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From Natives to Stateless: Tracing the historical construction of Rohingya Muslims as an enemy ‘other’ and exclusivist nationalism in Myanmar

Written by: Paula Arrus & Femi Ivan /Edited by: Lila Ovington

On August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee from Myanmar (formerly Burma) due to a ‘clearance operation’ executed by the Myanmar military. Today, Rohingya refugees remain the most vulnerable and racially oppressed ethnic minority in the world (Alam, 2019). Referred to as ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’ by the Myanmar authorities, the exclusivist nationalism perpetuated in the country leads us to ask:

Why and how have the Rohingya Muslims, native to the state of Myanmar, come to be considered as illegal foreigners and stateless over time?  

The exclusivist nationalism woven into the fabric of ethnicity and religion has constructed the Rohingyas as the enemy and foreign ‘other’ and has been used to legitimise policies which deny them citizenship. In order to understand the construction of Rohingya identity, it is important to trace and analyse the historical origins of Myanmar’s ethno-religious nationalism which continues to be perpetuated using the exclusionary tool of citizenship. The first section will explore the historical roots of exclusivist nationalism in pre-colonial and colonial settings, which promoted the discourse of the foreign ‘other’. The second section will assess how citizenship is being used to render the Rohingya Muslims stateless so as to construct a monoreligious Myanmar state. 

Tracing the genealogy and historical exclusion of Rohingyas

Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country and recognises several ethnic minority groups besides Rohingyas. The name Rohingya derives from the term ‘Roohang’, which refers to the Rakhine state (formerly Arakan). Crucially, this ethnonym has religious connotations since it refers only to Rohingya Muslims and not Rohingya Hindus, and identifies Rohingya Muslims as different from Myanmar Muslims (Charney, 2005). 

The Myanmar Muslims live mainly in urban areas, speak Burmese and are recognised as citizens. Contrastingly, Rohingyas live in Rakhine’s rural areas, speak the Chittagongian dialect of Bengali and have Muslim names. This difference can be traced to Rohingyas’ ancestors – Arab and Persian traders who established trade colonies and settled in Arakan from the ninth century CE (Yegar, 1972). The Arakanese Kingdom was independent from the Burmese Kingdom of Irrawaddy and the Bengal and Mughal Empire in India. In 1406, the Arakanese King Min Saw Mon was driven out due to foreign invasion and took refuge in Bengal. He restored his throne with the Bengal army’s help under the rule of Sultan Jalaluddin Mohammad Shah, leading to greater Muslim influence in Arakan. For instance, the Arakanese kings adopted Muslim names even though they practiced Buddhism. The Arakan Kingdom was fundamentally an ethnically diverse and hybrid region since Bengali, Indian, Arab and Persian settlers married local Muslim and Buddhist women (Chowdhury, 2020).  

Figure 1: Arakan (Rakhine state)

In 1784, the Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered and incorporated Arakan into the Burmese Kingdom of Irrawaddy. The Burmese invasion was followed by mass massacres of natives leading to Arakanese rebel movements against the Burmese. The deep animosity between Arakan and Burma was rooted in the process of schismogenesis (creation through differentiation), which identified the Arakan or Rakhine Buddhists as ‘natives’ and the Rakhine Muslims or Rohingyas as ‘foreign’ (Freeman & Mausert, 2020). This was manifested through the creation of cultural boundaries that spatially reoriented the Arakan Buddhists towards Irrawaddy and the Rohingya Muslims to the Chittagong region of Bengal. The annexation also enhanced ethno-religious differences by asserting Buddhist hegemony over Rakhine and rewriting history through chronicles. This would later prompt the Arakanese to support the British colonial occupation of Burma in 1824. 

British imperial rule over Burma played a profound role in exacerbating pre-existing ethno-religious tensions through its colonial administrative policies. The country’s ethno-religious diversity ideally suited the British ‘divide and rule policy. Thus, while the British directly ruled central Burma, the peripheral regions comprised of ethnic minorities were subjected to positive discrimination and were under the control of traditional rulers (Farzana, 2017). British policy also encouraged the migration of labourers, mainly Indian Muslims from Bengal, to work in Arakan’s fertile lands. Since it did not identify the status of Indian Muslim migrants, they were grouped with Rohingya Muslims. The British government recruited ethnic minorities like Rohingyas and Indian Muslims to suppress the Burmese uprisings against colonial rule (Ansar, 2020). The increasing predominance of minority rule and favouritism towards minorities threatened the Burmese Buddhists and led to the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments. These were evident in the intercommunal violence in 1942 that was marked by the discourse of “Burma for Burmese only” (Ullah, 2016).

The anti-colonial nationalism which emerged in Myanmar was racially motivated against all those who collaborated with the colonisers; they were referred to as ‘outsiders’ as they did not speak Burmese nor practice Buddhism and they polluted the natives. Before Myanmar became independent in 1947, certain Rohingya leaders approached the leaders of the newly created state of Pakistan to incorporate the Muslim majority region of Arakan with East Pakistan (Ibid). This was considered treason by the Burmese, which strengthened the Burmese nationalist discourse of Rohingyas as the enemy ‘other’ based on ethno-religious differences. 

Post-Colonial Period and Exclusionary Citizenship 

Burma’s independence from British rule in 1948 led to the continuous creation of an ethno-religious nation-state, which promoted homogeneity over diversity and institutionalized the notion of ‘ethnic absolutism’. Over time, Rohingyas have been identified as illegal foreigners and have been excluded as an ethnic minority through the concept of citizenship. While citizenship entails legal status and provides political rights, for Arendt (1979) citizenship forms identity and thus affects one’s belonging in a political community. This prompts the question: How is citizenship an exclusionary tool in postcolonial Myanmar?

