and races among others. While these lenses offer a fair scope of conceptualizing identities, there are inherent practical inconsistencies and overlaps in classifying the constituent elements of specific identities. For example, the United States of America, Canada, France, Russia, China, Ghana and Australia may be described as religiously pluralistic.

That is these states harbour and accept citizens with different religious affiliations and practices. It runs parallel therefore that in terms of religious classification, all the aforementioned states share the same identity. However, in practical terms, there are many other areas of divergence as far as the identities of these states are concerned. Some of these may include cultural, historical, social, political, economic and other intricate attributes. Consequently, constructing an identity based solely on religion will only blur our understanding of the distinctive identities of these states. The same applies to identity construction based on ethnicity, history, politics, and culture. According to Hall, S., & Du Gay, P. (1996), Identity in its traditional sense means “an all-inclusive sameness, seamless, without internal differentiation”. It includes and arouses the feelings of ‘we-ness’ as opposed to ‘they-ness’.

Ashmore, R. D. et al (2001) confirms that we can have different identities within one identity. Thus Identity may be constructed based on individual differences in a society, a group difference within the larger society or a state difference within the international community). These definitional complexities are at the root of the ethnic unrests and recurrent ethnic violence against the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar. Even though Myanmar is ethnically, culturally and socially heterogeneous, they have constructed a national identity exclusive of the Rohingya people.

The Rohingya and the ethnic identity of Myanmar  — Myanmar is one of the ethnically heterogeneous countries in East Asia. Formerly known as Burma, the East Asian state is bordered to the northwest by India and Bangladesh, north, and northeast by Tibet Autonomous Region and Yunnan province of China and Laos and Thailand to the southeast. The country is one of the poorest in the region with a GDP of 66.5million (UN Nations Data, 2014) and a population of 54 million people (United Nations Data: 2016). Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948 and was ruled a military regime for 49 years from 1962-2011. In 1989, the military junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The country is predominantly a Buddhist with other minor religions scattered around. In fact, the country officially has 135 distinct ethnic groups. These groups are further divided into eight distinct ethnic groups as the Bamar (which is the largest ethnic group with about 68 percent of the population), the Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and the Shan ethnic groups. The Bamar being the majority also control most state institutions and the military currently.

It is instructive to note that country’s ethnic classification does not include the Rohingyas. The Rohingya people are predominantly concentrated in the northern part of Rakhine State. They live in small towns and villages especially in Arakan, which shares a border with Bangladesh. They have a population of about 1.5 million in Rakhine state, which represents about 50 percent of the total population of Rakhine state. In Arakan, they are about 80-90 percent of the population. This is about 3 percent of the entire population of Myanmar, which is 54 million. Arakan is located between two worlds: South Asia and Southeast Asia, between Muslim-Hindu Asia and Buddhist Asia, and amidst the Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid races.

Over the years, the Rohingyas have come under a series of problems bordering on their identity, safety, and self-determination. These questions are about who they are, where they come from, whether they are citizens of Myanmar or not, what challenges, problems, discrimination and abuses they face in Myanmar and as refugees in other countries. I refer to these questions collectively as the Rohingya question. It is undoubted that these questions are not easy to answer. The answers one get depends on whom he asks. Many Rohingyas believe they are citizens of Myanmar and have been citizens historically. The government of Myanmar and the Buddhist majority, on the other hand, does not. In fact, these two colliding schools of thought are the foundation on which the perennial ethnic clashes in Myanmar rests. For a better understanding of the Myanmar and the Rohingya question, it is important to know the history of the Rohingyas.

The Origin of Rohingya ethnic group In an attempt to rationalize the origin and nationality of the Rohingyas, Ahmed (2009:2) identifies two established schools of thought. The first suggests that the Rohingyas are descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders, including Moghul, Turk, Pathan and Bengali soldiers and migrants, who arrived between 9th and 15th centuries, married local women, and settled in the region. This school of thought believes that the Rohingyas are therefore a mixed group of people with many ethnic and racial connections. This position is mainly upheld by the political organizations of the Rohingyas, including scholars sympathetic to their cause. (Eric Hobsbaw, 1994). In line with this theory, Frontières-Holland, M. S. (2002:9), states, “The Arakanese had their first contact with Islam in the 9th century, when Arab merchants docked at an Arakan port on their way to China. The Rohingyas claim to be descendants of this first group, racially mixing over the centuries with Muslims from Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey, the Arab peninsula, and Bengal. The merging of these races arguably constituted an ethnically distinct group with its own dialect.”

According to Abdur Razzaq (1995:14) “in Chittagong dialect, Rakhine came to be pronounced as ‘Rohong’ or ‘Rohang’ and thepeople from this land, ‘Rohingyas.’ Ahmed, I. (2009:3) states, “although for many long years the people of Arakan had been referred to as Rakhines, and for reason of local dialect some of them were later referred to as the Rohingyas. It did not take long for the two identities to be politicized, with the Arakanese Buddhists calling themselves ‘Rakhines’ and the Arakanese Muslims calling themselves ‘Rohingyas.’”

The second school of thought, on the other hand, suggests that the Muslim population of the Rakhine State is mostly Bengali migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, with some Indians coming during the British period. This view is further premised on the fact that since most of them speak Bengali with a strong ‘Chittagong dialect,’ they cannot but be illegal immigrants from pre-1971 Bangladesh. The government of Myanmar, including the majority Burman-Buddhist population of the country, subscribes to this position. Ahmed, I. (2009:3). The Buddhist-majority Myanmar, calls the Rohingya as ”Bengalis” which implies that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

What is more worrying is the fact that “none of the recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar have supported the cause of the stateless Rohingyas Ahmed, I. (2009:9). For the proponents of the first theory, the current deterioration in the relations between the Rohingya and the rest of Myanmar can be explained historically. According to Frontières-Holland, M. S. (2002:10), “Shortly after Burma’s independence in 1948, some Muslims carried out an armed rebellion demanding an independent Muslim state within the Union of Burma.

Though the rebellion was quashed in 1954, Muslim militancy nevertheless entrenched the distrust of the Burmese administration, and a backlash ensued that echoes today: Muslims were removed and barred from civil posts, restrictions on movement were imposed, and property and land were confiscated. Martin Smith (1991:41) further explain that at the time of Burma’s independence, the Rohingyas not only formed their own army but also approached the ‘Father of Pakistan,’ Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ‘asking him to incorporate Northern Arakan into East Pakistan. The Rohingyas continued with their demands even in the 1950s. The new State of Burma had no other choice but to consider them as non-Burmese and dissidents who were bent on wrecking the territorial integrity of the country” Ahmed, I. (2009:3).##


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