A Love Of Sovereignty: Borders, Bureaucracy And The Rohingya Crisis – Analysis


The disenfranchisement of the Rohingya from Myanmar’s recent historic November elections is but the latest event in a long series of tragedies in Rakhine state. Yet the central government finds itself in a position where after a long history of purposeful neglect, the politics of Rakhine state have boiled to the surface of both national level politics, and relations between the international community and the state. The Rohingya issue, and the fact that the states unwanted population now faces a bleak future, confined to camps similar to ‘open air prisons’, and which have compelled thousands to take perilous boat trips to Malaysia and beyond, has become an embarrassment for the government in the context of western donors who have been in a euphoria over Myanmar’s nominally democratic transition.

Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state has now been ‘cleansed’ of Muslims – or more specifically the Rohingya. Before the 2012 violence there were approximately 20,000 Rohingya living around Sittwe, now nearly all traces of Rohingya have been erased – save for some burnt out Mosques and the 4000 strong hidden away ghetto of Aung Mingalar (which people are unable to freely leave, and have to go under police guard just to travel to the market). The domineering Rakhine cultural Museum also erases all traces of the Rohingya from Arakan history. Across the state Rohingya are confined to villages, displacement camps and ghettos with extremely limited access to healthcare and no access to formal government schooling. It is now dangerous just to say the ‘R word’ (as local development workers term it) when in downtown Sittwe. Especially after the anti UN and NGO pogroms of last year where Rakhine led riots resulted in over 20 INGO and UN properties being ransacked, saying the word ‘Rohingya’ could quite literally incite a violent response. As one small anecdote of the situation, in Sittwe, in a tea shop one night, a Rakhine man proudly wearing a jacket with Nazi insignia on it aggressively asked me – ‘so what are you writing there on your computer, maybe about the ‘Rohingya’ huh?

What is now happening in Rakhine state is not ‘communal violence’ or ‘religious tension’ – it is an experiment with apartheid which has come in the wake of a 60 year old problem on the part of the state – how to govern a population that the state emphatically denies is a legitimate part of the political community. Localised eruptions of violence instigated by Rakhine groups against Rohingya are now so intertwined with citizenship issues, and operate at a scale far above the village level (where state authorities are implicated), that it is no longer feasible to analytically distinguish between localised events of ‘communal violence’, and the state’s broader treatment of the Rohingya. The grievances of prominent Rakhine civil society groups (many of which are implicated in recent violence) are now largely aligned with those of the state – as Rakhine civil society groups have been at pains to point out, for them the issue is about citizenship, not religion.

In a remarkably fascist like movement (in the Deluzian sense) (i) specific historical grievances over land, armed struggle, under-development and representation have now been abstracted into questions of citizenship, borders and a fear of the Other, and risk spreading like a cancer across Buddhist communities. To some degree it is now Muslims and the Rohingya that have displaced the Bamar dominated military state as the all-pervasive threat to the cohesion of community(ii) and ironically it is now the state which is called upon to formally exclude the Rohingya from community . In Rakhine, the corruptibility of the state is even measured on its ability to carry out this task while much more salient issues such as resource extraction revenue sharing have taken a backseat.

Far-right Rakhine and Buddhist groups will predictably remain intractable on the Rohingya issue and push their prejudices to further extremes and absurdities. The National League for Democracy’s recent ineptness on the Rohingya issue and the new dominance of the Arakan National Party are also reason for concern. But this should not distract from the fact that ‘communal violence’ or even the new electoral politics are only blips on a much longer history of state led persecution. The state has tried denial, violent and forceful military actions to push the Rohingya to Bangladesh, it has erected model villages to try and diminish the demographic dominance of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, it has even dabbled in eugenics(iii), and now it has settled on apartheid. As political philosopher Roberto Esposito (2004) has pointed out, it is the posturing of a group of people as a threat to the coherency of community – whose mere biological existence is rendered a problem that needs to be managed by the state, that represents the most potentially dangerous of situations and that will ultimately lead to horrific cruelty and suffering.

A love of Sovereignty, a love of Borders

As hordes of experts and analysts fumble through the politics of the Rohingya crisis misrepresenting it as a communal or religious problem, the state and its sponsors conjure up ever more systematic and violent techniques to establish sovereignty over Myanmar’s problematized Rohingya. The Australian government has provided over AUS$5 million to Myanmar to help ‘strengthen border control’ with the aim of tackling ‘illegal cross border movement’. Myanmar government officials have made it clear that for the state it is the Rohingya who constitute the largest threat to sovereignty (Zarni & Cowley, 2014).

