Opinion

Puppeteers in Combat Garb: Taingyintha and the Politicisation of Ethnicity in Myanmar

The Rohingya Refugees carry with them a painful history of oppression from ethnic cleansing, and continue to be a persecuted minority. How do the Burmese government and the Tatmadaw sustain and push the representation of the Rohingyas being ‘illegal immigrants’?

by Marine Hermes
Published by The Graduate Press in French, 18 June 2020

The recent tumult of COVID-19 sweeping through the world has served as useful cover to the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, to substantially escalate their attacks against the Rohingya in their unremitting quest for “national unity”. Almost daily shelling and airstrikes have been heard across the Rakhine (Arakan) State, killing at least 32 civilians since late March 2020, majority being women and children. The logic appears to be that the pandemic would make insurgent groups less organised and more susceptible to attacks. Fortunately for the Tatmadaw, this coincides with the distraction of the international community, who, just a few months ago condemned the human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw at the General Assembly, and ruled at the ICJ that Myanmar should take immediate measures to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya. The situation, as Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, aptly summarised, is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

According to some ethnic-Rohingya scholars, since 1948 they have been subject to at least twenty major eviction operations. The most recent campaign began in 2016 when a few hundred men from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) armed with slingshots, knives, and around 30 firearms launched simultaneous attacks on Border Guard Police bases in northern Rakhine State. The army retaliated with armed helicopters and machine guns, razing villages to the ground, systematically raping women and girls, and indiscriminately killing civilians. This resulted in an estimated 745,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh; by some estimates 70% of Rohingya living in Rakhine State have fled since 2016. 

The key narrative behind the ethnic cleansing campaign is that the Rohingya are foreigners, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who settled in Rakhine during the colonial era as a result of British policies facilitating Indian immigration for labour purposes. They claim the term Rohingya is invented, part of a deceitful political project to gain Burmese citizenship, instead calling them kala (a stigmatising Burmese term for South Asian) or Bengali, although no evidence has been produced of any illegal immigration from Bangladesh by the Burmese government. From this perspective, these ‘Bengalis’ are attempting to rewrite history and situate themselves in pre-colonial Arakan in an attempt to gain citizenship, as Rakhine State is portrayed as somehow miraculously better than Bangladesh. Yet this overlooks the fact that Rakhine State has far fewer economic opportunities than Bangladesh for Rohingya and that the decades-long travel restrictions imposed on them has severely limited their access to healthcare and education. Indeed, Bangladesh offers much safer and better standards of living for Muslims than Rakhine State does.

Clearly, ethnicity is central to Burmese politics. Ne Win, Burma’s military dictator from 1962 to 1988, established the term taingyintha in 1964 (Burmese ‘national race’ – literally ‘sons of the soil’ in Burmese), referring to ethnic groups that had resided within current boundaries of Burma before 1823, guaranteeing full Burmese citizenship. In 1983, the Tatmadaw produced a list of 135 taingyintha ethnic groups. Interestingly, the list was not compiled by anyone with any competencies in anthropology

If your ethnicity is not on the list of taingyintha, you must prove your ancestors resided in Burma before 1948 to obtain another, lesser, form of citizenship. This is impossible for many Rohingya. Much of their documentation was confiscated by authorities in promise of new identity cards, or has disappeared in smoke alongwith their homes in the successive pogroms since 1948. 

The conflict arises from the fact that Myanmar’s government maintains that the Rohingya are not taingyintha. On the other hand, the Rohingya claim they are an ethnic group that has resided in Arakan for millennia, with mixed ancestry from Arab traders, Mughals, and Bengali Muslim slaves settling in Arakan between the 6th and 17th century, all of whom assimilated with the indigenous population and more recent immigrants, developing into a single ethnic identity with a distinct language and culture.

One of the multiple ironies of this nation-building project is that the Tatmadaw places much importance on Burman pre-colonial legacies and shedding the humiliations of colonialism. Yet what could be more quintessentially colonial than a list of ethnic groups? British divide-and-rule policies similarly prided themselves on categorising populations. They identified those perceived as most compliant, then incorporated them into state administration and military forces, ossifying ethnic identities and alienating those excluded from state structures. Despite their blatant rejection of colonialism, the Tatmadaw is simply replicating the same colonialist structures of oppressions.

This representation of Rohingya as illegal immigrants is widespread in Burmese society, promoted by the Tatmadaw, civilian governments, state and non-state media, and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups. It is widely believed by the majority of Burmese, even by many democracy advocates. Some of this may be attributed to a Tatmadaw-run five-year Facebook operation which employed 700 personnel. Their job? Creating and operating innocent-looking pages, dedicated to Burmese celebrities for example. When they amassed throngs of followers, these pages began circulating incendiary photos, fake news, and provocative posts about Rohingyas and Muslims, such as fake images of corpses as proof of Rohingya-perpetrated pogroms, bolstered by more fake accounts. The importance of fake news in incidents of communal violence in Myanmar is undeniable; numerous episodes of violence were sparked by Facebook rumours of crimes by Muslims against Buddhist women, often found to be fabricated after-the-fact. 

So why is the Tatmadaw devoting considerable resources to convince the Burmese population that the Rohingya do not belong in Myanmar? Part of the answer lies in the Tatmadaw’s institutional development. As it emerged through post-independence turmoil it legitimised its control by establishing itself as a protector against identified threats to Myanmar’s unity and sovereignty. The Tatmadaw is compulsively concerned with these perceived threats, and this has translated into its political, economic, and social policies which allow it to continue reproducing and legitimising its rule. 

Another part of the answer lies in that claiming the Rohingya are an existential threat to Buddhism and the Burmese way of being distracts the Rakhine from the underdevelopment of Rakhine State and the neglect and oppression they have suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw for decades. The Rakhine feel as though their grievances are being addressed and their lives will improve by expelling the Rohingya, but the Tatmadaw is merely redirecting the anger that should be directed at the state towards another group, the Rohingya. By doing so they are also able to divide the individually-powerless populations living in Rakhine State and prevent them from collaborating against a larger opponent, the Tatmadaw, eerily reminiscent of British divide-and-rule policies. 

Ultimately, the establishment of in- and out-groups on dubious assumptions about ethnicity is both part of and distracts from the wider project; the construction of a Bamar-Buddhist state where citizens are categorised by ethnicity and compartmentalised into those assumed to be loyal or disloyal to the Tatmadaw. Whether the Rohingya settled in Arakan for millennia, centuries, or decades does not justify any of the heinous treatment directed against them, and is simply not relevant in justifying the Tatmadaw’s actions. Rohingya, like all individuals and ethnic groups in Myanmar and elsewhere, deserve basic human rights, and the international community should not be fooled into tolerating the Tatmadaw’s disrespect of these rights, least of all during a global pandemic.

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