'The Frictions in the Rakhine State Are Less About Islamophobia Than Rohingya-Phobia'

Eminent Arakan historian Jacques P. Leider talks about the historical context of the Rohingya conflict.

Rohingya refugees walk to the shore with his belongings after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rohingya refugees walk to the shore with his belongings after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

New Delhi: Photographs of terrified Muslim men, women and children fleeing the Rakhine state of Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh in the last few weeks have made the global community take note of the Rohingya issue like never before.

A brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army on the Rohingya Muslim inhabited areas of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), in response to a reported attack in mid-August on the security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed group fighting for the rights of the Rohingyas, led to the exodus of more than 400,000 Rohingyas to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

While the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, heads of states of countries have accused the Myanmar government of committing “genocide”. The long silence of Mynamar’s State Counsellor and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has also been questioned widely.

Media reports have failed to focus on the historical context of the conflict that treads back to the British colonial period. Revisiting the conflict may help find a possible solution to the crisis.

Jacques P. Leider is a well-known Arakan historian who has studied and written extensively about the complex Rohingya issue.

Leider, head of the Bangkok-based Ecole Françaised’ Extrême-Orient (EFEO), makes a deeper and nuanced assessment of the conflict which has simmered for decades before snowballing into a worrisome humanitarian crisis of South East Asia. In course of the interview, Leider categorically states, “The Western media fails to make a clear distinction between anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar’s urban centres and the radically different context of the Rakhine State.”

Below are excerpts from the interview:


You have been studying the socio-political history of the Arakan region of Myanmar for years. What led you to take a deep interest in it?

I studied history as well as Burmese language and civilisation in Paris. When I looked for a convenient topic for my MA research, my teacher oriented me towards the Burmese manuscripts collection at the French National Library. Somewhat surprisingly, I found a significant body of manuscripts on palm leaves and paper that dealt with Arakan in the early colonial period. The Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U (1430-1785) became the focus of my doctoral research. Thereafter, I did research on many other topics, but Arakan’s history remained a constant element in my research.

This is a question you are often asked in media interviews which I will repeat here, simply because many people worldwide still do wonder who, after all, is a Rohingya; what is the origin of the term; is it an ethnic term; how old is this term; is it different from terms ‘Bengali’ and ‘Kalar’, also used to refer the Rohingyas in Myanmar?

‘Rohingya’ means ‘Arakanese’ in the East Bengali dialect spoken by people in North Arakan, ‘Rohang’ being a local phonological variant of ‘Roshang’, the region’s name in Bengali literature. To clarify the conundrum around the contested name ‘Rohingya’, one must step back in time and embed the issue to the regional history of Muslim migrations. Throughout the early modern period, Muslims from all over the Indian Ocean came to live in port cities of continental Buddhist Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc.), but the migration of ‘Indians’ (including Muslims, Hindus and people of other religions) during the colonial period increased their number considerably. This is a well-known story that does not need to be elaborated. In Arakan, it was overwhelmingly Chittagonian labour, both seasonal and residential, that was attracted after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Until the Second World War, the much older pre-colonial Muslim community of Arakan that was socially integrated, on the one hand, and the more recent migrant community of ‘Chittagonians’, on the other hand, remained distinctive groups. It was the group with recent migrant roots that became most politically active.

In the 1950s, both Arakan Muslim parliamentarians and Muslim insurgents (the ‘Mujahids’) shared the idea of an autonomous Muslim zone adopting the Sharia law and Urdu as an official language. Then, under the push of a younger generation, there were discussions to adopt a name of their own. This issue was politically contested as there were already many group divisions that weakened political cohesion. Various spellings such as Roewhengyas, Ruhangyas and others were proposed, all linked to an old, but as it seems, mainly orally used term ‘Rwangya’. The current spelling, Rohingya, is traceable in print since 1963.

Jacques P. Leider. Credit: YouTube

In British administrative records, none of these terms had ever been used. For decades, the Muslims in Arakan were classified according to religion (Muslim), language (such as Bengali) and place of origins (predominantly Chittagong). The self-perception of different groups was only considered in the 1921 and 1931 census reports.

Moreover, the British classified people of Indian origins in Burma as ‘foreigners’. The question of how long these people had been living in the country was not put on record. ‘Foreigner’ is also the meaning of the very old word ‘Kalar’ that, in Burmese literature and usage, refers to people from the West, these being mainly Indians, but also more specifically Indian Muslims. A frequently noted pejorative connotation in the use of this term depends largely on the context. It is much too common to say that it is only depreciative, as the Western media have systematically put it.

