Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.

Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)

If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).

The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.

In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.

The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.

Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.

Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:

– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).

– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.

The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.

– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.

In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.

Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!

If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.

But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali, because they are not part of the world of Bengali letters.

Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.

In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.

I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.

But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring at the same time the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengal, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.

In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.

21 thoughts on “Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

  1. I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh

    That’s not quite my understanding. I understood that the result of the bloody birth of Bangladesh out of the ashes of East Pakistan in late 1971, the inter-ethnic pogrom and another Indo Pakistan war associated with the creation of Bangladesh, that left perhaps 1.5 million dead, and resulted in something of the order of 10 million refugees. Many Muslims from what is Eastern Bangladesh settled in Western Burma.<

    History shows us that Islam has bloody borders.

    The conflict should be looked at with that backdrop.

  2. I understood that the result of the bloody birth of Bangladesh out of the ashes of East Pakistan in late 1971, the inter-ethnic pogrom and another Indo Pakistan war associated with the creation of Bangladesh, that left perhaps 1.5 million dead, and resulted in something of the order of 10 million refugees.

    do you have a source on that? sounds kind of bullshitty. i knew a man who was born in what was pakistan i the 1950s (east), but identified as burmese and whose fled had fled burma for political reasons. he clearly did not identify as bengali but burmese.

    most of the refugees from east pakistan who stayed where they were were hindu, because these were who were targeted by pakistan’s military. also, by the 1970s the bengali muslim identity was well forged. the total reinvention into non-bengalis seems really weird and conspiratorial.

    History shows us that Islam has bloody borders.

    this is true. but this sort of reduction makes me think you are dumb and don’t know much history. those who know don’t write in maxims from other peoples’ work.

  3. Great piece. I like your description of the evolution of identity. I see in Wikipedia that the leader of the Rohingya insurgency is born in Karachi and educated in Mecca – a familiar pattern: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ata_Ullah
    One can wish for atrocities to end (and I do) but the combined logics of democracy and nationalism dictate this sort of behaviour. If power comes from the people, then the majority wins, and if you are afraid that your group will become a minority, which is probably what buddhists in Rakhine are afraid of, then the solution is to avoid the minority from becoming a majority by driving them off or killing them. We really need international pressure here to stop this from happening, and then a peaceful partition of the province (and maybe a less sociopathic Kadyrov figure to control the new Rohingya state, but maybe I’m drawing too many parallels).

  4. Great piece Razib. You have succinctly laid down most of the important strands of the dynamic. Its disheartening to see that almost every analysis looking at the issue with own ideological axe to grind. One very infuriating article that is currently going around Bangladeshi social media is the following by Columbia Sociology Professor Saskia Sassen, where she claims the main driver of cleansing is corporate land-grabbing.

    https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion

  5. and then a peaceful partition of the province

    this seems the best solution. the rohingya are concentrated in the northern districts. perhaps an ‘exchange of populations’ too so the southern districts become more rakhine and northern ones less.

  6. “an ‘exchange of populations’ too”

    Seems excessive to me, we are talking about the citizens of the same country which presumably has freedom of movement. Maybe it will happen in an unforced manner after partition occurs. What partition will achieve is Rakhine confidence that in their rump state they will remain the majority. For the Rohingya it will achieve the same, plus citizenship (the lack of is an intolerable state of affairs).

  7. In 1962 the Burma’s military government expelled its Indian minority, which had formed the dominant merchant minority in the country (before the expulsion the population of Rangoon had been half Indian). I wonder why they didn’t expel the Rohingya too (who as you say also mostly arrived from British India in the 19th century). My hunch is that it is much harder to ethnically cleanse peasants that it is to ethnically cleanse merchants.

  8. Many Westerners can’t understand why a cohesive ethnic group that, after much struggle, gets the state it wants, wouldn’t immediately adopt left liberal policies on citizenship.

    A single generation is all it takes for something like “roots” to be put down in a new location by migrants, so I understand the impulse behind left liberal policies on citizenship: hereditary second-class status, forcible removal, these are not pretty things. To avoid them requires a very liberal attitude toward national citizenship. But it really shouldn’t require much imagination to sympathize as well with the more indigenous group’s fears about migrant influence, especially when said indigenous group has only recently won the state that it wants. Responding to those fears with self-righteousness solves nothing—indeed, it fans the flames of conflict. This seems elementary.

  9. “We really need international pressure here to stop this from happening”

    This a quarrel in which the United States does not have an interest. I think it is an outstanding opportunity for the US to mind its own business.

  10. I believe the general consensus among historians is that the Rohingya presence in Burma is much older than British colonialism. Razib, what makes you opine differently?

  11. Hadn’t heard of Lewish trilema before: Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or lord. I would rephrase that: he was either a lucky lunatic or a crazy moral genius, which in either case is divine.;)

  12. I believe the general consensus among historians is that the Rohingya presence in Burma is much older than British colonialism. Razib, what makes you opine differently?

    which historians? name them.

    their language is so close to chittagong language. if they were in arakan that look would expect a lot more borrowing of different native language (in bangladesh the chakma now speak a dialect of bengali, not their original sino-tibetan language). also, physically they look no different from eastern bengali peasants. no evidence of admixture with the local population>

  13. “In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. ”

    Razib,

    Since I don’t have access to this book, do you know if the author managed to look at the immediate, pre-Islamic history of East Bengal, aka the Vajrayanic Buddhist Pala Empire, to work into his explanations of Bengal’s subsequent, strong Islamic character?

