Rohingya, religious violence or Chinese Tale?

Geopolitics and ethnic cleansing in the current Southeast Asia

Summary / Abstract

The persecution to which the Rohingya ethnic group is currently subjected in the State of Myanmar, both by military and paramilitary forces, constitutes a flagrant violation of human rights. The present work will characterize the main actors involved in this conflict during this decade: the Rohingya people, persecuted accused of stateless persons, the former Burma and their military establishment, and the People’s Republic of China, with their interests in the region. Possible causes behind the violence unleashed in the Rakine state, as economic and strategic. It seeks to make a contribution in the direction of considering as ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the ethnic minority and, in addition, draw attention to the media treatment on the subject that aims to reduce a complex and multicausal situation to a supposed religious conflict between Muslims and Buddhists.

1)  Introduction

The violence to which the Rohingya ethnic group is currently subjected constitutes a flagrant violation of human rights, aggravated by three outstanding issues. The first, the abandonment of this town by the authorities of the State itself, which does not consider it with citizen rights; the second, the limited actions of the multilateral organizations that, with warm and palliative measures, do not guarantee the protection of the majority of said population. And third, the role of the large communication companies that, superficially characterizing the conflict or evidencing in their reports a marked bias of Orientalism (Said E., 1978), omit strategic interests in the area without consideration of which, trying to understand the present conflict becomes unlikely. The main objective of this work is to investigate the causes of the violence unleashed in the border state of Rakine, with an epicenter in 2012 and 2017. In this sense, the media perspective that pays religious conflict as an explanatory key will be questioned. so much will be presented and developed another reason that demonstrates the common appetites in the area in question, on the one hand, China, at a strategic level and, on the other, the ruling elites of the former Burma, for economic reasons. Our hypothesis is that both, attached to their respective purposes, could be motorizing the cleansing of this ethnic group from their ancestral lands. It is also intended to offer a minimum contribution to the visibility of what is understood as an “ethnic cleansing”, directed by actions and / or omissions of the authorities of Myanmar, accentuated in recent years and instrumentalized from communalism. For the fulfillment of the established, a characterization of the aforementioned actors and interests and their interrelationships will be provided, with a historical perspective, contextualized, that highlights geographical, political, legal, social, strategic and economic elements of relevance, in accordance with the objectives traced for this work. Other actors and interests of relevance in the region, such as the US, India, Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, a supposed insurgency that operates in the area known as ARSA (Salvation Army Arakan Rohingya), are outside the scope and objectives of this work.

2) Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of this research is composed of the following concepts:

A) Ethnic cleansing: According to Andrew Bell-Fialkoff (1993) at the most general level can be understood as the forced expulsion of an “undesirable” population of a given territory as consequence of religious or ethnic discrimination, considerations of a political, strategic or ideological nature, or a combination of one and the other. Etymologically, it refers us to the Serbo-Croatian words etničko čišćenje that were literally translated into English and that gained public status after the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

B) Communalism: The term, in the words of Harsh Kapoor, is used in South Asia to describe the misuse or management of religion for political purposes; represents processes of political construction of community identities based on religious affiliation. For the author, socially hatched prejudice, tension and conflict between religious communities constitute communalism (Kapoor, cited in Upadhyay and Robinson, 2012). In the same sense, Engineer expresses himself in the same work, considering the phenomenon as an attempt to achieve secular ends through religious means. The questions that guided this work are: Is the conflict and violence unleashed in Myanmar against a Muslim minority in the last decade, motivated by religious intolerance? What are the underlying causes of this escalation of violence, assassinations and displacements? What leads the different governments of Burma – at the time – and today those of Myanmar, to attack in this way against an important part of its population? Are they really problems of coexistence and intolerance between populations with different creeds? Is there an intrinsic and manifest enmity between Buddhism and Islam? We are entering into the development of research.