The term ‘Bengali’ to designate officially Muslims of North Arakan was used by the Burmese administration relatively late, starting in the late 1970s and 1980s. One should bear in mind that back in the 1950s, Pakistan recognised that a great number of Muslims in Burma had a claim on Pakistani citizenship and the term ‘Pakistanis’ was also used for people whom everybody identifies today as Rohingyas. Why were all these issues of belonging not clarified early on? In fact, a performing bureaucracy did only emerge very slowly. Burma’s Ministry of Immigration became functional ten years after independence. Today, these terms are politicised and contested. Each one has become a weapon in a media contest where a serene look at history would do away with some of the zealous energy that is driving the confrontation.

The Muslim-Buddhist friction in the Rakhine state particularly goes back since the British time. Will you throw some light on the history behind this friction. How much of it can be traced to the Rakhine Muslims’ secessionist or autonomy movement in the 1940s to create a Muslim zone and align it to the then East Pakistan? What relevance does that movement have on the extreme friction that we now see between the Rohingyas and the Rakhine Buddhists and the general perception of the Rohingyas in Yangon?

These are historically legitimate questions and they are politically relevant today. Yet, we lack in-depth studies to push for a necessary discussion. My answers are derived from a broad understanding of the context where I try to fit in the two ethno-religious communities. Unlike the mainstream media that singularise the case of the Rohingya Muslims in their relation to the state, I consider that, primarily, one cannot understand the politics of one group without observing the other. Both communities have always been internally divided about the choice of their political options (federalism or separatism/autonomy). They have only been united in their opposition to the unitary state and to each other.

The political dynamics of the Rohingya Muslim movement were driven by leaders from the north, mainly from the township of Maungdaw. In the 1950s, the Rohingyas were initially the movement of a social and economic elite (including Rakhine Muslim students in Rangoon) that did not include, and did not attempt, to represent all the Muslims of Arakan when it claimed an autonomous zone. North Arakan Muslim leaders had made clear to the British in 1947 and to the first Burmese government in 1948 that a political compromise with the Arakanese (or Rakhine) was not an option for them. Local Muslim leaders had greatly helped the British during the Second World War (by opposing the Japanese forward movement towards Bengal as against the Buddhists supporting the Japanese) and hoped, therefore, for their support to create a frontier zone with a specific status.

Putting afterwards their hope in Prime Minister U Nu’s government in the 1950s earned them a political reward in the early 1960s when the short-lived ‘Mayu Frontier Administration’ in North Arakan was created. In the 1970s, Rohingyas were mainly identified with Muslim rebel groups based on the (Myanmar) border with Bangladesh, desperate to obtain military support from Middle East countries. As Rohingya organisations in the diaspora failed to be accepted among the armed ethnic groups and the democratic anti-junta front during the 1980s and 1990s, their efforts to gain an international hearing became increasingly rooted in a human rights’ discourse. The descriptions of the dismal condition of Muslims in the Rakhine State, the misery of refugees driven into Bangladesh, the tragedy of boat people and what was described internationally as the systematic harassment of their community in Myanmar bore ample testimony to the discourse on the plight of the Rohingyas.

Today, with the backing of liberal democracies, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries, UN organisations and human rights organisations that lobby for them, Rohingyas have many allies abroad and none in the country many of them call home.

In Myanmar, they fail to get recognition because their ethnic claim cannot be negotiated politically. So why the quasi-obsession with ethnic recognition by the state? Unlike in other countries, it is ethnic recognition that provides primordial constitutional legitimacy for political representation and citizenship. It is not the only criterion, but for the first generation Rohingyas, it was adamantly clear that only ethnic recognition would give them the necessary leverage for political claims. It should be clear from these explanations that the motives to support the Rohingya cause today draw on a vast array of different historical and legal arguments that do not form a single, unified body. There has been a general reluctance by international actors to get involved in the historical narratives that have animated impassionate debates between the Rakhine and Rohingya writers.

