Perilous Homelands: The Rohingya Crisis and The Violence of National Territory
We tend to think of the world of nations as the natural order of things. The age of empires now seems archaic, doomed by history. But empires actually organised social space for most of human history. Inside imperial territory, people moved and settled here and there in places strung loosely together by extensive networks of imperial authority. Territories were defined more by imperial claims over taxes and strategic resources than by controls over human mobility: people, commodities, and capital tended to move together, forming fluid, mobile, social spaces. Creating national territory meant carving up those imperial spaces and networks with national boundaries. This has been more traumatic than we typically recognise. Producing the world of nations in the twentieth century included horrific wars and genocide. The horror began with the First World War in 1914; over the next century, the violent demolition of empires around the world brought mass killing and displacement beyond counting.
The world of nation states produced a world of citizens, displaced peoples, and refugees. In 1947-1948 alone, countless people died and more than 15 million refugees suffered the Partition of British India. The legacy of Partition now includes Rohingyas who are suffering the ongoing partitioning of British Bengal from British Burma.
The global refugee population surged in the 1990s, and surged again in 2012, when Rohingya suffering also increased, as I explain below. Over a million stateless Rohingyas now join a world population of nearly 70 million displaced people that roughly equals the population of Thailand and is more than the population of 213 countries.
Being stateless means losing any firm claim to human rights. Belonging to a nation now provides the only firm legal claim to human rights. People who live in spaces that were for centuries included in empires but were suddenly carved up by national borders may thus lose a claim to human rights, because nationalists can paint them as aliens. That is the fate of many refugees today, including Rohingyas, whose human rights now require to be secured not inside the closed territories of national states but rather in the wide world of globalisation.
Arakan and Burma
The Rohingya's ancient homeland is Arakan, on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. The renaming of Arakan indicates the spatial identity problem faced by Rohingyas. The territorial heartland of the Burmese nation lies across the mountains from Arakan, in the Irrawaddy Valley. Separated by mountains from that ethnic Burman territory, Arakan stretched along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. When Arakan was assigned to Burma at the Partition of British India, in 1948, it became firmly part of national territory called Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by the military government, in 1989. Arakan was then renamed Rakhine State; its major port city, Akyab, became the port of Sittwe.
Such renaming is a national project, like renaming East Pakistan as Bangladesh. In this project, Myanmar's capital was moved from British Burma capital of Rangoon (renamed Yangon) to the new city of Naypyitaw, in 2005. This national renaming erased the British colonial heritage from the nation's geo-body. It also erased Arakan and thus the Rohingya's homeland.
That national erasure, renaming, remapping is based on conquest, as we will see. Renaming Akyab as Sittwe echoes a war that made Arakan part of Burma, briefly, in 1784. Sittwe means "the meeting place of war," and its adoption by the Myanmar government implies rightly that conquest is the basis for Arakan's absorption into Burmese national territory.
For a thousand years before 1784, Arakan was politically independent, and like many coastal regions around the Bay of Bengal, its economy was based on rice cultivation, coastal trade, Indian Ocean trade, and travel inland into mountains along river valleys. Coastal regions were connected by monsoon winds that propelled ships among small ports around the Indian Ocean. Their inhabitants included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Jews, Malays, Arabs, and many others mixed together in port hinterlands in various combinations.
Kingdoms in Arakan expanded along the coast and became known for elaborate architecture that combined Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist elements. The Arakan court's authority expanded as far north as Chittagong and as far south as the Irrawaddy Delta, and court culture became intricately involved with Islamic cultural trends in Bengal and then with Mughal politics.
Mughal expansion began the end of Arakan's independence. In the 1600s, Arakan became famous for lawless piracy and slave raiding. Burmese imperial armies conquered Arakan, in 1784. Francis Buchanan penned an account of what ensued:
"…in one day soon after the conquest of Arakan the Burmas put 40,000 Men to Death: … wherever they found a pretty Woman, they took her after killing the husband; and the young Girls they took without giving any consideration to the parents, and thus deprived these poor people of the property by which in Eastern India the aged most commonly support their infirmities."
The British conquered Burma, in 1824, and then Arakan returned to its accustomed role as a coastal space but now connecting British imperial territory in Bengal and Burma. Bengali Muslim migratory settlement increased in Arakan as it did in eastern Bengal and Assam, where Bengali farmers specialised in turning heavily flooded muddy wet land into productive rice fields paying state revenue. By 1941 the Muslim population of Arakan was twenty-seven percent. At Burmese independence, in 1948, the Arakan Muslim Rohingya population included families who had settled there from the ninth century; many more who arrived after the 17th century; and many more who had arrived and settled there in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Empire and Nation
The Second World War launched national history in Burma, in 1942, when imperial Japan conquered Burma and turned Arakan into a battle zone frontier between Japanese Burma and British Bengal. For two years, the war went badly for Britain. The British armed Rohingyas to resist the Japanese, as British forces retreated; and the Japanese armed surging Arakan Buddhists (called Rakhines) and the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), led by commander Aung San. Like Subash Chandra Bose, Aung San was promised independence from Britain when Japan won the war. Thousands of Indians and Arakanese Muslims fled across Arakan into Bengal. Some Rohingyas took up arms, allied with the British, and some Rakhines fought with the BIA and Japanese.
