Transmutations of the Rohingya Movement in the Post-2012 Rakhine State Crisis

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Transmutations of the Rohingya Movement in the Post-2012 Rakhine State Crisis
By Dr Jacques P. Leider is a Rakhine history expert, on the recent communal conflict in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

One of the striking aspects of Myanmar’s recent political developments is the dissociation of the multilateral peace process from the political management of conflictual issues linked to the Rakhine State crisis. The peace process comprises the negotiations between the government of Myanmar and the armed groups of ethnic minorities of Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Kayah, Rakhine, and Mon States. It was conceived, necessarily, as a long-term process that should lead, through the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement, towards the production of balanced and mutually agreed relations between the central government and a range of political and military actors at the country’s periphery with China, India, and Thailand.

The expression “Rakhine State crisis,” on the other hand, encapsulates a complex set of humanitarian issues (notably questions of internal displacement and resettlement), the contested status of citizenship of a large part of the Muslim population, deep political mistrust that divides the Buddhist and Muslim communities, and ongoing communal tensions that threaten peacebuilding. In Myanmar, these two sets of problems—the broader long-term peace process negotiations and the specific crisis in Rakhine State—are perceived by most people, more or less intuitively, as being essentially matters of a different nature. This perception is shared by foreign observers familiar with the country. As this chapter is only concerned with Rakhine State and not with the peace process, the reasons of this intuitive differentiation will not be examined here.

One may note, however, that the descriptive terms in the media underscore the difference in perception. While the negotiations that should lead towards the resolution of the conflict between the state and the ethnic armed groups are called a “peace process,” the central issue of the Rakhine State crisis is generally referred to as the “Rohingya problem,” vaguely suggesting an entirely different type of issue. Comments upon the dissimilarity of the peacemaking challenges tend to be focused on the controversial issue of Muslim citizenship in Rakhine State, self-identification, and the problem of statelessness. The ethno-political dimension of this legal issue is the particularity of Rakhine State’s Muslims, who claim the distinct ethnic identity of Rohingya but never gained recognition by the state or the country’s ethnic groups. Others weigh in with arguments relating to the broader issue of Buddhist-Muslim relations in the country, which have deteriorated since 2013, practical considerations of processing negotiations, and fears that the Rakhine State crisis is actually an unsolvable conundrum while the prospects of the ethnic peace process appear more likely to be successful in the medium term.

The question of who the Rohingyas are calls for two answers, one including the various representations of the Rohingyas about themselves and another taking a critical historical and anthropological approach towards formulating a communal identity of Rakhine Muslims since the late 1940s. Muslims from North Arakan writing in the late colonial period suggested that the local Muslim community was made up of descendants of Arab and Persian settlers who arrived allegedly beginning in the seventh century CE, who mixed with indigenous people and formed a new ethnicity. More recently, a Rohingya writer has suggested that the Rohingyas are descendants of Aryans and associates them with the first millenium urban site of Vesali on the Kaladan River (Abu Aaneen 2002).

The controversial issue of the Rohingya identity after 1948 points to one of many singular facets of Rakhine State in recent times. Yet, despite such differences, the situations in Rakhine State and in other border areas of Myanmar have a lot in common, too. They share a fundamentally political character pertaining to state-society relations, a track record of insurgencies, and finally inter-ethnic dimensions to the conflict they face. Like anywhere else in the country, the origins of government contestation and armed conflict in Rakhine State reach back to the late colonial and early postcolonial period. For decades Rakhine State was home to communist insurgents, Rakhine independentist and federalist rebel organizations, and to Muslim secessionists (Smith 1991).

Rohingya movement underwent important changes after 2012 and that these mutations produced a powerful new narrative of Rohingya persecution. The triangular matrix of dissent in Rakhine State (Burmese state vs. Buddhist Rakhine; Burmese state vs. Muslim Rohingyas; and Buddhist Rakhine vs. Muslim Rohingyas) has been displaced after 2012 by the interpretation of a twofold relationship where the state is perceived as the author of a long-term campaign of persecuting and potentially eradicating the Muslim community. The implications of the state’s repression of the Muslims, rather than the historical alienation of the two religious communities, have been represented after 2012 as the exclusive concern that the international community should focus on.

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