U Kyaw Min, an Arakanese parliamentarian and nationalist leader, stated in 1956 that the Arakanese had no problem with the Muslims, suggesting that a deal with the divided Muslims was always at hand. Yet over the decades, the communal frictions have increased because other, non-political issues impacted the Rakhine perspectives. For the Rohingyas, Muslim communal autonomy meant a fair deal that would see both communities get along politically and socially, but for the Rakhine, it meant the breaking apart of their motherland. Later on, it was the unequal demographic growth of the Muslim community that produced a latent anxiety among the Buddhists. Despite a general understanding that a part of the Arakan Muslims had deep roots in the country and that Rakhine history cannot be understood without its social and religious complications with Bengal from the past down to the present, a pervasive Rakhine narrative about Muslims in Arakan has viewed them as ‘guests’ who have betrayed the trust of their hosts by claiming territorial ownership. The claim of a distinctive ethnicity made by Rohingyas is, therefore, considered by them as fake. The frictions are less about Islamophobia than Rohingyaphobia.

Against this complex background, it is not possible to establish a straightforward link of causality between the late 1940s and today. Yet, it is the verbatim quotes of relatively simplistic statements made by both sides that have enjoyed national and international resonance in 2012 and fed back into the cycle of frictions.

Rohingya refugees sit as they are temporarily held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rohingya refugees sit as they are temporarily held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

There are other Muslims living in Myanmar even though much smaller in number than the Rohingyas. How much support do the Rohingyas have from these groups? Or, has the political term ‘Rohingya’ pushed these groups away from them?

There are various Muslim communities in the Rakhine state and there are a number of different Muslim communities across Myanmar – some of them possibly even older than the pre-colonial Muslim community in Rakhine. As an academic, I would use expressions such as “historically multi-layered and ethnically diverse communities”. Many are of various Indian ethno-linguistic origins, others are of Malay or Chinese Yunnan origins (like the Panthay in Mandalay), one group of so-called Burmese Muslims has more recently adopted the name ‘Pathi’ (a term found in the royal chronicles to designate a Muslim community) to underscore its antiquity.

By emphasising a distinctive ethnicity, the Rohingya leadership cut off the complex family of Rakhine Muslims from a long continuity of historical roots in Bengal and specifically south-east Bengal identities. For that reason, I have been talking about an effort on their behalf to de-Indianise themselves. The ethnic claim also deprived the Rohingyas of political solidarity with the other Muslim communities of Burma (Myanmar) that did neither raise ‘ethnic’ claims nor made expressly claims for political autonomy. One may recall that in an unfavorable political context that emerged since the 1960s, Indians in Burma became victims of nationalist politics. On top of local economic prejudice against Indians, the explicit political nature of the Rohingya project was perceived by many urban Muslims as toxic. There are still no public enquiries about this topic in Myanmar today, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that there is no substantial level of Muslim solidarity with the Rohingyas. It does not mean and I will not argue that it does not exist, but it’s at least not articulated. More soberly, urban Muslims in contemporary Myanmar urban centres, whatever their private feelings are, would have nothing to win to stand up for the Rohingya cause. Is the Rohingya project, therefore, to be called an ambition that has backfired on itself? To be true from a social and anthropological perspective, one has to recognise that during the last 50 years there has indeed been an ongoing melting process that has brought Muslims in Rakhine state closely together, forging a shared identity under the impact of state oppression and civic exclusion. There were never as many Muslims who identified themselves as Rohingyas than after 2012.

As you have always pointed out in your writings, the conflict in the Rakhine state has been traditionally triangular: the state vs the Rohingyas vs the Rakhine Buddhist. The narrative now, at least internationally, has become the state and Rakhine Buddhists vs the Rohingyas. Is it correct to include the voice of the Buddhist Rakhines in the extreme right wing 969 movement led by U. Wirathu or there is a separate voice that hasn’t found space in the international arena yet?

It is important to recall that the Rakhine themselves have struggled to be recognised as an ethnic group after independence and their ethnically denominated Rakhine state was only created in 1974. They are keen to stress their separate historical and cultural identity despite the religion, language and cultural traits they share with the majority Burmese (or Bamar). The 969 movement has picked up the Rakhine crisis issues to feed its own anti-Muslim discourse, but it was not bred in the Rakhine state. The Western media still fails to make a clear distinction between anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar’s urban centres and the radically different context of the Rakhine state. Even well-meaning academics tend to exemplify Islamophobia in Myanmar by pointing to the high number of Muslim IDPs (internally displaced people) in Rakhine state. At the same time, the political sentiments of Rakhine people are not integrated into international political analysis. On the other hand, the traditionally reclusive Rakhines have entirely failed to communicate a positive image of themselves to the rest of the world, to commit themselves publicly to tolerance and to invest in politically constructive ideas for the future. In a globalised world, it’s not enough to lay back and complain in confidential circles about the world that does not respect “us”.

