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    The challenged identities of stateless Rohingya [Thesis]

    Source: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images AsiaPac

    By Olivera Hinić


    While the international community applauds democratization of the country, and as the US and the EU lift sanctions, Myanmar remains one of the top refugee-producing countries, accused by a number of INGOs for silently witnessing a ‘slow genocide’ of the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya.

    Myanmar’s long history counts 124 years of British colonial rule, followed by 12 years of independence that was interrupted by a military coup in 1962. The coup consequently resulted in 49 years of military rule.

    In 1989 the military regime changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. Many countries around the world, as well as the democracy movement inside Myanmar prefer the denomination Burma, since they do not recognize the legitimacy of the unelected military regime. The United Nations accepted the name Myanmar, relying on the principle that every member country can name itself as it wishes.

    In this thesis, I will use both names for the country, respective of their chronological applications. If the event took place before 1989, I will call the country Burma. If it was after, I will use the adopted name, Myanmar. However, I will keep the denomination “Burmese” for the country’s people.

    There is a certain pattern among post-colonial countries where nation-building and the rise of nationalism often turn into identity-based conflicts. Rohingya Muslims are not included in Myanmar’s list of 135 official minorities, which is one of the reasons the international media and human rights organizations recognizes them as the world’s most persecuted minority. However, the case of the Rohingya is more complex, as they are not only discriminated based on ethnicity and religion. Ever since the publication of the 1982 Citizenship Act, which deprived them of the right to citizenship, they have been denied their basic human, political, economic, and social rights. Stripped of their nationality, they inevitably lost the right to have any rights at all.

    What started as a political conflict, during the years of the military rule, eventually turned into a social conflict that was manipulated by the regime. This resulted in a nation-wide hatred towards the Rohingya. It is more than just a coincidence that the most attractive areas, rich with minerals, gas and oil are in the same time the ethnic areas, in conflict with authorities throughout the country. In this context, one might assume that only the government would benefit from a conflict between ethnic groups, and the evidence of that same government fueling the violence only goes on to prove this.

    In retrospect, it is apparent that the only thing that many Burmese and the military junta agreed upon is their mutual animosity towards the Rohingya.

    Both Burma’s current Constitution and the Citizenship Act of 1982 secure indigenous status to everyone that was permanently residing in Arakan or in the Union of Burma before 1825. Even though most Rohingya can trace their ancestry at least back to colonial times, many lack the formal documents to prove it due to several exoduses over the years of unstable governance. This gave their government a big enough reason to revoke their citizenship and label them as Bengalis, a derogatory term that defines and treats them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

    Recognized as stateless by their own government, the Rohingya people of Arakan are now scattered around the world. What is left of the Rohingya in Myanmar – an estimated 1.1 million – is concentrated in Rakhine State in the northwest part of country, on the border of Bangladesh. Although Myanmar has no official state religion, Rohingya Muslims have been severely discriminated against in Rakhine, as well as in the rest of the country. The government in inclined towards Theravada Buddhism, the religion of the Bamar people who are the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar, and the majority of the population. The Rakhine people, though culturally distinct from the Bamar, are ethnically related to them and speak a dialect of Burmese.

    This thesis is focused on the empowerment of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the alternative and unorthodox ways of education in the community that has been affected by violence and restrictions of movement, and is currently in exile.

    Since the 1990s, education has become one of the top priorities in the humanitarian sector. Even though there are several international treaties that legally assure the right to education for all, some groups happen to be excluded. Given that the refugees living in the camps unregistered by an INGO do not have secure access to relief aid, one might assume that that there are no educational systems inside these camps.

    After the field research, I concluded in Bangladesh and Malaysia I have drawn the conclusion that education is as a matter of fact one of the highest priorities, both among the registered and the unregistered Rohingya refugees, who live in camps as well as in developed cities and countries.

    Upon closer examination, the division of the community is not only physical and geographical, but there is a huge social gap and mistrust created by feelings of fear of abandonment by one’s own government, sectarian violence and the practically innate fear of any authority figure. The question of mistrust and community fragmentation due to psychological trauma is extremely important, and it is something completely overlooked by traditional media. This kind of mistrust is like a virus that affects even the most noble and genuine, and this time it has led to a general disunity of the Rohingya people. This is not to say that there is a certainty that unity would lead to some kind of a solution. However, I was able to observe how numerous leaderships inside a single community were able to achieve very little, at least for their community as a whole. One the other hand, one idea is shared amongst many. All members of the community see education as the highest value, and I would argue that with the progression and development of educational systems, much could be done in terms of conflict prevention.

    The first part of this thesis attempts to analyze the complex history of what was once Arakan, which is now divided between Rakhine state and Southern Bangladesh, in relation to Rohingya origins. I will also focus on the root of the yearlong animosity that eventually escalated into violence, and how it resulted in making the Rohingya stateless in their country of birth and becoming refugees around the world.

    The second part of this thesis aims to understands life in exile, explaining in two chapters the different struggles faced in different countries.

    The part three uses the framework introduced in the previous chapters to try and deal with the question of trauma and the importance of community in a trauma-prone environment. I will introduce some strong an irrepressible characters that I personally viewed as community heroes because of their enormous efforts and tireless work that is primarily focused on educating the children through a system of self-organized and self-constructed schools. Throughout this chapter, there is an emphasis on the importance of education for those with challenged identities, documented through the eyes of the interviewees, including children, adolescents, mothers and teachers.


    A thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the Master degree of Citizenship and Human Rights: Ethnics and Politics at University of Barcelona by Olivera Hinić under Supervision of José Antonio Estévez Araujo.

    read the full thesis below:

    [gview file=”ć-Thesis.pdf”]