INTERVIEW with Rakhine History Expert on the recent communal conflict in RakhineState

[su_quote]Rohingya is a name, not an ethnic category, that has been revived in modern days to identify Muslims in Rakhine as a separate social group. One may eventually compare it with the name of the Chinese Muslims in Myanmar who are called ‘Panthay’.[/su_quote]

Mawkun magazine interviewed Dr. Jacques P. Leider, a Rakhine history expert, on the recent communal conflict in Rakhine State. He has conducted academic research on Rakhine State for more than two decades.

MAWKUN: What does “Rohingya” mean?

LEIDER: I would like to say that “Rohingya” is definitely an old,though rare word. It is not a newly invented word from the 1950s as was often stated. It is tracedin an article by a British medical doctor, Francis Hamilton, at the end ofthe 18th century. He states that this was the word that the Muslims living in Rakhine at that time used for themselves. The word is derived from the Bengali noun for Arakan which is Roshanga, but people like to produce more fanciful explanations to beautify the meaning of the word. The name “Rohingya” is apparently not traced in earlier literature. It is also not found in British colonial sources that say in fact very little about the Muslims in Rakhine before 1870.

MAWKUN: As far as we interviewed Bengali people in Sittwe, Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas, most of them even haven’t heard of the word “Rohingya”. (We interviewed them through translators because we don’t understand their language. They don’t understand our Myanmar language either.)

LEIDER: I cannot confirm the statement that you make because as a foreigner I did not access the areas of Buthidaung and Maungdaw. But I heard several times both in Myanmar and in Bangladesh that not all the Muslims in Rakhine State want to be referred to as Rohingya, but simply as Rakhine Muslims. Rohingya is a name, not an ethnic category, that has been revived in modern days to identify Muslims in Rakhine as a separate social group. One may eventually compare it with the name of the Chinese Muslims in Myanmar who are called “Panthay”.

MAWKUN:What kind of underlying reasons might the educated Bengalis abroad have behind promoting the word “Rohingya”?It is widely believed in Myanmar that so-called Rohingya Bengali want to be recognized as ethnic so that they can later claim for aself-governing region. What is your view on it?

LEIDER: The Muslim leaders you refer to have successfully promoted the term to give their community a specific identity which they link to the history of the Muslims in the old Rakhine kingdom. They link this ethnic claim to the issue of citizenship. It has been a strategically successful choice as the international media have adopted and widely spread the term “Rohingya”. TheRohingyaMuslims wanted to set themselves apart from other communities of Indian origins in Myanmar that do not make the claim of being a specific ethnic group. Mentioning the project of a “self-governing region”, I think you refer to claims that had already been put forward back at the time of Myanmar’s independence and after. I am not aware that the Rohingya representatives that have been elected to the current parliament in Naypyidaware arguing for a self-governing region.

From a historical point of view, we have to recall two salient facts. The first is that the majority of Muslims in Rakhine would most likely trace their origin to the important Bengali immigration that developed during the British colonial period and which is well documented after 1870 till the early decades of the 20th century. Unlike other Indian immigrants who were in trade and port activities or served the British administration, the Bengalis were mostly tilling the land.

The second fact is that an old Muslim community existed in Rakhine in the precolonial period. This Muslim community of probably mixed Persian and Indian origins developed at least since the late 15th century. After the Rakhine kings obtained control over Chittagong, probably in the middle of the reign of King Min Phalaung (1571-93), many of their subjects in the kingdom were local Muslims.

In the early 17th century, the kings raided East Bengal to fight off Mughal invasions and deported people to be resettled in the Kaladan valley or to be sold off as slaves. Educated Muslims served at the court. Rakhine foreign policy was not anti-Muslim, it was anti-Mughal.  Ten, fifteen years after the conquest of Rakhine by King Bodawphaya, many inhabitants, both Buddhists and Muslims migrated back to Southeast Bengal. The old community was absorbed by the more numerous immigrants and the descendants of both communities melted into a single one.

MAWKUN: What are the root causes of the recent conflict?

LEIDER: An answer to that question comes from a long-term rather than short-term perspective.Indeed this conflict is not new, it is complex and has gone from bad to worse. Many decades back, immigration needed regulation but the British did not restrain the flow of Indian laborers that came to settle in Rakhine. The risk of communal clasheswas foreseen by observers in the 1920s as tensions already mounted between the communities.

When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, communal clashes erupted as thousands of people fled to India. At the time of independence and during the 1950s, the Muslims who were overall a minority in Rakhine, but locally a dominant majority, did not aim at integration into Rakhine society, but rather wanted to defend their separate character. Tension never abated as Muslims and Buddhists remained divided both culturally and politically.

This did not change within the authoritarian context after 1962. But governments on both sides – on the one hand East Pakistan, later on Bangladesh and on the other Myanmar — didn’t tackle this situation head-on. Repression, harassment and a lack of political transparency on the migration issue could only make the situation worse. On behalf of the Muslims, the conflict was expressed mostly in terms of the lack of legal rights. There has been in fact a lot of ambiguity.

While the Muslims had the right to vote even in the 1950s, they were pushed back through the restriction or the denial of citizenship after 1982.  More generally government policy aimed at containing both Muslim and Rakhine political demands while exploiting the local rivalry.  From the perception of the Buddhist Rakhine, the conflict has constantly remained an unsettling cultural issue as they feel that their identity is threatened and they see the numerous Muslims as alien to their land. It does not help that both Muslims and Buddhists tend to focus in their self-representations on their own community deriving legitimacy from exclusivist interpretations of the past.

Conflicts get worse when there are no shared visions about the land and its history and with such a blatant lack of communication as we see in Rakhine. There is a huge gap between the two groups that cannot be bridged by short term crisis management or trusting that the government could simply mend the divisions by better security policies.

MAWKUN: Some international media and groups use such words as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” when referring the recent conflict. In a recent opinion published by The New York Times, a Bangladesh professor uses“ethnic cleansing”. Do all these word reflect the real situation in Rakhine State?

LEIDER: I do not agree with such extreme formulations. This is not a war of people who feel superior to others and it’s not a fight about who has the better religion. The war of propaganda, notably on the internet where all kinds of expressions are used to attack the other, does not say necessarily much about the nature of the conflict itself. The fact is that immigrant Muslims and Buddhist Rakhine were brought together to live side by side in historical circumstances they did not create themselves.

When you call the “Rohingya” stateless, because of their ambiguous and unprotected legal status, it is right to call the Rakhine voiceless as for them history over the last two centuries has been mostly a long phase of conquests, subjection and pressure where they felt as constantly losing. The recent violence is above all the release of long held back desperation and anger. That’s also shown by the way that the violent clashes erupted.

The current situation started as a criminal case.After the Rakhinelady was raped, it was the police’s job to find and arrest the criminals. The failure to do so efficiently sparked an act of wanton brutality against a group of Muslims. Describing the events with all their brutality from that moment onwards as ethnic cleansing and genocide blurs the sight on all the factors that underlie the conflict, basically everything that has gone wrong in Arakan during the last century. Like in many other places, here we see people looking basically for justice, progress and the affirmation of their identity.

In a situation where people fight each other, the responsibility the government is supposed to have is to separate them. But separation, soon to be criticized as segregation, is no more than a short term option for security purposes, it’s not defining a political perspective for people living together in the same country that calls for social and economic development.

MAWKUN: What is the best way to prevent the future conflicts from happening?

LEIDER: It does not look as if the present confrontation has been solved. It has just started and all the parties involved are simply accusing each other about wrong-doing and failures. People have been more resolutely taking sides and the communities have been further antagonized. The language has become ruder and positions more radicalized.

The path towards improvement starts with readiness to communicate and agree on some common aims. But that can only take place when those who have suffered feel that their grievances are fully taken into account. More than ever, the Rakhine feel unfairly treated as the focus of reports is on the humanitarian plight of the Rohingyas.

We should certainly not question the legitimate purpose of reports on human rights. They contribute to transparency, but the recipes to address the tensions lie in the political field. We can name them: giving a voice to those who have suffered, offer mediation and engage people on grounds of common interest such as education and health. Any realistic prospect for the future development of Rakhine has to include and integrate the presence of the people who are now living there. The question of citizenship will be for sure a core issue in upcoming debates, but sovereign states have to take pragmatically into account all the resident population, be they citizens or not.

MAWKUN: Rakhine people are criticizing that UN and other international agenciesare favoring Bengali people very much, and that they are there only to help Bengalis. What would you like to comment?

