The Politics of the Rohingya Refugees           

A Clash of Narratives

The Rohingya (called Bengalis by the people of Myanmar) represent one aspect of the much larger political problem represented by Myanmar. Many parties participate in the search for a solution to a brutal 60 year civil war and a national consensus as to how to live together. The Rohingya issue is real but its visibility, accessibility and photogenic aspects have allowed it to remove much of the oxygen from the search for Peace. This matters since the outcome may be a pathway for the military to continue its autocratic rule.

Art visiting Rohingya camps January 2018.

The Rohingya refugee crisis has been prominent on global newscasts. The focus is on numbers, atrocities and seeking to pin the blame on available targets. The numbers are real and the disruption to the lives of people is genuine but the news analysis seldom captures the history and complexity.

The current situation has deep roots in British colonialism, the particular localized impact of WWII, religious intolerance and the collateral damage of disintegrating empires.

This complicated background is the stage upon which modern Myanmar or post-independence Myanmar seeks to find consensus among 135 official ethnic groups (Rohingyas excluded from this list) with deeply held views and incompatible ideas of their place in a future state.

The Facts

A total of 2,300,000 persons identify themselves as Rohingyas (all numbers can be challenged somewhat).

1,100,000      External to Myanmar and Bangladesh camps (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia) and the product of self–directed movement or earlier economic and political pressure.

950,000         Located in refugee camps inside Bangladesh adjacent to Myanmar. An estimated 650,000 arrived after August 25, 2017.  The balance are the result of earlier events of violence or discrimination.

120,000         Living in IDP (internally Displaced Camps) in Myanmar and typically a more urban population.

230,000         (My estimate!) a population that remains in villages inside Rakhine State.

The great majority of these people are stateless in that they do not have citizenship anywhere.  This represents the largest stateless population in the world.

Competing and Conflicting Narrative

  1.  Rohingyas self-identify as a population with long roots in Rakhine state.

They claim the right to be recognized in a manner similar to other indigenous ethnic groups.

  • The reality – There are remnants of early Mughal Muslim groups in Myanmar – specifically a group called the Kaman with its origins in the 17th Century.  They are officially recognized as an ethnic group but are not connected to the arrival of what constitutes the majority of the Rohingya in the 19th and 20th Century as laborers under British colonial sponsorship.
  1. “The Rohingya have nothing to do with Bangladesh”

A statement of a very senior Bangladesh Government official. Bangladesh is a very crowded country and does not need more people – especially a group like the Rohingya which is at a much lower stage of development. A Bangladesh national election slated for late 2018 gives politicians little room for generosity or nuance!

  • The reality – the Rohingya speak a dialect similar to Chittagong – the City and port directly north of where the Rohingya live. It is generally accepted that the current Rohingya represent the descendants of Bengalis who drifted south since the opportunity was afforded by British Empire control starting in 1826.

I worked in Chittagong and the region in the post 1971 civil war period and witnessed the mobility of groups such as the fishing community.

  1. The Name Rohingya is a Political statement not a fact of History.

    Sanitation in Rohingya camps a challenge and rains will make it worse.

The problem with the name Rohingya is precisely its political character in that it associates identity with territory. (Its usage relates to the post-independence period precisely when its political meaning became relevant.)  The Buddhist population of Rakhine see the use of the name a threat which challenges ownership of their historic territory. Some Rohingyas have in fact asked for or insisted upon their own territory with some asking for a Muslim state.

  • The People of Myanmar insist on the use of the name “Bengali” rather than Rohingya and even the Pope did not use the term Rohingya on his recent visit reflecting the extreme political sensitivity of terminology.
  1.  All Rohingya are terrorists.

This kind of sentiment is easy to arouse in the population of Myanmar to create justification for the harsh military response. Obviously an overstatement but there is clearly a real and increasing militant presence and threat in the region. The Myanmar military or Tatmadow has over-reacted to ethnic military activity for the entire period of the 60 year civil war so a harsh response is not a novelty.