As Australian supported ‘Border Liaison Offices’ popped up in the region, and state officials were empowered with bureaucratic techniques to dispel unwanted populations like the Rohingya, Australia’s minister for immigration Scott Morrison reportedly visited Rohingya displacement camps where his main message to people was that there is no chance of settling in Australia. A year later, with the spectacle of hundreds of Rohingya adrift at sea facing starvation, being pushed back from state after state, the Australian PM Tony Abbott when asked if Australia could accommodate some of the refugees replied ‘No, No, No’. If anything the boat crisis of April showed that not only neighbouring counties which have for years ignored the atrocities involved in regional trafficking chains, but also Europe, America and Australia, are all complicit in the states exclusion of the Rohingya. Many countries offered statements of concern and criticism over the event but all ultimately succumbed to the Myanmar states insistence that it has the sovereign right to refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya. Most pathetically, under pressure from the Myanmar state the term ‘Rohingya’ was even omitted from a high level meeting on the Rohingya crisis in Thailand at the time.

Donors decry the situation in Rakhine state but are reluctant to challenge state sovereignty which they are so desperately trying to build up as part of neoliberal state-building programmes (as just one example the EU has dedicated 199 million Euro to ‘good governance’ and ‘state capacity building’ programmes over the last four years). The EU, Australia and other donors have also contributed millions of dollars to the Myanmar Peace Centre which has spectacularly failed to do anything meaningful to help the plight of the Rohingya. Of course, neoliberal development interventions challenge and fragment sovereignty in complex ways (Ong, 2006), but in an age of security obsessed states, the rights of states to brutally expel their unwanted populations has become a de facto sovereign right – for instance Australia’s talk of international rights can hardly be taken seriously when it is busy trafficking its unwanted refugee population – some of whom are Rohingya, across the region.

Unlike the sacred commitment to democracy – which is backed up by the threat of sanctions and aid cuts, the legally sanctioned expulsion of the unwanted results in little more than concerned statements. Or perhaps it is precisely because the states treatment of the Rohingya is not in conflict with democracy, but a dark and imminent part of it , that the international community has been so tolerant of events in Rakhine state. In 2014 Myanmar received a record amount of aid and was the second largest recipient of OECD aid after Afghanistan. Aid flows have largely been unaffected by the states experiment with apartheid in Rakhine state – if anything they have likely increased because of it.

The Rohingya have not just become stateless, but have been made stateless through technologies of sovereignty such as censuses and elections. And in donors endeavours to extend sovereignty by supporting such activities, they have consistently been outmanoeuvred by the state. The Australian supported, and UN implemented census for instance, succumbed to pressure to disqualify the Rohingya from the census – formally rendering the million or so people who identify as Rohingya invisible. Then there was the state’s decision just months before the election to revoke voting rights to white card holders, of which the Rohingya are the largest group – a direct response to fascist like protests from Rakhine groups and Buddhist nationalist group MaBaTha, and which effectively undid the lobbying of the UN in the early 1990’s which had secured at least some basic level of recognition to the Rohingya.

As Australian electoral observers were wandering around Rakhine state in November (to only Rakhine villagers) tacitly legitimising not only the election process but the state’s decision to exclude the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya confined to camps were contemplating taking to sea to escape their worsening plight. Then there was the recent UN supported ‘citizenship verification process’ in Myebon Township. The government refused to back down on the issue of Rohingya as an ethnic group, and instead offered people the category of ‘naturalised citizenship’ if they would register as ‘Bengalis’. Due to the overwhelmingly horrific conditions in those particular camps, most people accepted the compromise (unlike others further north). Yet even those who received citizenship are still under the same mobility restrictions as before, which has given rise to a sense of hopelessness to the Rohingya and no doubt contributed to their exodus by boat.

Through accidents of history those who now identify as Rohingya found themselves on the wrong side of the arbitrary state sanctioned ethnic categories which came out of colonial censuses (Grundy-Warr & Wong, 1997). The British used highly arbitrary groupings that were an amalgamation of geographic based, religious based and racial categories (Harriden, 2002). Yet some researchers still use British censuses to suggest, implicitly or otherwise, that the Rohingya category lacks legitimacy – as if we can look to arbitrary state techniques for categorising people as a proxy for whether those people exist. As debates rage on academic and popular sites about the legitimacy of the Rohingya category where much academic labour has been invested in elucidating the contested nature of the identity(iv) – and some academics even now insist on using inverted commas every time they use the term, violent technologies of sovereignty go largely unquestioned.

