Incompatible Identities: Ethnicity, Belonging, and Exclusion in Making Myanmar’s Democracy

Incompatible Identities: Ethnicity, Belonging, and Exclusion in Making Myanmar’s Democracy

Monday, December 28, 2020 - 11:54pm
Raisha Waller


            The coexistence of Myanmar’s burgeoning democracy and its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority has drawn criticism that calls the nation’s claim to democracy into question. In this paper, I explore the political history of Myanmar as it pertains to ethnicity, division, and sovereignty. As Myanmar emerged from British colonialism, the government weaponized ethnicity and belonging to exclude minorities that threatened national unity. The nation’s grabs for power have coincided with exclusion and persecution and the Rohingya minority is the latest victim. In the last half-century, the Rohingya minority has been singled out by the government for not belonging in the state. In the government’s eyes, their identity, both ethnically and religiously, poses a threat to the unity and security of the fragile Myanmar democracy. Due to the rise of global Islamophobia and the effort to look like a strong nation, Myanmar has weaponized taingyintha status and previous efforts to exclude minorities to carry out and justify their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Keywords: Myanmar, Rohingya, ethnicity, ethnic cleansing, taingyintha, democracy

The Rohingya minority’s position in Myanmar has long been perceived by majority ethnic Burmese as one of the outsider, the usurper. However, the Rohingya themselves claim that Myanmar is their ancestral homeland and often have records to prove it. As recently as the 1960s, official documents acknowledged the Rohingya minority as one of the residents of the Rakhine state they have occupied. Nevertheless, the nation has decided to relegate them to illegal immigrant status. As their villages burned and they were exiled to camps indefinitely, the international community began to ask what these people did to deserve such treatment. Some have referred to the violence and exclusion as ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Many admonish democratic party leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to protect the Rohingya minority and their place in the new Myanmar democracy. While this atrocity can be seen as another example of the majority once again oppressing and removing a minority group to maintain power, the status of other minority groups in Myanmar stands apart from the position of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are not seen simply as a minority that the state would be content to remove, but rather as a threat to the state itself. While it cannot be said that Myanmar has always been benevolent to its minority populations, it is clear that the plight of the Rohingya is unique to them. With Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democracy, many have criticized the hypocrisy that the government has shown by forcibly removing the Rohingya population. However, it is likely that the exclusion of the Rohingya minority is an effort to strengthen the Myanmar democracy, regardless of the cruelty it entails. Even though the international community and supporters of human rights staunchly condemn Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the government finds itself justified in its actions. Myanmar’s many grabs at sovereignty have coincided with exclusion for decades and the Rohingya have become the government’s latest target. Due to their religion and ethnicity, the government sees the position of the Rohingya as standing opposed to the values of the government and, therefore, they are seen as posing a threat that must be removed if Myanmar is ever to succeed as a democratic nation.

The Weight of Taingyintha

In order to understand the role of ethnicity in Myanmar, it is important to understand the concept of taingyintha. Taingyintha, meaning “sons of the soil”, denotes the group of ethnicities carried by true citizens of Myanmar. Although the boundaries of ethnicity have not always been constant in Myanmar, taingyintha status has succeeded in separating those who have roots in Myanmar from newcomers, such as migrants from China or other South Asian countries.[1] Today, taingyintha finds itself amongst the most important concepts in discussions of identity politics in Myanmar. However, the term itself only originated during the British colonial period. Racial classification played a large part in colonial governance and the way officers understood the native population.[2] In line with Benedict Anderson’s arguments about the power of census, map, and museum, the British colonial government used taingyintha to both control the population and foster a sense of national unity.[3] The term was heavily laden with the British understanding of race in Myanmar, but it remained separate from official ethnic categories. It did not encapsulate the concepts of origin, identity, and patriotism that it does now. The concept began to materialize in conversations on “matters like rights to livelihood, such as when resolving to support the production of salt by taingyintha.[4] Early on in the term’s history, it was wrapped up in rights, especially economic rights. In the 1920s, nationalists began using the terms in an exclusionary manner to bar non-taingyintha—Europeans, Chinese, and Indians—from owning land.[5] The term combined ideas of unity and exclusion, forming the in- and out-groups that are usually left up to ethnicity. The popularity of taingyintha was just beginning to take off.

