The Rohingya Minority in Burma/Myanmar : A Case of Protracted Social Conflict

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The Rohingya Minority in Burma/Myanmar : A Case of Protracted Social Conflict
By H. Mehtap Kocamiş is M.Sc., Department of Political Science and International METU, Northern Cyprus Campus, Republic of Cyprus .

Conflict, once used to accomplish foreign policy ambitions, seems to have been now attributed with the purpose to attain “ethnic homogeneity” (Kaldor 2012). Ethnic conflicts or “new wars” (Kaldor 2012) have significantly increased since the 80s and 90s of the last centuries to become the major source of conflict. Such cases include Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Somali (Rahman 2015). Even if many scholars such as Gurr (2000), an ethnic conflict expert, consider that the “tsunami of ethnic and nationalist conflict” seemed to have reduced, contemporary and compelling conflicts can still be observed at this very moment, exemplified by the Rohingya case.                           

The Rohingya, composed predominantly by Muslims, is a minority group living in the Rakhine (Arakan) State in Burma/Myanmar, which is one of the poorest states in the country and where there is a lack of basic services and opportunities since Myanmar’s independence in 1948 (Smith 1995). The people of this community have also lost their citizenship and many other rights since the Burma Citizenship Law (1982) which does not recognise the Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups and which rendered the Rohingya stateless (Human Right Watch 2013).

The alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in June 2012 pushed angry Arakanese Buddhists to attack a bus transporting Rohingya Muslims and beat them to death, generating sectarian clashes in many places in Rakhine State. These events began an appeal for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State and the whole country made by Arakanese political parties, civic groups, and local monks’ leader and associations (Human Right Watch 2013). Additionally, in August 2017, members of a Rohingya armed group named the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked around 30 military and police stations in northern Rakhine State. In reaction to this, the Myanmar Army began an attack on the Rohingya population as a whole rather than just targeting ARSA camps (Amnesty International 2017). According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (2017), more than 500 000 people had fled to Bangladesh since August 25 to escape violence perpetuated by Burmese security forces and Buddhist civilians. Moreover, MSF (2017) have conducted a survey from which it concluded an estimation that “between 9,425 and 13,759 Rohingya died during the initial 31 days following the start of the violence, including at least 1,000 children below the age of five years” (McPherson 2017) and that 71.7%, so 6 700, including 730 children, of those deaths are directly caused by violence; gunshots, burnt and beaten to death (McPherson 2017).

Furthermore, it is also significant to look at the word Rohingya itself. According to the Burmese government, the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants who came to Myanmar during British rule between 1824 and 1948. Consequently, the government does not accept the existence of the term Rohingya since those people are seen as foreigners or worse, as terrorists; views which have led to their persecution by the Myanmar Army. In so doing, the government is allowing itself to justify the persecution of this group of others since they are classified as illegal immigrants. This tactic of dehumanisation has previously been seen in 1992, in the infamous speech of Léon Mugesera, an old member of Hutu Power  which is the extremist Hutu movement in Rwanda, and which generated the Rwanda genocide in amassing people together against the Tutsis (Mohdin 2017).

Thus, this research examines the causes and origins of the extended and ongoing conflict in Burma/Myanmar within the theoretical framework of Edward Azar’s (1990) theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). Specifically, this thesis seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Rohingya case with the help of Azar’s (1990) theory. The origin of the conflict will be analysed within the Genesis factors of the PSC approach which looks at the four major preconditions transforming non-conflictual situation to a conflictual one; communal content, deprivation of human needs, governance and the state’s role, and international linkages. Then, the analysis will turn to the dynamics between those preconditions and the relevant actors’ actions required to activate overt conflict, what Azar (1990) referred to as Process Dynamics which consist of communal actions and strategies, state actions and strategies, and built-in mechanisms of conflict. Therefore, before the analysis of the conflict’s causes and origins which will be the main focus of this thesis, there will be a prior section which examines the background of the conflict by looking to the colonial era up to the 1982 Citizenship Law.

On the other hand, Alam (2017) argues that the Rohingya identity as a non-Burman ethnic minority throughout time is the source of the conflict’s protraction. Subsequently, the author does not look at the conflict from the theoretical framework of communal violence, but from the identity (ethnic) based one. He explains that the attribution of the Rohingya identity to the people fitting in that category resulting from Burmese nationalism driven politics is at the origin of the conflict. However, this author also just looks at one element of the Rohingya conflict, which does not permit an understanding of the complex nature of this conflict which sits at the juncture of many violent conflicts, thus many reasons and dynamics at the same time.

