Armed conflict, large or small, does not seem to end in Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Rakhine conflict has many facets, with financial, socio-political, religious and nationalistic causes that are not mutually exclusive. Amid several high-intensity armed skirmishes, some of the most recent conspicuous clashes have been the displacement of the Rohingya people and the rapid emergence of a Buddhist armed group called the Arakan Army (AA). There is less scientific work examining the substance behind these immediate phenomena; Relying on timely statements that do not address the potential historical causes or the complexity of the conflict delays effective policy responses. In this regard, a comprehensive theoretical approach is required that uses a holistic framework to examine past and present conflicts in the Rakhine State.
To understand the current status of the Rohingya issue, it must be theoretically explained 1) how political scapegoats can create a militaristic form of nationalism that advocates violence against the “other” population, and 2) how this series of events lead to enactment could have a citizenship law that legally justifies such discrimination. In addition, it is important to understand the intent behind the AA’s use of religious and nationalist appeals in its expansion strategy. Hence, this article aims to provide a theoretical basis for studying historical developments in order to contextualize the prevailing instability of the Rakhine State in Myanmar.
Various armed clashes in Rakhine State have received a great deal of attention from the international community. The displacement of the Rohingya is arguably the most famous problem as it has been widely televised and reported around the world. Undoubtedly, the modern history of the Rakhine State has left Rohingya Muslims with a deep skepticism towards the authorities of Myanmar. It should be noted that the recent forced migration of Rohingya Muslims to neighboring countries is not a new phenomenon as the Rohingya conflicts date back to the capture of the Kingdom of Arakan (today’s Rakhine State) by the Burmese kings in the 18th century. The Rohingya issue recently gained global attention after the Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar in November 2019 accusing it of genocide of Rohingya refugees. The case is currently being heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Since the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021, there have been voices calling for the rights of Rohingya Muslims to be recognized (see here and here). Indeed, it is imperative to keep watching the evolution of these movements.
Another determinant rocking the Rakhine State political landscape is the rapid emergence of the Arakan Army (AA). Founded in 2009, the AA is a relatively new Buddhist armed group active in the northwestern regions of Myanmar, including the Rakhine and Chin states. The AA has been in the spotlight since early 2019 when it carried out multiple attacks on Tatmadaw and Myanmar police. The AA’s goal is to revive the past glory of the Kingdom of Arakan, an ancient kingdom in the Arakan region that was conquered by the Burmese kings. However, under the banner of religious nationalism, the real motive of the Buddhist armed group is to seek greater autonomy within the region. In fact, it is well known that the AA’s aim is to achieve the level of autonomy that the Myanmar authorities have granted to the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest ethnic armed organization in Myanmar. The UWSA enjoys the status of a self-governing department as set out in the Myanmar Constitution. In an interview with Frontier Myanmar, Twan Mrat Naing, the AA commander in chief, openly stated that his organization daydreamed “no less expectations than the UWSA”.
The meaning of Durkheim: scapegoat and the sacred-profane dichotomy
Given that these complex historical incidents led to the continued persecution of the Rohingya, Émile Durkheim’s idea of the scapegoat could be one of the most relevant contributions to building a solid theoretical framework for interpreting the construction of the Rohingya’s “other” identity. in the The elementary forms of religious life (1995) Durkheim aptly describes the nature of the scapegoat as an outsider who is less able to arouse sympathy and solidarity. In other words, when society experiences suffering, it seeks the center of public criticism, a target of criticism that may be responsible for its unhappiness. Interestingly, Durkheim’s idea of the scapegoat resembles modern Myanmar history, which saw Rohingya Muslims as “others” and discouraged them from acquiring Myanmar citizenship. The Rohingyas were an appropriate target, and advocacy for denial of their fundamental rights has become common among political elites and the general public. Numerous hate speeches against Rohingya Muslims on social media testify to this discriminatory phenomenon. The main argument of such hate speech usually boils down to attacking differences that are easily noticeable to outside observers, including religion and ethnicity.