After Myanmar secured its independence in 1948, taingyintha assumed a stronger patriotic meaning. Although the term barely appeared in the 1947 Constitution, it remained a part of the way Myanmar citizens conceptualized themselves.[6] With the outbreak of civil war, Prime Minister U Nu addressed the nation with a message of unity: “Under no circumstances can we allow taingyintha unity to be destroyed. Shan, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Burman must be united.”[7] Ethnicity was subsumed into the concept of taingyintha, which became the backbone of unity and security in the country. Prime Minister Nu was not the last leader to use the concept to ignite a sense of nationalism in the population. The term remained somewhat rare, but it rapidly rose to greater political significance when General Ne Win used it to promote the military government in 1964.[8] While the term remained one of staunch unity and almost forced camaraderie, it still held onto the exclusionist messages that it stood for during the colonial period. The common translations of taingyintha—indigenous or national races—became a reality when Myanmar began its campaign against immigrants in the 1960s. Once again, the term was imbued with economic significance. Socialist leaders asserted the need for stricter marks of belonging in order to provide for those who deserved it. Taingyintha became that mark, presumably because of the mutable character of ethnicity at the time. Mainly, it served to exclude Chinese and South Asian migrants from reaping the economic benefits of the new socialist economy.[9]

Today, taingyintha status in Myanmar is tightly wrapped up in ethnicity. In 1990, the military regime produced a list of 135 ethnic categories within eight national races, notably excluding the Rohingya. The list has confusing origins and many mistakes but seems to be a direct product of the 1983 census, which was made with the desire to create a stricter definition of “genuine citizens of the country”.[10] The exclusions in the census were never explained beyond the idea of taingyintha. In this case, any person wishing to be recognized as a citizen of Myanmar must belong to an ethnic group that had a “presence in Myanmar prior to the advent of British rule in 1824”.[11] The list was built on exclusion, rarely defining what constituted an ethnic group or why certain peoples were placed into a certain sub-category. Ethnicity remained loose and transient, but still gravely important in the scheme of belonging. People could dress differently and claim a different ethnicity day to day, depending on how they felt or what would benefit them. Even so, ethnicity was an important identity marker.[12] However, only certain ethnicities— namely Rohingya—carried disadvantages within Myanmar society. The origins of the list of 135 ethnic groups or what they meant never became clear, but the concept continues to be reproduced in conversations and documents regarding belonging in Myanmar. The Rohingya seem to lie outside the bounds of taingyintha-specific ethnic groups and are, therefore, deemed to be unlawfully occupying the land they live on.

Even before the full onset of democracy, exclusion was key in the formation of a national identity and a sense of unity and power within Myanmar. The Rohingya minority, of course, was not the only group excluded in the 1983 census. Previous lists of Myanmar ethnicities from the early 1970s contained as many as 144 groups.[13] However, with stricter rules surrounding who did and did not qualify as taingyintha, the list was cut to the 135 ethnic groups that predominate today. The other excluded groups in the 1983 census consist of “Panthay Chinese Muslims, Overseas Chinese (speakers of Hokkien and Cantonese), Anglo-Burmese (Eurasians of mixed Burmese and European background), Burmese Indians, Gurkha, [and] Pakistanis”.[14] While the other excluded groups are clearly identified as outsiders because of their countries of origin, Rohingyas were excluded on the sole basis of non-belonging. It is not immediately clear why they were singled out as the minority that would no longer be considered a valid part of the nation. The 1983 census effectively stripped them of their rights to Myanmar, especially in economic terms. They were labeled illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, encroaching on land reserved for taingyintha. Their abrupt exclusion in 1983 seems to be baseless. Once again, a clue can be found in Anderson’s theory. This time, we look to the role of the map in defining identity and exercising control over the population.[15]