Battle lines were thus drawn between north and south Arakan, between British and Japanese empires, between imperialists and nationalists, and between Muslims and Buddhists, drenching Arakan in blood. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Arakanese people died—on both sides—as neighbours fought neighbours along lines drawn locally by imperial politics.
Local conflicts continued after the war when Partition created independent India, Pakistan, and Burma. Each national territory included old regions carved up by state borders. Everyone had to take sides in struggles to consolidate national territories.
We must remember that none of the national territories that emerged from British India and appeared suddenly on maps after 1947 had any historic precedent. Bits and pieces of independent India and Pakistan had to be glued forcefully together by national states. That included huge doses of state violence in Kashmir, three wars between India and Pakistan, threats to invade Hyderabad, an invasion of Goa, wars to conquer rebels in mountainous northeast and central India, Pakistan, and Burma (which continue today), and the Bangladesh Liberation War.
The southern border of Bangladesh became a border with Burma, at the Naf River. This old border had never before controlled human mobility. Arakan peoples, cultures, languages, and families had travelled and settled along coast for centuries. All of a sudden, in 1948, the border hardened: Arakan became, for the first time, the indisputably exclusive national property of a Burmese state government. The spectre of 1784 returned, but now with the first ever complete and permanent transfer of Arakan and all its residents into Burmese territory.
Fluid Arakanese spatial identity came to an end. All Arakan people were forced into a rigorously defined national state territory. All Muslim and Bengali cultural elements and spatial connections which were integral parts of Arakan for a thousand years came to be seen by Burmese nationalists as alien imports from Bengal.
In Burma, military force, ethnicity, and Buddhism dominate national territorial consolidation. The Burmese national army has fought Chin, Shan, Kachin, Mon, and Karen armies since 1948, to bring them under central government control. The nation's population includes 135 official ethnic groups, with Burmans about two-thirds of the total. Theravada Buddhism became the nation's ideological glue and monks became the militant cultural vanguard, as they also did in Sri Lanka and Thailand.
After massive bloodshed in the 1940s, some Muslim groups in Arakan logically organised to fight for some degree of autonomy, safety, and separate political representation in Burma. Self-defence against Burmese nationalist armies and allied local Arakanese Buddhists became imperative. Some fought for independence and others sought to establish the Rohingya as a political identity for citizenship, equivalent to other ethnic groups. Signs of hope remained during the 1950s, despite Aung San's assassination, in 1947, because Prime Minister U Nu retained Aung San's idea of separate representation. In that light, U Nu's 1961declaration of Buddhism as the state religion seems to have been meant as a gesture of peaceful reconciliation. It did not turn out that way.
Dispossession and Extirpation
In 1962, the military coup by General Ne Win slammed the door on hope for Rohingyas: he abolished the federal system, announced a "Burmese Way to Socialism", nationalised businesses, formed a one-party state, banned independent newspapers, and expelled foreign business owners, mostly Indians. In that climate, Rohingya Arakanese Muslims became logical targets for discrimination because of their historic links across what became a harder state border, and because of nationalist antipathy to India and Pakistan which taint their language and religion.
The Rohingya's location increased their vulnerability: they live in self-protective concentrations, reflecting the impact of the war, in a dense population of several million, in three small townships in northern Arakan, on the far northwest edge of Burma. Their spatial distribution aggravates ethno-nationalist claims that Rohingyas are foreigners; it makes it easier to attack them and deny citizen rights. Like Indians in Uganda and Burma, Hindus in Bangladesh, and Muslims in India, Rohingyas became targets for attacks on their rights to life and property that opened opportunities for competitors for real estate in northern Arakan. Renaming the Arakan region as Rakhine State clearly indicated that the central government intended Arakan to become the territorial domain of Arakanese Buddhists.
Each decade made life worse for Rohingyas. The 1970s brought military rule denied Rohingyas the vote. The 1982 Citizenship Act denied them citizen rights. By the 1990s, large numbers had fled to live in Bangladesh. In 2006, government declared all Rohingyas illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. In 2012, violence increased with riots between Rohingyas and Rakhines, mostly killing Rohingyas. Local attacks and state violence kept increasing: by 2017 nearly one million Rohingyas were estimated to have fled to other countries.