LEIDER: The identity of Buddhist Rakhine is strongly marked by their perception that since the end of their kingdom they have not been masters of their own destiny. The feeling of loss of identity has worsened with the social and economic pressure of Indian immigration during the colonial period. Basically this condition did not change since independence.

With the recent engagement of UN and INGOs in favor of the Rohingyas as a most vulnerable community, the common Rakhinehave resented the fact that they were once more losing. It does not mean, I think, that Rakhine are worse off in Myanmar than other citizens, but it is rather a sensation of unfairness. I think that responsible staff of UN and INGOs are now getting aware of this problem and have understood why they have become the target of public violence.

MAWKUN: Some assume that Rakhine State could become another Kosovo in the future. What would you like to comment on this?

LEIDER: The Union of Myanmar is not yet falling apart and Rakhine State is not about to declare itself as an independent republic either. No foreign power interferes with the Rohingya as Serbia is involved with the Serb minority in Kosovo. So the comparison with Kosovo against the background of the dismembering of former Yugoslavia is a bit farfetched.

MAWKUN: Like RakhineState, Assam of India has also seen a communal violence in which Bengali immigrants get involved. The conflict killed several dozens and displaced more than 200,000. What similarities are there between Rakhine conflict and Assam (India) conflict?

LEIDER: The comparison of Rakhine with the border and migration issues in Northeast India jumps to mind as we follow the current events in Assam. If there are some similarities, there are also differences. In both cases, the governments have come under local and international criticism not to have foreseen the mounting of tensions and prevented the outbreak of violence.

All over the world, we see that border-crossing economic migration cannot be stopped, but at best managed. There is an uneasy mix of official denial, lack of security, exploitation, and late response that often prevails. It is hurting the local population, the migrants but ultimately also the reputation of governments that mishandle the people.When governments sense the advantage of economic migrants for their national economies, they may be less keen to take action on illegal migrants. This is not the situation we see in Rakhine where one community feels threatened by the presence of another.

MAWKUN: Is a huge population of Bangladesh a big burden to its neighboring and regional countries? If ‘yes’, what sorts of trends can be seen in the future?

LEIDER: Let us not make the mistake to reduce the conflict in Rakhine to a singular issue of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ as your question suggests. Taking illegal immigration as an argument to question the existence of Muslims in Rakhine in general is not acceptable. Since many years, Muslims from the Bangladesh/Myanmar border area board ships to reach Thailand and Malaysia where they identify themselves as “Rohingya” and are treated as stateless refugees. So it does not look as if northern Rakhine is such an attractive place for illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

On the other hand, economic migrationsurely is one important aspect in a broader regional picture. But saying – what many local people see indeed as an established fact – that there has been illegal immigration is simply not enough. We mayhear and know about a porous border, corruption, failure of authorities to track population movements etc. But since decades, any serious discussion is hampered by a lack of statistics, reliable information and background. Bangladeshi migration to Northeast India has been reported again and again, but what has been the real situation of migration along the border with Myanmar since independence we do not know.

Having said that, in today’s world, governments are not in a position to simply kick out people, however questionable their identity or their way of crossing the borders may be. I want to say it again: One key question is if migration for economic reasons is sustainable in the host countries. The many hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants to Thailand provide cheap labor in an economy that needs them. There is often a huge gap between the political will to register migrants and control them and the economic pressures that let people move and look for subsistence whatever the governments initiate.

MAWKUN: Recently, a Pakistani Taliban Group (TTP) threatened to attack Myanmar to avenge for the blood of Muslims. How much worrisome is it not only for the people in Rakhine State but also those in the entire nation? If they do so, what sort of social and political setting shall we see in the near future?

LEIDER: Muslim leaders in Myanmar will most probably not welcome the vociferous declarations of Taliban groups, but reject them. Extremist groups are keen and generally successful to catch the attention of the public, especially with an issue that is already internationalized and spread by the media. So it looks as if, though they are mere outsiders, they are implicated already. The fact is they are not and they do only represent their own extremist viewpoints for their own sake. Terrorist threats when they are recognized as security issues to the state and the people,have to be dealt with by cooperation between governments. Communal strife and violence are worrying enough and efforts have to be made to contain them so that terrorist networks cannot take hold.

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