Burmanisation and the Start of Legal Exclusion

The establishment of sovereignty and, later, democracy in Myanmar coincides with the exclusion and persecution of the Rohingya. The amendment of the list of ethnic groups to exclude the Rohingya was not a mistake, nor was it baseless in the eyes of the government. The reconsideration of Rohingya as outsiders was a purposeful move meant to consolidate the identity of Myanmar residents and exclude those who did not represent that identity well enough. In the early 1970s, official documents listed the Rohingya minority as residents of the northern Rakhine state.[16] The Rohingya minority was regarded in the same way as every other minority group. While they were denied the privileges of the Burmese majority, they were allowed political freedoms and media representation.[17] Their home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, however, posed a challenge after independence.

The census was not the only method of tabulating and controlling the population. The map, or the idea of it, showed the Myanmar government that there was a religious discrepancy within the country. Myanmar’s Rakhine state is majority Buddhist, as is the rest of Myanmar. In the early 1960s, “Burmanisation”—a strategy undertaken by General Ne Win’s government to expand military control into the border states of Myanmar—targeted religious and ethnic minorities. The goal of inserting powerful officials who belonged to the majority ethnicity and religion required the removal of powerful ethnic minorities in those areas.[18] As an independent Myanmar began to coalesce, the term “Rakhine Muslim” became problematic. The Rohingya’s adherence to Islam was quickly denounced as contradictory to their residence in the Rakhine state and, later, in Myanmar as a whole. “Rakhine Muslim” failed to appear on the approved list of 135 ethnic groups in 1983. As a result, many Muslims in the Rakhine state chose to assume the “Rohingya” label since it had been recognized for decades. However, the military regime’s efforts to foster ethnoreligious homogeneity in Myanmar overrode the facts of the situation. The relatively new assumption of the “Rohingya” label simply fueled the argument that anyone in the group could be guilty of illegally immigrating in the 1950s and choosing that ethnicity to falsely cling to.[19] Even with a documented history of residence in the country, minor changes in ethnopolitical language sealed the fate of the Rohingya minority. They were labeled imposters, encroachers, illegally living on land that was never promised to them. Their religion exposed them as outsiders in the Rakhine state. Their existence in the Rakhine state could not be justified, especially under a regime eager to cement Myanmar’s Buddhist identity.

            Although the government looks to the Rohingya’s lack of representation in contemporary official documents to justify their persecution, I will argue that the underlying reason is their minority religion. The term “Rakhine Muslim” itself speaks volumes about the identity of the Rohingya in the eyes of the state. Even when the minority was acknowledged within Myanmar, their identity was made up of their location and their religion. As previously discussed, their location became problematic when it interfered with the overall religious identity of the state in which they lived. With this, the Rohingya became a threat to unity in Myanmar. Their adherence to Islam was a refusal to comply with the unofficial rules of residency. Thus, their religion, so tied up in their identity, became the threat itself. While religious difference may be the cause of ostracism and hatred within the population, it does not completely explain the systematic exclusion and removal of the Rohingya across multiple government regimes. However, their census exclusion does mark the beginning of a stronger push to ground their persecution in official policy.

