Globalisation and Low-Intensity Conflict
The Statelessness of the Rohingyas

Imtiaz Ahmed

The relationship between globalisation and low-intensity conflict (LIC) is less obvious and is therefore more problematic. Let me make two broad assertions to drive home my contention:

Firstly, although globalisation seeks to break the shackles imposed by the national state or, for that matter, national boundaries, conflicts – from civil to national – are generally devalued and marginalized if such conflicts have little or nothing to do with the reproduction of globalisation. A conflict is otherwise graduated to ‘low-intensity’ not so much because of its intensity (with respect to security stakes, casualty, military involvement, cost, etc.) but more because of the way it relates itself to the globalised world.

Secondly, in so far as LIC is devalued and marginalized, the resolution of LIC also tends to be marginal and ad hoc. Put differently, in the absence of proper and effective resolution of LIC not only does it become dirty and protracted but also the suffering it causes to those most directly involved continues to be deep and long. Marginalization of LIC is otherwise the marginalization of the sufferers as well as the marginalization of suffering.

Globalisation whether it is from the top or from the bottom makes no difference, for agendas and programs reproducing globalisation always tend to be elitist and correspondingly Capital-centric and is therefore inversely devoid of peripheral concern whether economic, social or spatial. It is against this background that we will take up the pitiable fate of the Rohingyas.

The State of Statelessness

According to 1997 Statistical Yearbook, published by the Government of Myanmar, the ‘official’ population of the Arakan or Rakhine State, where most Muslim Rohingyas reside, numbered around 2.6 million. In addition to this 2.6 million (and this is according to some unofficial estimates made in 1991) another one to two million Muslim Rohingyas also reside in the Rakhine State. This would imply that the overall population of the Rakhine State is around 4 to 5 million. In the government circles, however, the Rakhine State is the home of the officially designated majority - the Buddhist Rakhines. The distinction between ‘Rohingyas’ and ‘Rakhines’ here is a deliberate one, not so much for the reason of semantics (which is somewhat fuzzy) or religion (which is quite obvious) as for the reason of the state. Let me explain.

The word ‘Rohingya’ is a taboo in the Capital City of Yangon and I would imagine in the rest of Myanmar. In both national (or more appropriately, governmental) and international circles within Myanmar, the word simply does not exist. Even the National Museum in Yangon which has an excellent collection of materials of all sub-nationalities (labelled by the government as ‘national races’ and categorised into seven in terms of language origin – Shan, Mon, Karen, Kayah, Chin, Kachin and Rakhine) makes no mention of the Rohingyas nor does it have any collections dedicated to them. Why this taboo? Why this deliberate attempt to shun and silence the Rohingyas? Before attempting to dwell on this issue, let me first reflect on the origins of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

There are basically two theories. One theory suggests that the Rohingyas are descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders, including Moghul, Turk, Pathan and Bengali soldiers cum migrants, who arrived between the 9th and 15th centuries, married local women, and settled in the region. Rohingyas are therefore a mixed group of people with many ethnic and racial connections. This position is mainly upheld by the political fronts of the Rohingyas, including most scholars sympathetic to their cause.

The second theory, on the other hand, suggests that the Muslim population of the Rakhine State is mostly Bengali migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, with some Indians coming during the British period. This theory is further premised on the fact that since most of them speak Bengali with a strong ‘Chittagonian dialect,’ they cannot but be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The government of Myanmar, including the majority Burman-Buddhist population of the country, subscribes to this position.

The above two theories may be important in formulating policies, strategies and even political actions, and this may be true not only for the pro-Rohingya forces but also for the Myanmaran government, but then the fact of the matter is that both these theories tell little about the actual fate of the Rohingyas. That is, whatever may have been their origins, the Rohingyas, who have been living in the Arakan for years (many, in fact, before the country became independent in 1948), still pass their life as stateless people and there is no sign of Myanmar providing them the much coveted citizenship rights.

