Rohingyas in Rakhine State Diaspora and the Globalization of a Muslim-Minority Cause

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The number of Rohingyas in Rakhine State, as derived from the 2014 census, was indicated as fewer than 1.1 million, not including Muslims who would potentially identify as Rohingyas throughout the rest of Myanmar. But nearly half of the people who claim a Rohingya identity either do not live in Myanmar, have left Myanmar a long time ago, or have never lived there. More than 300,000 Rohingyas have lived in neighboring Bangladesh, but their number has been sometimes overestimated both by Rohingya organizations and the Bangladeshi authorities. The latest exodus culminated in the arrival of 672,700 Rohingyas in Bangladesh as of January 2018.48

In Saudi Arabia, a census done in 2013 by authorities in the Governorate of Mecca in cooperation with Rohingya associations revealed 230,000 people claiming a Rohingya identity. The actual number of Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is likely to be at least 300,000. The number of resident Rohingyas in Pakistan has lately been estimated at 250,000.49 This estimation does not include Rohingyas who hold Pakistani passports and reside outside of Pakistan. Rohingyas in Thailand and Malaysia number more than 100,000, while Rohingyas living in Western countries, including Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, may number a few tens of thousands. Substantial communities also exist in India (reportedly Jammu and Kashmir) and Indonesia.

The media have mainly focused on the Rohingya migrant movements and displacements at moments of acute crisis and massive outflows. This was the case in 1978 and 1991–1992, following the communal violence in June and October 2012, as well as since October 2016, when attacks by a new armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) triggered massive military operations that included the systematic destruction of hundreds of villages. The silent departure of smaller groups, families, or individuals who have kept a low profile, trying to escape official attention, were not tracked or recorded before 2006. The migrations of Muslims from Rakhine State to Lower Myanmar (Yangon Division) and other parts of the country (notably the border with Thailand), as well as to Pakistan and the Middle East, reach back to the late 1940s and 1950s, suggesting patterns and drivers of migration that differ from economic and political reasons during subsequent decades.

Several types of communities have developed in the host countries. Yet the primary or secondary function that the Rohingya identity has played in these countries is largely unclear. Migrant and human-trafficking networks that underpin the Rohingya diaspora remain poorly understood. Field studies have yet to examine Rohingya survival and coping strategies.50 The structures of human trafficking and exploitation, as well as the networks of solidarity, that have created transregional bonds could be the starting points of such investigations.

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Tracking Rohingya websites provides glimpses of social and linguistic adaptation (e.g., the written use of Arabic or Malay in addition to English, Urdu, and their own East Bengali dialect). The existence of diverse Rohingya diasporic communities also raises questions about contexts that favored or prohibited the spread of Rohingya identity. Changes in outsiders’ usage of the name Rohingya have been perceptible over the past several years, especially since the 2012 violence.51 Until recently, however, Muslims from Arakan and their descendants in Pakistan and the Middle East were commonly referred to as Burmese Muslims.52

North Arakan Muslim lives have evolved simultaneously in a number of countries under various conditions. Individual and group stories have been determined by different sets of pressures, motives, and strategies in states characterized by cultural, political, and social differences. Considering the diversity of places of refuge and relocation on at least four continents, the known unknowns of Rohingya migration do not suggest the existence of a monolithic block of worldwide Rohingya refugees, but rather of a diverse transnational community.

Bangladesh presents an interesting and complex case as a host country. Its role in contemporary Rohingya history has been marked by cultural ambiguity, political constraints, and drivers of national self-interest. Looking back at the history of the Rohingya presence in East Pakistan and Bangladesh, however, one does not find confirmation of the current media cliché of Rohingyas as a cluster of refugees devoid of agency and solely depending on international caretakers.

North Arakan Muslims first fled to East Pakistan following violent clashes in 1949 that led to the creation of the Arakan Muslim Refugee Organization in Chittagong, which enjoyed the sympathy and the support of the local population. Little is known about these first refugees and subsequent migrants who left the region during the 1950s and 1960s, when only the activities of the Mujahid attracted public attention. Rohingyas trickled by the hundreds into Bangladesh in 1974 and 1975, and the country saw nearly two hundred thousand refugees following the search for illegal immigrants by the Burmese authorities in 1978. At that time, Bangladesh was a country of transition for thousands of these refugees heading for the Middle East countries that welcomed migrant labor, but it also became a country of permanent residence for many Muslims from Arakan who did not want to be repatriated.