  1. The ARSA (Muslim) militants are an invention of the Myanmar military to justify the ethnic cleansing.

We heard this argument from eloquent spokespersons for the Rohingya. They point out the coincidence between militant attacks and political events and claim there is no Muslim-initiated violence – all ‘fake news’.

  1. The Rohingya have too many children.

With safety, food and friends life for Rohingya children like a giant summer camp.

True. The fertility rate in Myanmar has dropped to 2.17 and Bangladesh 2.10.  Both are remarkable achievements. The Rohingya are estimated to have a fertility rate closer to 7.0 accompanied by a high rate of infant mortality. Bangladesh sees this as a development threat but more critically the Buddhists in Rakhine believe/claim this is a deliberate strategy to overwhelm them demographically in a future democracy. There is some truth to this since Rohingya religious leaders discourage family planning and see it is a plot against them.

  1. The Buddhists of Rakhine believe that a future federalism which includes the Rohingya will permanently impair their territorial, ethnic and political position in their state and in the country.

Probably true. If the Rohingya act as a block politically they would potentially control politics in Rakhine. We heard the view that they (ethnic Rakhine) felt there was a limited window of opportunity to establish (Buddhist) control of Rakhine by reducing the Muslim population. Events on the ground suggest that the push to expel was at least as much initiated by Buddhist neighbors as the military and is therefore much more difficult to manage. It also suggests that repatriation is not simply a matter of agreement between Governments – when neither can control the sentiment of the Rakhine population.

The wife of the current and very effective supreme military leader is a Rakhine.  One conspiratorial theory is that her influence is being used to shape military approaches to Rakhine.

  1. The “International Community” and Press discriminate in favor of the Rohingya narrative.

Possibly true. Desperate refugees make a much better press than fears of loss of identity. The UNHCR was not welcome in Bangladesh in the past since Bangladesh did not want the migrants to have official recognition.  That has now flipped where Bangladesh seeks the approval for its position from the UNHCR and Myanmar does not welcome international intervention. Military dictatorships are not known for transparency so whatever the merits of their case it does not get told – we stressed that in our visits with the Myanmar Government.

  1. The 135 official ethnic groups are not speaking in support of the Rohingya for at least two reasons.
  • They ask – “where was the international community and the press when we experienced 60 years of often much greater oppression by the (Bamar-controlled) military?”
  • Recognition of the Rohingya as an authentic indigenous population of Burma weakens the arguments in favor of the kind of federalism they are seeking (federal structure which links ethnicity with power-sharing with territory).

The Big Picture and the Role of History

History does not need to be determinant in any outcomes but it plays a very important role in the broader Myanmar context and the reactions of many in the international community are not helpful. Consider this more like a game of chess – complicated but all of the players are visible rather than a game of cards where there are many unknowns. I will list some of the facts and memories that are relevant in the minds of the players.

Myanmar as a Name

The name Burma and the post-independence ‘Union of Burma’ were names grounded in history. After the 1988 student uprising the military took direct power and in 1989 changed the name of the country to Myanmar without consultation. The name Myanmar is a name that refers primarily to the majority Bamar ethnic group and exacerbated the tension between the government and the other minority groups. It is important to note that the name ‘Union of Burma’ has two words.  Union suggests a coming together of equals in the sense that most ethnic groups had been independent to that point.  Burma is a historic regional name that was acceptable to all parties.

History of Arakan  (the historic name for what is now Rakhine state)

The Buddhist population of Rakhine is ‘indigenous’ in the sense that they are descendants of the earliest inhabitants. Arakan, given its coastal location and isolated by mountains from the rest of Burma was an important and independent Maritime trading nation with a history going back several millenia. Arakan was independent until it was conquered by Burma in 1784. It was ceded to Britain as ‘war reparations’ in 1826. The point is the Buddhist population of Rakhine sees itself as a separate political and demographic reality with an ancient history. The short Burmese domination and the period of British colonialism are seen as unwelcome interventions in their understanding of their identity. The uninvited immigration of a group that is unlikely to integrate into the historic identity and narrative is therefore unwelcome.