The Myanmaran government, however, cannot be blamed totally for this. As is now well known and recorded in many scholarly writings that at the time of Burma’s independence, the Rohingyas not only formed their own army but also approached the Father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ‘asking him to incorporate Northern Arakan into East Pakistan.’ They continued with their demands even in the 1950s. The new State of Burma had no other choice but to consider them as non-Burmese and dissidents who were bent on wrecking the territorial integrity of the country.

With the possible exception of the pre-military days of early 1960s, the government of Myanmar at every stage of governance and national development has systematically denied providing the Rohingyas some kind of recognition, including the right to acquire citizenship.

The entire population of Myanmar is practically colour-coded! Actually, following the launching of the ‘Operation Nagamin’ (Dragon King) in 1977, which continued for over a decade, almost the whole of Myanmar’s population was registered and provided with identity cards. These cards are all colour-coded, mainly for the easy identification of the citizenship status of the bearer. Those residing lawfully in Myanmar can now be divided into four colours:

Pink, those who are full citizens;
Blue, those who are associate citizens;
Green, those who are naturalised citizens; and lastly,
White (not surprisingly) for the foreigners!

The Rohingyas were quickly told that they do not fall under any of these four colours and that no such cards would be issued to them. Instead, a year after the Operation Nagamin began (that is, in 1978-1979) a huge number of Rohingyas, totalling around 250,000, was forcibly pushed into Bangladesh. But this was only the first major push. Some more small and big pushes preceded and followed Operation Nagamin. 1974 push and 1991 push, for that matter, are small and big pushes respectively. Indeed, with all such pushes, LIC in the Arakan region and also beyond simply acquired a new dimension, without however having its ‘intensity’ transformed. More on this now.

Dimension of the Conflict

One can without hesitation divide the dimension of the conflict into three. The first one relates to the military intervention in the Rakhine State, with the avowed intention of reproducing the power of the majoritarian Burmans. It may be noted here that the majoritarian Burmans follow Theraveda Buddhism while the Rakhine Buddhists are mainly followers of the Manayana sect. In this context and also for having separate ethnic identities, the Burman-dominated military in the Rakhine State is at loggerheads not only with the Rohingyas but also with the Rakhine Buddhists. The testimony of this lies in the fact that between 1978 and 1983 as a result of Burman-led military atrocities in the Rakhine State a total number of 1725 Rakhine Buddhists were killed compared to 437 Muslim Rohingyas. Again, during the same period, 2715 Rakhine Buddhist women were raped compared to 1681 Muslim Rohingya women. The brutality of the majoritarian Burman military seemed to have fallen on both the ethnic minorities.

But then the question remains, why do we see more Muslim Rohingya refugees arriving at the Bangladesh border? The answer to this probably lies in the fact that the latter, living near the vicinity of Bangladesh territory (incidentally, most Rakhine Buddhists live in the southern part of the Rakhine State), are in a better position to flee and take refuge in the ‘friendly state’ right across the border. Moreover, in contrast to the Muslim Rohingyas, the Rakhine Buddhists would be hesitant to take shelter in what is otherwise a predominantly ‘Muslim state.’ There is, of course, also the point that because most of the Muslim Rohingyas are in a position to flee Arakan, few of them get killed or their women raped. And it is this almost guaranteed sanctuary for the Muslim Rohingyas that has now become a serious source of tension in the border region of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

This brings us to the second kind of conflict related mainly to the refugeeization of the Rohingyas. Two distinct types of conflict could easily be discerned here. One is the conflict between the Rohingya refugees and the local population in the border region. In fact, there has been a marked shift in the attitude of the local population towards the Rohingya refugees, from the time when they first arrived and the way they are looked upon now. A survey carried out in April-May 1998 demonstrates this point very clearly. While 35.7 percent of those surveyed ‘felt threatened’ or ‘were concerned’ when the refugees first arrived, but when asked whether the refugees bother them now (not physically but mentally), over 90 percent responded in the affirmative. The reasons for the change in the attitude of the locals are mostly increase in crime rates and prices of essentials. At times, members of the two communities have clashed, with the police policing the conflict gainfully with increased role and power.