As has been noted, the Rohingya conflict is a well-known and well-documented case for human rights analysts and experts. However, it has only been analysed by focusing on one or two factors or dimensions at the time. But to understand the real causes and origins of the conflict in order to have a chance for the conflict’s resolution, a multi-disciplinary theoretical framework is necessary since this conflict is a multi-dimensional one. 

In order to understand conflicts’ evolution and especially in the Rohingya case, it is necessary look at Ramsbotham and Woodhouse’s (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall 2011, 14) hourglass model. It is a combination of Galtung’s (1990) theory of violence and peace and the escalation/de-escalation phases which “represents the narrowing of political space that characterizes conflict escalation (top half of the hourglass model) and the widening of political space that characterizes conflict de-escalation (bottom half of the hourglass model)” (Ramsbotham et al. 2016, 13). The resolution of the conflict become more difficult as the space in the hourglass narrow and different responses are to be adopted for narrowed and widened spaces. It is possible to understand that the Rohingya conflict is stuck at the violence phase where conflict resolution is difficult.                                                                              

In the Rohingya case, Rohingyas are denied access to political and social institutions on the basis of their religious and racial heritage since they are not citizens of Burma and are considered as Bengali immigrants, even if there is proof of their presence in Rakhine state from centuries ago. The absence of freedom needs, and identity needs, which englobe cultural and religious expression, is salient in the case of the Rohingya. Albeit, let’s first give a simple and classic definition of freedom. Liberty and freedom are used as synonyms by many scholars that have tried to define freedom. The absence of freedom needs, and identity needs, which englobe cultural and religious expression, is salient in the case of the Rohingya. Albeit, let’s first give a simple and classic definition of freedom. Liberty and freedom are used as synonyms by many scholars that have tried to define freedom.

Secondly, Myanmar authorities refuse to use the name Rohingya since they argue that “there are no Rohingya in Myanmar” (OHCHR 2018, 110), only Bengalis which are considered as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who came to Myanmar during British occupation. Thus, they are not considered as one of the national races and as a result, they do not have legal status or identity since they are denied birth certificates (OHCHR 2018, 110). According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Access to registration must not be undermined by discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of the child’s or the child’s parents’ race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. All children should have access to birth registration in the country where they are born, including non-nationals and stateless children (HRC 2014, 4).

Unfortunately, this right is refused to Rohingya’s children in northern Rakhine State since the 90s without an official reason explaining or supporting this decision of change of policy. Myanmar’s denial of legal status to Rohingya have worsened since 2015 and excluded this community from participating in the government (OHCHR 2018, 118). Hence, the birth of armed groups such Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), can be considered as a result of the exclusion of Rohingya from the superstructure of society as Azar (1990) described in his definition of material needs.

The enforcement of the law started after the arrival of the SLORC in power in 1988 with the replacement of NRCs by Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSCs). In reality, Rohingya were refused CSCs and were giving instead Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs or white cards) that became the only identification document for more or less 700,000 Rohingya for the next 20 years (OHCHR 2018, 113-115). Not to mention, holders of white cards lost their rights to vote after hundreds of Buddhists took the streets to protest the adoption of a law that was supposed to allow them to vote. Protesters showed their opposition to what seemed to them as an integration of non-citizens into the country by taking the streets (BBC News 2015). Then, the government of 2015 also suspended the program of the white cards and forced Rohingya to exchange their white cards for the new Identity Card for National Verification (ICNVs) instead and register only as “Bengali” and not as Rohingya (OHCHR 2018, 116).

In like manner, Burma’s relationship with China has become closer again since the Tatmadaw response to the attacks of ARSA in August 2017 that led to the flight of more than 620,000 Rohingya civilians to Bangladesh. International community has again condemned the military’s actions and the government inaction and thus imposed sanctions again. In order to do so, a reminder of the Rohingya’s origins; the development and meaning of the self-identifying term Rohingya; and the appearance of Rohingya militant groups such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) will be analysed.

As a result, the government’s response was immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate. Pretexting “to eliminate the terrorist threat posed by ARSA” (OHCHR 2018, 177), the military government launched operations, called clearance operations, which targeted and terrorised mainly Rohingya civilians and which destroyed up to 40 per cent of all Rohingya villages in the region and caused the exodus of more than 720,000 Rohingya civilians fleeing to Bangladesh in only one month. The Mission has found that the Tatmadaw’s operations seems to be planned and designed a lot prior to those events and a statement of the Commander-in-Chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing also supports this idea: “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem” (OHCHR 2018, 177-8). In the long run, the difficult situation of the Rohingya has only lately captured the international community’s attention since the incidents of extreme violence that followed the events of 2012, and more importantly of 2017.##

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