Identity as Nation versus Identity as Individual

The argument for the rights of refugees is based on international documents such as the Conventions on Human Rights and Refugees.  These are both post WWII documents written primarily by European/American authors and speaking to their recent (brutal) history and view of the world – a world based around the individual.

Read the UN Declaration of Human Rights. There is not a single reference to collective rights – yet many societies and religions are based on the importance of the collective.

The 135 official ethnic groups of Burma, if asked, might well remind that their opinions were not invited nor were they present and asked to participate as authors. They have survived as unique and separate groups with their own language, culture, territory and various religious expressions. If we use the term nation – that is their primary identity. The challenge to create a modern Myanmar/Burma from this historic reality is not simple.

We in the “post-modern West” begin with the individual and rights while the ethnic groups of Burma begin with the nation and its rights and their identity within that reality.

Our Western reality is not really that “post-Modern”.  Consider the current dialogue in America, Brexit, Catalonia, Quebec, Japan, Israel, Kurdistan, Sri-Lanka and many African countries. Canada is an example of a modern country trying to balance the rights of “indigenous nations” with the “semi-indigenous” national reality of Quebec and the rest of us. The Canadian political debate around “First Nations” is all about the rights of the group – not the individual.

Legacy of WWII 

The Japanese advance through Asia stalled in Rakhine. This resulted in several years of violence in which the Buddhist Rakhine population sided with Japan to get rid of the British while the Bengali-speaking Muslim population sided with the British and their relatives in the rest of India. There were atrocities and massacres initiated by both communities against the other and these events have not been forgotten. The effects of this prolonged communal and international conflict was the movement of Muslim population to the north and toward the British army while the Buddhist population drifted south into safer territory. This has resulted in the current situation where the northern districts are dominated by Muslims and the south of Rakhine by the Buddhist population. The Buddhist population sees this as an accident of history which needs to be corrected!

History of Diversity, Tolerance and Shared National Space in Our Time

I do not in any sense justify violence or intolerance directed at minorities but I will ask the reader to consider events in Rakhine and Myanmar in the context of recent history. Until the 20th century most of the world was dominated by “super-national” entities such as colonial empires or forms of regional dominance such as the Ottoman Empire or political conglomerates like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. There was plenty of animus between internal groups but the authorities could forcibly contain these feelings.  When these entities disintegrated it released many demons that had always existed but could now express themselves. The result was eruptions such as the Partition of India, the Balkan Wars, VietNam, the creation of Israel, Sunni-Shia competition or violence around the perimeter of a reduced Russia. There were also delayed responses such as Sri Lanka, the ethnic cleansing of Bhutan, Timor Leste, South Sudan and more.

The 1962 military coup in Myanmar created similar dynamics. The peripheral Burmese ethnic groups had never been dominated in the manner of these examples. The Tatmadow arrived with an internally developed philosophy not unlike North Korea or like Iran as an intolerant religious version of the same idea. The Tatmadow first insisted on a single language – the language of the majority. Then it insisted on a single religion – Buddhism – the religion of the dominant ethnic group and finally it sought to suppress ethnicity (hence the change to the name Myanmar) and create conformity.

After 60 years of brutal civil war and suppression at least equal to that experienced by the Rohingya – the ethnic ‘nations’ have survived but all parties are exhausted. The emerging balance of rights, federal structures and sharing of powers must be seen against this background.

The historical narratives and the relationship of territory to national identity matter a great deal in this scenario.  There are several historic events or processes which have created demographic outcomes that do not fit the emerging consensus.  The Rohingya are the most visible to the world but not the only ones.

The British colonial policy encouraged urban immigrants from India to settle in Burma. After the military coup of 1962 virtually this entire (Indian) population of 320,000 people were expelled in a two-year period.