3) In context: XXI century ethnic persecution

Land confiscations, selective and mass killings, the compulsive migration of a large part of the social group appointed to surrounding areas and States, is not a new practice in the State of Myanmar (Ex Burma since 1989) and, on the contrary, it is a repeated action for decades and manifested in different intensities. Judging from recent history, on the one hand, both the multiple killings, and, on the other, the forced displacements, are the norm in the Southeast region, with a notorious upsurge so far in the century.

The two most dramatic moments for the number of fatalities in that period were perpetrated, the first, in 2012, with two bloody waves in the months of June and October. The second more recently, with a quota of extreme violence that manifested itself in the months of August and September of 2017.

The first case caused, according to estimates the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) -in the absence of official sources by the states involved in the area- about 140 dead, hundreds of houses and buildings destroyed, and about 100,000 displaced mostly Bangladesh, and also to Thailand, Malaysia, etc.

The second, according to UNHCR, estimates at least 6,700 deaths, of which 730 are children under 5 years of age. Since then, according to another MSF report, it is estimated that “more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled the violence in Myanmar” (SPS report). To this picture we must add, in addition, the 200 thousand people previously installed in makeshift camps in Bangladesh, who arrived there over the past decades trying to survive the systematic violence that the presidential republic of Myanmar imparts, paradoxically, in a smaller proportion when it was governed by a military junta, which is currently governed by a democratic court. According to Amnesty International’s annual report on former Burma:

“The situation of human rights worsened radically. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas went to neighboring Bangladesh fleeing the crimes against humanity that were perpetrated in the Rajine state. The Rohingya population that remained in Rajine continued to live under an apartheid system. The army committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The authorities continued to restrict the access of humanitarian aid to the country. Freedom of expression continued to be restricted. “(Report 2017-18: 324)

The Orientalism of the Hegemonic Media

This humanitarian tragedy of great proportions described succinctly in the preceding paragraphs, receives a media treatment that, far from facilitating the understanding to its audiences and readers, hinders it. This is evidenced when prominent news portals, title and analyze information about it, in a way that is almost exclusive in terms of religious conflict, describing human rights violations as clashes between believers of different creeds.

Some examples of news portals illustrate the aforementioned: “The UN warns about religious violence in Burma, where there are 112 dead” (BBC, October 26, 2012); “Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims set fire to western Myanmar” (EL PAIS, 11-11-2012); “They increase to 43 the dead in Burma caused by religious violence” (RTVE, 03-26-2013); “Buddhists descrevem massacre de minoria muçulmana em Mianmar” (Folha de Sao Paulo, 10-02-2018).

That this type of approach is reiterated in various media and that other possible political, economic, strategic, etc., are omitted, in the opinion of this work could be evidence of a non-manifest intentionality, of associating violence and unbridled irrationality, with the beliefs of the peoples involved in one way or another in the serious events.

Thus, by over sizing the spiritual ascriptions of the protagonists in the responsibility of the events, other factors and actors are made invisible that, if they were addressed, would facilitate a better understanding of what happened. China, for example, an actor that goes unnoticed and without which it is unintelligible not only any diagnosis on the matter, but on the entire region.

It is important to make this attention call, of a possible Orientalism implicit in such approaches, in line with the discourse and hegemonic interests, mainly reinforced with this sense since September 11, 2001. Hinge moment from which the mass media extend and they increase the stigmatization that various generations of Western intellectuals had been building since before the 19th century, on the cosmovisions associated with Asia and Africa, as Bou L. affirms in his work “The European vision of the Afro-Asian world” (SF). In this type of characterization, a supposed irrational violence would be “intrinsic” to the cultures of the peoples in question, and, therefore, cause atemporal, first and last of any conflict, where massacres and violent persecutions would happen as part of ” the normality “of those” distant “latitudes. Thus, from this perspective, a rigorous analysis of the f acts described, which, on the other hand, could help raise public awareness of the dimension of the tragedy, matters little, much less than the possibility of incriminating – like so many others times – to Islam and, in this case, in the same way to Buddhism. Against the current of this action, of its ideological prejudice, of its greater or lesser intention to convincingly approach the facts, a contextualized and critical approach to the present of the South Asian region is offered, with the focus on the actors and interests mentioned in the summary.