Anti-Muslim Myanmar Buddhist Monk Wirathu. Credit: Reuters

Anti-Muslim Myanmar Buddhist monk Wirathu. Credit: Reuters

Even though there was a huge exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh in 1978 following the violence – many of whom were repatriated in 1979 – the internationalisation of the Rohingya issue happened only after the 2012 violence. What changed then?

In terms of international media attention and support by the West and the Middle East, the aftermath of 2012 was an immense success for the Rohingya diaspora. One spin-off was the genocide narrative that severely impedes efforts of the current Myanmar administration to rebalance the discussion in their favour. For the Rohingyas in the country, it was a disaster. Rohingyas, despite their lack of full citizenship rights since 1982, had been granted voting rights and had participated in regional and national elections until 2010. But the suppression of their ‘white cards’ in 2015 by the national parliament cut them off from any form of political representation. This is ultimately not in the interest of the state. Put in Machiavellian terms, the army controlled the Rakhine state by playing the prejudice and interests of one community against those of the other one. This form of containing and at the same time, abusing the potential for communal frictions, also guaranteed state access to intelligence about the inner workings of these groups. The fast rise and the surprise of attacks of ARSA since October 2016 reflect an extraordinary intelligence failure on the side of the security forces.

There is a strong Rohingya diaspora voice which has been able to establish the issue as a humanitarian and Muslim victimhood issue. But you have said in your writings that “internationalisation has not opened new ground in the domestic political arena where both Muslims and Buddhists have been longing for peace.” Instead, you said, “It confirms some of the fears already had by the Buddhists, namely, the alleged threat of an international Muslim alliance.” If you can elaborate it a bit…

Your question relates to the arena of media fitness. When Myanmar opened up by the decision of the military elite in 2011, many people in the country regained hope about their political and economic future. But the hopes bear many contradictions, because the interests of the various ethnic and religious groups and the state are competing. The language, the terminologies, the mature thinking to address and negotiate publicly these contradictions and inherent conflicts had not yet been learnt. Public intellectuals and news editors were not present to orient the discussion and guide the public. Countrywide, educational infrastructure has been in a mess. What was “there” was the state of mind of the early 1960s and some of the memory of the 1950s as the country left a time-warp of several decades of isolation and party-line thinking. The international media that descended on Yangon after 2011 spoke a language that people were unable to assess rationally. Facebook became the foremost instrument of public discussion for the happy few with access to computers and 24-hour electricity, soon drunken with the newly-found freedom to criticise and wildly indulging in racist rampage when the conflict exploded in the Rakhine state. Trigger-happy rhetoric sustained a constant reiteration of “us the Buddhists” and the “rest of the world that does not understand Myanmar”. The Rohingya diaspora invested in sophisticated strategies of communication that neither the Myanmar state nor any of its ethnic constituencies have been able to cope with. Buddhist resentment was bound to increase.

Some countries have termed the Rohingya issue as genocide. Though, it is not for the first time the term has been used to define the extreme odds faced by the Rohingya Muslims. Yours writings point out that the term was first used in the 1951 charter of the Arakan Muslim Conference. In 1978, it was used by some Rakhine Muslim groups when violence led Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. However, post 2015, we are getting to hear it more often, and internationally. How do you see the use of this term, particularly by the international rights organisations and heads of states? In one of your articles on the issue, you said, “The accusation of the term hits hard on the credibility of the state.”

