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Janine Phakdeetham

International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era


GLOB1-GC 1000.002
Policy Analysis Assignment
What is Causing the Rohingya Crisis?

Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have escaped Myanmar to Bangladesh

via landmine-ridden routes. A majority of these refugees including children arrived in

Bangladesh’s overcrowded camps with visible bullet wounds and clear evidence of sexual

violence. International medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders estimated

that 6,700 Rohingya Muslims, including some 730 children under the age of five, were killed in

Myanmar's Rakhine state between August and September 20171. These grim numbers are likely

a conservative estimate; belying an even darker reality than Myanmar's official death toll of 400.

This humanitarian crisis has been dubbed by the United Nations as ‘a textbook example

of ethnic cleansing’2. While the definition may be straightforward and clear another question is

much harder to answer. What exactly is causing the Rohingya crisis? The researcher,

Phakdeetham, utilizes the social constructivist lens to examine the crucial elements in

Myanmar’s history that fester into the Rohingya crisis.

Literature Review

American scholar Nicholas Onuf introduced the term constructivism to the world of

international relations in 1989. Onuf believes that “social relations make or construct people--

ourselves--into the kind of beings that we are”3. There are three main points of the theory: 1)

1
Médecins Sans Frontières. (2018). Myanmar/Bangladesh: MSF surveys estimate that at least 6,7000 Rohingya
were killed during the attacks in Myanmar.
2
Al Hussein, Z. (2017). Darker and more dangerous: High Commissioner updates the Human Rights Council on
human rights issues in 40 countries. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.
3
Vendulka, K. Onuf, N. Kowert, Paul (1989). International Relations in a Constructed World. M.E. Sharpe Press

Phakdeetham, 1
identity and interests are evolved via social interactions; 2) ethnic conflict is a byproduct of

concrete historical processes4; and 3) elites manipulate the media to shape certain narratives.

Constructivists also oppose the realism idea that the rules of the international system are

dictated by anarchy, which subsequently leads to a self-help system among states. Realists think

that each state is on a quest for its own survival and interests. German political scientist

Alexander Wendt wrote in Anarchy is What States Make of It and explained that there are “ways

in which identities and interests are transformed under anarchy”5. He argues that anarchy cannot

distinguish between friend and foe, thus it does not necessarily lead to a self-help system that

causes insecurity in international relations.

Postcolonial Systematic Oppression

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who have been living in Myanmar’s

northern Rakhine state, one of Myanmar’s poorest states, for centuries. The Rohingya arrived in

this region, then known as the Arakan Kingdom, in the fifteenth century. The nineteenth and

early twentieth centuries saw the arrival of many other Rohingya from Bangladesh, whose

migration was influenced by British colonialism in the country. Myanmar (previously known as

Burma under the British rule) was invaded by the Japanese during World War II. The Rohingya

Muslims “cooperated with the British in the hope that they would be granted administrative

autonomy” 6. On the other hand, the Rakhine Buddhists sided with the Japanese and underground

communist movements. “Both sides accused each other of anti-Muslim or anti-Buddhist

atrocities during the war,”7.

4
Green, D. et al., ‘What Role Does Prejudice Play in Ethnic Conflict?’, Annual Review of Political Science, 6:2003,
pg.521
5
Wendt, Alexander. (1992). Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.
International Organization. 46. 391-425.
6
Sarkar, J. (2018). Rohingyas and the Unfinished Business of Partition. The Diplomat.
7
Smith, M. (2006). The Muslim Rohingya of Burma. Rohingya.org.

Phakdeetham, 2
It is important to note that “[The Rohingya] differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist

groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously”8. The Rohingya Muslims are different because

they supported the British and they follow a different faith (Islam). Some of the Rohingya

Muslims also immigrated from Bangladesh during the 1900s. The elites frequently use this point

to further portray the entire Rohingya population as Bengali, even though they are clearly

physically and politically different9 than one another.

