The Arakan/Rohingya Crisis

T.note n.42 - RISE series #7

Five years ago, as a political transition took place in Myanmar, an outbreak of violence between Muslim and Buddhist population groups engulfed the State of Arakan (also known as Rakhine State). Clashes in 2012 claimed more than 200 victims, destroying numerous homes. People took refuge in camps where most of them still reside. Today, the various Muslim groups that international organizations and foreign media outlets know collectively as “Rohingya” represent nearly one third of Arakan’s population.

In 2013, disturbances served as a catalyst for an outpouring of religious (i.e. Buddhist) nationalism. Buddhist nationalism gave rise to the “969 Movement”, which called for a boycott of Muslim-owned shops. Later, this phenomenon led to the establishment of a Buddhist nationalist association, the Ma Ba Tha. Various attacks against Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship soon followed. What is more, Ma Ba Tha promoted the Four Laws for the Protection of the Nation (or Race) and Religion – which were adopted prior to the 2015 elections –, and encouraged its supporters to vote for the re-election of President Thein Sein. The President’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered an electoral defeat; yet, this didn’t lead to the widespread disavowal of the religious nationalist group Ma Ba Tha.

In October 2016, young Muslims exasperated by years of immobility and injustice attacked three frontier posts with the support of foreign Islamist groups. An already abysmal situation was then made worse, as the constitution allowed for the border region under the control of the Burmese Army to be closed off completely. While some 75,000 refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh, local NGOs and international media outlets published reports on the atrocities perpetrated by the Army.

It needs to be noted that several major confrontations have occurred in Arakan since World War II, creating lasting distrust between followers of different religions. These conflicts are related to issues which all have their roots deep in the country’s past, including: the concept of citizenship and the conditions of access to it; the place that religion (especially Buddhism) holds in Myanmar’s national project; and active citizen participation in the life of the nation.

The place that the Muslim community holds in the country has been problematic for nearly a century, particularly at times of political reconfiguration. By the 1930s it had “become the symbol of colonialism, of foreign exploitation”. As an example of this, anti-Indian riots broke out in Yangon in 1930 and 1938. In the early days of colonization, in fact, the British encouraged the migration of thousands of Indians – either Hindus or Muslims – into Myanmar for the development of rice paddies and commercial activities around ports. Most were seasonal workers coming from different parts of India. Mostly coming from the region of Chittagong, those who went to Arakan often were called “Chittagonian”, or were labelled in British reports as being of “Indian race”. Most of them settled in Akyab (more commonly known as Sittwe).

A new social order emerged from the colonial State in the course of the 19th century, as the colonial administration – more or less consciously – engineered a lengthy process of population differentiation. “Race” (as defined by the criteria of language and religion) became a decisive aspect of Burmese national identity, especially in the context of the progressive adoption and adaptation of this traditionally Western concept. Social components were levelled down and re-defined on a racial basis. Buddhists were considered indigenous, making Buddhism the religion of the nation. “Mahomedans” (as Muslims were then called), were categorized as “non-natives”, even in cases where they had been living in Myanmar for generations. This put emphasis on the fact that Arakan’s pre-colonial Muslims were descendants of people who had moved to Myanmar as a consequence of raids, incursions, or deportation, rather than conversion.

This race-based differentiation would be used after Myanmar’s independence as a condition to determine citizenship rights. In independent Burma, Muslims received neither official recognition, nor any other recognisable form of legal status as a special religious community or as an indigenous/national race. As a consequence, the Burmese constitution did not formally recognize the existence of Muslims (neither as a religious community, nor as a minority). Moreover, from 1982 onwards, citizenship was granted to recognized nationalities or national races (tuin: ran: sa:), also known as “native population groups”. Establishing one’s nationality by looking at their religious creed led certain groups to reinforce their perceived “indigenousness” at the expense of others. This dynamic inevitably led to the further marginalization of the Muslim community in Myanmar.

In 1971, the creation of Arakan State granted no real power to the region, but rather provided symbolic recognition to the efforts by the Arakanese elite and/or by ethno-nationalist groups to defend their particular identity and preserve their own traditions in the face of Burmese culture. This led to the reification of the ethnic characteristics of movements involved in political and cultural struggle, and was accentuated by military authoritarianism. Throughout the 1990s, Buddhist groups conceptualized religion as an essential marker of ethnicity, further worsening the Buddhist-Muslim divide.

The issue of the Muslims of Arakan raises questions about the citizenship requirements laid out by the 1982 legislation and about the legal recognition of religious communities or minorities. The LND has mentioned the possibility of amending citizenship laws should popular demand grow,  but hasn’t attached to much importance to the issue. The living conditions of Arakan’s Muslims deprived them of any future. Humanitarian organizations now care for an estimated 140,000 displaced people. NGOs have arrived in large numbers, but the Buddhist population resents their presence, questions their impartiality, and argues that they further exacerbate local antagonisms.

After enduring the Burmese junta’s hegemonic and authoritarian policies, most people continue to live in poverty despite reforms set in motion in 2011. The Arakanese also consider the state to have massively plundered their region’s natural and agricultural resources. This continued under the post-junta government led by Thein Sein (2010-2015) without any local benefit until recently. Current negotiations may help reverse the current situation.

In August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi established an advisory committee chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan as a response to the pressure exerted by the international community on Myanmar. The committee was charged with the task of identifying solutions to resolve the conflict, deliver humanitarian aid, and review development issues. The Arakanese Buddhists violently opposed the committee’s mandate and any foreign intervention after last October’s attack, arguing that international organizations have condemned them unjustly and systematically. The committee’s existence has increased the distrust of the Arakanese in the current government, however.

Finally, access to the media, the Internet and social networks means that the conflict, no longer confined to the region alone, has been removed from its original context. Dismay and outrage provoke additional (sometimes irrelevant) antagonisms. These fuel and exacerbate the original conflict, worsening an already sensitive situation. Complex problems defy simple solutions.

Han Ka is  a researcher with fieldwork experience in the Rakhine State who writes under a pseudonym.


This article has been submitted to the editorial board prior to the escalation of the crisis on August 24th. 

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