Genocide accusations resound very strongly and have an immediate impact on global audiences; they are perceived as an urgent call for action and possible intervention. Indictments of genocide should, therefore, be made on grounds that leave no doubt for interpretation. The accusation of a Rohingya genocide is still very much open for further discussion. This is not the only accusation of genocide that has been made within the region. Rakhine nationalists have alleged that the Burmese conquest of 1785 marked the beginning of a long-term effort to exterminate the Rakhine ethnic group and in the British census of 1901, the compiler hinted at the perspective of a disappearance of the Rakhine “race” due to Chittagonian immigration. Accusations have also been made about the genocide of the Chittagong Hill Tracts people in Bangladesh, especially during the Chittagong Hill Tracts war (1977-97). The charges of a “slow genocide” of the Rohingyas has been mostly made by people who discovered the Rohingya issue only in 2012. Questioning the use of the term ‘genocide’ does not mean that one intends to belittle mass atrocities and serious violations of human rights. It’s a fact that the Muslim population in the Rakhine state has been steadily growing despite massive emigration. In Maungdaw township, it has grown from 34% after the war to 92% (according to UNHCR sources), despite the fact that there has been a steady flow of people out of the region. The picture gets blurred when ‘genocide’ is used both as a rhetoric tool to express indignation about indiscriminate state oppression and as a description for an alleged state-led plan to exterminate a whole population.

Rohingya refugees walk to the nearest village after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rohingya refugees walk to the nearest village after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 5, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Also read: Timeline: Being Rohingya in Myanmar, from 1784 to Now

You have spoken about the Myanmar government playing into the hands of the Rakhine nationalists by increasingly denying rights to the Muslims. Will you elaborate it a bit?

I am not sure I have put my argument clearly and if I didn’t, I should elaborate indeed. I do not mean to say that more the Muslims are harassed and flee, more the Rakhine community will have a reason to rejoice. Such an impression would be entirely wrong. Since the colonial period, the Muslims have established a reputation as hard-working people despite the general poverty of the population as a whole. There are many problematic issues to be addressed, such as population growth and women’s rights, but there’s a right for people to live where their families have lived now for decades. Only an ethno-political consensus of the two groups will make sure that there is a future for the people of the Rakhine state. I am talking about the progress and welfare of rural people at a basic level and initiatives that will lift people out of poverty. I am not talking about showcase government-led projects such as the port of Sittway modernised by India and the gas pipeline built by China and serving China’s thirst for natural resources. The bad news about the events in the Rakhine state have been ruining the reputation of the region and clearly lessen chances for diversified foreign investment.

Besides the economic aspect, there’s the political aspect. After the elections of 2015, the situation in the regional parliament of the Rakhine state became soon blocked by the appointment of a chief minister who belongs to the government party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy. But it is the Arakan National Party that holds a majority in the regional parliament. The conclusion is this: pleasing or antagonising the Rakhine ethnics is not necessarily related to government policies towards the Muslims and vice-versa.

What is the way out? Aung San Syu Ki said that the state would soon begin verification process for the return of the Rohingyas. Do you think a fruitful political dialogue will possibly follow this?

There is not a single way out; there are rather many patient steps to be taken by the stakeholders and actors in the conflict sphere to improve the situation. While the immediate prospect looks bleak, not least because no one really knows what role the new group, ARSA, is going to play, one should not be blind to the fact that there have been no revenge killings and no riots in the rest of the Rakhine state during the last weeks. Most people in the country seem painfully aware that the current crisis may produce a dangerous international backlash. On the other hand, since 2013, many other ethnic groups that are hoping for peace and development and for international support as well, have grown desperate as the Rohingya lobby groups have appropriated a lot of the attention of international donors.

The near prospects will be dictated by the international involvement in the crisis. A repatriation effort will likely be engaged on the basis of the earlier agreement with Bangladesh and under international auspices. The government should try to apply, as it had promised, the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission report that make a lot of sense in terms of improving general livelihood in the region. True, none of those recommendations expressly address the issue of a political dialogue that you refer to. The international community does not seem to imagine anything like that either. It seems enthralled by the apparently unprecedented drama of another exodus that is still poorly understood. Sticking with their fascination for Aung San Suu Kyi, once a saint and de facto prisoner, a leader and a fallen angel today, the United States, the European Union and other interested parties fail to address and engage with some of the fundamental issues that we need to know more about, namely social and political drivers in the arch-conservative Muslim Rohingya society, transnational Rohingya dynamics, the relationship between the diaspora and Rohingyas in Myanmar as well as similarly structured issues relating to the social and political lives of the Rakhine community. What we know already is that the management of the Rakhine State and its people display a state failure that has extended over several decades. We also know that the state has failed to stand up for the protection and welfare of the people and has shown itself as a weak rather than as a potent force. Only a collective effort will pay off, the state alone will not be able to shoulder the entire burden. Dialogue is, no doubt, one among the important steps to be taken.