Following Myanmar independence from England in 1948, these differences have been

used in the government's exclusionary xenophobic and nationalistic rhetoric to portray the

Rohingya Muslims as foreigners. Under the Burmese Citizenship 1982 Law, Burmese

citizenship is issued to ethnic groups that the government recognizes as ‘national races’ and

individuals that can trace their ancestry in Myanmar anterior to at least 1923. Despite concrete

evidence that the Rohingya settled in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state before 1923, the

authorities do not recognize them as Burmese citizens. As a result, the Rohingya are stateless and

face limitations in healthcare, education, freedom of movement, employment, rights to own

property and rights to vote. The citizenship denial shapes a public notion that the Rohingya do

not belong in Myanmar since they are not Burmese citizens10. The Rohingya are aliens both in

the way the government perceives them and in their lack of rights and privileges afforded to

average Burmese citizens. This calculated and discriminatory structure clearly violates the

Declaration of Human Rights. It also creates a looming threat by systematically marginalizing

the Rohingya, making them vulnerable to human rights abuses, and laying a solid groundwork

for future conflicts through grievance and racial tensions.

The Effects of Buddhism & Elite Manipulation on the Ethnic Minority Rohingya Muslims

8
Albert, E. (2018). The Rohingya Crisis. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.
9
Winarni, L. (2017) The Rohingya Muslim in the Land of Pagoda, Journal of ASEAN Studies, 5(1), pp. 38-41.
10
Burmacampaign.org.uk. (2014). Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law and Rohingya.

Phakdeetham, 3
Myanmar’s rise of nationalism and national identity have always centered around

Buddhism. According to the Myanmar Information Management Unit, the country’s Buddhist Commented [1]: http://themimu.info/census-data

population has been hovering around almost 90 percent since 1973, while the Muslim population

represents only about 4 percent11. Despite outnumbering all other religions, the country with

more than 150 ethnic groups chose Buddhism over other religions. Many scholars argued that it

was because a majority of Burmese citizens, including the elites, practiced Buddhism. The elites

use nationalism as a tool of manipulation to further their own political and social agendas. Thus,

Myanmar’s Union Constitution “mix[es] religion with politics so that Burmanization and

Buddhistization will go hand in hand to dominate the ethnic minority”12. This has resulted in

anti-Rohingya operations by Buddhist monks and other Buddhist nationalists, government

policies, and even military operations13.

Buddhist monks enjoy the status of moral authority in Myanmar because a majority of

Burmese citizens follow the faith and obey the teachings of the monks14. One prime example of

this was the Myanmar 969 ultra-nationalist movement. It was established in 2001, targeting

Buddhists across the country to rise against the Rohingya Muslims. The organization spread

rumors and racism towards the Rohingya Muslims. The movement was led by a notorious monk

named Ashin Wirathu. The 969 movement ideology is based on fear that the Rohingya Muslims

would take over Myanmar and eventually destroy Buddhism; it believes that it is its and other

Burmese Buddhists’ rightful duty to protect ethnic Rakhine Buddhists by prosecuting Muslims

whom terrorize them.

11
Myanmar Information Management Unit. (2014). The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census.
12
Moe, D. T. (2018) ‘Burman Domination and Ethnic Discrimination: Toward A Postcolonial Theology of
Resistance and Reconciliation in Myanmar’, Exchange, 47(2), pp. 128–153
13
Atkins, H. (2018). The Two Faces of Democratization in Myanmar: A Case Study of the Rohingya and Burmese
Nationalism. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.
14
Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1982.

Phakdeetham, 4
Furthermore, Myanmar’s media and internet became more open after the country

underwent a reform process. When one uses constructivist lens to exam the situation in

Myanmar, it is apparent that the media has ‘played a key role in spreading accusations and

counter-accusations and hateful rhetoric, fuelling the violence”15. The 969 movement used

Facebook and Youtube as its online platforms to disturb misinformation about Islam. Wirathu

and other monks preached hate-filled sermons in a calm-like manner, comparing Islam to a ‘mad

dog’ and urging Buddhists to only support Buddhist-owned businesses. Time Magazine had

Wirathu on its cover with a headline that reads ‘the Face of Buddhist Terror’16.

