Behind the political crisis and the fate of the Rohingyas, there are deeply entrenched ethnic markers and a well-established social hierarchy. The author examines these aspects at the crossroads of current events – the recent coup – and the enduring wandering of migrants in Bangladesh.
Violence and protests have escalated across Myanmar since its military – the Tatmadaw – seized control of the country in a coup on 1 February 2021. In this article I examine how some young Rohingya residents in YangonThis article relies on several structured and semi-structured interviews with twelve Rohingya individuals aged 20-30 living in Yangon carried out between February and August 2021. are responding to the military coup and the ways their experiences on discrimination intertwine with the aspirations of the Myanmar’s shadow opposition government, or National Unity Government (NUG). I argue that, although young Rohingya residents in Yangon massively support the shadow opposition government, the political chauvinism, the reproduction of the old structures and the lack of transparency in the decision-making of the government in exile prevent their full participation and adherence to the opposition movement. From this perspective, this article discusses the incorrect naturalisation of ethnic/racial privilege while observing the NUG – especially, the alleged place that the Bamar people reserves for themselves in the social and political hierarchy of the country. It is calling for the necessity of interrogating the power structures, the ethnic/racial codification of the structures themselves and the role that political and social elites play in them.
From the old leadership to Generation Z
On 1 February 2021, the president of Myanmar, Win Myint, the State Counsellor and beloved leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, and several other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party were detained by army forces. In response to an alleged election fraud, the military declared a state of emergency for a year – now extended until August 2023 – and handed power to chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Min Aung Hlaing. Since then, Myanmar has been in a state of violence and protest. As of late September, more than 1,000 people had been killed and at least 6,700 others arrested, charged or sentencedThe Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, “Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup”, AAPPB, 24 September 2021, https://aappb.org/?p=13671. Nevertheless, the current conflict is in line with the military’s atrocious disregard for human life and led by a government that has terrorised the population for decades, despite the hype of Myanmar’s transition towards democracy in recent years.
In opposition to the military junta, the self-declared parallel government, the NUG, has emerged as the major political alternative. The NUG consists mainly of ousted lawmakers from the NLD who were elected in Myanmar’s 2020 general election but unable to take their seats due to the military coup. The NUG has even “formed” its own armed wing, the People’s Defence Force, and in early September declared a “defensive war”. Although the old classic leadership, frequently coded as ethnically Bamar – the main ethnic group of Myanmar, which supposedlyThe Government of Myanmar continues to withhold the findings on ethnic data of the 2014 census because of the controversy surrounding them. makes up two-thirds of the population –, holds the main political roles in the self-declared opposition government, the NUG includes people from the ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). Along with the NUG, the ethnic political organisations continue to lead the fight against the junta in most of the border regions.
Furthermore, there is a growing movement led by Generation Z individuals that has been particularly active online. Some members of this young opposition group, who are mostly urban and cosmopolitan, call for a profound overhaul of the institutions as well as eradicating the racial and political privileges that sustain the country. There has been a growing debate, especially in social media, about the privilege that certain ethnic groups have, particularly the Bamar people.
But where do the Rohingya people fit in these narratives? In the early days of the anti-coup protests, the images of several Rohingya protesting “freely” in the streets of Yangon against the military forces (and even using the name Rohingya on their banners!) surprised observers of Myanmar. Every single one of the interviewees for this article took to the street as well for the first time in their life. As one of them expresses:
“Before the first of February it was simply too dangerous for the Rohingyas to get involved in any demonstration in Yangon, not only because of a potentially life-threatening reaction of the military forces against them, but because of the expected equally violent response of the general public as well.”
As a matter of fact, the Rohingya people has been subjected in recent decades to “a vicious system of institutionalised discrimination and segregation that severely restricts their human rights”Amnesty International, “Caged without a Roof. Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Novembre 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/11/myanmar-apartheid-in-rakhine-state. Since 1962, the Tatmadaw has carried out different military campaigns to expel the Rohingya community to “Bangladesh as part of what is called the ‘western wall’ project”Michal W. Charney, “Misunderstandings of ethnic identities in Rakhine as fixed and biological are leading to policy errors by the Government of Myanmar and NGOs on the ground in Rakhine”, … Continue reading. In the most recent clearance operation by the Myanmar army in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya escaped to BangladeshUnited Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “Rohingya Refugee Crisis”, 2019, https://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis. In this regard, several reasons have been given to explain this racial discrimination: rapid changes in the economic, social and political spheres; a recurrent sense of threat to race and religion in the Bamar people; a programme of xenophobic socialism during Ne Win’s military dictatorship (1962-1988), or the use of anti-Muslim sentiments as a social scapegoatSee, among others: Min Zin, “Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma: Why Now?”, Social Research: An International Quaterly, Johns Hopkins University Press, vol.82, no.2, Summer 2015, … Continue reading.
“Since 1962, the Tatmadaw has carried out different military campaigns to expel the Rohingya community to Bangladesh.”