4) Main actors in play: brief characterization

4.1. Union of Myanmar

Due to its geographical delimitation, it is located in South and East Asia on the Indochina Peninsula. To the east it shares a border of 193 km with Bangladesh and 1,493 km with India. As its western border, with countries like China, with 2,185 km, Laos of 235 km and Thailand of 1,800 km. Finally, to the south extends a coastline of 1,930 km. bathed by the Andaman Sea.

This country in social terms is a mosaic of ethnic groups as a result of its strategic location between China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. Along with the Burmese majority (68%), Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chinese and Indians coexist, among them almost one third of their 56,320,206 inhabitants as ethnic minorities. Similarly, the majority of the country is Buddhist religion (89%) compared to another 10% among those who are Christians, Muslims and animists.

Map of Asia. Myanmar in prominence.

The increase in commercial pressure and European policy served as an environment for the rise and fall of the last Burmese dynasty, known as Konbaung, which had governed these latitudes since the mid-eighteenth century. During Century XIX Great Britain conquered Burma after three wars in the periods 1824-1826, 1852-1853 and 1855-1856, soon to incorporate it to its Empire and to administer it as if it were another province of India.

The British government had to face continuous resistance in the form of guerrillas unrecognized by it, rather than as dacoit, that is, a type of banditry to which it sought to reduce political gravitation. Meanwhile, several ethnic groups from different states and nearby kingdoms occupied the country’s current borders throughout that century. At the beginning of the 20th century, Burma was one of the richest states in Southeast Asia, with vast reserves of fossil fuels, rubies, gold, jade, tin, copper, teak wood, and a plethora of other natural resources.

Later, Burma obtained its independence from the Commonwealth in 1948. For much of the second half of the century, General Ne Win ruled from 1962 to 1988, first as a military leader and then as a self-proclaimed president. From the second half of the century onwards and mainly after more than 40 years of military dictatorships, the country was gradually relegated to being one of the poorest in the region in terms of GDP, as a result – at least in part – from its isolation, internal repression, regression in the rule of law and limited scope of formal education, in addition to economic mismanagement and permanent internal civil conflicts.

Burmese military: an elite with power in democracy

The governments of Myanmar, as mentioned, after independence were led mainly by military juntas. These govern without any counterbalance the future of this Southeast Asian country even from March 2016, when it was chaired by the first civilian since 1962, in the figure of politician, writer and academic Htin Kyaw. The president, in fact, has a limited power that divides with one of its main political advisers: the Nobel Peace Prize winner of the year 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi, public figure of international prominence.

In spite of the changes, the military dictatorships knew how to maintain themselves from the shadows at the top and did not hand over the reins of power fully. As Amnesty International’s report highlights, after one year of non-military government: “the army maintained considerable political power and continued to be subject to no civilian supervision” (Amnesty International, report 2017-18: 324).

4.2. Rohingya ethnic group

The term Rohingya is an ethnic-religious category that means Muslims whose ancestral home is Arakan (Rakhine State). The historical origins of these involve two directions, one that dates back to the early seventh century when Arab Muslim merchants settled in the former Burma to engage in trade and the other, more current, describes them as people of Bengali origin linked to Chittagong, place whose language is also related to the other side of the border, in Bangladesh (Former East Pakistan since 1971).

Those who settled several centuries ago in the current territories of Rakhine, were added those who entered the former Burma in more recent decades from the same area. Therefore, this group is of Southeast Asian descent and is distinguished from the majority of the Burmese population, whose origin is in East Asia, being also mostly Buddhist.

Rakáin is one of the seven states that constitute Myanmar and is located on the west coast of the country in an area of coastal plains and rivers, isolated from the rest by the mountain chain Arakan Roma. At the same time, it is separated from Bangladesh by the natural border of the Naaf River.