Place and religion combined to create a dire situation for the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar government. However, top-down government policies did not work alone to create a hostile environment for the Rohingya. While General Ne Win’s Burmanisation program worked to root out ethnic minorities that posed a challenge to majority power, it was not the impetus for the widespread hatred of Muslims in Myanmar. Campaigns to wrest power from the hands of ethnic minorities have been a staple in Myanmar since British imperialism, working to foster “a deep-seated fear of subordination to ‘outsiders’”.[20] Now that the Rohingya were made outsiders by law, they were a threat. Government programs and fear of instability created a panic that spread through the Buddhist population, which suddenly felt that their power in Myanmar had been challenged. While it is not possible to underestimate the government’s role in the ethnic cleansing, the population itself allowed for the exclusion and cruelty directed at the Rohingya. Burmanisation and a long history of siege allowed an irrational fear of usurpation to grow among common people, radicalizing some against the seemingly encroaching Rohingya. To cling to power and their rights as taingyintha, the larger Buddhist population had to make a choice against the Rohingya. Whether as bystanders or direct perpetrators, many allowed the Rohingya to be systematically denied land, political rights, and, soon enough, their place in Myanmar.

Buddhist Nationalism and the Work of Islamophobia

“‘Buddhism stands for truth and peace…. Therefore, if Buddhist cultures vanish, truth and the peace would vanish steadily as well.”[21] A representative of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, or MaBaTha, muses about the dangers of Buddhist values disappearing from Myanmar. He goes on to speak about the growing frequency of Islamic clothing in his community, likening the future of the country to present-day Saudi Arabia.[22] The foundations of Myanmar rest on Buddhist ideology. Myanmar is fundamentally a Buddhist country. The growing regularity of Islamic symbols around him marks an invasion, an attempt to usurp the Buddhist origins of Myanmar and replace them with a foreign religion. In this man’s mind, and the minds of many who share his beliefs, the rise of Islam in Myanmar would usher in an era of “discrimination and violence”, marking the onset of genocide against Buddhists.[23] The safety of his family, his home, and his religious community is at stake while Muslims still inhabit Myanmar.

His organization, led by Buddhist monks, has worked to institutionalize Buddhist culture, and prevent Islam from gaining traction in the state. Their proposition of the Race and Religion Protection laws overtly opposed the proliferation of Islam, going so far as to restrict interreligious marriage, conversion, polygamy, and group population growth. The fourth proposal aims to place population control restrictions on any group that exhibits “a higher population increase than other groups.”[24] While not all Buddhists in Myanmar support the organization, Buddhist nationalists have made significant pushes to turn Islamophobic policies into law. Their campaigns are often built on the fear that Muslims in Myanmar aim to replace them, whether that means in positions of power or in number. While these nationalist groups do not consider themselves extremists, some have expressed willingness to use violence against Muslims.[25] The threat of elimination looms too large over their heads to stay silent. Many Buddhists believe that the Rohingya and their harmful ideology must be expelled or destroyed to secure the safety of Buddhism and all of its values in Myanmar.

Though they added fuel to the fire, MaBaTha and similar Buddhist nationalist groups did not start the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The siege mentality adopted by many in the nation due to instability and continuous grabs for power from outside forces proved to be fertile ground for religious hatred. In May 2012, a young Rakhine woman, Ma Thida Htwe, was raped and murdered by three Muslim men, spurring a series of targeted ethnic conflicts. Buddhist and Rohingya mobs attacked each other’s communities, culminating in the burning of a Rohingya village in June and leaving thousands homeless and, effectively, stateless.[26] The actions of a few came to define an entire ethnic group. Htwe’s rape and murder were conceptualized as the firsts in an inevitable string of attacks against Buddhists in the Rakhine state. Fears that Muslims were attempting to eradicate Buddhists seemed to be coming to fruition. Rohingya Muslims had ushered in an era of violence and persecution of Buddhist citizens. In the name of peace and protection of the country, its values, and its people, the Rohingya had to be controlled. With this eruption of community tensions, the government easily seized on the opportunity to rid the country of more Rohingya without civilian interference.

