Academic journal article Insight Turkey

History and Victimhood: Engaging with Rohingya Issues

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

History and Victimhood: Engaging with Rohingya Issues

Article excerpt

In today's world, the immediacy of humanitarian crises tends to bar a deeper interest in the complexity of the historical roots of a conflict. The deteriorating situation of the Muslim minority in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, a group now widely known as the Rohingya, is a case in point. They have been presented as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world due to a track record of human rights violations, while the local Islamic history and the emergence of Muslim nationalism at the margins of Muslim Bengal (East Pakistan/Bangladesh) and Buddhist Burma (Myanmar) has barely begun to inform international understanding of the regional conflict. The present article argues in favor of historical research as a prerequisite both for understanding the nature of the conflict and for keeping opportunities for competing historical interpretations alive. It also contributes to the ongoing question of collective representations of "voiceless" non-Western victims as deprived of political agency. (1) The article supports the argument that victimhood is a form of agency, but, as in the case of the Rohingya crisis since 2012, it bears the risk of encapsulating people and isolating them from their historical context.

The Rohingya entered the awareness of a global audience in 2012 when communal violence led to the internal displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims and the death of several hundred in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Thousands more died in mid-2017 under the brutal onslaught of military attacks. Muslim Rohingya victimhood due to human rights violations blamed on the Myanmar state was thereafter firmly anchored in the minds of millions of people who had never heard about the claims and grievances of the Rohingya. Given the pervasive lack of knowledge about the region and its multi-ethnic population, partly due to the limited body of existing scholarship, one might have expected a surge in inquisitiveness and public interest in the socio-political history of the Muslims, no less the Hindu and Buddhist communities living at the border that connects South and Southeast Asia. Yet it did not happen. Over the last five years, it has looked as if international decision-makers and the general public were largely satisfied by echoing sensations of horror and engaging in a mix of protests and condemnations, as the media highlighted the humanitarian plight of the internally displaced people in Rakhine State. The coverage illuminated a dismal record of human rights violations and more recently, the dramatic episodes of the third mass flight in thirty years, in which several hundred thousand Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh. Between 2012 and 2017, outrage became the norm and Rohingya victimhood became conspicuous with headlines on their discrimination, the humanitarian disaster and a lingering crisis that bears important regional dimensions--the boat refugee emergency in the Andaman Sea in early 2015 is still fresh in the mind.

Outside the country, the rationale behind the crisis has been loosely structured as a narrative that sets the Myanmar state, and more particularly its security apparatus, allegedly driven by racist motives, against a religious minority deprived of basic rights and a proper livelihood. Having grown accustomed to a relentless, repetitive news cycle of gloom and despair depicting the condition of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the public in the Middle East, the West, Southeast Asia and beyond, did not recognize much change for the better after the first democratic elections took place in late 2015. Although no communal violence took place in Northern or Central Rakhine between October 2012 and October 2016, the international perception was that the situation was not improving. The military interventions that followed violent attacks led by a new Rohingya militant organization triggered a mass flight of several hundred thousand in August-September 2017. These latest events enhanced the portrait of the desperate Rohingya people, and Myanmar's Buddhists came collectively under fire. …

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