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Rohingya Resistance : Utilizing Media to Combat Buddhist-Burman Nationalism
By Mary Marston — Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs , Georgetown University, USA.
In the 2002 British romantic comedy, About A Boy, Hugh Grant’s character volunteers at a London Amnesty International call center to rally support for an unspecified human rights crisis in Burma. In 2019, Amnesty is now capable of a more global reach simply through the use of the internet. But as technology aids human rights organizations in broadening capabilities and impact, it has also been wielded by oppressive states to promote their own agendas. For this reason, the expansion and accessibility of the internet has fundamentally changed the nature of engagement between domestic and international human rights movements and the state.
This dynamic is evidently being played out in Burma, now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, where the Muslim minority Rohingya in Rakhine State have endured what economist Amartya Sen terms a “slow genocide.” The military – formally known as the Tatmadaw – and government utilize transnational media to rationalize violence against Rohingya through a “War on Terror” narrative, stoking fears that they may be linked to pan-Islamic extremist groups. Proliferation of access to technology, however, has enabled Rohingya to take control of their narratives and resist erasure from history. To fully appreciate how they have managed this feat, it is necessary to first comprehend the numerous forms of violence that the civilian government and the Tatmadaw have enacted in an attempt to render Rohingya a stateless people.
The Illegal Status of Rohingya in Myanmar — Historically, Rohingya were often otherized for not practicing Buddhism, Burma’s predominant religion. In the 11th century, King Anwrahata of the Pagan Dynasty attempted to unite the various kingdoms of modern-day Myanmar through the use of Theravada Buddhism as the national religion. Rohingya were also subjected to forced displacement because of the strategic port area they inhabit. In fact, Captain Hiram Cox served on a mission from 1796 to 1798 to resolve the predicament of Arakanese refugees, who were mostly Muslims from the Chittagong Frontier of British India (now Bangladesh) and could not return to ‘Arakan’ or nowadays Rakhine State.
When Britain incorporated Burma into British India following three Anglo-Burmese Wars, the Crown attempted to categorize and historicize the origins of numerous ethnic groups in the country. The most egregious display of this arbitrary decision is recorded in the 1911 British census. Rohingya were categorized as “Mahomedean” (Muslim) Indian immigrants to the Arakan Kingdom in Burma, thought to have been brought over as laborers from India. In the British census published a decade later, Rohingya were categorized as “Arkanese,” meaning that they were found to be native to the Arakan Kingdom, now Rakhine State. Additionally, the laxity in the establishment of official political borders between Burma and British India facilitated the rationalized misconception of Rohingya as migrants during the period of colonization.
Anti-Rohingya sentiment festered during World War II and the Burmese War of Independence. During World War II, many Burmese nationalists accused Rohingya of taking advantage of the British occupation of the region to flee Arakan to Bangladesh in numbers of approximately 22,000. When Burman nationalists asked the British for aid in expelling Japanese soldiers from the country, Rohingya were enlisted to join the British and Burmans with the promise that Muslims of the area would be given northern Arakan for their participation. This promise remains unfulfilled.
Following Burma’s independence in 1948, Rohingya, then known as “Arakanese Indians,” lobbied for their official categorization to be changed to Rohingya, as well as for integration into East Pakistan (Bangladesh) or even sovereignty. The government, however, refused to repatriate any Rohingya who fled during the war in 1942 and those who did return were considered “illegal Pakistani (Bangladeshi) immigrants.” Accordingly, Rohingya civil servants were removed from government posts and groups of armed Rohingya men, the “Mujahids,” have called for independence from Burma. The dissolution of the central government was an outcome of the 1962 coup d’état that transformed Burma from a civilian government to a military dictatorship.
During the era of the military junta, General Ne Win implemented policies of Burmanization, which aimed to unite the country’s various ethnic groups under a singular ethnic identity. Under the 1974 Constitution, the junta claimed that all national races would enjoy various freedoms so long as “… the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest.” In 1977, Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) was initiated in northern Rakhine State, an area with a high concentration of Rohingya, to register members of the “national races” and remove foreigners from the area. Rohingya who were made refugees as a consequence of this policy reported forced eviction, rape, and murder by the Tatmadaw, and by May 1978 nearly 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. Although 180,000 of such Rohingya were repatriated under the United Nations’ support, they were denied citizenship in Burma.
The 1982 Citizenship Law saw a further institutionalization of Rohingya’s illegal status in the country. It officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups, also termed “national races,” that the government claims occupied the area of Burma before the British colonization. The manufacturing of this number, aside from excluding several indigenous groups, was also purposefully utilized to label Rohingya as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” brought over from Bangladesh during the colonial period. Various academic and news outlets both in and outside of Burma at the time recognized the 135 designated ethnic groups, perpetuating a misconception that Rohingya and other minorities were accurately represented in this number. In reality, the law barred them from obtaining citizenship. This illegal status has since served to rationalize episodes of Rohingya ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Tatmadaw and Buddhist-Burman nationalist groups in Rakhine State. Direct Tatamadaw violence against Rohingya communities continued well into the 1990s. Nearly 250,000 Rohingya fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh from 1991 to 1992.
In 2015, twelve Rohingya men were arrested for joining the “Myanmar Muslim Army,” a group that defense lawyers and security experts could not verify existed, and five non-Rohingya men were arrested for publishing items that “… could damage national security,” such as calendars with the word “Rohingya” on them. In 2016, it was reported that jihadist insurgent groups attacked Tatmadaw outposts, leading to Tatmadaw’s use of extrajudicial killings, gang rape, and arson against Rohingya. After ARSA claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Tatmadaw, children as young as 10 were detained for complicity in ARSA violence. Continued anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State and their forced displacement led former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, to term these actions against Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” From August 25, 2017 to the mid of October, 2017 more than 745,000 Rohingya people have crossed into Bangladesh as recorded by the UN agencies. It was widely accepted fact that the Suu Kyi government killed 3,000 Rohingyas and burned 284 villages of the Muslim minority people in Rakhaine alone within a few weeks.##