Myanmar State Politics and Historical Contexts of the Stateless and Undocumented Rohingyas

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Since 2017, over 800,000 Rohingyas have fled persecution based on contestations related to their ethnic identities and claims within Myanmar. Rohingyas are the second-largest group of stateless people who were forced to escape genocide in Myanmar. Fleeing over the country’s border, Rohingyas took shelter in crowded camps in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh (Sengupta 2019; Islam, Mookherjee and Khan 2022). They constitute 4.7% of the total stateless communities of the world (Siddiqi 2020). This article will discuss the history of long-term oppression by the state of Myanmar of Rohingya and the historical and political context of creating stateless and undocumented Rohingya communities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15, states that everyone has the right to hold citizenship. According to Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention, ‘the term “stateless person” means a person who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.’ (UNHCR 2014). Nevertheless, there are still millions of stateless people worldwide, one-third of whom are children. Sixty years after the 1954 Convention, there were more than 12 million stateless people worldwide, a number that is increasing annually (Edwards and Waas 2014). Rohingyas became ‘stateless’ because of state exclusion policies in Myanmar, especially after the 1982 Citizenship Law, as they could not fulfill the criteria under the ‘one state, one culture’ nationalistic concept (Islam, Mookherjee and Khan 2022). However, 600,000 Rohingya people still live in Myanmar without citizenship (UNHCR 2022), and almost 1 million Rohingya communities stay in Bangladeshi camps. In Myanmar and Bangladesh, Rohingya communities do not have legal documents; hence, they are denied fundamental human rights.


Myanmar State Politics and Historical Contexts

The history of Rohingyas’ origin is still a debate. Ullah and Chattoraj (2018) found historical evidence of ancient mosques and the use of coins and Islamic titles by the Arakan King. Between the 9th to 14th centuries, through the influence of Arabs and interracial marriages, the number of Muslims in Burma increased. Wahab (2022) mentioned that there is ancient evidence of bringing enslaved people from overseas to grow rice in Burma. Uddin (2020) mentioned that in the 1430s, 30,000 soldiers came from Bangla, and in the 1660s, Shah Sujas arrived with giant soldiers in Arakan. Therefore, history shows that Rohingya ancestors arrived in Myanmar long ago.

However, many scholars argued that the Myanmar government manufactured the history of Rohingya origin in Myanmar to establish a state bureaucratic position against the Rohingyas and deny the history of the Rohingyas’ ancestors’ arrival in Arakan over 1,000 years ago (Uddin 2020; Ullah and Chattoraj 2018; Wahab 2022). Negative public perception of the Rohingyas is linked to the history of 1945, the Second World War when the Rohingyas joined the British Army and captured Myanmar. Since 1962, the Burmese government gradually removed Rohingya citizenship from Burmese documentation (Ullah and Chattoraj 2018) and historicised Rohingyas as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ brought by the British colonial administration as economic migrants (Uddin 2020). After Myanmar’s independence from British rule, politicians made Buddhism the state religion, and the majority believed in the Buddhist nation-building philosophy (Wahab 2022). Therefore, since 1948, Rohingyas have been deprived of citizenship rights because they were easy targets without political strength (Mukherjee 2019). The Myanmar state excluded the Rohingyas from belonging to Myanmar as national citizens due to cultural and religious differences (Southwick 2014). Moreover, colonial relations play a role in this exclusion.  Thus, since 1978, Rohingyas have fled to different countries to save themselves from state oppression (Uddin 2019).

Over the past five decades, Myanmar’s media, state documentation, and textbooks portrayed Rohingyas as Bengali, illegal migrants, and as a threat to national security (Zarni and Cowley 2014). Myanmar’s government gradually reinforced their exclusion policies through state documentation. Before the 1970s, Rohingya communities were entitled to full citizenship in Myanmar. After the 1970s, National Registration Cards (NRCs) were no longer issued to the Rohingyas; the state authority even confiscated and destroyed their NRCs by force and torture (Leider 2018). After the Citizenship Law of Myanmar in 1982, the Rohingyas became stateless and undocumented communities. After 1995, Rohingyas were issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs) known as ‘white cards’ as a trick for Rohingya and UNHCR, which was also cancelled in February 2015 (Leider 2018; Brinham 2019). These ‘white cards’ only served a purpose as a state control and surveillance tool. In June 2015, new green cards were issued for Rohingya communities known as National Verification Cards (NVC), which labelled them as ‘foreigners’ or ‘Bengali’ (Brinham 2019). Most of the Rohingyas did not accept the NVC cards and thus became victims of state oppression. Ultimately, this non-citizenship documentation of NVC cards was used as a tool of genocidal violence.