This state is one of the least developed areas of the country, located in second place in the ranking of the poorest regions of the country between 2009-2010 (Integrated Household Living Condition Survay), with an estimate of 43.5% of the population living below the poverty line, compared to 25.5% of the national total. In addition, the Burmese majority occupies the most important spheres of politics, economy and education, relegated the Rohinya to be considered a doubly minority people: by their religion and their language.

Southeast Asian map. Within Myanmar, in red, Rakine State, epicenter of violence.

Exclusion as legality

Since the independence of Burma in 1948, the Rohingya have been gradually excluded from the nation-building process, becoming the largest stateless population in the world, with emphasis since the early 1980s, when the Burmese military board directly withdrew them nationality. Therefore, they lack an identity document with which, for example, they can marry or travel without authorization.

They also lack access to the labor market and elementary public services such as schools and hospitals. This deliberate exclusion policy reached an extreme point in 1982 when the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) enacted a new citizenship law that, following the ius sanguinis principle, considered that the nationality of The parents and not the place of birth

There are three categories of citizens thereafter: full, associated and naturalized. The full citizens are those who belong to one of the 135 national races settled in Burma before 1823 – the Rohingya, are not on that list – when the British colonization of Arakan began. Associated citizenship was granted only to those whose application under the old Law of 1948 was pending on the date of entry into force of the new law.

Naturalization citizenship was granted only to those who could present “conclusive evidence” of their entry and residence in Burma before the date of their independence, on January 4, 1948, who also spoke one of the national languages well, and whose Children would have been born in their territory.

At that point, very few Rohingya met those requirements. Without “conclusive evidence” to show that their ancestors were based in Burma before independence, the State denied them recognition as Burmese citizens and determined to consider them Bengalis or, more contemptuously, with the Kalar insult, with strong racist connotations

Another aggravating factor is the fact that the country is not a signatory to the conventions of the Stateless Statute of 1954 and the Stateless Reduction of 1961. This gives him freedom to disregard the Rohingya as full citizens of Burma, thus being left unprotected, against various forms of ethnic discrimination. In turn, the Burmese government imposes certain specific policies on that community, such as the imposition of an old provision with the aim of forcing them to monogamy and not having more than two children (Diario de Pernambuco, 2013).

In 2014 supported by the UN, the Burmese Government conducted the first census of that State in thirty years and the Rohinya group was first identified as a Burmese ethnic group. But the pressure of the Buddhist nationalists and the strong anti-Muslim sentiment, in theory was what was put forward, forced President Thein Sein to cancel the citizenship identification cards, thus revoking his newly acquired right to vote, and what is worse , giving official letter to discrimination.

4.3. China: Long-term strategic interests.

The relations between the People’s Republic of China and Burma were characterized during a good part of the 20th century by a permanent evolution of their ties both politically and economically, and deepened from the joint signing in 1954 of the principles of peaceful coexistence. Respect for territorial sovereignty and integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and, equality in relations and mutual benefit, allowed a framework of action with reciprocal benefits, even through which the investments and trade could be maintained, despite Western pressures to break ties with Myanmar.

This country was considered an authoritarian regime of government, which did not guarantee in that territory the rights or fundamental freedoms of its population and, therefore, during the second half of the 20th Burma was mostly isolated from powers such as the US, Europe and even Australia , who did not allocate their investments or trade there. On the contrary, despite the military establishment that ruled the country, China never ceased to be its main partner, of which it was in fact its support

So much so that by 1989 he had become the main supplier of weapons to that State, as evidenced by Ospina’s work. He said that “arms spending reached 1.4 trillion dollars and also offered instruction to the Burmese army, so that it could deal with the insurgencies of ethnic minorities who did not accept the regime” (2012: 5)

At the beginning of 2011, with a regime worn by Western economic sanctions, elections were held where a retired general, Thein Sein, who had already held important positions in the country, as the first secretary of state for Peace and the Development Council in 1996.

With the consummate democratic opening, there was growing interest on the part of the countries that had so far been with their backs to Myanmar, in increasing their commercial, investment and tourism relations in the area. In this context, China reinforces the commitment and deepens its historical ties with the new democratic authorities that, through the appointed magistrate, give new impetus to bilateral relations, and even have the approval of the Burmese leader Nobel Peace leader, Aung San Suu Ky.