One white male academic in Sittwe for instance told me that even my own country Australia has to put in place mechanisms to deal with ‘illegal immigrants’. I immediately thought of Australia’s offshore mandatory detention gulags and the remarkably similar circumstances people find themselves in when they are rendered illegal – and it just so happens that in both Australian and Myanmar some of the same NGOs manage both camps, and some detainees from one camp inevitably end up in the other. But the academic was defending sovereignty, not challenging it. So many English language discussions on the Rohingya, both within academic and practioner circles, remain either tacitly or overtly framed within the categories of citizenship, legal and illegal migration, and borders. The challenge, as border theorists such as Angela Mitropolous have pointed out, is to keep up with the way border technologies evolve in disparate circumstances with the aim of contesting and challenging them, rather than tacitly defending them.

Borders and bare life

There is one crucial difference between Muslims in Yangon or Mandalay, and Muslims in Arakan – the border. The worsening situation of the Rohingya is in a large part due to the historical process of the state trying to exert its sovereignty over a peripheral and porous borderland. This no doubt stems from the fact that Arakan has historically tended to be in the orbit of Chittagong as much as lowland Burma (Christie, 1996). The concessions that the Rohingya had gained in the aftermath of the mess of independence were slowly eroded from the 60’s onwards (Zin, 2015). As the state sought to not only crush the Mujahidin, but extend its sovereignty over all people in Arakan , legal and administrative ambiguities and inconsistencies were replaced with a sharp divide between legal citizens and illegal immigrants. Long held tensions over land, autonomy, the future of Arakan and underdevelopment became abstracted into questions of citizenship and borders – and in the process further deferred any actual solution to underlying problems in Arakan (Grundy-Warr & Wong, 1997).

The Rohingya, who like the Rakhine had experienced a de facto exclusion from the very most basic of state goods and services, began to experience a de jure exclusion as the 1982 citizenship law sought to formally render them as non-citizens. It is even likely that the 1982 citizenship law was put in place with the large number of Rohingya refugees being repatriated back to Arakan from Bangladesh in mind (Lewa, 2005). The state used seemingly banal bureaucratic procedures, but which on the ground were backed up by raw violence (as nearly all bureaucratic institutions ultimately are), to deal with the Rohingya.

The most violently notorious government operation NagaMin (dragon king), which was the cause of the large refugee flows to Bangladesh in 1978 was not a mere counterinsurgency operation but a programme to ‘scrutinize each individual living in the State, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally’. At the centre of the Rohinga’s plight over the last 60 years has thus been the border, and in particular populist anxiety’s that ‘illegal Bengali’s’ have been flowing across the border taking land, jobs and exerting a negative influence on Buddhist norms. There is little point to dispute the fact that especially during the colonial period large number of Bengali’s were encouraged by the British to cultivate northern Arakan’s fertile alluvial plains and that no doubt many of these farmers melded with the pre-existing Muslim Arakan community. But it is the perceived fear that matters more here than the realities of cross border migration, as the large scale military operations and border forces erected to deal with supposed illegal immigration are on a scale far greater than the trickle of Bengali in-migration after. It is hence no coincidence that it was those put in charge to police the border –i.e the notorious state border force NaSaKa, that gained a particular reputation for brutality in Rakhine state, or that so much of the state military actions over the last 50 years in Arakan (of which there have been 17 major campaigns) have been almost exclusively focused on that population which lives exactly along the porous border region.

It is also no coincidence that as the Rohingya progressively became politically marginalised, it was the camp that the state turned to as a solution to the supposed problem of dealing with the non-citizen ‘illegal Bengali’s. In this sense, Giogio Agamben’s (1998) insistence that the camp is the space par excellence used to deal with that form of life that has been stripped of all its political significance – what he terms ‘bare life’, appears accurate. Yet what is different about the camps set up to deal with the Rohingya is that unlike similar camps such as those on Guantanamo or Manus islands where the state exerts its sovereign right to run the camps as exceptional spaces where external interference is strictly prohibited, in the case of the Rohingya camps, NGOs, and UN agencies exert ‘petty sovereignties’ over displaced populations, pushing for rights and providing goods and services that the state refuses.

The UNHCR for instance played a large role in early repatriations from Bangladesh in 1978-79 and 1991 and also pushed for temporary citizenship papers (white cards) for the Rohingya in 1995 (which allowed them to vote in the 2010 elections but largely closed down and options for full citizenship). Right now 29 NGOs operate in Rakhine with varying degrees of cooperation with various UN agencies. Yet the UN and NGOs find themselves restricted by the forces of sovereignty and confined to providing humanitarian assistance to a population the state does not recognise. As Hannah Arendt (1943)identified more than 50 years ago the notion of right only gains meaning in the context of a state that recognise such rights and it here that the UN and NGOs have been coerced into entering into a pact with the state where they are confined to addressing only the most basic of needs of the Rohingya – i.e. that the Rohingya are treated as bare life.