Between these two notable identity traits, many speculate that religion is of greater importance, since almost all Rohingya are Muslims who live in a predominantly Buddhist country. For Durkheim too, religion is an essential aspect of being human. It is important to note that Durkheim views religion as a social institution; essentially the result of human action. Durkheim defines religion as “a uniform system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things; H. Things that are separate and forbidden beliefs and practices that unite into a single moral community called the Church, all who abide by them ”(1995): xxxiv). According to this definition, religion consists of two elements: 1) belief and practices related to sacred things, and 2) a moral community. The main catchphrases are “holy” and “community”, as the former represents a dichotomy that provides a theoretical basis for scapegoats, and the latter helps define religion as a social construct. in the Seven theories of religion, Daniel Pals (1996) commented that the sacred in Durkheim’s theory relates to the interests of the group and, in particular, to unity. The question then arises as to what constitutes the profane. It can therefore be concluded that profanity, the opposite of the sacred, would of course be viewed as a violation of social codes and disruption of social harmony. This dichotomous approach to holiness and profanity is worth mentioning as it is very similar to the historical circumstances surrounding the establishment of the scapegoat-made identity of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Following the words of the French philosopher René Girard, “the persecutors are always convinced that a small number of people or even a single person is extremely harmful to society as a whole, despite his relative weakness” (1986: 15). In the case of Rakhine State in Myanmar, it is fair to say that both the Myanmar government and the general public viewed Rohingya Muslims as harmful scapegoats against whom they could cultivate a sense of unity. That is, the Myanmar community has become convinced that the Rohingyas deserve discrimination, as recognition of their rights is likely to lead to the disintegration of social harmony.
Through such marginalizing discourses, Myanmar society formed a “moral community”, which Durkheim mentions in his definition of religion. Since morality contains a measure of right and wrong, it brings the dichotomy, which has been reinforced in the sacred-profane framework, back to the center of the discussion. The ancient and modern history of Myanmar shows that the persecution of the Rohingya was justified as this practice has historically been considered normal and appropriate. These socially accepted acts of exclusion strengthen the community members’ feeling of belonging. This process can best be explained by Durkheim’s functional model of ritual punishment. According to Durkheim, ritual punishment brings about social integration that leads to the formation of solidarity. In Rakhine State, the idea of ritual punishment can be compared to the historical persecution of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar authorities. On the other hand, “solidarity is susceptible to interference from the third variable in the scheme, external threats” (Inverarity, Lauderdale and Feld, 1983: 131). The perception of Rohingya as an outsider can lead to the fact that they are perceived as an external threat. Since Inverarity et al. insist that these external threats disrupt solidarity and thereby lead the community to “facilitate the relationship between repressive justice – of which the scapegoat is a special form – and social solidarity” (1983: 156). In other words, religion and its rituals, including the scapegoat, are part of socially learned teachings and discourses that function effectively as a means of strengthening social bonds when faced with existential threats. This point confirms Durkheim’s argument that religion is a social process and that the ongoing identity crisis of Rohingya Muslims living in a Buddhist country can be interpreted in such a theoretical context.
The Relevance of Weber: Ethnicity and Citizenship
Citizenship is critical to developing an identity. The granting of citizenship secures the legal status and political rights of a person and influences the formation of an identity. Hence, the inability of Rohingya Muslims to acquire Burmese citizenship is a major factor contributing to their gradual marginalization from all social, economic and political aspects of Myanmar society. As mentioned earlier, Rohingya social exclusion has existed for hundreds of years; However, it is the Myanmar Citizenship Act of 1982 that permanently denied Rohingya Muslims the opportunity to become citizens of Myanmar. Under this law, full citizenship can only be recognized if the person belongs to one of the 135 ethnic groups recognized by the Myanmar government. Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are not included in the list of national races. The 1982 Citizenship Act is largely based on ethnicity and is therefore highly discriminatory. International NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly recommended that the Government of Myanmar amend the Citizenship Act of 1982 in line with the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar, but to no avail. With the 1982 Citizenship Act placing a huge emphasis on ethnicity, studying the definition of ethnicity is vital, and Weber has a lot to offer on the subject.
Weber defines ethnicity as “the belief of social actors in a common ancestry that is based, among other things, on racial and cultural differences” (Jackson, 1982: 5). In other words, not the fact but the belief in a common ancestry is the core idea in Weber’s definition of ethnicity (2013). After all, tracking down the common ancestor of different ethnic groups is an impossible task. This is much more the case in the context of Myanmar, a country with hundreds of different ethnic groups. As for the development of the 1982 law, one could cling to the widespread misconception that the Rohingya issue is a religious conflict (i.e. Buddhism versus Islam). However, this interpretation of the 1982 law is only partially correct as the Rohingya issue is political rather than religious. The existence of other rakhine ethnic groups, such as the Kaman, is indicative of the political rather than religious nature of the Rohingya conflict. The Kaman are an ethnic group mainly living in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Most of the Kaman are Muslims. Therefore, they share the same identities – both in terms of their historical residence and their religion – as the Rohingya. Nonetheless, the Kaman are widely recognized as citizens of Myanmar as they are classified as one of the seven ethnic groups of Rakhine State and one of the 135 official national races under the Myanmar Citizenship Act of 1982 (Thant Myint-U, 2007).
