Rohingya identity and the limits to history by Jonathan Saha, 17/09/2017, New Mandala
Public discussions around Rohingya people currently fleeing violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar, have often involved arguments about history. While critical historical analysis is useful in offering insights into conflicts, History—if treated as a single, knowable past—is not. This is especially true when dealing with ethnicity. Whatever the past was, no amount of historical research can justify the current violence against Rohingya people.
The debate around Rohingya ethnicity lacks awareness of wider historiography (the history of historical research). On the one side, those denying that this is ethnic cleansing argue that there is no such thing as a Rohingya ethnic group. It is claimed that these people are actually Bengali Muslim migrants. The writings of historians such as Jacques Lieder have been used, by some, to support this position. He argues that the use of the term Rohingya to connote this Muslim population, although noted by eighteenth-century European travelers, is a modern one. For him, Rohingya is primarily a political identity. On the other side, Rohingya activists have resisted this characterisation. They have countered that there is evidence of Muslims living in the Rakhine region for centuries, and that these groups have periodically been called Rohingya.
Writing in The Diplomat last year, one commentator attempted to disentangle these debates by arguing that “the Rohingya are not an ethnic, but rather a political construction. [emphasis in original]”. This is wrong. Not only wrong in the sense of it being inaccurate, but wrong in two other ways: 1) in that it relies on a false division between the categories “political” and “ethnic”, and then treats the two as if they are mutually exclusive; and 2) in that it assumes that we can definitively know people’s ethnic identification in the past.
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Keane Shum, « The tamarind is always sour » in Granta 138 : Journeys, Essays and Memoir
My job is to follow the movements of refugees across Southeast Asia so that we know where and how they might seek asylum, and what kind of needs they will have when they do. For the last few years, by far the largest group of refugees moving across Southeast Asia have been the Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Myanmar. The Rohingya are Muslims who have lived for generations in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, but are considered by virtually all other Myanmarese – most of whom are Buddhists – to be interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
By law, the more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar are almost all excluded from Myanmar citizenship, making them the largest stateless group in the world. They are cut off from livelihoods, medical care and schools. Systematic discrimination, punctuated by occasional eruptions of violent conflict, has pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek refuge across a vast expanse stretching from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to Bangladesh and Malaysia. There are anywhere between two to three million Rohingya in the world, and the large majority of them do not exist on paper.
When I first started talking to Rohingya refugees in 2014, most of them were fleeing Myanmar by boat because they are generally prohibited by local authorities from crossing by road into even the next town. Every month, thousands of Rohingya were committing $2,000 a head to a multinational network of Myanmarese, Bangladeshi, Thai and Malaysian people smugglers whom they entrusted to bring them across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to Malaysia. My team and I interviewed hundreds of Rohingya who made this journey, and their testimonies were remarkably consistent and consistently terrifying. The only more inhumane crossing I have ever heard or read about is the Middle Passage, the part of the slave journey across the Atlantic that killed millions of Africans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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