The UNHCR has had a particularly controversial role in Rohingya camps. After operation NagaMin, the UNHCR achieved a MoU with the government of Bangladesh to provide essential services within camps which turned out to be a disaster– largely due to acquiescence with the government’s strategy of underproviding for refugees as an incentive for them to return to Burma. After six months of settlement the camps had the appallingly high fatality rate of 33 per 10,000 per week and by March 1979, 12,000 refugees had died in less than a year (Lindquist, 1979). Controversies over forced repatriations continued in the 1990s and it appears that the UNHCR , who was the first non-government entity to establish an office in Rakhine state in 1994, was reluctant to publicly acknowledge continued instances of violence and extrajudicial killings (as this would no doubt compromise its work) (Human Rights Watch Asia, 1996)o.

The current situation that the Rohingya find themselves in is equally precarious. After the violent 2012 riots where 112 people were murdered, and over 100,000 people displaced, military rule in Rohingya dominated areas was established and large numbers of Rohingya were once again moved into displacement camps. In northern Rakhine where the Rohingya are a majority, people were confined to their villages. INGOs and the UN essentially provide people in camps with their basic daily needs, while the military retains what it sees as its sovereign right to impose mobility restrictions and limit access to state services to those deemed as non-citizens. The state has made it clear that Rohingya are not rights bearers and since violent attacks against INGOs and UN agencies in 2014, these agencies have had to carefully avoid any work that treats Rohingya as full citizens or is seen in any way to ‘privilege’ them (and they cannot even formally use the term ‘Rohingya’).

No doubt, some of the attacks on NGOs and the UN were in response to a perceived intrusion on the states sovereign right to exclude its unwanted populations without interference. In early 2014, MSF-Holland for instance was expelled from Myanmar due to the fact that it treated a number of Rohingya from northern Rakhine suffering from gunshot and stab wounds. The state is happy to outsource responsibility of its unwanted population to external agencies on the provision that they do not interfere when it wants to take life away. Thus the Rohingya find themselves in a situation where at any moment they could be exposed to death. It is unlikely the state will resort to militaristic violence to directly inflict mass death on the Rohingya. Rather, it is much more likely that the state will progressively withdraw the means to security and life. The UN and NGOs expressed that in the next two years they are likely to face major shortages in funding and face a crisis in terms of maintaining goods and services to the displaced. The UN has responded by trying to dramatically reduce its humanitarian case load and transition to development rather than humanitarian assistance. NGOs and the UN provide emergency means to sustaining life, while the state maintains its right to take it away.

Thus accounts of what is going in Rakhine state as ‘communal violence’, ‘ethnic conflict’ or ‘religious tension’ are unable to grasp the situation adequately. When life is reduced down to its bare state, stripped of citizenship, and able to be killed without sanction, it become extremely vulnerable to death. In the short time researching in Rakhine state, I heard of three men who had mysteriously disappeared from camps outside of Sittwe (and whose relatives claimed had been murdered), and one women who was unable to access Sittwe hospital during the election period and died of a treatable illness. Then there are the hundreds of people who have died while on boats fleeing Rakhine. Ultimately no one is responsible for these deaths.

*Tim Frewer is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney (human geography) and has spent the last ten years researching various issues in Southeast Asia.

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i. Fascism here is understood as described by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – i.e. an organic and often uncontainable movement composed of individuals who take state thinking and duties upon themselves, who act as ‘policemen, judge and juror all in one’. Unlike localised clashes that arise due to specific historical grievances (such as the WWII skirmishes between Rakhine and Rohingya groups, fascist movements take abstract notions such as ‘illegal migrants’, ‘the nation’, ‘the Buddhist community’, ‘citizenship’ and attempt to restore the purity of their community/ nation through the systematic expulsion or destruction of that/ those deemed a threat.
ii. Francis Wade quotes the Rakhine National Development Party (the precursor to the Arakan National Party): “In order for a country’s survival, the survival of a race, or in defense of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or in-human acts may justifiably be committed […] So, if that survival principle or justification is applied or permitted equally (in our Myanmar case) our endeavors to protect our Rakhine race and defend the sovereignty and longevity of the Union of Myanmar cannot be labeled as “crimes against humanity,” or “inhuman” or “in-humane””.
iii. Eugenics as a philosophy which attempts to improve or protect the racial characteristics of a particular group have been enacted through a number of local government policies (eg released in 1993 and 2005) and state level policies (2008), that restrict the number of offspring of Rohingya (although appears to have been implemented sporadically). There have also been claims that family planning activities have been used to sterilise Rohingya without their consent – see (Human Rights Watch Asia, 1996).
iv. See for instance see the works of historian Jaques Leider and former British diplomat Derek Tonkin.

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