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 — Ecole française d’Extrême-OrientBangkok/Yangon, Research scholar.


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.1 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 peace building. 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). Another writer has even suggested that they were descendants of South Indian Tamils. Historical artifacts and written documents provide no hard evidence to bolster such claims.

The available sources point to the cultural impact of the sultanate of Bengal in the fifteenth century and the presence of a Muslim community in the early modern period when the kingdom of Mrauk U became a regional power broker in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The biggest part of the Muslim community at that time were people from Bengal deported into slavery and resettled on royal fields (Van Galen 2008). During the British colonial period, Muslims and Hindus from the neighboring region of Chittagong came to work in Arakan as agricultural laborers. Those who settled permanently increased the number of the Muslim community to a fifth of the total population of Arakan in the 1930s.

In conditions that remain unclear, in the late 1940s the old and new communities merged, and it is on the political ambitions of their leaders in the 1950s, namely, the creation of a separate Muslim zone, that the Rohingya movement built its own claims of political and cultural autonomy and ethnic identity. The Rohingya movement itself can be defined as a political mmovement whose foremost aim was the creation of an autonomous Muslim zone. It developed a mytho-historical discourse about Rohingya origins that minimized the cultural connections with neighboring Bengal. It stated dogmatically that the origins of Rohingyas went back to the first millennium and that they were a separate race. The Rohingyas not only validated the Muslim past of Arakan, but they also challenged the prevailing Buddhist narrative with an Islamic counter-narrative. The development of the Muslim project and the Rohingya movement will be presented in some more detailin the section that follows (Leider 2015a, 2015b).

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).

Taking stock of the historical background, the following sections will focus on some of the most recent developments. They will argue that the 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.

This narrative shift bonds with the representation undertaken by human rights activists who have been acting as caretakers of the Rohingya cause. The activists perceive the Rakhine State crisis as a humanitarian and legal problem to be addressed by the government, a viewpoint that has been embedded in the international media landscape as an added, politically correct way to approach Rakhine State issues. The last section will further argue that the organizational and rhetorical changes that have taken place within the international Rohingya movement are an essential factor that explains how the local ethnic discontent and the condemnation of an oppressive regime have been transformed into international issues. It will be suggested that the internationalization of the Rohingya cause has been an important reason for the imbalance tilting the discussion on the roots of the conflict towards a pro-Rohingya narrative.

The communal violence in Rakhine State in 2012

The rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by three Muslims on May 28, 2012, provoked a brutal reprisal a few days later in which ten Muslims on a bus trip to Yangon were killed in southern Rakhine.5 These criminal incidents sparked large-scale violence in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and the state’s capital Sittway, where Muslims claiming a Rohingya identity form the majority of the population. Houses were set on fire, dozens of people were killed, and over one hundred thousand people were displaced. The majority of the people killed or displaced were Muslims, but aggressions against Buddhist Rakhine took place as well, similarly resulting in loss of lives and livelihood.

The government security forces were heavily criticized for their failure to respond effectively to the outbreak of violence. Certain human rights activists even raised the threat of genocide, pointing to the long record of discrimination and persecution of Rohingya Muslims that they had been documenting since the 1990s (Cowley and Zarni 2014; Fortify Rights and Lowenstein 2015). They also underscored that the international community had been slow to acknowledge the core issues underlying the crisis, namely, the denial of a Rohingya ethnic identity by the government, the controversial official characterization of the Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and decades of arbitrary treatment of the Rohingyas by the police and the border troops. In this context, Rakhine Buddhists were increasingly dissatisfied about being unilaterally portrayed by the media as racists. They argued that they defended their culture and ethnicity amidst a Muslim population that had been growing fast due to higher fertility rates and illegal immigration. A presidential commission was created in August 2012 to investigate the situation in Rakhine. Nonetheless, hate speech proliferated in the social media and an immediate initiative was taken to cool tempers.