The notion of citizenship is employed as an exclusionary tool to define the nation and the margins of belonging. The Myanmar state privileges the Buddhist Burmese in defining what constitutes the citizens of Myanmar and propels their exclusivist and narrow ethno-religious nationalism. These processes of exclusion have been facilitated and sustained by the absolute institutional control held by the Buddhist Burmese.

After the 1962 coup, the military government followed a strong exclusivist nationalist policy which “denied [Rohingya’s] citizenship on the basis of ascribed primordial identities” (Mohanty & Chowdhory, 2020), such as their religion, language, culture and ethnicity. Rohingyas are thus deliberately excluded from Myanmar’s nation-state which seeks to become mono-religious; they are unable to claim rights in a state that does not recognise them as citizens. As the Myanmar government strips away their citizenship, Rohingyas effectively become stateless and are considered as “resident foreigners” (Ullah, 2016), regardless of their existence on the land for centuries. 

A group of people holding signs

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Figure 2: Rohingyas protesting to revoke Citizenship Bill (The Daily Star, 2017)

In fact, not only are the Rohingya Muslims denied citizenship, they are also “unmade as citizens” (Mohanty & Chowdhory, 2020) in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept of ‘indigeny’ in postcolonial Myanmar is often constructed to distinguish the local inhabitants from the other. The concept has become an exclusionary instrument, operating through various legal means including constitutional provisions and discriminatory practices. For instance, after independence, the Rohingya Muslim elites had no political authority to form a nation-state nor the right to claim citizenship. Thus, both ethnicity and religion became the pivot of identity formation in Myanmar.

Similarly, the Myanmar government legally maintains inclusivity. Colonial hierarchies have been actively reproduced through legislation in the modern state apparatus, discriminating against minorities who do not fit into the Burmese Buddhist’s desired identity. After Myanmar’s independence, the first citizenship act differentiated between nationals and citizens, where Rohingyas were identified as the former and their “rights could be repealed within the power of the state” (Ibid). In the 1978 Operation Nagamin many Rohingyas were stripped of their official documentation by state agencies, leaving them vulnerable to political abuses. The next citizenship law in 1982 identified that “all ethnic groups in Burma were immigrants” (Ullah, 2016) and that, in order to be considered as ‘taing-yin-tha’ – a national race – and belong to Myanmar, one had to speak the Burman language. According to Mohanty & Chowdhory (2020), this created a “mythic unity” reflected in Myanmar’s Constitution which talks about the ‘collective people of taingyintha’ instead of the nation’s people. In fact, the majority of Muslim Rohingyas were refused taingyintha identification, consolidating their systemic exclusion and statelessness. Thus, the concepts of race and ethnicity have become key components of citizenship and determine the standard of belonging in Myanmar’s nation-state. These exclusionary laws have made the Rohingyas’ livelihoods precarious and unstable, including “restrictions on movements, land holding, education, and employment in civil services” (Mohanty & Chowdhory, 2020). Ultimately, legislation has become a key tool used by the state to marginalise Rohingyas from the Myanmar nation.

Conclusion

This state of statelessness perpetrated through the otherization of Rohingya Muslims has justified years of systematic persecutions and state-sponsored violence against them. Recently, the Myanmar government has banned the official use of the word ‘Rohingya’, leading to more than one million people being left unrecognised. While the Myanmar government does not challenge the Rohingyas’ existence, it fundamentally denies their claim to be Burmese. This demonstrates that the concept of citizenship is rather more subjective; it is monopolised and defined by the majoritarian political authority. 

The Rohingyas have been placed outside the nation-state configuration, rendering them stateless. This blog post highlights that exclusion has been maintained throughout pre-colonial and colonial history by essentialising ethno-religious differences. Colonial rule provided the socio-political conditions for the emergence of exclusivist nationalist sentiments against Rohingyas that became woven into anti-colonial discourse. These colonial legacies have been maintained in postcolonial Myanmar through the mechanism of citizenship, which is being used as an exclusionary tool to define the margins of the nation-state and dictate belongingness. 

Bibliography

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Ansar, A. (2020). The Unfolding of Belonging, Exclusion and Exile: A Reflection on the History of Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Southeast Asia. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 40(3), 441-456. https://doi.org/10.1080/13602004.2020.1819126

Charney, M. W. (2005). Buddhism in Arakan: Theory and historiography of the religious basis of the ethnonym. Forgotten Kingdom of Arakan: A Public Seminar on the People of Present Day Arakan State of Myanmar,(23-25),1-36. https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/6148/1/Charney%202005%20Religious%20Basis%20of%20Ethnonyms%20-%20Rakhaing%2C%20Arakan%2C%20Burma%2C%20Myanmar%2C%20Muslims%2C%20Buddhists%2C%20Ethnology%2C%20Ethnicity.pdf

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Harvey, G. E. (1967). Arakan. In History of Burma: From the earliest times to 10 March 1824 the beginning of the English conquest (pp. 250-292). London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd.

Mohanty, B., & Chowdhory, N. (Eds.). (2020). Citizenship, Nationalism and Refugeehood of Rohingyas in Southern Asia. Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-2168-3

Prasse-Freeman, E., & Mausert, K. (2020). Two sides of the same Arakanese coin: ‘Rakhine,’ ‘Rohingya,’ and ethnogenesis as schismogenesis. In E. Prasse-Freeman, P. Chachavalpongpun, & P. Strefford (Eds.), Unraveling Myanmar: Critical hurdles to Myanmar’s opening up process. Kyoto University Press. file:///C:/Users/femia/Downloads/Two_Sides_of_the_Same_Arakanese_Coin_Rak%20(1).pdf

Ullah, A. K. M. A. (2016). Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar: Seeking Justice for the “Stateless”. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 32(3), 285-301. Sage Journals. https://doi.org/10.1177/1043986216660811

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