The second conflict in the wake of the refugeeization of the Rohingyas relates to the increased militarization of the pro-Rohingya political fronts (like, Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front, etc.), including the militarization of the refugee camps. While the activities of the former have created a militarised situation in the jungle-packed no-man’s land along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, the militarization of the refugee camps has brought about further uncertainty to the repatriation of the Rohingyas and correspondingly to the state of relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The last kind of conflict is the most complex one and is also the least recognised one. This mainly relates to the not-so-voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. In fact, the repatriation of Rohingyas is unique on two fronts. Firstly, there has been a subtle change in the UNHCR policy of voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas. This refers to the change in the UNHCR policy, from one of ‘individual interviewing’ before ascertaining one’s repatriation to the promotion of repatriation through ‘mass registration.’ Critics have already questioned the principle of voluntariness in such repatriation, including the repatriation of Rohingyas. It is not surprising that given the involuntary nature of Rohingya repatriation many of them are found returning and choosing the life of a refugee or illegal migrant in Bangladesh. Exodus, return and conflict all are recycled and reproduced once again.

Secondly, and this is more fundamental, the Rohingyas, once pushed out as stateless people, are now repatriated also as stateless people. No fundamental change has occurred to their life-long condition of forced labour, landlessness, victims of arbitrary taxation and above all, statelessness. In fact, the resolution of their fundamental problem, that is, not being able to acquire citizenship rights, remains stalled and marginal as ever. How did the Myanmaran government succeed in keeping the fate of the Rohingyas practically frozen? The question merits close attention.

LIC, Globalisation and the Marginalization of the Rohingyas

The Myanmaran government needs to be credited for productively utilising both LIC and the agenda of globalisation; indeed, at a level and with such sophistication that only a few developing countries can match. The government knows very well that Myanmar has resources – physical as well as cheap labour - to attract the pacesetters and real gainers of globalisation, namely the developed countries. To give one small instance of government’s confidence, even after 1990, when the military government refused to accept the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and hand over power to the elected representatives, more than a dozen petroleum companies undertook exploration in Myanmar.

Even with respect to the Rohingyas, the government of Myanmar succeeded in doing the same. That is, the government succeeded in attracting development funds from the developed countries, including international agencies, by way of agreeing to the repatriation of Rohingyas without, however, resolving the cause of their plight.

Three issues are critical here. Firstly, the government of Myanmar by reproducing LIC, with repeated exodus of the Rohingyas, has succeeded in impressing upon the donors that unless the region is developed such conflict and exodus would continue. Can we not dub this as a case where the government is using LIC, exodus and repatriation for attracting developmental funds for the Rakhine State and consequently for the Myanmaran military with little or no concern for the stateless Rohingyas?

Secondly, given the reproduction of LIC in the region, most of the donors, including international companies, would not mind investing in Myanmar in Yangon’s terms so long such terms do not jeopardise the return from their investments. Put differently, globalisation, in so far it is bent on reproducing a precise global economy, ceases to have interest on things that are not its direct concern. This is precisely the reason why Myanmar in the midst of setting the pace of its entry into the global economy could go slow on democratisation and the like.

Finally, with an assured relationship between Myanmar and the global economy, the real victims of LIC are doubly marginalized - first, nationally; second, internationally. Unless ethics, justice and morality are brought into the picture and the government of Myanmar made to bear upon them, the fate of the marginalized, including that of the Rohingyas, is doomed for a long time to come. The other option, however, is to intensify LIC on the part of the Rohingyas. But this the Myanmar military would cherish the most as it would provide them the rationale, both at home and abroad, for further suppression and marginalization of the Rohingyas. Are the Rohingyas and the rest of the world ready to bear the consequences of such an outcome? Ponder, peruse and pursue!

The author teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka and is Executive Director, Centre for Alternatives, Dhaka