After an upsurge in the violence against protesters in the months of March and April, most of the Rohingya decided to leave the streets of Yangon and continue their fight against the junta in the social arena of the internet. One participant recalls how, in these early weeks of the anti-coup movement, several young Rohingya even considered the idea of forming an anti-junta Rohingya student association, with people from Yangon, Rakhine State and other parts of the country… but in the end the number of supporters was too limited and their enthusiasm began to wane. The label “Rohingya” was too risky: the (official) Government of Myanmar has for years refused to use the term Rohingya – including Aung San Suu Kyi and every other NLD official –, labelling them “Bengalis” and arguing that they are illegal immigrants and not full-fledged indigenous members of the country as established by the Citizenship Law of 1982.
This law distinguished three categories of citizens – full, associate and naturalised – and only the ethnic groups that were in Burma prior to British rule in 1823 are considered native. In 1990, members of the military government began to circulate the notion of 135 official national ethnicities, clustered in eight main groups. Since then, ethnic ancestry and jus sanguinis are the main criteria of citizenship. Nevertheless, it is also important to highlight that individuals have the right to be recognised as citizens if they are the third-generation offspring of an associate and/or naturalised citizen or both their parents hold a category of citizenship. Thus, considering these two cases, many Rohingya have the right to be recognised as full citizens by ancestry, although they cannot be considered full citizens by ethnic membership, and so are labelled by the racist term “Bengali”. As a matter of factNick Cheesman, “How in Myanmar ‘National Races’ Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya”, Journal of Contemporary Asia , vol.47, no.3, 2017, p.473., while the Citizenship Law of 1982 accepts that a citizen is anyone who belongs to one of the national races or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823 (in section 3), it also asserts (in section 6) the non-retroactive nature of the law meaning that if an individual was already a citizen when the law came into effect, he or she continued to be a citizen. And since the Union Citizenship Law of 1948 (Section 4.2) also determined that any third-generation resident in Myanmar was a full citizen, when the Citizenship Act of 1982 was approved. Thousands of Rohingya were de facto citizens and received national registration cards, or green cards. After a new military leadership came to power in 1988, the Myanmar government required all those carrying a green card to exchange it for a pink card, which would still recognise the holders as full citizens. However, thousands of Rohingya received temporary registration cards, or white cards, in exchange instead. Currently, these white cards are not considered proof of citizenship by the Myanmar government.
Rohingya people have been subjected to a situation similar to that of apartheid in the Western region of Rakhine and deprived of their right to full citizenship as individuals. Nevertheless, in urban spaces like Yangon, the largest city in the country, many of them can apply (on paper) for full citizenship by renouncing their ethnicity and registering instead by the label “Bengali”, particularly those lucky enough to have the financial means, since the process is extremely corrupt. For example, every informant admits to having paid between 500,000 and 3.7 million Myanmar KyatBetween 237 and 1,600 euros. Some informants even claim to know people who have paid triple the higher figure. to obtain their pink IDs, despite being in possession of other proofs of legal citizenship. In many cases, the application process took almost three years, rather than the usual few days or weeks. In fact, Rohingya elders in Yangon usually complain that members of the community continue to participate in this corrupted process in order to be recognised as full citizens, although, paradoxically, that community leaders have obtained the documents in a similar manner and understand the lack of alternatives.
On the road to change?
Nevertheless, times seem to be changing, at least on the opposition side. Since its formation, the NUG has made a progressive approach towards the recognition of the Rohingya as full members of the country. The NUG has promised to repeal Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, while condemning the military’s “atrocity crimes” against the Rohingya. However, there is still a lack of recognition of the role of the NLD in the violence, especially of the current members of the NUG leadership. This is the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, who even travelled to the Hague in 2019 to defend the military against charges of genocide, and Win Myat Aye, former Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, who directly supervised the demolition of Rohingya villages, to destroy evidence of the widespread killings during the military campaign of 2017Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Burma: Scores of Rohingya Villages Bulldozed”, 23 February 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/23/burma-scores-rohingya-villages-bulldozed. He is currently the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management for the NUG.
In this regard, despite their positive assessment of the NUG as a political alternative, many Rohingya informants deplore how the opposition government is repeating past problems, e.g., no Muslim politician has been included in the NUG’s leadership. Indeed, most of the informants are very sceptical about the real interests of the NUG, since they consider that the new status quo (recognising the Rohingya) is simply a whitewashing of the old policies. As one informant says: “We are being used as a political tool by the NUG to gain international legitimation”. Likewise, since the NUG’s formation, lack of transparency and secrecy shroud its division of powers, governance, decision-making and finances. “There is a toxic pressure, especially in social networks, to unconditionally donate money to the movement”, another Rohingya informant complains. As a matter fact, the fanaticism of the (many) hard core supporters of the shadow government prevents any type of external scrutiny of the NUG’s internal structure, particularly from independent media. This is highly reminiscent of the NLD’s way of proceeding.