  14. History shows us that Islam has bloody borders.

    Islam will get no defense or apology from me, but this statement lacks the complicated context that brings forth a better understanding of the dynamic between religion and society in Islamic societies.

    Islam seems not to have “bloody borders” when it is sublimated by a strong and well-structured state (that is, a state with no imperial ideology). Or at least the borders are not as bloody.

    Strong-nation states tend to have peaceful borders when there is a robust system of international adjudication and balancing, in which major policies of the actors are channeled into those of mutual interests. I would argue this is what we have in Western Europe, North America, and East Asia today. These are all polities that have had a long tradition and history of strong and well-ordered states (and still they only learned to coexist peacefully in relatively recent times).

    The problem, even with “international harmony,” is that some polities do not have such a history or tradition. Imposing the outward appearance of post-colonial “nation-state” on them merely papers over the longstanding internal structural issues of those regions. And the world has long had such zones of chaos, areas with little (or moderate) order beyond the rule of the strong over the weak or clan versus clan. For a myriad historical and contingent reasons (we can argue over causalities to infinity here), much of the Islamic area seems to fall over these zones.

    Surely Islam itself – as a social, political, and military agents of influence – play a strong role, but it seems unwise to assign blame cross-border violence onto Islam as its direct causal agent. Where Islam coexists in a cohesive and robust state (e.g. Turkey and Malaysia), it does not seem to transmit violence or have “violent borders.”

  15. do you know if the author managed to look at the immediate, pre-Islamic history of East Bengal, aka the Vajrayanic Buddhist Pala Empire, to work into his explanations of Bengal’s subsequent, strong Islamic character?

    the ‘standard model’ is that the buddhist character of pala bengal made it susceptible for islamicization (as hinduism was weaker). doesn’t seem like that’s a primary concern of the author. rather, he seems to argue that east bengal was a frontier society, and that ag. expansion was sponsored by muslim notables. therefore it was reasonable that the local peasants would align and identify with the religion of their sponsors.

    in contrast in western bengal a preexistent social and cultural structure existed rooted in hinduism.

  16. do you have a source on that? sounds kind of bullshitty.

    Possibly, it’s difficult to find sources not behind a paywall. I take a little interest in the area as I was born in Calcutta in 1960 and remember this conflict as a child – after the family had left India – and hearing about the Pak army’s atrocities, the supposed 10 million refugees and the Indian Army’s less than fluffy response, especially in the East. Now it is possible all the Muslim refugees in Eastern Pakistan stayed in East Pak/ Bangladesh, but given Bangladesh is right on the Border of Burma and that this was conflict was in addition to being an attrocity of the Pakistan army, also a pro Pak Muslim Vs Pro ‘liberation’ Bangladesh intra-Muslim conflict, it would be surprising if quite a few Muslims – I have no idea how many – didn’t join fellow Muslims just across the border in Burma rather than take their chance in India. I remember hearing this along time ago, I don’t know where. I also remember there being UN refugee camps in Burma post the 71 war. Anyway the inter ethnic conflict between Muslim Bengalis/ Rohinga and mainly Therevadan Buddhists Burmans has been going on for yonks.

    this sort of reduction makes me think you are dumb and don’t know much history. those who know don’t write in maxims from other peoples’ work.

    I guess that is a heuristic. There is alot of history to know – ‘much’ is a relative term, we’re still making it and the end of history isn’t coming any time soon…

    The germane issue is do I have a point in this specific instance, regardless of how ‘dumb’ I happen to be.

  17. “Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons”

    I can’t believe you left out the most important part. Using the arms they got from the British to fight the Japanese, they started an armed rebellion for a separate homeland and still engage in terrorist activities to this day.

  18. Now it is possible all the Muslim refugees in Eastern Pakistan stayed in East Pak/ Bangladesh,

    they targeted intellectualists, leftists, and hindus. a huge disproportionate # of refugees were hindu.

    The germane issue is do I have a point in this specific instance, regardless of how ‘dumb’ I happen to be.

    honestly you just made a bullshit speculation.

    don’t do that again or i’ll just ban you.

    in any case, the rohingya are very conservative muslims, the exact types who supported pakistan and were ignored by the pakistani army. they also all speak chittagongian variety of bengali, not the type dominant in MOST OF BANGLADESH. also, tripura is right across the border. far closer than burma. many refugees went there (again, mostly hindu). it’s not an easy jaunt down the coast from chittagong to arakan.

    the more i read about the more dumb i think your original comment was (as in, i think it’s way less plausible now than i did when i first read it).

  19. Could you be underplaying the role anti Muslim religious bigotry plays in Burmese politics, and the anti rohingya pogroms? Race is an important consideration, but panthay Muslims are not kala, and they are also subject to violence and riots in Mandalay. The common factor is religion.

    Muslim hatred is even creating a bond among formerly conflictual groups. It plays well among Karen’s it seems. This is the modi script, playing out further east.

    (As for bloody borders, maybe Buddhist states have the bloodiest: Anti Hindu, Muslim and Christian violence in Sri Lanka, anti Christian and Muslim violence in Myanmar, anti Muslim violence n Tibet, anti Hindu bigotry in Bhutan. Often led by Buddhist monks.)

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