Rohingya as Myanmar’s perpetual ‘other’

Myanmar's persecution of its ethnic Rohingya minority is rooted in racism that has endured through the transition from military to democratic rule

March 29, 2017 3:58 PM (UTC+8)
Rohingya refugees wait in a queue to collect relief, including food and medicine, sent from Malaysia at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya refugees wait in a queue to collect relief, including food and medicine, sent from Malaysia at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

For decades, Myanmar’s elites have identified the Muslim minority Rohingya community as an existential security threat. This long lasting policy of treating the Rohingya as outsiders, or ‘others’, has cultivated perceptions of the Rohingya as ‘enemy others.’

This is also the reason why, regardless of leadership or regime change in Myanmar, the conflict appears unending. The Rohingya people have a long history of being ‘otherized’ in Myanmar through a wide variety of policies that have sought to restrict their community and their freedoms.

For instance, in October 1982, former dictator Ne Win gave a speech outlining Myanmar’s new citizenship law and stated that Muslim and Chinese people were not trustworthy and so did not deserve full citizenship status or rights. This was justified on the grounds of national security. The Rohingya had been denied these rights for decades.

Under military rule in the 1990s, the policies against the Rohingya became more systematic. Myanmar’s elites and politicians portrayed them as an existential threat to state sovereignty, national security, social security and economic security. This moved the Rohingya issue from the domain of normal politics onto the national security agenda.

The government enacted draconian policies against the Rohingya, including a birth control order, movement restrictions and denial of healthcare services and access to higher education. These policies were justified as protecting state security and served to reinforce a growing perception of the Rohingya people as ‘enemy others’ within the wider population.

People and Buddhist monks protest while Malaysian NGO's aid ship carrying food and emergency supplies for Rohingya Muslims arrives at the port in Yangon, Myanmar February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Brainwashed: Myanmar citizens and Buddhist monks protest against the Rohingya on February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence, this trend has intensified. Elites are more frequently portraying the Rohingya community as a threat in the public domain without any opposition. Now, these perceptions are deep-rooted in public debate and thinking, in the education sector, in government newspapers and online.

A number of journalists at major newspapers, academics, community leaders and, more importantly, ordinary people have also bought into the security threat line, vilifying the Rohingya people as less than human.

Framing the Rohingya problem as a security issue has become institutionalized, with the elite and the public alike caught up in the mission of trying to eliminate the perceived threat of the Rohingya community.

The change of leadership from ex-general Thein Sein to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has seen little change on the Rohingya. There has been no move towards re-framing the Rohingya problem.

Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) are concerned with the same issues as their predecessors. This indicates that their conception of the Rohingya problem is deeply security-dominated, despite their human rights and conciliatory rhetoric.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama (not seen) at the White House in Washington, September 14, 2016. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
Blind eye: State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

There are three main reasons why re-conceptualizing the security-dominated view of the Rohingya community is particularly difficult.

First, the perception of ‘enemy other’ is essential for the perpetuation of ‘ontological insecurity’, or security of the self. That is, the Myanmar conceptualization of the Rohingya as a security threat is now embedded within the narrative of the country’s politics.

So long as the Buddhist majority’s negative perceptions of the Rohingya ‘other’ remain unchanged, changing this conception of the community will remain an unreachable goal.

Second, as this conception of the Rohingya community has become institutionalized, the security concern has spread across many sectors. The source of alleged threat, the Rohingyas, cannot easily be de-linked from other things such as religious and ethnic identities, territory, society and economic sectors.

Rohingya refugees wait in a queue to collect relief, including food and medicine, sent from Malaysia at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Displaced: Rohingya refugees wait in a queue at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

This problem creates an ‘all or nothing’ environment. Unless the source of threat is completely eliminated from all sectors, it is too costly or risky to stand against social pressures.

Finally, the perception of the Rohingya community as a security threat is self-perpetuating. Those who perpetuate the idea remain unchallenged or enjoy strong support from all levels of society, and it is difficult to contest them or dislodge their social and political influence.

Targeting the Rohingya community as a security threat has thus become the ‘proper’ or ‘rational’ option for most of Myanmar’s political leaders and the public in general, and there is a long road ahead to change this.

Kyaw Zeyar Win is a founder and researcher at the Peace Research Institute – Yangon (PRIY)

This article first appeared here at East Asia Forum

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