What explains this genocidal extirpation? To erase entirely the Rohingya population and their long history of living in Arakan, the Myanmar government asserts that Rakhine is Myanmar territory and Rohingyas are illegal aliens from Bangladesh. This is the same argument that the Government of India is making in Assam. It is viewed as a legitimate argument by many if not all national governments today; thus, the Myanmar government feels justified in this forced deportation. By denying any wrong doing, and by thwarting repatriation, the government appears to hope that the international human rights uproar that will die down and leave the cost of all this horror to be borne by others.
The expulsion of foreigners has a rich post-colonial history. Many people have been expelled from countries without genocidal violence in what I call "post-colonial reprisals" or "post-hoc anti-colonial retaliation." They include Tamil tea estate workers, expelled from Sri Lanka; Indian business families expelled from Burma, Uganda, and Kenya; and overseas Chinese expelled from Southeast Asian countries. With such precedents in view, Rohingyas have been labelled immigrant Bengali Muslim colonial transplants. This label has become official. It is legal for governments to label people in this way, even if that label clearly misrepresents reality.
And it does. The Rohingya population has not only been settled in Arakan for many centuries, but some ancestors would have lived there even before Burmans settled central Burma. Muslims in northern Arakan are not migrants into Burma. Rather, Burma migrated into Arakan, where Rohingyas are natives, and took their land out from under them, manoeuvring Rohingyas into alien territory. Arakan south of the Naf River became Rakhine State, dominated by Arakan Buddhists, and Muslims in north Arakan, who speak a version of Bengali, became a foreign territorial presence in the eyes of militant Buddhist Burmese nationalists.
Erasing Arakan and expelling Rohingyas represents a massive land-grab. The goal of local Rakhine and Burmese attacks is to erase totally and permanently any legitimate Rohingya claim to the land and resources of the Arakan coast.
Such resource accumulation by dispossession is typical of many national environments, where people grab wealth for themselves in the name of the nation. Partition set the tone with a massive murderous grabbing of Hindu and Sikh land in West Punjab. In the 1990s, Lhotshampa people who had settled in spaces spanning Nepal and Bhutan for three hundred years were expelled from Bhutan, all of a sudden, in the tens of thousands, losing all their lands and shops, many to live, even now, in wretched refugee camps in Nepal. The land-grab legacy of Partition is alive and well in India, where Hindu ethno-nationalists use violence and threats against Muslims to drive them away and rob them of their property, and the Assam government is dispossessing Muslim Bengali farmers who have been labelled Bangladeshi infiltrators and denied entry in the National Register of Citizens. The less visible expulsion of poor Hindus from south-western Bangladesh has similar local competition for land lurking in the undergrowth.
It is precisely Rohingyas' deep roots in Arakan that requires such extreme violence to extract them from claims to the land. Their families invested labour in the land for generations; they turned jungle and swamp into rice fields and gardens; their rights to the land derive from that investment in ways that cannot be moved across the Naf River, where they literally have nothing. In Rakhine State, killing and chasing away Rohingyas and expelling them from Arakan represent not only a brutal expulsion and extirpation—it is a murderous criminal theft of the land itself. And that provides a material motive for genocide.
Motives became more pressing and transparent in 2012, when the Burmese military stepped back from dictatorship and opened the country to domestic political activity, market forces, and foreign investors. The potential value of land in ancient Arakan rose dramatically; grabbing that land meant removing Rohingyas. It was easier to take land from aliens disenfranchised in earlier decades. The ground had been well prepared. But getting full control of that landscape meant getting rid of Rohingyas entirely.
In April 2008, India and Burma signed an agreement to start the Kaladan River Transportation Project, connecting West Bengal and Burma at Sittwe, and construction began in 2011. The expansion of Sittwe port will boost the regional job and land market. Economic analysts also predict sustained rapid economic growth that would focus on networks of transportation that carry natural resources of timber, oil, and gas, and major agricultural products to major markets in India, Bangladesh, and China. Last but not least, China's new Burma Road to the Bay of Bengal will include a One Belt One Road oil and gas pipeline from Yunnan to a new port outlet, south of Sittwe. India, China, Bangladesh, the US, UK, EU and many other countries have investors seeking opportunities in Myanmar. Rakhine is strategic property.
Rakhine locals and Burmese state elites—particularly the military, which is heavily invested in business expansion—thus have very good material motives for ridding the country of pesky Rohingyas. They want to grab Arakan land for government and private investors, and thus they can happily heed the clarion call of raging nationalist monks to purify Buddhist Myanmar of the Muslim menace. Fighting the state militarily now seems the only way to stake claims to the land, but sadly it also provides justification for the brutal crushing of "Muslim rebels".
David Ludden is Professor and Chair, Department of History at New York University
This article is a shortened version of David Ludden's paper titled "The Rohingya Crisis and the Violence of National Territory".