“Rohingya people have been subjected to a situation similar to that of apartheid in the Western region of Rakhine.”
Despite the inclusion of new ethnic faces, the NUG continues to be an organisation that carries on the ethnic and racial privileges of the past. Indeed, Rohingya informants claim that “the Bamars control the leadership of the NUG” and criticise that ethnic dominance has created an exclusivist sense of belonging between the (Bamar) population and the opposition government. In the words of a Rohingya informant, the Bamars “are more active” in this revolution (contrary to other past and present ethnic conflicts) because “it is like they are fighting for their own freedom, which they just lost on the first of February”. This focuses on the experiences of some young Rohingya residents of Yangon, especially those who have managed to be recognised as full citizens – by publicly renouncing their ethnicity – and whose experiences indeed differ greatly from Rohingya individuals residing in other parts of the country, and Rakhine in particular. The issue here is the necessity to question and overcome liberals’ ideas, such as those of the NUG, that put the emphasis only on rejecting racial privilege and other racial hindrances to solve racism without questioning the material-ideological dimension that have subjugated individuals for decades, the Bamar too.
Of course, the stories, experiences, narratives and other personal data of the informants demonstrate that ethnicity regulates disparities in the access to resources and privileges, not only because it creates boundaries of belonging between recognised and unrecognised citizens (being part of one of the 135 national races or not), but also because the simple act of moving (or being moved) from the wrong (non-recognised) to the right ethnicity, or vice versa, concedes and denies basic rights such as housing, free movement, education or employment. The life of a Rohingya individual certainly undergoes a profound change if they become a full citizen by officially renouncing their Rohingya-ness and incorporating new ethnicities into their public identity. However, it would be a fallacy to suggest that this individual will not suffer any kind of discrimination thereafter, since bigotry is produced (and reproduced) in structures of power that are not limited to a racial dimension alone.
That is why the naturalisation of racial privilege – the simple act of considering the NUG a Bamar-led organisation of privileged Bamars – exclusively from an ethnic membership point of view is also troublesome, since it prevents us going beyond ethnicity and race when assessing and interrogating the political chauvinism of the institutions. In this regard, Campbell and Prasse-FreemanStephen Campbell and Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Revisiting the Wages of Burman-Ness: Contradictions of Privilege in Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2021. have particularly engaged with the contradictions of Burman-ness/Bamar-ness in Myanmar “as a sign not simply of ethnic/racial privilege, but of class privilege as well”, in comparison with other recent class-blinded analysisMatthew J. Walton, “The Wages of Burman-ness: Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol.43, no.1, 2013, p.1-27. of Bamar privilege. Indeed, in line with Campbell and Prasse-Freeman’s argument, from which much of this section draws, I consider that the naturalisation of ethnic privilege while assessing the NUG, the anti-junta opposition or the general public is especially problematic. Since, if this assumption is true, two-thirds of the population of Myanmar, at least those who self-identify as Bamar – from the poor rural worker to the members of the military leadership – could be easily considered privileged, without reflecting on the different structures of power that persist in the spaces they habit.
“The NUG continues to be an organisation that carries on the ethnic and racial privileges of the past.”
By naturalising the idea of ethnic domination, observers not only neglect questioning how privilege has symbolically been codified as Bamar in the transition to a liberal capitalist order, but how elites (both in the NUG and the military) have also been codified as members of this ethnic group – without questioning whether they really are or not. The naturalisation of ethnic domination also omits how Bamar-ness functions as an ideal of modernityGeoffrey Aung, “Reworking Bandung Internationalism: Decolonization and Postcolonial Futurism in Burma/Myanmar”, Critical Asian Studies, vol.51, n°2, 2019, p.198-209. and class, even for the members of the same Bamar ethnic group. Finally, the naturalisation of ethnic domination also disregards the ease by which individuals move between identities. In this sense, paradoxically, most of the informants consider that individuals can easily assimilate into Bamar-ness as a way of avoiding discrimination – adopting changes in attire, language and culture (food habits, for example) the capital elements of this ethnic adjustment. Thus, how is it possible to speak of Bamar privilege if the incorporation of this identity into the ethos of the individual, at least in public urban spaces, can be achieved by changing attire or accent? Indeed, the idea of Bamar-ness from the point of view of identity is much less rigid than what has been expressed by most scholars, who prefer to ignore that “this openness also derives from its formation as a class-inflected hegemonic category”Stephen Campbell and Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Revisiting the Wages…”, art. cit., p.12..
A new twist to Myanmar’s political and social reality occurred on 1 February. This article has not tried to analyse every existing dynamic that has affected the post-coup reality, which would certainly have been a bold attempt. On the contrary, it has preferred to focus on the views of (some) Rohingyas belonging to a particular geographic and demographic context on only two specific realities – political chauvinism and the naturalisation of racial privilege – that have characterised the power structures in recent decades, both in the military and civil government, and continue to leave their mark in the aftermath of the coup. Without proper scrutiny of them by the shadow opposition government, real change will not happen.
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