The Rohingya question

The lack of any credible international pressure on the Burmese

Eesar Mehdi
Srinagar, Publish Date: Sep 24 2017 10:58PM | Updated Date: Sep 24 2017 10:58PM
The Rohingya questionFile Photo

State and violence are like conjoined twins that are fused together. Modern states not only use violence to legitimize its monopoly over the resources but also generate a fear psychosis in the minds of the people or the community who question its unabashed use of authority. Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, provides an erudite explanation to this behaviour, defining state as an entity that “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. Violence in Weberrian sense by default becomes the defining apparatus of any state which is predicted on what he called as ‘external means’ and ‘inner justification’: the more a state has to resort to external means (use of violence), the less its claims on inner justification (constitutional mandates) on its citizens and vice versa.

The mass exodus and unremitting persecution of Rohingyas from the western coastal state of Rakhine in Burma could be understood in the same vein as the state’s use of violence as a means to safeguard its nefarious interests. Their plight rightly sums up the discourse of mighty state, the Hobbsean Leviathan, versus the plight of poor stateless people.

States often tend to look at their people on the merit of their utility. They solely want to reap benefit from their citizens and throw out those who don’t fit into this criterion. This creates the binaries in terms of who benefits the state and who does not. Those who benefit the state are valued and those who don’t benefit the state get outrightly devalued. This is almost similar to what anthropologist James C. Scott speaks of in Seeing Like a State.  Scott argues that state judges everything on the basis of utility and usefulness and its discourse is shaped predominantly by this criterion. For instance, the plants that are valued become ‘crops’ and those which contribute nothing are discarded as ‘weeds’. In the same vein, people who contribute to the state become ‘citizens’ and those who can’t contribute become ‘stateless people’ like Rohingyas.

Majority of the commentators who wrote on the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar emphasized more on religion and ethnic differences as the leading cause of their persecution. They failed somehow to conceive vested political and economic interests playing a major role in the displacement, not just of the Rohingyas but of other minorities (Chin, Kachin, Shah, Mon and Karen) as well. Actually, the recent upsurge of violence against hapless Rohingyas has to do a lot with the economic reformation which Myanmar underwent in 2011. It paved the way for huge foreign investment and Myanmar famously was dubbed as ‘Asia’s final frontier’. But, shortly after economic reformation in 2012, the violent attacks against Rohingyas in Rakhine state escalated. This is because of military junta, Tatmadaw, which is still controlling the largest share of state power, forcibly took away land from the landholders without paying them any compensation. This is done only to help foreign investment in Myanmar by confiscating land from poor dwellers only to reap personal and institutional benefits for the military. They are in hand and glove with the foreign investors. This whole issue of land grabbing and confiscation is making life of the poor people more vulnerable in Myanmar. 

The developmental projects in the Rakhine state of Myanmar after economic reformation has put local communities at risk. In fact, there are major problems of environmental degradation and a rapid influx of foreign workers with no thought given by government to increase local employment opportunities. The government of Myanmar has a vested interest in rapidly clearing land for foreign investment and development. Moreover, the huge amount of resources present in the Rakhine state has also contributed immensely to the mass exodus of Rohingyas. Religion is fittingly used as a tool by the administration to mask off their deeper motives. They wisely did this by pitting majority Buddhist identity against the minority Rohingya ethnicity. This automatically provided the ground for the social acceptability for the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar and led to their forceful migration to Bangladesh and India.

Up till now, more than 4 lakh Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh and about 40 thousand have migrated to India.  Rohingyas are facing the worst atrocities by the hands of military junta and their gory picture is described by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Bangladesh has provided shelter and humanitarian assistance to 4 lakh Rohingyas but Indian stand on the Rohingyas sheltering in India is highly dubious and upsetting. The recent statement by Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju that the Indian government will deport back the Rohingya to Myanmar marks a new low in Indian government’s response to the plight of Rohingyas. This is consistent with ideological position that BJP takes while dealing with Muslim issues, both domestically and internationally.

International politics is a game of power mediated through state interests. The lack of any credible international pressure on the Burmese government especially by the western governments, who are militarily involved in West Asian conflicts in the name of human rights, is a bare testimony to this fact. And the strong Muslim states, which could make a credible impact, are too busy fighting each other for regional dominance to invest their vital political and diplomatic energies into resolving the Rohingya question. As for the future, the Rohingya question is here to stay. 

(Eesar Mehdi is PhD scholar in the Department of International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi)