By Eric Vandenbroeck 8 July 2019

On 4 July the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s report about preliminary investigations into the crime of enforced deportation of over 723,000 Rohingya's from Myanmar to Bangladesh was released. The case laid out makes for fascinating reading, but with the upcoming court battle now also the ideological battle will come more to the forefront.

Also on 4 July was the beginning of a two day International Conference on the Rohingya Crisis in Comparative Perspective started in London where especially the presentation of Christopher Sidoti of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar drew a lot of attention.

What was clear from the final conclusion of the conference is that trying to understand why what happened has a strong historical dimension something that was also stressed by the final report of the Advisory Commission chaired by former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. Hence the Annan report urges looking beyond the past to a renewed vision for a dynamic future— but this cannot be at the expense of re-thinking the past. Almost all grievances underlying this conflict are rehearsed through historical narrative.

This was also recently reflected on in a paper by a Senior Lecturer at the Birmingham Law School specialized in International Law who described a similar trajectory and points to the irony that Myanmar claimed territorial sovereignty over Arakan without actually giving citizenship to a section of people.

In fact one could argue that the British gave way to an intensification of the essentialization of Rakhine identity in the post-colonial era, as Rakhine nationalists have sought to affirm their place within the post-colonial Myanmar state’s “national races” pantheon, an imaginary animated by an ideology which privileges Buddhism and concomitant narratives of indigeneity, while Rohingya elites have insisted upon the ethnonym "Rohingya" and privileged Muslim identity over non-Muslim traditions as way of connecting to Arakan. And thus both traditions seek to establish their bona fides as authentic ethnic groups within the purview of the modern racialized post-colonial Myanmar state.

The Rakhine/Rohingya ethnicity conundrum

While there are reasonable ways to question both the Rohingya and Rakhine ethnonyms, to deconstruct their terms, the politics around them. A good case in point is that where some historians attempt to deconstruct the Rohingya ethnicity and ethnonym, an irony here is that take the Rakhine as pre-formed, the referent "Rakhine" is just as floating and evolving in terms of its meanings (as suggested by scholar Kyaw Min Htin).

Fortunately, ethnographic and theoretical research on Burma has provided us with tools for thinking about ethnic mutability and mutation.  Edmund Leach’s pathbreaking study of the Kachin/Shan oscillatory system demonstrates how the "unstable equilibria" that define ethnic relations allow singular individuals to embody multiple ethnic Identities, being “simultaneously Kachin and Shans,” for instance.1 F.K. Lehman’s observation that ethnicity in Burma must be conceptualized as “reticulate” – such that a given ethnicity’s “connection with Burma proper was systematically mediated by some third [ethnicity]”2 – helps us understand that ethnicities take diverse meanings in different contexts depending on how they nest within broader networks and emerge under various circumstances.  Given these foundations, collective dismissals of Rohingya claim to an authentic ethnicity appears less valid.

The task becomes to consider the empirical data vis-à-vis Rohingya given these theoretical tools. It is commonly asserted that the British installment of a system of migrant agricultural labor into Arakan, a region which remains relatively underpopulated compared to the neighboring Irrawaddy valley and the Bengal delta imported the ‘Bengalis’ who would eventually become those who claim to be “Rohingya” identity today. Indeed, even those historians who acknowledge the existence of Muslims before this period assert, albeit without evidence, that the mass migration facilitated by the colonial agricultural machine effectively overran previous Muslim society and culture, replacing it with Chittagonian Bengali: “in the three decades that proceed the First World War… the local Muslims seem to have been largely absorbed by the newly immigrant Chittagonian Bengalis.”3

Yet the community of Muslims east of the Naf river spoke and continue to speak a different dialect than Chittagonian,4 and have aggressively denied that they are precisely the same as those on the Chittagonian side of the border. Colonial records, for instance in the 1923 Census, tell us as much: “the race of Arakan-Mahommedans, numbering 24 thousands… object to being classed with their co-religionists the Chittagonians, and consider themselves much more closely related to the Arakanese Buddhists amongst whom they live."5 Later the census writers elaborate further: “Although so closely connected with Chitagonians racially the ArakanMahomedans do not associate with them at all; they consequently marry almost solely among themselves and have become recognized locally as a distinct race.”6 It seems that in the 1920s, after most of the British-facilitated immigration, the local Arakanese Muslims (the protoRohingya) thought of themselves as distinct. Given that the Rohingya of today speak a different dialect and continue to differentiate themselves from Chittagonian Bengalis, it seems a slow process of ethnogenesis was occurring even amidst mass immigration, and that this migration may even have fed into the complementary schismogenesis process of differentiation between Rakhine and Rohingya, as contrastive icons are accumulatively subordinated under each emblem.

The post-colonial period has only seen more schismogenesis, with Rakhine and Rohingya differentiation proceeding along with both spatial and social-institutional forms. In regards to the former, Leider shows how inter-communal violence under the Japanese occupation in 1942 effectively led to a project of mutual ethnic cleansing, sending Rakhine Buddhists south, and Rohingya north to areas bordering Bangladesh.7 Regarding sociocultural appropriation, everything from coins to flags, to wrestling, has been rendered exclusively Rakhine. For example, de Marsan's study of Rakhine spirit cults shows how Rakhine are in the process of "writing out" the Chittagonian from their myths, re-construing a historically linked world as divided.8 "Rakhine traditional wrestling" is increasingly restricted to Rakhine people, even though Rohingya had long participated in it.9 Finally, for all the insistence on ethnic impregnability, intermarriage continues: Wade presents Rohingya “becoming” Rakhine,10 while there are both Rakhine men and women have crossed the ethnic threshold in the other direction. Finally, while more research must be done on the extent of the dialectal differences along the continuum connecting Rohingya with Chittagongian Bengali, the issue of dialectal differentiation is essential for the Rohingya’s claims to distinctiveness as an ethnic group. To wit, while the fact of dialectal variation alone does not prove that a sociologically meaningful ethnic a distinction exists, it is held up by Rohingya themselves as a way of marking a difference, as a way of generating, constituting and defending ethnic identity.

Trying to solve the ethnicity question and the case of Jacques P. Leider

Rather than imagining ethnicities as impregnable and rigid, such that when they smash together, one breaks the other, there is the possibility of the production of hybridity, particularly considering their intermingled pasts. In general, this orientation is necessary for the context of a multi-ethnic social setting in which many ethnic groups share co-ethnics across national borders (and who should not "lose" status as “belonging” because of complex histories of intercourse across those cartographic lines). This is not to dismiss the possibility of complete absorption by “Chittagonians” and the eradication of Arakanese Muslim (Rohingya) traces, but this is theoretically unlikely. More importantly, given that people today call themselves Rohingya, it seems strange to advance the claim that they were absorbed by “Chittagonians” simply because the term “Rohingya” did not gain comprehensive purchase as an ethnonym during the colonial moment.  And yet, there is a disheartening tendency in much academic literature to assume that Rohingya claims of indigeneity are invalidated because migrant Chittagonians assimilated and adopted Rohingya patterns of life and speech. Or to go further and suggest, without evidence, that Chittagonians subsumed “Rohingya,” and/or that inter-ethnic mixing is so recent that “Rohingya” is a mere cynical ideology. Which also brings in focus  to writings on the Rohingya by Jacques P. Leider, a scholar who has not only identified Rakhine marginalization and contested an international discourse that reduces all Rakhine to incorrigible racists, but has also made claims about the Rohingya that warrant retheorization so as to open up ways of both understanding ethnogenesis and of interrogating extant historical materials.

While Leider notes that, “The building of a communal identity referred to as "Rohingya" is… a social process that has hitherto not been studied by anthropologists,”11 he effectively proceeds in his writings to make a number of anthropological claims that he does not support with evidence. For example, Leider argues that Rohingya ethnicity was a political movement that remained cloistered in elite circles, “mostly associated with Muslim guerrilla organizations fighting against the Burmese government.”12 He claims that while Rakhine and Muslim tension across the post-independence period – which the government apparently prevented from developing into full-blown internecine conflicts 13 – made “individuals beg[i]n to produce exclusive narratives to describe their history and identity,”14 it was only “leaders of the Muslim diaspora of Arakan” who “became the mainstay of the acclaimed Rohingya identity.”15 “Muslims in Arakan,” conversely, “kept on identifying primarily as Muslims.” 16 Leider also claims that the “visceral rejection of the Rohingya identity by the Buddhists in Arakan and by many ethnic groups of Myanmar has a lot to do with the distortions and contradictions built into the political DNA of the Rohingya movement.”17 The obvious problem with these claims is that none are supported by evidence.

On 23 Dec. 2018 Timothy McLaughlin who spent over four years reporting from Myanmar, messaged that Jacques Leider even equated the famous German weekly Der Spiegel’s reporting on the fleeing Rohingya as "fabricated":

Ein Bild, das Screenshot enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

The above gives a good sense of how entrenched in the case of Leider and within Myanmar, the idea is that the crisis has been made up or completely exaggerated by the media to shame Myanmar. When Leider claims that after independence “Muslims in Arakan” continued identifying as Muslim (rather than Rohingya), he not only does not substantiate the claim but elsewhere he acknowledges that there is little known about how average Muslims conceived of their identity, conceding his own claims are impossible to confirm.18 Yet, despite all that we do not know about Rohingya, Leider asserts that the Muslims in Rakhine state, indoctrinated by “Rohingya ideology” essentially constituted a Chittagonian Bengali society.19  The deeper problem with such claims is that they refuse to imagine different explanations. This compels us to ask, in turn: why is there such an insistence, on the part of both nationalists and certain researchers, to see the Rohingya as irredeemably infested with the the taint of "Bengaliness" – and hence allochthony? We suspect it stems from the subtleness, even slipperiness, of our argument – that admittedly could be construed as trying to “have it both ways,” in the sense that we are identifying that Rohingya are claiming the ethnic difference from Chittagonian Bengalis (and hence indigeneity), while also showing that there is enough the similarity between the groups that when they interacted over generations in Rakhine state, the latter amalgamated into the Rohingya.

However, this is not such a fanciful claim when we consider it within the social systems, or "transethnic" model urged by Robinne and Sadan.20 When broadening our consideration of what the Arakanese/Chittagonian world looked like before the tyranny of the map compelled many to see Rakhine "belonging" in Arakan and Muslims "belonging" in Bengal (later, Bangladesh), the apparent mutability/differentiation paradox dissolves. The view of the colonist – he of the map and the census and the ethnic categorization chart – sees a horde of Muslims "invading" Arakan. But if we expand our view back in time, to the Indic civilizations of Vesali and Lemro of ancient Arakan, we might say that these Bengalis were not invading, but coming home. This "homecoming" is not meant to be construed in terms of "ancestral homelands," nor for those specific persons, but as a reconstitution of the stubborn Chittagong that was always already within Arakan, a reminder of that past that has been effectively reterritorialized elsewhere, were not obliterated entirely.

Yet, a broader question persists: 21 why do the rest of the country so intently reject the Rohingya? We suspect that generalized hatred of Rohingya illuminates the entire system of belonging in the Myanmar polity, even as the conflict generates changes in that system. Not only does the eager participation of Rakhine nationalist elites in Rohingya exclusion elevate the former’s standing in the system, but nationalists of all ethnic orientations have capitalized on processes of formal democratization and liberalization of the public sphere to generate a robust, if revanchist, national conversation over belonging in the polity, through exclusion of the Rohingya, which enhances each group’s position within it.22 As other ethnic groups in Burma have uniformly rejected the Rohingya, discourses that a shared primordial "blood" subtends superficial differences in ethnic groupings and religious affiliations amongst officially ratified "national races" are increasingly prevalent.23 By establishing the Rohingya as the estimate other, these groups inscribe themselves inside, whereby the clearing of Rohingya is unfinished business from WWII is a common argument of the Myanmar military.

Leider wrote that he currently is completing a paper on the conditions that created the environment from where things went from bad to worse, ie, the late colonial/early post-independence period. The focus is on violence and identity. Currently, the strict focus on Rohingya, as understandable as it is, prevents a broader discussion that takes into account the recent developments in Rakhine State with the surprising progress of AA as a political competitor.

Hence, that potentially could again only address the in-group forming inertia that motivates Rohingya exclusion. Burma’s trans-social antipathy – spanning right-wing nationalists to former political prisoners – goes far beyond that project. Rather, the hatred suggests an anxiety that the constitutive foundation of belonging in Myanmar is corrupted and collapsing, incoherent and increasingly consumed by its own internal contradictions. Following Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat,24 the Rohingya are not hated because they are different, but because there is fear that they are actually the same, revealing that purportedly natural categories are, indeed, relatively arbitrary emblems. Consequently, "Rohingya" contests the entire colonialist cartographic ontology in which "races" belong to certain territorial domains. In so doing, they threaten to expose a gaping hole in this logic. The question is whether, even as this unraveling produces violent attempts to restitch the torn fabric, space is created in the caesura for other idioms and foundations – a broader sense of indigeneity, a broader sense of cultural citizenship – to take their place.

What the Rohingya need from the Myanmar state is very simple: the rights they have been systematically denied and that they are entitled to by international law, as well as their common-sense recognition as full and equal members of the political community of the state of their birth and of their forebears.

Since Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya have been excluded from the country’s list of indigenous ethnic groups. The rationale for this move was that the Rohingya were not considered a natural, indigenous ethnic group in their native Rakhine state, but rather that they were imported to the region under British imperial administration in the 1800s. That is both false and irrelevant. If you do not “naturally” belong where you are born, and in the case of the Rohingya, often where their grandparents and great-grandparents were born, then where on earth do you belong? This is also why international law makes it illegal for any state to deny citizenship to any individual born on their territory if doing so would render that individual stateless. Yet that is exactly what the Myanmar state has done to about 2 million individuals, based on a false vision of ethnonationalism history.

After the Conference

Sidoti, the above mentioned keynote speaker at the conference, added: “The mass expulsions and shootings may have stopped, the military may have achieved their purpose – the makeup of the Rakhine state has changed – but the crisis is not over.”

There are only an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Rohingya left in Myanmar, he said, compared with 2 or 3 million in 2012.

“We said a year ago there were circumstances to give rise to an inference of genocidal intent,” Sidoti said.

“What has happened in the past two years has strengthened the genocidal intent. Villagers are still isolated, and their movement restricted; fishermen can’t go to fish and kids can’t go to school. They need written permission from the authorities to travel any distances, and permission to marry and have children. You might need six different written approvals, from six different authorities, to go to hospital. The whole thing has been calculated to watch them fade away.”

Sidoti said he expected the panel’s new report, which will be published in the next few months, to say that the inference of genocide has “strengthened”.

Following a map of Northern Rakhine state showing the many villages destroyed by the Tatmadaw (colour coded according to when detected). This document is Public Annex 6 in the above mentioned ICC release:


1. Leach, E.R. Political Systems of Highland Burma, Oxford and New York: Berg, London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology #44, 1959:2.

2. Lehman, F. K. “Ethnic Categories in Burma and the Theory of Social Systems,” in Peter Kunstadter, ed., Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), 93-124.