This woman, who had been praised internationally for her efforts to restore democracy in her country and, who was believed to be a natural ally of Western interests who praised her so much: supports the strategic agreement with China. Contrary to hegemonic interests, this nation is considered as the best alternative for essential investments and imports, mainly as a safeguard against possible future international economic sanctions.

5) Violence in strategic and economic key?

The strengthening of bilateral relations and what constitutes a true state policy sustained for more than 50 years between China and Myanmar is due in greater measure to the Chinese strategic objectives. Beyond the different ruling elites and their authoritarian or democratic regimes, the country is an important enclave for Mandarin interests.

On the one hand, it constitutes a direct door to the Indian Ocean, the African continent and South Asia, which also avoids the long and expensive journey to reach the same cardinal points through the Strait of Malacca, considered one of the most bottlenecks important in the world and where much of the global trade travels. On the other hand, the advantage of the neighboring territory of the Asian giant is that it has large reserves of natural gas and oil, of great interest to the largest consumer of energy on the planet.

Direct investments and different financing responded to this importance throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. To which we must add those from the West from the recovery of democracy in ancient Burma, which have led to outstanding economic growth. As evidenced by the newspaper El País in November 2014, “after years of stagnation, Myanmar is reborn from its ashes. The main cities of the country vibrate thanks to an unprecedented economic growth driven by foreign investment and the increase in tourism ”.

Likewise, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for 2014, quoted by the same portal: “The economy has grown more than 7% in the last two years and is expected to continue at the same rate or even more if the calendar of reforms is applied quickly and correctly ”. (The Country, 07-11-2014)

This chart of expansion of the economy and business climate, with both real and potential benefits unprecedented, mainly for local elites, was preceded by an unavoidable factor in the legislation of the country that contributed to it: the new enacted land legislation 2012, which inaugurates strong real estate speculation and subsequent pressure on the land for those who live there.

The authors Suarez and Cabot, in this regard, establish a direct relationship between the violence described and the new legislation. For these “it does not seem coincidental that the conflict with the Rohingya minority has been exacerbated after the enactment, precisely in 2012, of laws on Cropland and Vacant Land Management, in Fallow or Virgins that, in practice, have favored speculation and great business interests ”(2017: 8)

It is logical to infer, along the lines of those mentioned, that the temporary “coincidence” (2012) between said promulgation and the first wave of strong violence in that decade against the Muslim minority, is not such and, in fact, we are facing a possible cause and effect, of economic and speculative interests that motorize the clearance of land of its inhabitants in various areas, with epicenter in Rakine, the state where, legally, its Rohinya inhabitants, are not even considered citizens.

Faced with this scenario, embodying local real estate interests, it would not be far-fetched to find Myanmar’s military estate. His historical grabbing of power and influence constitutes him as an actor of fundamental importance to, at least, suspect that he may be behind such interests. In fact, according to the aforementioned authors, this estate “currently controls important economic interests through its own companies and is ready to negotiate with anyone who can finance the acquisition of land ownership for activities in the agri-food sector or the public works” (Suarez-Cabot, 2017: 7).

For its part, the strategic interests of the People’s Republic of China coincide in the region, providing there a considerable share of pressure on the domains, with large public works on the Rakine coast.

The 2017 agreement, where China invested more than $ 7 billion in improving the port of Kyauk Pyu, in Rakhine state and the Burmese government agreed to allow China to control through 70 percent of the new port facilities, the improved port (…) that would be the entrance for a gas pipeline and a pipeline for crude oil that was brought from the Middle East would be stored and then sent to China. ”(Suarez, V. Cabot, 2017: 8).

This megaproject, in turn, coincides with the year of the second great wave of violence against the Rohingya in the last decade. Nor does it seem coincidental. It is difficult for the author of this work to understand the ethnic cleansing referred to by the South Asian people, without relating it to these two central elements. On the one hand, the interests of geopolitical and strategic character that China manifests in the area and, on the other, the economic of Burmese military and political elites.