The 969 movement also led a protest, calling the Myanmar government to the expulsion

of Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine state. The movement triggered fatal riots in Raking state

between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Tensions between both groups were high after three

Muslims were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman in May 2012. The following

month, Rohingya Muslims were attacked by hundreds of angry mobs in Taungup district. The

Buddhist vigilantes believed that some of those men were involved in the murder of the Buddhist

woman. The violence continued overnight and caused religious clashes across the northern part

of the Rakhine state. The Myanmar government later declared a state of emergency, placed

curfew restrictions, and sent troops into the Rakhine state to ‘restore order’. As a result,

thousands of the Rohingya Muslims’ homes were burned down, over 100 people were killed and

more than 100,000 Muslims fled to neighboring Bangladesh for safety17.

The elites instigated fear and made people feel vulnerable through malice manipulation of

media. As a result, citizens turned to the military government for protection, making the

15
Australian National University. (2012). 'The western gate is broken': Myanmar's Rohingya problem
16
Beech. H. (2013). The Face of Buddhist Terror:How Militant Monk is Fueling Anti-Muslim Violence. Time

17
Hodal, K. (2013) Buddhist monk uses racism and rumours to spread hatred in Burma. The Guardian

Phakdeetham, 5
atrocities committed by the government against the Rohingya justifiable. Some citizens even

believed that they were being protected from the ‘terrorists’(the Rohingya Muslims). This makes

a majority of Myanmar citizens felt that this structural violence was “right - or at least not

wrong”18. Through constructivist lens, one can clearly see that the cultural and religious did not

occur overnight. They were constructed by social practice since the country’s independence in

1948. Conversely, thus, anarchy is unable to explain the rise of Islamophobia perception and

violent behaviors of monks and Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslims. The hypocrisy of

portraying the Myanmar government as the protector is at the core of propaganda tactic and the

epitome of media manipulation.

The Rohingya Crisis and the ‘Repatriation’ Process

A historically antagonistic relationship between Myanmar and the Rohingya people has

intensified over time through the three core elements: systematic oppression, the effects of

Buddhism on the Rohingya and the elite manipulation. The tensions, however, soared and

reached a new tenor on August 25, 2017. Myanmar’s government has alleged that a group of

Rohingya have whom they designate as an “insurgent terrorist” group have killed police officers.

Using this as a justification, the Myanmar government then declared ‘clearance operations,’

which to date had involved indiscriminately burning down villages, shooting innocent civilians,

raping women and children, and planting landmines along exodus routes. The Rohingya Muslims

faced the similar horror they did back in 2012. The exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims

flooded neighboring countries, especially Bangladesh. These refugees joined the previous waves

of other migrants, enduring horrific conditions in overcrowded campsites. The New York Times

also found evidence that some 700 military officials systematically worked in shifts and used

Facebook to propagate hate speech and falsified photos against the Rohingya Muslims. On
18
Gultang, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Galtung Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice.

Phakdeetham, 6
September 11 in 2017, “military officials messaged followers of some of the innocuous

Facebook Pages over Messenger, telling members from each of the aforementioned groups that

the other was orchestrating a terrorist attack against the other.”19 What’s more, the United

Nations' Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said that “the atrocities

[were] perpetrated by the country's military”20. The Mission also labeled the tragedy as genocide.

Meanwhile in Myanmar, two Myanmar-based Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Jyaw

Soe Oo, were arrested while writing an investigative piece about a mass grave in Rakhine state.

The Reuters reporters found evidence that the military and local Rakhine Buddhists cooperated

in a killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men. The pair has been jailed since December 12, 2017.