The concern with the existence of Islam in Myanmar coincides with a general rise in global Islamophobia. While Buddhist nationalists fear being replaced, they also fear a bigger evil: jihad. In their minds, the Rohingya are not just illegal immigrants encroaching on their land. They are illegal Muslim immigrants “providing the vanguard of a crusade to turn Myanmar into a Muslim country.”[27] The nationalists justify their actions against the Rohingya by claiming that they are “defending the nation’s very existence against this imminent Islamification, warning that Rohingya (and Muslims in general) would use any citizenship privileges offered them as the means to ultimately forcibly convert all Burmese.”[28] Not only is ethnic dilution an imminent fear, but the possibility of losing the entire religious identity of Myanmar is at stake. The threat of religious conversion lies within the existence of this one minority population and can be easily placated with their removal or extermination. While the belief that Rohingya Muslims are jihadists may be restricted to the most radical of Buddhist nationalists, the fear of jihad is not. Regardless of sentiments toward the Rohingya, the fear of global Islam has been injected into society. Democratic party leader Aung San Suu Kyi “amplified and ratified it as reasonable when she declared that many around the world – including in her own country – fear ‘global Muslim power’.”[29] In line with actions by the United States, France, and China, among others, Myanmar has seized on the fear of attack and inquisition by a larger, evil Muslim force in order to justify its treatment of the Rohingya. With many of the most powerful countries leading the campaign against Islam, Islamophobia has become almost normalized in the international community. Instead of ethnic cleansing and outright discrimination, the government’s actions have come to represent a justified caution and an effort to secure their borders and the religious liberty of their citizens. Especially as an emerging democratic nation, Myanmar needs to protect itself from debilitating forces like radical Islam. Therefore, Myanmar’s actions remain virtually unchecked, as the international community either does not care to protect Rohingya Muslims or refuses to give up on its own Islamophobic policies to save a distant other.

Democracy at Work

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rohingya activist Tun Khin laments that the Myanmar government “continue[s] to deny my community as an ethnic group integral to the Union of Burma, depriving our children any meaningful access to education, denying us access to essential health and other social services, and worse, maintaining conditions that are designed to bring about the eventual destruction of our entire community.”[30] From the onset of democracy in Myanmar, the Rohingya population has been excluded. Democracy was intentionally built without them. Therefore, they were never meant to be the beneficiaries of the new democratic system and cannot be failed by it. It is possible that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya is not considered a democratic failing because the Rohingya minority’s position in the country has been defined by illegitimacy and threat since the 1980s. The social contract that exists amongst citizens of the same state does not extend to the Rohingya. The government sees itself as under no obligation to obey any promises it made to protect and provide for its people when it comes to the Rohingya. Decades of work to delegitimize the Rohingya as citizens have allowed the Myanmar government to blatantly disregard its democratic responsibility to the minority. In the words of Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, a Rohingya activist, “As the history of the past 40 years has taught us, official promises in Myanmar provide no guarantees of security or survival, let alone equal rights.”[31]

In a liberal democracy, the social contract requests that individual members of society give up certain liberties to cooperate with others and reap the benefits of state governance. The Rohingya, unwilling to give up their religious liberty and assimilate into the dominant Buddhist culture, were in turn seen as living in violation of this social contract. Therefore, the Myanmar government found justification in expelling them. Even without the justification of the social contract, the Rohingya had been labeled as illegal immigrants long before the full onset of democracy. In order for the new Myanmar democracy to provide for its true citizens—taingyintha—illegitimate residents had to be excluded. The economic benefits of taingyintha status comprise a tangible and meaningful reason to exclude those who do not fit in. As farmers in Myanmar face displacement at the hands of an ambivalent government, they expect future recompense for their sacrifices. Their support for the National League for Democracy (NLD) essentially writes them an IOU. However, only those who really belong can claim the economic rewards.[32] While there is no proof that the government plans to return farmers to their land or provide any material compensation for their suffering, the competition looms large between those who consider themselves taingyintha and the Rohingya. If the government provides for the Rohingya, there will be less compensation for actual taingyintha. Combined with the belief that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants, this comprises theft. When a Rohingya Muslim attempts to claim taingyintha status, they are seen as a thief, trying to cheat the deserving out of the economic benefits they suffered for. Even those who have no qualms with the Rohingya must realize that their economic safety depends on the Rohingya population’s deprivation. Oppression and violence toward the Rohingya become the safety net that will protect the rest of the nation. In the popular consciousness, the wellbeing of the majority—taingyintha, in this case—hinges on the exclusion, oppression, and elimination of the Rohingya.  