The British had allowed their Gurkha mercenaries to settle anywhere in the British Empire when they retired – and many found Burma much more pleasant than their homeland of Nepal. There are reportedly 300,000 persons of Gurkha and Hindu background scattered around Burma.  They are generally educated and better integrated and do not represent a territorial threat to any particular ethnic group (because of their dispersion) but they were also stripped of citizenship in 1962.

There is evidence of discrimination against this Hindu population.  We adopted an infant in Chittagong in 1974 who was of Nepali racial heritage and presumably a victim of suppression inside Myanmar.

The Rohingya crisis raises some interesting questions…

  1. Is Repatriation the best alternative for the Rohingya population?

I will controversially argue it is not the best alternative. I note that no Western or regional country has expressed the slightest interest in accepting any meaningful number of Rohingya as immigrants – and generally none at all. The three alternatives are repatriation, integration into Bangladesh or a miserable existence in crowded refugee camps with a high probability of becoming radicalized.

My personal view is that integration into Bangladesh of the Rohingya currently in the camps – or the majority of them – is a feasible demographic, social, cultural and economic alternative. The only challenge will be political. At the national Bangladesh political level the debate about keeping Rohingyas in the country sounds like the nativist noise about Amnesty in the USA.

Bangladesh has stabilized its fertility, successfully developed its agricultural policies to feed itself and has emerged as an important competitor in the low end of the global industrial marketplace.

The Bangladesh population is growing at the rate of 1.2% or 2,000,000 per year.  The entire current refugee population represents less than 6 months of population growth. (Canada accepts immigrants at the rate equal to 1.0% of its population annually.) The cost of maintaining the refugees in camps will likely exceed 1 billion dollars per year. If some of that money was devoted to a policy of training, development and relocation the Rohingyas could be absorbed in a reasonable period of time with few internal or international consequences.

A policy of repatriation is highly unlikely to succeed beyond a nominal number. Those who return are unlikely to find safety and economic opportunity regardless of government or international policy. This contributes to political and ethnic instability in Myanmar which has plenty of additional struggles and may help to perpetuate military dominance.

Bangladesh is home to some of the most astonishing and effective NGO’s in the world – notably BRAC and Grameen Bank. These plus other local and international NGO’s are perfectly capable of managing such an integration process.

It should be recalled that Bangladesh took the view in 1972 that the one million Urdu-speaking immigrants (known as Biharis) from the time of Partition – a group that sided with the West Pakistan military – should be isolated and denied the opportunity to integrate. 46 years later many of these still live in sordid slums and are slowly blending into the population. Bangladesh would have sent them somewhere in 1972 – there was simply no geographic destination to which they could be physically exported! 

2. Is the Western Idea of Buddhism being Challenged?

Many in the West are expressing surprise that a Buddhist population could be responsible for ethnic cleansing. In the West we have been exposed to a sanitized version of Buddhism as presented to us by emissaries who select the desirable and idealistic concepts from Buddhism but isolated from the reality of the actual history of Buddhist nations and populations. Besides Myanmar and Rakhine we note the recent ethnic cleansing of Bhutan (Buddhists expelling Hindus) or Sri Lanka (Buddhists versus Tamils) or the genocide of Cambodia (all Buddhists).

If we took the Christian message as the Sermon on the Mount amplified by selected virtuous passages from the Gospels we could create a similar phenomenon.  Simply ignore the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious wars and more current forms of intolerance and the message would sound quite attractive.

This is not meant to criticize or justify – simply that Buddhism like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam all have their realities. Buddhism is no different.

  1. Is Aung San Suu Kyi a Saint, a Victim of Politics or a Willing Participant in ethnic cleansing?

“We anointed a saint and discovered a politician.”

I have met Aung San Suu Kyi and have had opportunity to discuss these issues in the more sober period prior to the recent mass expulsion of Rohingyas. She acknowledged at the time that some path to citizenship needed to be found – but pointed out that history and political realities did not make this easy or immediate.  Arguably events have overtaken even that cautious perspective.