In late October 2012, the communal violence was reignited, spreading over several more townships and resulting in more deaths and the displacement of a further forty thousand people, once again mostly Muslims (Human Rights Watch 2013). No major violence took place after, but monks from the 969 Movement that toured Rakhine State fanned the flames of dissent and the region has since been drowned in a climate of deep communal mistrust and fear. From 2012 to 2014, Myanmar also witnessed a series of ethno-religious confrontations between Buddhists and Muslims in other places. Anti-Muslim violence struck cities in central Myanmar (Meikthila, Yangon, Bago) and Shan State (Lashio). Mosques, shops, and houses were destroyed and many Muslims had to flee from their homes. These events were associated with the anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State and reinforced the international perception of latent Islamophobia all over Myanmar. For a number of years, Muslims from the north of Rakhine State and neighboring Bangladesh had left the region on rickety boats to reach the south of Thailand and illegally enter Malaysia on jungle roads. The illegal migration and human trafficking often had disastrous consequences. With the crisis in Rakhine State, the number of boat people who fled discrimination and poverty sharply increased after 2013. When Thai authorities started to investigate mass graves in early 2015 and tightened border patrols along the coast, the measures provoked an even greater crisis with thousands of people abandoned on the high seas. As a consequence, the local Rakhine crisis grew in less than two years into a regional and international crisis that involved Myanmar’s neighbor states and fellow ASEAN members, and pushed Muslim and Western states to demonstrate their support for the persecuted Muslim Rohingyas (Leider 2014, 2015b).

The Rohingya movement up to 2012

At the end of World War II, a small elite of educated middle-class Muslims in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, many of whom had previously served in the British administration and fought with the Allied troops against the Japanese, went for a political project that should have ensured political and economic autonomy for the predominant Muslim community in North Arakan. Those Muslims who had migrated during the late colonial period from Chittagong Division to Arakan knew well that many Rakhine Buddhists disliked them.

In early 1942, the British rule collapsed following the Japanese invasion and the tensions between Chittagonian settlers and Buddhists in Arakan had led to two waves of killing and ethnic cleansing. Muslims were forcibly driven out of the townships of Myebon, Minbya, and other neighboring areas while Buddhists had to flee the northern townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, fleeing either north into Bengal or to southern Arakan. In the minds of the Muslims, the 1942 violence confirmed the belief that no political deal could be done with the Rakhine Buddhists. However, the ambitious, yet ill-conceived idea of an independent Muslim land or an integration of the north of Arakan into Pakistan lacked political acumen and pragmatism and was condemned to failure in 1947. Political autonomy, on the contrary, looked like a realistic project. However, it needed either the support of the British authorities before independence or the Burmese government’s compliance afterwards. Therefore, the local Muslim leadership, which had joined forces in the Jamiatul-Ulema (association of teachers) of Maungdaw, nurtured the hope of obtaining the concession of an autonomous zone either through the favor of the British or the understanding of the Burmese. Early attempts failed in both 1947 and 1948.6 The strategy of appealing to powers outside of Arakan to promote the Muslim political project and interests (rather than addressing the political challenge as a domestic issue) set a pattern thatbecame a defining mark of the later Rohingya movement.

The creation of a frontier zone or the support of a Muslim secessionist or autonomy movement at the border with newly founded Pakistan made no political sense for either the British or the Burmese, and both ideas were firmly rejected. The failure to obtain the concession of political autonomy via the status of a frontier region (in 1947) had a number of immediate and serious consequences. As in many other places throughout Burma at the time, political dissent often generated full-fledged rebellion as light weapons for arming militants were plentiful after World War II. The Muslim revolt of the Mujahids lasted until 1961, but it is said to have presented no serious military threat after 1954. Other local Muslim leaders chose the path of parliamentary politics and participated in the elections of 1951 and 1955, standing up for Arakanese Muslim interests. When one sets these events within the larger political context of Burma in the early 1950s, the picture of how local leaders pursued either political or military options to serve their ambitions appears as fairly common. It was indeed similar to developments that took place in the northern, southeastern, and eastern peripheral zones of the Union.

