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OP-ED: The identity politics of the Rohingya

  • Published at 09:09 pm March 2nd, 2021
Rohingyas sail for Bhashan Char
Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The ultimate goal is for the Rohingya to gain recognition as citizens of Myanmar

In recent decades, the identity politics of the Rohingya that have inhabited Arakan (presently the Rakhine state of Myanmar) has manifested in reaction to the political and military manoeuver of the military junta, backed by the Bamar or Burmese polity of Myanmar. 

It has been a burning geo-political issue and, therefore, attracted the attention of the international communities in the political context of South Asia and Southeast Asia. According to Heyes (2016), identity politics is a political approach and analysis based on people prioritizing the concerns most relevant to their particular racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, social, cultural, or other identities, and forming exclusive political alliances with others of this group, instead of engaging in more traditional, broad-based party politics.

It has come to signify a wide range of political activities and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of the members of minority communities. However, it, along with mainstream politics, has received further interpretation during the Indian independence movement, characterized as an anti-colonial movement. 

Hence, both the identity politics and the national/federal politics underwent a transformation during the anti-colonial movement and WWII in South Asia as well as Southeast Asia.

The identity politics of the Rohingya also received new interpretations in this period. It has continued to receive further transformation in the context of the Burmese political situation since the year 1948. It is the manifestation of their political identity, which they acquired as they have undergone the processes of islamization, creolization, and Arakanization as a socio-religious polity with the leniency of the authority of Arakan.

Thus, the Rohingya share the religion, language, and ethnicity with the people of Bangladesh and those of some Indian states such as Assam. However, they have periodically faced persecution in the years 1942, 1948, 1962, 1978, 1991–1992, 2012, 2015, 2016–2017, and particularly from 2017 through 2018. Thus, all of the above-discussed events and experiences have contributed to the creation of their political identity in the sociopolitical context of Arakan (Rakhine state).

The onset of identity politics of the Rohingya dates from the ascendancy of King Narameikhla (or Min Saw Mon, 1404-1434), a king in the Mrauk U kingdom in the year 1434. However, a fresh drive of identity politics came to the surface after the withdrawal of the British colonial authority, when Burma emerged as the independent federal republic based on the Panglong Agreement signed between the Burmese government headed by the leader Aung San and the leaders of other minority communities on February 12, 1947. 

The Burmese government then put efforts into consolidating the political power over Arakan with a democratic means. However, the inhabitants of Arakan were sceptical about the Burmese rule, for which they grew to be conscious about their political rights. 

At the start (from 1948 to 1962), the Burmese authority as a democratic force was compassionate in handling the rights of the Arakanese (the Rakhine and the Rohingya). However, a new political transformation occurred when the Burmese military occupied political administration by carrying out a coup on March 2, 1962. 

The Burmese military then set forth a totalitarian rule and launched a fresh drive over non-Burmese ethnic communities to consolidate political authority over Burma. In this new drive, the military junta attempted different types of manoeuvers which can be arranged in a continuum: 

Discrimination>Subjugation> Marginalization>Persecution> Deportation>Ethnic cleansing

Therefore, these can be seen as the manifestation of attempts of consolidating the political power over the Rohingya of the Rakhine state.

The above-mentioned events led to the annulment of citizenship and nationality of them and led to their deportation and ethnic cleansing. Consequently, the Rohingya found themselves on the verge of the dissolution of their political identity, for which they have now changed their orientation of the identity politics. 

With the new orientation, they set out to assert their distinctive political identity and gain recognition as a citizen of Myanmar. Their orientation in gaining the political identity has now surfaced to be projected along the following lines: 

Framing the claims of political identity in the framework of the political ideology of Rohingya nationalism.

Promoting that ideology through social media and mass media based in different countries.

Carrying out social and political activities including the struggles for the recognition as nationals of Myanmar. 

ABM Razaul Karim Faquire is Professor, Department of Japanese Language and Culture, Director, Institute of Modern Languages, University of Dhaka. Email: [email protected]

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