My impression of her as a person was that she was exceedingly tough and single-minded but very intelligent with firm ideas. She survived more than two decades of house arrest, separation from her family and experienced great personal risk. These are the qualities that allowed her to survive as the single most effective challenge to possibly the most vicious and entrenched (except North Korea) military dictatorship in the world.

She had no prior political experience and certainly no management background. One could argue that the qualities that allowed her to survive and succeed against the military are not the qualities of compromise, negotiation and management now required to achieve Peace and run the country. There were voices after the 2012 election that she had made her contribution and should not attempt to be a political leader – and that may have been a good decision but that train has left the station.

The awards given to Aung San Suu Kyi during her years of confinement may have strengthened her position against the military but we should recall that she did not apply for any prize – the world has the need to find heroes to make ourselves look noble – with the right to graciously grant sainthood.

History will judge who contributed to the problem and who contributed to the solution of a people living through 6 decades of repression.

  1. Who are the winners from the Rohingya Crisis?

This seems like a strange question but it is relevant. Clearly the dispossessed largely illiterate farmers of northern Rakhine are losers. But others are at risk.

The ‘Big Game’ being played in Myanmar is the effort to dislodge the military dictatorship in favor of an inclusive nation with a reasonably participative form of Governance. The military created an opening toward a more participative Government not out of any conversion to Democratic ideals but because the strategy of severe repression and forced assimilation had failed after 60 years of trying.  Time, economic failure and the unexpected appearance of a Joan of Arc type of figure in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi tipped the balance. The military has created an opening which is reflected in two important processes.

Old Dhaka retains its character of humanity sharing very little space.

  • Elections and participative governance as reflected in the Government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The process has stalled at the point of revising the constitution in a way that actually removes real power from the military.
  • The Peace process between the Military and the 16 or 21 armed ethnic groups. 8 groups have signed a Cease-fire agreement but the balance are holding out for a solution to the final role of the military and the form of federalism that will protect their ideas of identity.

Whatever the International community thinks about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, this action is universally popular inside Myanmar – among Buddhists as well as other ethnic groups.

Given this context Aung San Suu Kyi can speak strongly in favor of the Rohingyas and flame out spectacularly as a politician and player inside Myanmar – or she acts as a politician – and remembers that politics is ‘the art of the possible’.

The Military would be quite pleased to see Aung San Suu Kyi flame out and go into the world to collect more awards. The outcome could be the absence of any electoral challenge to an increasingly popular military and the extension of their dominance with greater legitimacy but equal authority.

Bangladesh is a land of rivers retaining a timeless quality.


Myanmar is an exceedingly complex problem with historic, religious, cultural and ideological dimensions. My personal view is that the first order of priority is to support the Peace Process and the return of the military to civilian rule.  That outcome would create the political space in which more delicate and complicated issues such as religion, identity and territorial challenges can at least be addressed.

Headlines about the removal of honorary awards from a beleaguered politician may assuage our conscience and lofty principles – in the absence of any cost to ourselves – but do nothing to address the very deep and complex issues.


Personal Comment from Art:

The recommendation that Rohingyas should be resettled in Bangladesh is easily seen as allowing Myanmar or at least the Rakhine to get away with ethnic cleansing. I relate to that from a personal and family history perspective in that The Rohingyas are indeed paying a price and if left in camps for decades or repatriated into an unwelcome situation may continue to pay a high price.  Resettlement into a stable Bangladesh would in fact be a better future from a purely human point of view.

My own community – Mennonites who lived in Russia until the Revolution is quite parallel.  The group was invited by Catherine the Great to settle in Southern Russia in the 1780’s and lived peacefully and prosperously as citizens for 150 years.  The politics of the Revolution made them unwelcome and their German language doubled down on that.  A portion of the community escaped to the West and despite difficulties made a new life.  Those who remained suffered discrimination, exile to Siberia and frequently violence and murder.  We should have been allowed to stay – but relocation turned out to be a better future and I believe the same is true of the Rohingyas.