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For a long time, Bangladesh had a tradition of soft policy toward the Rohingyas and their militant groups based in Chittagong, but its official stance began to harden in 2002, when the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) was pushed out of the country. The last armed rebels of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization were reputedly dislodged by the Bangladesh army in 2005. Nonetheless, Rohingyas in Bangladesh have been described in international reports as a vulnerable group, and their stay in the country has been marked by difficulty. Many have had to subsist as a marginalized and largely destitute community, referred to in mostly negative terms by the local media. While protesting and appealing to the international community for support when people crossed the border by the tens of thousands, Bangladesh has generally tolerated the arrival of refugees during moments of acute crisis. However, government plans announced in May 2015 to relocate thousands of Rohingyas to Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal were immediately criticized by both refugees and international organizations.53

After the Myanmar military campaign in late 2016, 74,000 people fled from Rakhine State to Bangladesh as recently as February 2017.54 They were followed at the end of August and early September 2017 by an exodus that totaled more than 500,000 following operations in Rakhine State by battle-hardened infantry troops. The Myanmar government rejected an international investigation of these events, which included the burning of hundreds of villages and were internationally perceived as a campaign of ethnic cleansing, but also made a commitment to repatriation and to the implementation of recommendations made by an advisory commission headed by former United Nations (UN) secretary general Kofi Annan.55

The increasing global attention for the Rohingya cause in Myanmar may lead to a greater awareness of the huge Rohingya communities in the Asian region as well. Long-held political stances and migratory policies toward the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in the diaspora may be further affected by the latest crisis outbreak. Bangladesh is a country that does not recognize Rohingyas as a self-identifying ethnic group (referring to them as “Myanmar nationals”), but at the same time, it is the country where many Rohingyas have successfully integrated, both socially and culturally. In 2011, an inquiry of the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) reported that “no distinctive physical features [existed] between Rohingya and Bangladeshis in the Cox’s Bazar area,” with “all the sources stat[ing] that the cultural and religious practices performed by the Rohingyas are similar to the local Bangla practices.”56 However, the report also portrayed them as “an extremely fragmented group” that “does not speak with a unified voice.” A French field researcher has described middle-class Rohingyas as an “invisible” group in Chittagong’s urban landscape.57 Security interest in the Rohingya diaspora has been limited to risk evaluations about Rohingyas being recruited by Islamist outfits in Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan.

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The expanding international conversation on Myanmar’s democratic opening and discrimination against the Rohingyas has already powerfully affected the transnational Rohingya ecosystem. The Arakan Rohingya Union, founded in Jeddah in 2011 under the auspices of the OIC, resuscitated the project of a federation of competing Rohingya organizations. The European Rohingya Council was registered in the Netherlands in 2012.58 Recent Rohingya self-representations have downplayed history-bound accounts of Rohingya identity and emphasized instead Rohingya victimization as Muslims. This shift in rhetorical strategy seems adapted to social media, where even sympathetic readers may find it difficult to disentangle traditional historical arguments, ethnic identity ideas, and cultural terminology.59

Together with a loose alliance of pro-Rohingya human rights defenders and legal experts, Rohingya organizations have dropped the communal aspects, representing the conflict mainly as a “state/army versus ethnic minority” issue. The reiteration of itemized root causes (xenophobia, Islamophobia, cultural dissimilarity, socioeconomic tensions, and systematic state discrimination) in media analysis powerfully underscores the discursive shift from a local and historicized issue to a global cause owned by non-Rohingya activists. As the globalization of the Rohingya cause has moved the political and moral debate on Rakhine State issues from the national to the international level, it has eased calls for international intervention while further sidelining Buddhist and Muslim voices in Myanmar itself.

For the Rohingyas themselves, the ethnic claim is a certainty, a source of pride, and a show of resistance to oppression as well. It is in line with principles that the international community has agreed upon, making clear that the Muslim community has a right to self-identify as Rohingyas. Rohingyas, therefore, should be fully recognized as Union citizens. In the eyes of the Rakhine Buddhists and among Myanmar’s political decision-makers, the claim that Rohingyas are a unique ethnic group remains unacceptable. For them, the Rohingya identity stands out as the primary cause of the discontent, and the demographic threat looms large in their depictions. To be granted citizenship, people should undergo a process of verification in line with the 1982 law.

As things stand in early 2018, political realism suggests that social and political acceptance of Muslims identifying as Rohingyas remains at a far distance.