Communalism, the secular use of religion

The concept of communalism is usual to describe and characterize acts of violence in religious clothing, for political, secular purposes, which take place in the Southeast Asian region, particularly in India. The government that crystallized in 1996 in that country with the electoral victory of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, as described by Borreguero E. in countless works, has taken political revenue stimulating conflicts in a spiritual key, between Hindus and Muslims, when what really was At stake in its objectives were economic and electoral interests, its consolidation as a political project.

As evidenced by Arduino E.’s work on contemporary India, “religious instrumentalism was exposed as an identity manipulation resource for the achievement of symbolic and – or material benefits from power” (Arduino E., 2014: 12)

In the case at hand in this work, we believe that, in order to advance in their objectives of conquering territories for real estate and speculative purposes, the Burmese military elites have been able to use the same resource as the Indian BJP party, communalism – understood as the misuse of religion for political purposes-, taking advantage of a common creed to the vast majority of Burmese, Buddhism, and transforming it into an Islamophobic tool. On the one hand, to direct military and paramilitary operations aimed at the forced expulsion of the undesirable population, without legal documents, from their territory and, on the other, that it benefits the mentioned objectives of the ruling elite.

While it is true that there are historical elements and arguments that can support that in Southeast Asia, there is a history of violence between people of Islamic faith and others of Buddhist creed, mainly when Burma conquered its independence in the 40s and part of the elite Muslim left the country, falling the weight of racism on the backs of the poorest and blackest Muslim population, going on to see Muslims in general as second-class citizens with a ban even from their religious practices (Euronews in Guedes, 2013), In any way, we could say that the violent practices of the present and their deepening are mere continuities of them.

The “coincidences” between the year of the new land legislation in Myanmar with the first wave of expulsion and death of Rohingya, on the one hand, and the other, of the Chinese mega investments in the port of Rakine, with the second wave and ethnic cleansing, sow serious doubts that it is in the presence of continuities of historical conflicts. The number of fatalities and forced displacements of the last decade, on an unprecedented scale, forces us to broaden our eyes, to add other factors and elements to the analysis, if what is sought is to shed light on the Rohingya drama, which favor a diagnosis more precise, which allows, in turn, the international community to take action on the matter. In one way or another, it is what has been partially and limitedly tried to do in this work.

6) Final considerations

When the motives and the development of current ethnic conflicts are approached more closely, be they circumscribed to Asia or Africa, the forms they take and the means through which they are organized and executed, the recent economic appearance invariably appears. and political rivalries, to a greater extent than the alleged ancient and traditional hostilities (Lowe, SF: 3), with which the oligopolistic media describe and analyze their matters.

This superficial and questionable approach not only hinders a more thorough understanding of serious events, but also omits other significant variables, such as local and strategic economic interests that are framed in the area in question, which in particular have regional powers such as China. The omission of these interests in the analysis of the conflict, in the opinion of this work, hides a political intent that seeks, therefore, to maintain the stigma on the non-Western peoples, showing them whenever possible, “primitive”, as, shield the maximum possible, everything that is within your reach, the favorable climate of good business in the “democratic” today of Myanmar.

Denial of citizenship as the main mechanism of exclusion, authoritarian treatment of this group increasingly subject to arbitrary prisons, extortion, forced labor, land confiscation, torture, mass murder, in short, all crimes against humanity implemented by actions and / or omissions of the Myanmar authorities, and encouraged by communalism, as described and witnessed by the different reports of UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty International, evidence this work, sufficient grounds to affirm that what is in progress is nothing more than an ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people.

The non-holy ends of this tragedy of great proportions are intended to be invisible along with the victims of it, with religious clothing that says more of the media edition guided by classical orientalism, than of the conflict. From this small work, however, we sought to demonstrate, analyze and denounce the real interests involved. An important step without which, finding a solution principle and establishing a justice framework within international humanitarian law, would be an endless, tortuous and uncertain path as the immediate future of the persecuted people.


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