Rohingyas In the late 1950s, Muslim leaders and students in North Arakan (officially known as Rakhine State since 1989) began to use the term Rohingya to assert a distinct ethnoreligious identity for the region’s Muslim community, as distinct from its majority Buddhist population, to which the term Rakhine usually refers.1 In the early 1960s, Muslim authors of Rohingya pamphlets were keenly aware of how novel their chosen appellation was for the Burmese public at the time. The use of the name spread widely in the international media after riots in Rakhine State in 2012, when Rohingyas became widely known internationally as a state-oppressed Muslim minority.2 The term Rohingya embodies an ongoing process of identity formation that has unified Muslim communities in the North Arakan region with a similar cultural profile, but a diverse historical background; at the same time, Myanmar officials reject Rohingya as an ethnic denomination, as they reject the legitimacy of the postcolonial Rohingya movement of political emancipation, aiming at the creation of an autonomous Muslim area in North Arakan.3
Following the Myanmar census of 2014, the number of Rohingyas has been estimated at more than 1 million, living mainly in the three townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung situated along the border with Bangladesh, where they form a heavily concentrated third of Rakhine State’s total population of more than 3 million. Another million live outside Myanmar. Migration backgrounds vary. Most are refugees and have lived with semilegal and illegal identities in Bangladesh and the Middle East. In Myanmar, they cannot refer to themselves as “Rohingyas”; yet in the diaspora, they may also be denied “Rohingya” as an official appellation, or rather, they choose to hide their origin to escape public attention.
The majority population of Rakhine State consists of Buddhist Rakhine (or Arakanese), who are ethnically close to the Bamar (Burmans). The ethnocultural tensions between the Arakanese and the Rohingya on the one hand, and state policies of exclusion on the other, have been drivers of a lasting and violent conflict that reaches back to the late colonial period. From the 1980s onward, Myanmar’s military and authoritarian state governments have described Rohingyas as a political and demographic threat and have increasingly deprived Rohingyas of their civic rights.
Anthropological field work investigating the Rohingyas as a culturally distinctive Muslim community is rare, and the access to essential information and documentation is limited. Background information in the media after 2012 has been mainly based on Rohingya public presentations of their own identity, although extant sources suggest a history of multilayered communities and the formation of a Rohingya ethnopolitical movement as a response to political and social challenges after 1948. At its origins, the Rohingya identity claims can be understood in a narrative context that includes the simultaneous rise of Rakhine Buddhist nationalism in the 1950s, and later, the political oppression and impoverishment that constrained the lives of both Buddhists and Muslims between 1962 and 2011. Like most terms denoting social identity, Rohingya is an unstable signifier, potentially pointing to various features of signification. Today, that term clearly operates inside a historical process of ethnification among Muslims in Rakhine State. In addition, in the early 21st century, worldwide media reports have signified the Rohingyas as being stateless victims of systematic oppression, whose refugee status and disenfranchisement are defining elements of their public identity.
Although the ethnoreligious tensions in Arakan had remained a marginal issue for decades, in the early 21st century, the worldwide media reports on the Rohingyas transformed the case of their de facto statelessness into a cause célèbre in both Western and Muslim countries. Descriptions of the Rohingyas, therefore, must take into account the global media image of the “plight of the stateless Rohingyas.”4 Myanmar’s state security services have reinforced such an image through their disenfranchisement and systematic oppression of the Rohingya people. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in the media to present these matters as if they were the only acceptable way in which to discuss the group. Although legal approaches grounded in activist agendas are significant, other aspects of these important and complicated issues merit further investigation.
The article has five sections. The first, “Muslims in Early Modern and Colonial Arakan,” presents a historical background from the early modern to the colonial period, focusing on the role of Muslims at the time of the Buddhist monarchy and after the Burmese (1784) and British (1826) conquests. The second section, “The Rise of a Muslim Nationalist Movement,” presents the political awakening of the North Arakan Muslims after World War II and the rise of the Rohingyas as an ethnopolitical movement in the late 1950s. It is followed by “Muslim Imaginaire and Rohingya Ideology,” an examination of the Rohingya concepts and ideas drawn from a Muslim imaginaire, as well as local history and archaeology. The fourth section, “Toward a Regime of Civic Exclusion and State Harassment,” traces the record of Rohingya civic exclusion and state harassment under Burma’s authoritarian regimes. Following an increased awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, the globalization of the Rohingya cause after 2012 has cast new light on the worldwide Rohingya diaspora, as discussed in the fifth section, “Rohingya Diaspora and the Globalization of a Muslim Minority Cause.” Rather than a monolithic body of refugees, it appears as a transnational group of communities that have reinvented their lives in various geographical and political contexts. A final section, “Research Challenges,” will specify some of the issues concerning research hinted at in this introduction.