The Future of Rohingya in Myanmar

            “The Rohingya should only return to Myanmar once our conditions have been fulfilled. Our demands are straightforward. The government must restore our citizenship and our status as an indigenous group — a status that will ensure us equal rights,” writes activist Mohammed Sheikh Anwar. For decades, the Rohingya population has been denied citizenship and expelled to IDP camps. The supposedly temporary camps have turned into spaces of permanent residency and ongoing suffering. Refugees have tried to take refuge in Bangladesh, which has accepted humanitarian aid to support the refugee population but is beginning to bend under the weight of such a large influx. Most recently, Bangladesh has begun to relocate Rohingya refugees “to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal,” ignoring humanitarian concerns, such as the quality of life possible on the island.[33] Anwar rejects the new repatriation promises made by the Myanmar government. He demands that the Rohingya be welcomed back into their homeland, not only in word, but in deed. The full restoration of citizenship and resettlement in their original villages, which had been burned down during military campaigns, are crucial to the safety and protection of returning Rohingya. According to Anwar, the Myanmar government has been eager to repatriate refugees and relocate them “temporarily” to IDP camps. However, this promise seems to be another effort to exclude and erase the Rohingya by placing them in camps where they can be subjected to violence and persecution once again. It is clear that the Rohingya want to return to their homes, but they are reluctant to return to the country that has persecuted them without any safety nets in place. While Anwar speaks of the difficulty of living as stateless refugees in camps or on the run, he maintains that the Rohingya will not settle for the empty promises of the Myanmar government anymore. He requests international protection for Rohingya villages, and that the international community bring “the perpetrators — namely the Myanmar military and responsible government officials — to justice.”[34] The strength of his demands clearly displays the desires of the Rohingya population. They do not only want to return home, but they want the decades of persecution they have faced acknowledged and rectified. They are an indigenous population and want to be recognized as such, complete with the political and economic rights of any Myanmar citizen, including protection from further military abuse. They make no moves toward assimilating into the ethnoreligious homogeneity that Myanmar wishes to assume. They want to be included, but as a recognized minority. They want to claim the rights of taingyintha status, just as they have always deserved. 

            What do these demands mean for the Rohingya, for Myanmar, and for the international community? For the Rohingya, the road ahead is long and difficult. Myanmar has a long political history and a penchant to use exclusion to achieve and prove sovereignty. The labels that have been attached to the Rohingya have been used to mark them as an enemy of state sovereignty. In order to lift these labels, it will take more than adding “Rakhine Muslim” or “Rohingya” to the list of ethnic categories. As the Rohingya have already seen, efforts to gain citizenship under a still oppressive government have proven fruitless. The nation’s latest scheme, National Verification Cards (NVC), offer identification documents that actually function as “proof” that cardholders are Bengali immigrants. Authorities have been forcing the cards upon the population, often using violence and threats. “‘The first question on this form is, ‘When did you come from Bangladesh‘, followed by ‘Why did you come’ and ‘Who was the chairman in your village in Bangladesh?’’”, reports a Rohingya refugee who has been living in an IDP camp since 2017.[35] Just like previous promises of citizenship, NVC has been revealed as another tactic of oppression, meant to further cement the idea that all Rohingya are foreigners. Under this regime, Rohingya have learned that “attaining citizenship may mean nothing more than holding a pink piece of paper while remaining immured in one’s village, denied permission to leave.”[36] The Rohingya must continue to wait for Myanmar to make genuine efforts to accept and protect them, which do not yet seem to be in the works.

            For Myanmar, accepting the Rohingya calls for a complete upheaval of the state’s understanding of sovereignty, power, and belonging. As Myanmar has moved from a British colonial government to military rule to democracy, it has not given up on its concept of negatively defined identity. A reconceptualization of what it means to be from Myanmar that is not solely formed in opposition to what it means to not be from Myanmar is needed. The state of Myanmar must decide what the true value of ethnicity is within the country. Ethnicity can no longer exist as a sometimes transient, sometimes immutable value taken from a preconceived list. The importance of taingyintha status must either be fully and clearly defined or abandoned completely. A vague term that can be twisted at will to include or exclude cannot comprise the basis of citizenship for an entire nation. Political and economic rights and the basic rights of shelter and protection cannot rest completely on a term that can be redefined as soon as a scapegoat is needed. All citizens of Myanmar must realize that the nation’s dependence on taingyintha puts them at risk of being relegated to the outskirts of society any time a leader decides that they do not fit.

            For the international community, protecting the Rohingya and holding Myanmar accountable requires another upheaval. The persistence of Islamophobia within the most powerful countries must be addressed alongside redress for the Rohingya. The international community needs to look at its own hypocrisy and its own contribution to Myanmar’s belief that it can carry out ethnic cleansing in the name of democracy without significant intervention from global forces. In order to apply global pressure, the world must be in order first. While this is a tremendous undertaking, the safety of any group is implicated in the safety of the Rohingya. As a first step, humanitarian aid and protection need to be prioritized in IDP camps and areas in Myanmar where Rohingya populations persist. Rohingya activist Tun Khin posits that “the Burmese military has never relinquished levers of state power: they have only allowed the civilian façade of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD to emerge.”[37] The power of the Burmese military must be challenged. In order to do so, the international community must address the apparent rise in police states across the world. What would it mean to ask Myanmar to end its militant campaigns when major world cities are allowing police to use chemical weapons and rubber bullets against their own civilians? Global pressure in favor of Rohingya repatriation and protection will continue to be nonexistent or ineffective as long as powerful actors fail to relinquish their own beliefs that exclusion and oppression can exist alongside meaningful democracy.

            “For forty years, we have been promised safety by the Burmese government, only to be slaughtered and violently deported subsequent to our return.”[38] The persecution of minorities in Myanmar stretches back further than forty years, but the Rohingya have become the main target ever since their exclusion from the census in the 1980s. The Myanmar government has consistently lied about the Rohingya’s place in the country, building a narrative of enmity, danger, and exclusion in order to prove the strength and unity of the state. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s long-standing wish to control and consolidate the nation in terms of ethnicity and religion has brushed up against the identity of the Rohingya population. The Rohingya’s unwillingness to capitulate and allow themselves to be stripped of their identity has led the government to resort to violence in the form of ethnic cleansing, nearing genocide. Through decades of policy decisions and the messaging of Buddhist nationalist groups, the Rohingya have been denounced as incompatible with the goals of the state. As long as the Rohingya are made to be incompatible entities encroaching on Myanmar’s land and the rights and freedoms of its people and as long as legitimate democracy can be built on exclusion and oppression, the Rohingya will continue to face persecution that the government can justify while holding onto its claim of democratic rule. 

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. 1996. “Census, Map, Museum.” In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Cheesman, Nick. “How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, no. 3 (2017): 461-483.

Diaz, Jaclyn. “Bangladesh Begins Moving Displaced Rohingya Muslims To Island.” NPR, NPR, 4 Dec. 2020,….

Ferguson, Jane M. “Who’s Counting?: Ethnicity, Belonging, and the National Census in Burma/Myanmar.” Bijdragen tot de taal-, land-en volkenkunde/Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia 171, no. 1 (2015): 1-28.

Free Rohingya Coalition. “Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy Hearing; Tun Khin, April 9, 2019.” Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC). April 09, 2019.….