Rohingyas had no fundamental human rights including citizenship, the right to receive medical treatment,  the right to own property, the right to decent educational facilities, employment, freedom of movement, the right to perform religious activities, or the right to marry, and they were the victim of killing, forced labour, arbitrary arrest, and detention (Azad 2016; Uddin 2019; Uddin 2020). Rohingya communities were denied registration of livestock and household registration by the Myanmar state which made them legally undocumented (Brinham 2019).  Even inter-marriage (Rohingya-Buddhist) was prohibited in Myanmar (Ullah and Chattoraj 2018). In the context of inter-marriage prohibition in Myanmar, Robert Hayden (1996) argued (following Mary Douglas’s idea about purity and ethnic mixture) that in the case of former Yugoslavia, after the conflict started, mixed marriages were deemed to be problematic, whereas this was not so before the conflict. The Myanmar government also did not provide birth certificates to Rohingyas (Bhatia 2018), and Rohingya children were deprived of food, housing, education, health care, vaccination and the freedom of movement, which led to the death of several Rohingya children from malnutrition and diseases (Shohel 2020). Rohingyas experienced oppression, marginalisation, and the violation of their fundamental human rights for decades by Myanmar and its government (Mutaqin 2018). Even after migrating to other counties, they are still vulnerable to post-traumatic mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and risk of suicide (Goodman & Mahmood 2019). After the genocide of 2017, Bangladesh opened their border for Rohingya victims. Nevertheless, they are still vulnerable because they are non-citizens and cannot have legal documentation (Uddin 2019; Arif 2020). As a result of being registered as non-citizens, Rohingyas are denied the legal right to free movement, access to public services, and formal education in their host country, Bangladesh.

Since the recent genocide of 25 August 2017 in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, over 742,000 oppressed people fled to Bangladesh to escape detainment, torture, and other crimes against humanity. Rohingya women and girls experienced the horrors of genocide including rape, gang rape by multiple soldiers, and sexual slavery (Rahman 2019; Goodman and Mahmood 2019). The Myanmar military (tatmadaw) undertook a ‘clearance operation’ in response to  insurgent activity in the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) (Alam 2018; Mukherjee 2019), which was created as a self-defensive organisation against human rights violations (Mallick 2020; Ahmed 2020). Islamophobic speeches by some monks in Myanmar influenced ordinary people to take part in violence (O’Brien & Hoffstaedter 2020). Anti-Muslim propaganda and Islamophobia in the Myanmar media validated the genocide of 2017 by painting Rohingyas out to be terrorists and a threat to Myanmar (Haque 2020). After they fled to Bangladesh, many Rohingya patients were treated by doctors for physical injuries and violent sexual attacks (Hutchinson 2018).


Discussion and Conclusion                                     

Recent research focuses on ethnic and nationalist violence as a “new world disorder” (Brubaker and Laitin 1998) to explain violent events worldwide caused by the state. In this context, Akhil Gupta mentioned that ‘any struggle against currently hegemonic configurations of power and domination involves a cultural struggle, what Gramsci has called the war of position’ (Gupta 1995). As bearers of ‘foreign’ culture, the Rohingya communities are victims of state discrimination, legitimately implemented through practices of normalisation and regulation (Kirtsoglou and Tsimouris 2018). The nation-state politics of Myanmar created the current stateless, undocumented situation of Rohingya communities. Politics of identity and belongingness cause the statelessness of Rohingyas; as a post-colonial nation, Myanmar wanted its territory to be without ‘resident foreigners’. The state’s position against Rohingyas was also influenced by the colonial relations of the Second World War. Sucharita Sengupta (2019) argued that according to colonial and post-colonial history, the South Asian region was never actually ‘free’. She emphasised that the context of the Rohingya situation can be explained by the ‘forced migration’ concept of B.S. Chimni, as Rohingya migration was never voluntary. Historically, the Myanmar state bureaucracy provided different identity cards for the Rohingya community from 1970 to 2015 to gradually frame them as non-citizens of Myanmar.  In this context, Uddin (2020) also used the ‘subhuman’ term to explain how the ‘bare life’ concept of Agamben was not enough to explain the Rohingya situation, who were living a life that is less than that of human beings. He argued that the situation of Rohingyas not only makes them non-citizens in legal documentation, but it also makes their value worthy of extinction by genocide. Therefore, Myanmar committed state crimes with massive violence, killing, abusing, and raping Rohingyas to enable their long-term elimination from Myanmar’s social and political space. The historical and contemporary position of the Rohingyas as undocumented thereby serves a profoundly entrenched genocidal intentionality of the Myanmar government. That Rohingya now continue to be undocumented and stateless in their host country of Bangladesh is ironic and makes them a community whose existence and extinction are marked by their lack of documentation to verify their identity and history.



I thank Professor Nayanika Mookherjee, Anthropology Department, Durham University for her comments on an earlier draft of this article.



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