The main difference with other domestic conflicts was the relatively recent process of political identity-building of the Muslims in North Arakan. This process moved forward against the odds and took place under constraints and hostile conditions. In its initial stages, it was promoted not by a nationalistic mass, but by an elite with an interest in securing political power. As it was stated above, the relatively newly formed Muslim community of Chittagonian origins was disliked by the Arakanese Buddhists because of their earlier pro-British stance, their outspoken territorial claims, and probably also because of their superior ability to organize resources and mobilize support.

The Muslim minority as a whole was largely concentrated at the border with the new country, Pakistan, whose political and cultural matrix was Islam. Burma’s cultural matrix was Buddhism, but more than Buddhism, it was the country’s multiethnic character and the need for communities to fit into the multiethnic grid that determined status within a political and ethnic hierarchy increasingly dominated by the majority Burmese after the British had left (Taylor 2015). To advance their claims for political autonomy, the Muslims of Buthidaung and Maungdaw needed to gain recognition of a status of national belonging, namely, the recognition that they were sons of the soil. Their de-indianization was never going to be an easy step as the Muslim communities in Arakan were the result of successive layers of migration extending over several hundred years, originating overwhelmingly though not exclusively in southeastern Bengal. The majority of these people, called Chittagonians at least until the 1950s, had come to settle in Arakan during the middle and late colonial period. According to the 1931 census, three-quarters had been born in Arakan, which might have prepared them well for integrating into the older, yet much smaller local Muslim society whose origins went back to the time of the former kingdom (before 1784).

Nonetheless, the Muslims in Arakan were never a homogeneous group.7 British census reports suggest that, at least during the early twentieth century, members of the old precolonial Muslim community of Arakan were keen to mark their difference from the new migrants, who were culturally akin, but newcomers nonetheless (Grantham 1923).

In their census reports, the British put all people in Burma who were linked to India by their racial origins in the category of foreign races. Thus all  the Muslims in Arakan, however long they had been living there, were classified as belonging to a “foreign race” (kala).8 To claim to be an ethnic group historically linked to the territory and have it accepted at a national level, the Muslims in North Arakan had to discard the negative connotation of being “foreigners.” Opinions were divided on the best strategy for pursuing the political interests of the Muslim community within the country. The idea of adopting an ethnic name in addition to the Islamic label became popular. Nonetheless many were content with referring to themselves as Muslims or more precisely as Arakanese Muslims,9 while others chose to specify their place of residence to mark internal community differences, such as Akyab, Maungdaw, Buthidaung. Still others advocated for clearly expressing a connection with the land Arakan, called “Rohang” in Bengali and “Ruaingga” in their own Eastern Bengali dialect. Opinions varied on how to spell the designated name. The Rohingya faction won against those who preferred Ruhangya, Roewhengyas, or Rohangya, all of which were linked to Rwangya, an obscure name used by Muslims who identified themselves as members of the old precolonial Muslim community. The variants are old, and the debate on how to spell them demonstrates that they were used only orally. With the exception of “Rooinga,” which appears only once in a British report of 1798, none of the other terms is found in British descriptions and administrative documents.10

After the surrender of the last Mujahids in 1961 and during the brief period when an autonomous Muslim zone existed, the Mayu Frontier Zone in 1961–64, the term Rohingya flourished among the politically engaged Rakhine Muslim community. However, it was vigorously contested by the Rakhine nationalists who, since the 1950s, have called for their own autonomous state and denounced the risks of Muslim separatism. The name Rohingya was mainly used within the narrow circle of educated and land-owning Muslims and it did not gain widespread national recognition, remaining unfamiliar to Burma observers and unknown to the many ethnic groups within the country.11 Remarkably, the name Rohingya became a default name for Rakhine Muslims after the violence of 2012. Nonetheless, the semantic content of the name Rohingya—its ethnic, historical, and cultural meanings—remains a contested field. The self-perception of the first Rohingya writers focused on the concept of local Muslim cultural and historical specificity. Yet from the mid-1960s until the 1980s, the term Rohingya was mostly associated with Muslim guerrilla organizations fighting against the Burmese government. In the early twenty-first century, the name Rohingya hints at a narrative of disenfranchisement and persecution in Myanmar, and for casual observers, it may suggest little more than the notorious problem of refugees, illegal migrants, and human trafficking evoked by dramatic pictures of people in rickety boats on the seas of the Bay of Bengal.12