Free Rohingya Coalition. “The World Must Finally Give Us Rohingya a Say in Our Fate.” Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC). November 20, 2018.….

Lee, Seo In. “Democratic Changes and the Rohingya in Myanmar.” JATI-JOURNAL OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES 20 (2015): 16-35.

Milko, Victoria. “ ‘Genocide Card’: Myanmar Rohingya Verification Scheme Condemned.” Asia Pacific | Al Jazeera. September 03, 2019.….

Prasse-Freeman, Elliott. 2017. “The Rohingya crisis.” Anthropology Today 33 (6): 1-2.

Wade, Francis. 2017. “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.” In Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. London: Zed.

Nu, U. 2013. Wungyigyôk UNu e Sagagyi Thôn Kun [Prime Minister U Nu’s Addresses on Three Topics]. Yangon: Ngado.

[1] Elliott Prasse-Freeman. 2017. “The Rohingya crisis.” Anthropology Today 33 (6): 2.

[2] Jane M. Ferguson. “Who’s Counting?: Ethnicity, Belonging, and the National Census in Burma/Myanmar.” Bijdragen tot de taal-, land-en volkenkunde/Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia 171, no. 1 (2015): 5.

[3] Benedict Anderson. 1996. “Census, Map, Museum.” In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso., 163.

[4] Nick Cheesman. “How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, no. 3 (2017): 463.

[5] Ibid., 464.

[6] Ibid., 464.

[7] U Nu. 2013. Wungyigyôk UNu e Sagagyi Thôn Kun [Prime Minister U Nu’s Addresses on Three Topics]. Yangon: Ngado., 66.

[8] Cheesman. “How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya.”, 465.

[9] Jane M. Ferguson. “Who’s Counting?: Ethnicity, Belonging, and the National Census in Burma/Myanmar.”, 10.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] Francis Wade. 2017. “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.” In Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. London: Zed., 66.

[12] Prasse-Freeman, “The Rohingya crisis.”, 2.

[13] Cheesman. “How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya.”, 469.

[14] Jane M. Ferguson. “Who’s Counting?: Ethnicity, Belonging, and the National Census in Burma/Myanmar.”, 16.

[15] Anderson, “Census, Map, Museum.”

[16] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 66.

[17] Ibid., 66.

[18] Ibid., 62-63.

[19] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 67.

[20] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 64.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 6.

[24] Seo In Lee. “Democratic Changes and the Rohingya in Myanmar.” JATI-JOURNAL OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES 20 (2015): 24.

[25] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 1.

[26] Wade, “Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 4.”, 13-14.

[27] Ibid., 13-14.

[28] Prasse-Freeman, “The Rohingya crisis.”, 2.

[29] Prasse-Freeman, “The Rohingya crisis.”, 2.

[30] Free Rohingya Coalition. “Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy Hearing; Tun Khin, April 9, 2019.” Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC). April 09, 2019.….

[31] Free Rohingya Coalition. “The World Must Finally Give Us Rohingya a Say in Our Fate.” Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC). November 20, 2018.….

[32] Prasse-Freeman, “The Rohingya crisis.”, 2.

[33] Diaz, Jaclyn. “Bangladesh Begins Moving Displaced Rohingya Muslims To Island.” NPR, NPR, 4 Dec. 2020,….

[34] Free Rohingya Coalition. “The World Must Finally Give Us Rohingya a Say in Our Fate.”

[35] Victoria Milko. “ ‘Genocide Card’: Myanmar Rohingya Verification Scheme Condemned.” Asia Pacific | Al Jazeera. September 03, 2019.….

[36] Prasse-Freeman, “The Rohingya crisis.”, 1.

[37] Free Rohingya Coalition. “Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy Hearing; Tun Khin, April 9, 2019.”

[38] Free Rohingya Coalition. “Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy Hearing; Tun Khin, April 9, 2019.”

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