3. Jacques P. Leider "Rohingya: the name, the movement, the quest for identity.” Nation Building in Myanmar. Yangon: Myanmar EGRESS/Myanmar Peace Center, p. 204-255, 2013, 229-230.  Leider elsewhere contradicts this claim, instead asserting – also without evidence – that this putative absorption took place a number of decades later: “Bengali Muslim immigrants from Chittagong who settled in the north of Arakan ... assimilated, after independence, the precolonial Muslim community in northern Arakan” (Leider “Politics of Integration and Cultures of Resistance. A Study of Burma’s Conquest and Administration of Arakan,” Geoffrey Wade ed, Asian Expansions: The Historical Experiences of Polity Expansion in Asia. London: Routledge, 184-213, 2015:204, emphasis added).

4. While the fact of dialectal variation alone does not prove that a sociologically meaningful ethnic distinction exists, it is held up by Rohingya themselves as a way of marking a difference, as a way of generating, constituting and defending ethnic identity.

5. Grantham, S.G. Census of India, 1921, Vol X, Rangoon: Office of the Superintendent, Government of Burma, 1923:22.

6.Grantham 1923:213.

7. Leider “Conflict and Mass Violence in Arakan (Rakhine State): The 1942 Events and Political Identity Formation,” in South, Ashley and Marie Lall, Citizenship in Myanmar: Ways of Being in and from Burma, Singapore: ISEAS, 2018.

8. de Mersan, Alexandra. “Ritual and the Other in Rakhine Spirit Cults,” in Su-Ann Oh, ed. Myanmar’s Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2016.

9. Chowdhury, Arani et al. “Power structures, class divisions and entertainment in Rohingya society,” BBC Media Action, August 2018, p24.

10. Haque, Mahbubul. "Bali Khela". In Sirajul Islam and Ahmed Jamal, A. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Banglades, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2012.

11. Wade, Francis. Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’, London: Zed Books, 2017:ch 10

12. Leider, "Rohingya" The movement. The quest for identity 2013:232.

13. Leider, “Transmutations of the Rohingya Movement in the Post-2012 Rakhine State Crisis” in Ooi Keat Gin and Volker Grabowsky, ed. Ethnic and Religious Identities and Integration in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2017:199-200.

14. Leider “Transmutations of the Rohingya Movement in the Post-2012 Rakhine State Crisis” Ooi Keat Gin and Volker Grabowsky, ed. Ethnic and Religious Identities and Integration in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 191-239, 2017. 2017:205.

15. ibid. Leider,Transmutations,2017:200.

16. ibid. Leider, Transmutations, 2017:201.

17. Leider, Jacques. “Conflict and Mass Violence in Arakan (Rakhine State): The 1942 Events an Political Identity Formation,” in South, Ashley and Marie Lall, Citizenship in Myanmar: Ways of Being in and from Burma, Singapore: ISEAS, 2018:206. Years earlier scholar Aye Chan made (also without providing evidence) a similar claim: “the majority of the ethnic group, being illiterate agriculturalists in the rural areas, still prefers their identity as Bengali Muslims” (Aye Chan. "The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)." SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research 3.2: 396-420, 2005:415).

18. Leider, “Competing Identities and the Hybridized History of the Rohingyas,” in Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar. Renaud Egreteau and Francois Robinne, eds. Singapore: NUS Press, 2016:160-61.

19. At one point Leider argues there is “a lack of detailed sources to explore the inner life of the Rohingya organisations to give us a deeper understanding of political and ethnic dynamics” (Leider 2015:37-38).

20. As quoted earlier, Leider 2013:229-230.

21. Robinne, Francois, and Mandy Sadan. “Postscript: Reconsidering the dynamics of ethnicity through Foucault’s concept of ‘spaces of dispersion,’” in Francois Robinne and Mandy Sadan, eds. Social dynamics in the highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering political systems of highland Burma by ER Leach. Vol. 18. Leiden: Brill, 2007a.

22. Prasse-Freeman, Elliott. “Scapegoating in Burma,” Anthropology Today 29.4, August 2013a.

23. Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics, ILCAA Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Monograph Series No. 33, 1999: chapter 5.

24. Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.






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