Rohingya identity Research Challenges


Rohingya identity With widespread accusations of genocide, the international outrage about the military exactions in North Rakhine in 2017 had a strong impact on the prospect of political and economic relations with Myanmar’s government. The resulting international concern has further contributed to an abundance of reports that focus on humanitarian aspects, the violation of human rights, and the statelessness of Rohingyas during the last four to five decades.

To appreciate the emergent Rohingya narrative from a contemporary vantage point, one must bear in mind that the early Rohingya writers were not aware of many facts brought to light since the 1980s by scholars who specialize in the Bay of Bengal’s early modern period.60Apart from historical studies that include the early modern and contemporary history of Muslims, there have been few studies of this topic in the field of social sciences. The knowledge of cultural and religious practices is still limited to the description of Rohingya folklore. As mentioned previously, no research has been done on the East Bengali dialectology that would enlighten us on the regional linguistic variety. Writing about the Rohingyas remains, therefore, a challenging exploration of social, political, religious, economic, and cultural fields of inquiry, where no peer-certified academic discourse exists as yet. The small amount of academic work on Rohingya refugees leaves opportunities for anthropological research on the Rohingyas in their various national and political contexts. As Rohingya groups and organizations have been reticent to share information about themselves and their social, political, and organizational practices, the formation of an archive of documents and field observations is a major challenge by itself.

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The dynamics of Rohingya identity formation are a primary concern, as the dogmatic self-statements on the Rohingyas as a perennial group call for a critical approach to the contexts in which community-building processes took place. To explore the discontents in state-ethnicity and Buddhist-Muslim relations, there is a need to move beyond the events-based historical descriptions (which, for good reason, have taken up a large part of this article), as well as the dichotomous perpetrator-versus-victim perspective, by looking at each group as an entity empowered by various forms of agency.

There is a need not only to deepen, but also to broaden, the scope of investigation. One of the most neglected topics of research in Myanmar itself has been the life of Muslim communities and the experiences of coexisting Buddhists and Muslims. The Islamophobic urban violence in central Myanmar in 2013 and 2014 was superficially wrapped up in the media with the dissimilar situation in Rakhine State, blurring a clear understanding of both issues. Comparative studies of the socioeconomic situation of ethnically and culturally diverse Muslim communities in Myanmar should fill some of the gaps in our knowledge.

The Rohingyas are the biggest Muslim community in Myanmar. Since the late 1990s, their case as a persecuted minority in the country has been presented in a narrative of human rights violations and failed civic rights that has diminished the interest in the deterioration of relations and the stunning lack of communication between Buddhists and Muslims. As observers prioritized the dichotomy of failed state-minority relations, the fact that in 2012, members of the two communities went at each other’s throats was soon lost to oblivion.

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To pave the road toward the peaceful coexistence of the two estranged communities, legal approaches arguing for justice and in favor of Rohingya citizenship amount to one aspect of a larger challenge.61 The 2016–2017 mass evictions have redrawn the borders of the Rohingya question itself, and the impact on national and international stances is such that it will never again be possible to treat the situation as just a national or regional issue. Applied research drawing on the expertise of peace and ethnic conflict studies, as well as the most recent geopolitical approaches, is therefore needed to address the contemporary complications of the Arakan/Rakhine State conundrum.