When the Mayu Frontier Zone was suppressed and integrated into the Akyab (later Sittwe) District in 1964, a new chapter started where the name Rohingya survived as the name of rebel organizations along the border with East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). They were resolved to fight, arms in hand, for an autonomous Muslim zone. In 1978, the Burmese army supported a campaign of Burmese immigration officials to check the identity of Muslims in border townships with Bangladesh (Operation Nagamin). The campaign triggered a massive exodus of a quarter million people into Bangladesh. A majority were repatriated in 1979, a move opposed by militant Rohingyas, who took advantage of the refugee crisis to shop for arms and try to gain military support in the Middle East. Still, the refugee crisis of 1978 did not generate an international reaction of support as did the violence in 2012. The crisis of 1978 was triggered by the brutality of security forces, who intervened in a mishandled immigration check by Burmese authorities. Of the two hundred thousand Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh in the first halfof 1978, most were repatriated by the Ne Win government with UNHCR support between July 1978 and December 1979. Many refugees stayed on in Bangladesh, many others moved to Saudi Arabia where people from the region had settled since 1948. Pakistan provided passports, mostly with restricted validity. Bangladesh provided passports to migrant Rohingyas, though it is generally accepted that many identity papers were obtained illegally.

The events that took place from the late 1950s to the late 1970s conditioned two types of developments. First, individuals began to produce exclusive narratives to describe their history and identity. This widened the ideological gap between Muslims and Buddhists. History provided foundations for the Muslim nationalism of the Rohingyas and the Buddhist nationalism of the Rakhine. Secondly, leaders of the Muslim diaspora of Arakan became the mainstay of the acclaimed Rohingya identity. Under the authoritarian regime dominated by the army from 1962 until 2010, self-government was politically taboo and the expression of cultural autonomy was discouraged. Security was the primary concern of the military rulers. The state could exploit communal dissent to keep control of the two rival communities, playing the resentment and the fears of the Rakhine against the demographic power and the cultural otherness of the Muslims. Still, the administrative and political failure to integrate the Muslim community of North Arakan into the nation and to establish efficient control over the border with Bangladesh to prevent illegal migration demonstrate the weakness of the authoritarian state.

The citizenship law of 1982 has been singled out by commentators as the one moment when the Burmese state deprived Muslims in Rakhine State of their citizenship rights, making them virtually stateless (Pugh 2013). Nonetheless the history of their social and political exclusion is not a streamlined account of victimizing. Facts and interpretations diverge. Some Rohingyas have stated that the Burmese state planned evil against their community after 1962, some cite evidence to prove that their situation went from bad to worse mostly during the 1990s due to the arbitrary policies of the Nasaka border guards, and others have said that communal relations were still reasonably good before the 2012 violence, while those who believe that a slow genocide is taking place designate 1978 as the key date from which the extermination began.

To make sense of the many inconsistencies that haunt contemporary Rohingya statements on the history of their persecution, a more detailed analysis is needed to clarify the historical record. For sure, after 1962, the government’s failed economic policies paved the way to poverty for all the people living in Rakhine State. A history of oppression and exploitation has been shared by the two communities. Consequently, the history of the Muslims in Rakhine after independence is first of all the history of a progressive political and economic decline caused by the incompetence of the state to establish fair and equal rule. Clumsy immigration policies and restricting freedom of movement (prohibiting Muslims from officially leaving Rakhine State) stand out. The state established a reputation as a predator, being corrupt, inept, and untrustworthy. By increasingly denying rights to Muslims, it superficially played to the tune of Rakhine nationalists.

The Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), founded in 1998, defines itself as “one of the representative organizations of the Rohingya people of Arakan, Burma.”13 Historically ARNO is the successor organization of a series of militant Rohingya organizations based along the Bangladesh-Burma border that fought the government of Burma / Myanmar since the 1960s.14From the early twenty-first century onwards, the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) spread a relatively moderate message, which may be interpreted as a break with its past of armed struggle fighting for a separate Muslim zone.15 In 2015, it stated its political objectives as the introduction of democracy and the right of “self-determination” of the Rohingya people, the preservation of Rohingya history and cultural heritage, and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from their places of refuge. What makes ARNO traditional is its strong affirmation of historical and cultural roots, which serve to confirm the claim that Rohingyas are an ethnic minority of Myanmar. Since its foundation, ARNO has been making efforts to denounce the hardship endured by Muslims in North Rakhine State (notably the demands made by the Nasaka Border Guard Force until 2012) and voicing the tragedy of refugees who identify as Rohingyas in Thailand and Malaysia. Nonetheless, the post-1988 political context did grant ARNO a little space for developing political projects of its own. The organization followed a strategy of associating itself (and the cause of the Rohingyas) with the general struggle of ethnic minorities in Myanmar and the democracy movement. ARNO representatives met Karen and Kachin interlocutors and joined ethnic events organized abroad. Yet, ultimately this strategy of moderation and showing solidarity with the struggle for freedom and self-determination in Burma did not produce any perceptible political results for the Muslims in Rakhine State in the 2010s. Paradoxically it was not the democratic opposition to the military regime that made promises to the Rohingyas in North Arakan but the military government that lured the Muslim voters at the 2010 elections to support the regime party with promises of citizenship.

In hindsight, one can hardly criticize ARNO for this failure. It is difficult to imagine political alternatives to the discourse of moderation that it embraced after 2001 and which contained increasing references to human rights principles. Despite the political letdown, the move was significant. The association of Rohingya issues with the broader concerns of the prodemocracy groups that fought for regime change marked a further step in the internationalization of the Rohingya movement. It took the Rohingya movement in the diaspora out of its parochialism and saved it from oblivion and irrelevance (Leider 2013b). By showing photos of Aung San Suu Kyi in its pre-2012 publications, ARNO demonstrated concern for democracy in Burma / Myanmar, though it failed early on to gain acceptance by other ethnic parties. When one looks at the political situation in Myanmar three years after the 2012 communal violence, one can hardly imagine that any Rohingya politician in the country or lobbyist in the diaspora would still invoke Aung San Suu Kyi or the Burmese democracy movement as a beacon of hope for their cause.

Against this background, one may wonder why so little information about the tensions, state-society relations, and the security situation in Rakhine State had circulated outside of the country prior to the 2012 violence. There is a long list of possible and interconnected answers to such a question. One of the less obvious ones may be the tendency of the people of the region to self-isolate and default on building relations and investing in communication (Leider 2015a). Many of the Buddhist Rakhine are reluctant to engage with outsiders’ opinions and tend to persist with their often-narrow perceptions of what is Rakhine culture. As for Muslims, the Rohingya ideology has not been conducive to a firm alliance with political groups either in Myanmaror in Bangladesh. By claiming an ethnic identity that people in Myanmar consider as fake and that people in Bangladesh consider as foreign, Rohingyas have not made many friends in their neighborhood. Clearly this self-isolation did not prevent the expression of Muslim solidarity in Bangladesh or entirely deny the benefit of occasional political bonds. Still, in political terms, the Rohingya organizations outside of Burma / Myanmar failed for decades to obtain any substantial political gains in terms of recognition (Leider 2015b). Reports on the plight of the Rohingyas were the work of foreign human rights and humanitarian organizations rather than the traditional Rohingya movement. The 2012 violence changed the configuration of the conflict as well as its perception by the outside world, demonstrating the role of communication in the making of global opinions.##  


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