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Citizens First, Muslims Later: The Need to Redefine the Rohingya Muslim

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A population of 800,000, this is a community which has been in international spotlight since 2012, when a riot broke out in Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Commentaries on the violence point to ethnic tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The scale of violence has been drastic and global peacekeepers such as the United Nations are on tenterhooks about the fall out of the riots. This is because in the global economy of today, no incident remains 'localized.' In fact, the tragic blasts in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India are being linked to the riots and consequent events in Myanmar.

The riots, tragic in their occurrence, clearly have developed an afterlife in which two ethnic communities with no prior history of tense relations are being pitted against each other. In less than a year's time, the violence toward the Rohingya Muslims is being portrayed as something that has been festering for many years, as the community has been a minority in Myanmar, and is perceived to be of Bangladeshi descent. However, as any commentator on international relations will state, that, to say cultural differences lead to ethnic violence is akin to saying sharks eat fish because they cannot understand their language. The causal factors for communities turning against each other lie in the overall geopolitics that is prevalent in the environment.

Jack David Eller, who authored, "From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on International Ethnic Conflict," observes that violent conflict between states may have declined over the years. This decline has, sadly, been supplemented by "the rising conflict between individual groups waving the banner of ethnicity." (Pg 3) He raises questions on how a community begins to fashion itself around ethnic roots, rather than the national identity. This is pertinent to the discussion on the Rohingyas. The community has been seen through the prism of its ethnic origin, and that identity subsumes the fact that the members are, first and foremost, citizens of Myanmar, a nation which is struggling with a military regime of almost fifty years (1962-2011). The country has yet to see a stable government that has been in power for a full term of five years. Only in the bye-elections of April 2012 did Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated peace activist who was placed under house arrest by the military junta for over fifteen years, find a way into the dictatorial parliament.

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The ethnic tensions against Rohingyas come at a time when the (Myanmar) nation is in the incipient stages of the transitioning to a participatory democracy. This transition is in itself a tough one which requires the nation to stand at odds with the authorities who have been exercising power arbitrarily since the 1960s. Thus, the question of ethnic identities has to be understood within this framework of a democracy in the making. Strangely, this lens on the macro trends that are governing the 2012 riots seems to be absent in most popular commentaries on the subject. Time magazine's issue on the subject is an example. From the cover photograph to the articles, the lens that has been used is of how the majority population, the Buddhists, have understood the minority population, the Rohingyas. There is no attempt to understand the state's role in creating this tension. While the empirical details put forward in the articles are worth reading, the issue tends to obfuscate the question of ethnicity to the violence that occurred.

The second aspect of the ethnic violence involving the Rohingya Muslims has been the way in which it has reaffirmed Islamophobia,already entrenched in global policy making circles. As the blasts took place in Bodh Gaya, several news platforms presented them as an act of revenge against the Buddhist community. This act was seen as a way in which the victims of violence in Myanmar were seeking international solidarity and thereby causing tension in other parts of the world. While the investigation on the blasts continues, the fear of possible terror attacks on other Buddhist or non-Buddhist shrines around the world has increased. This has precipitated an environment of suspicion which is detrimental for Myanmar as a whole. For a nation getting on its feet in the global market, while withstanding the economic sanctions from Europe and the United States, this added suspicion is not conducive to economic development.

In all of this, what is missing is the question of how to restore peace. The world watches Aung San Suu Kyi as if she can provide answers to a question that needs systemic answers. The leader remained silent on the violence, but spoke out against the two-child norm that was to be imposed on the minority community, understanding it to be a step toward ethnic cleansing. Clearly, the leader understands her location in this issue and is working silently toward peace. What can be inferred from her statement is a willingness to address the systemic cause of the violence, and attack that racism, bit by bit. With this effort, all talks of placing the two-child norm were stalled.

Thus, one needs to understand the ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslims against backdrop of the geopolitics of Myanmar. Let us see them as Muslims later, citizens first.