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Why the Rohingya crisis remains deadlocked two years on

Sunday (Aug 25) marked two years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, referred to as Bengali in Myanmar, fled from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The plight of the Rohingya provides us a way of understanding the nature of exclusion in Myanmar.

Why the Rohingya crisis remains deadlocked two years on

Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in June 2019.

Sunday (Aug 25) marked two years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, referred to as Bengali in Myanmar, fled from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

An attack on police and army posts in northwest Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), a non-state armed group claiming to defend the rights of the Rohingya, triggered  “clearance operations” by the Myanmar military that saw thousands of Rohingya killed and entire villages burnt down. In just three months, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in search of sanctuary.

The plight of the Rohingya provides us a way of understanding the nature of exclusion in Myanmar.

To paraphrase Julie Peteet, a scholar of Palestinian refugees, the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh are “less spaces of exception and more spaces constitutive” of the Myanmar state.

In other words, Rohingya refugees play an integral role in the way that Myanmar constructs its identity.

With Rohingya pushed even further out into the peripheries of the country, the Myanmar state is able to claim sovereignty over the territory that they previously inhabited.

Through the destruction of 329 Rohingya settlements in northeast part of Rakhine State, and the suspected building or expansion of six military facilities on former Rohingya settlements, traces of the Rohingya have been removed physically after years of administrative elimination (the degradation of their documented status) and discursive erasure (“they are migrants”).

To define Myanmar citizenry and territory, the Rohingya are labelled as the other: Terrorist Muslims threatening to take over the populace through their uncontrolled rates of reproduction.

These discourses generate anxieties that engender a sense of a shared national threat, and serve to include the Rohingya in the Myanmar political order through their exclusion. This point brings insight into the impasse that the repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh has encountered.

The Rohingya who escaped to Bangladesh now live in squalid conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp.  Photo: The New York Times

At present, the third repatriation attempt is taking place but it is likely that the refugees will choose to remain in Bangladesh.

The issues surrounding citizenship, recognition of the Rohingya as a national race, and the lack of housing for returnees remain unresolved because their resolution would require the reconfiguration of national identity and politics to include a population that has been marked as other .

This would be a costly political manoeuvre, particularly with elections in the coming year, and would entangle the state in the Gordian knot of identity politics. Given these complexities, it would appear that the refugees will likely remain in the camps in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future.

The othering of the Rohingya also helps us to understand the nature of ethnic politics in Myanmar.

The country also perceives the Rakhine ethnic group in Rakhine State as the other, but the degree of othering is tempered by their Buddhist identity.

Their chariness of the Myanmar state is evidenced by Rakhine State having been the only state to have elected the Arakan National Party over the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, in the last election.

It is in this soil that the Arakan Army has been able to plant its seeds for calls for the self-determination of Rakhine State. In doing so, it has brought another layer of armed conflict to a poor and restive populace.

Throughout, the Myanmar government has prioritised economic development in Rakhine State to resolve the many issues that plague the region.

The government formed the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD) in October 2017 to provide humanitarian aid, coordinate resettlement and rehabilitation efforts, create sustainable development, and promote conflict resolution and durable peace in Rakhine State.

It is run by a government-led committee involved in national level work and steered by 10 private sector task forces.

The UEHRD has sought donations and investments from entrepreneurs and businesspeople. This approach has its merits but it very clearly avoids the issue of exclusion that pervades attitudes towards the Rohingya and the Rakhine.

It seems unlikely that the Rohingya would be included into the Myanmar polity solely through economic and market transactions. Surely the fundamental notion of what it means to be a nation of plural ethnicities needs to be interrogated at the same time that the government attempts to improve the material lives of those affected.



Su-Ann Oh is a Visiting Fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute whose research focuses on refugees in South-east Asia and ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

Related topics

Rohingya Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi Rakhine

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