There is no sign for their release despite multiple legal attempts from prominent lawyers

including Amal Clooney. The arrest triggered an outcry from the media industry worldwide, the

United Nations and many countries including the United States. Just weeks after the arrest, high

ranking U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who was considered to be Myanmar State Counsellor and

Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s friend, resigned from a Rohingya Crisis panel. He

said the Myanmar government investigation about its crime against the Rohingya lacks

transparency and that Aung San Suu Kyi refused to listen to the panel advice21.

Aung San Suu Kyi and top military officials claimed that the journalists violated “the

colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years”22. The

elites also rejected the U.N. and human rights groups’ reports about the government’s atrocities

against the Rohingya, claiming that Myanmar is appropriately waging war on terrorism. They

19
Mozur, P. (2018). A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military. Nytimes.com
20
United Nations Human Rights Council. (2018). Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on
Myanmar. UNHCR, pp. 3-19
21
Associated Press. (2018). Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to U.N., quits Rohingya refugee panel, calling
it a ‘whitewash’. Associated Press.
22
Reuters. (2018). Imprisoned in Myanmar Timeline. Reuters.

Phakdeetham, 7
“conspired to propagate silenced23” via groupthink bias both when the genocide was in the

making and when the aftermath ensued.

Despite the heated political climate and anti-Rohingya sentiment, Bangladesh and

Myanmar governments signed an agreement to begin the repatriation process at the end of

November. This comes despite the United Nations’ warning that the genocide is still ongoing

and the conditions in Myanmar are not yet safe for them to return. Most Rohingya people are

reluctant to return to Myanmar without guarantees of citizenship and freedom of movement. The

first batch of 150 Rohingya refugees refused to even show up for the repatriation process, fearing

that they would be killed when they get to Myanmar24. The process may be pushed to 2019, but

there is no official date set by either government as of now. The U.N. said that it mightx not find

sufficient funds to run the refugee camps for the Rohingya Muslims at this point. This means that

there is no light at the end of the tunnel for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Thus,

the greatest agony of not knowing for the Rohingya Muslims continues.

Challenge to Realism

The genocide begs the question as to whether realists’ definition of security and its

application are still relevant. Myanmar’s state-centric approach puts human security after state

security by declaring war on its own citizens. The state role is no longer the protector. Myanmar

failed to recognize domestic security as a threat. It is also partisan and has a narrow ethical

consideration. Myanmar’s pursuit of power under anarchy in a self-help system led to

catastrophic results, ranging from a humanitarian crisis, a mass migration to surrounding

countries, especially Bangladesh, rounds of sanctions from the U.S., Canada and the European

Union to a genocide

23
Zerubavel, E. (2006). The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. Oxford, Oxford University
Press
24
Siddiqui, Z. (2018). Rohingya repatriation, relocation plans set to be pushed back to 2019. Reuters.

Phakdeetham, 8
The realism lens is less useful to examine the cause of conflict because it does not

recognize domestic variable(s); the Rohingya conflict took place within Myanmar, not between

states.What’s more, constructivists believe there are no set rules of how one should act. The

hostile behavior emerges from the historical context and subsequently socially constructs

identities and interests. Identities and interests of the Myanmar government, its Buddhist citizens

and the Rohingya Muslims become important in analyzing how they behave. Myanmar’s self-

serving and partisan leaders target their own people because the state favors Buddhists over the

Rohingya Muslims. Thus, the relationship cannot be explained by anarchy.

Conclusion

Through the Social Constructivist lens, the attempts to ignite the ethical conflict between

the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims were carefully planned for decades by the

elites. The Myanmar government and religious elites instrumentalized anti-Rohingya sentiments

through the systematic oppressive structure of Burmese Citizenship Law, religious violence and

the use of media - both in the streets and online. The elites portray the Rohingya Muslims as

outsiders. The Myanmar government then claimed to protect its citizens from the others by

placing a heavy emphasis on state-security and committing atrocities against the Rohingya

Muslims. This explanation of the conflict challenges the realism theory because the hatred

towards the Rohingya is socially constructed, not given by nature (anarchy).

Phakdeetham, 9
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