Given how the 1982 law effectively continued denial of Rohingya citizenship, it is worth discussing the power of laws as a causal force rather than just descriptive knowledge. Unlike Durkheim, who saw the purpose of research in finding laws, Weber saw laws as a means of research, especially to find causal explanations. Simply put, Durkheim interpreted laws as ends, while Weber saw laws as means (Jensen 2012: 76). In the Rakhine context, Durkheim might see the passage of the Citizenship Act of 1982 as a result of the dynamics of social capital, including religion and community development. On the contrary, Weber is likely to argue that the 1982 Citizenship Act was indeed the tipping point where metaphysical hatred of the Rohingyas manifested itself physically and ubiquitous hostility concretized in the form of a written law. For Weber, the systematisation of law is an essential prerequisite for material changes. For example in Economy and Society: An Overview of Interpretative SociologyWeber argues that “the functioning of the legal process … is one of the most important conditions for the existence of capitalist companies that cannot do without legal certainty” (1978: 853). It can also be concluded that the functioning of the Myanmar Citizenship Act of 1982 officially confirmed widespread discrimination against Rohingya Muslims.
The rise of the Arakan army through the theories of Gramsci. understand
The rapid emergence of the Arakan Army lies in their effective use of religious and nationalist discourses in the particular historical context of the Rakhine State. The AA commander in chief recently reiterated the armed group’s aim to revive the past glory of the Kingdom of Arakan, a Buddhist kingdom conquered by the Konbaung dynasty in the 18th century. The AA commander’s reference to the rebuilding of an ancient Buddhist kingdom stems from the widespread belief among the Rakhinese that the ethnic majority of Burmese have historically marginalized them. With this in mind, the AA is successfully establishing a sense of solidarity that affirms a common value of ethnic separatism: the identity of the victim role developed during the historical conflicts between the kingdoms of Burma and Arakan. In fact, understanding the AA’s rise through the lens of its historical political discourse is crucial, which has proven effective as the AA has grown rapidly in size and claims that it currently has 7,000 active soldiers.
The AA has acquired the image of a noble cause that enables it to spread its influence in the region. How did AA come to receive significant public support in Rakhine State? This question can best be answered by looking at Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Gramsci defines hegemony as more than just dominance through coercion. In general, Gramscian hegemony is understood as the ability of the ruling groups to impose their interpretation of reality on the ruled as a natural state. According to Gramsci, dominant groups hold their position through a mixture of coercion and consent from subordinate groups. Interestingly, the AA’s governance mechanism fits perfectly with Gramsci’s definition of hegemony: the Buddhist armed group has sufficient military power to engage in frontline battles with the Myanmar military and enjoys widespread support and approval among the Rakhinese people.
At this point it is important to examine how the AA achieved hegemony in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. For Gramsci, hegemony can be strengthened through the practices of institutions and intellectuals that spread for the interests of the ruling power. According to Oliverio, “Institutions such as educational, media and government organizations are involved in an information-gathering process that appears simple and free from any political problems or philosophical criticism” (1998: 6). In addition, Gramsci himself produces in Prison notebooks that “the intellectuals are the ‘representatives’ of the dominant group who exercise the subordinate functions of social hegemony and political government” (2018: 97). In the Rakhine context, Buddhism and the monks play the role of these institutions and intellectuals. “I was a monk. Most of us used to be … When I heard about this army, I was dying to join. You know, in Rakhine State we have to defend Buddhism. ”Brenner, an expert on the political economy of armed ethnic conflict in Myanmar, introduced this comment by a former Rakhine monk. This comment is evidence of the support of the AA by the Rakhine Buddhist monks.
Indeed, the monks have always been an active force in promoting the political aspirations of the Rakhines. According to the Transnational Institute’s latest experience report on the Rakhine State in Myanmar after British Burma separated from India in 1937, “Buddhist monks encouraged the various Rakhine associations to join together as the Arakan National Congress … Such united fronts have been a feature ever since become the rakhine policy ”. … The armed nationalist movement later grew out of this latter formation. ”Thus, the AA successfully captures historical grievances of the Rakhinese and, in Gramsian terminology, implements two strategies for social change: the war of maneuvers, which is a strategy of direct and violent confrontation and“ the Positional warfare as a slow, protracted struggle involving various means including ‘nonviolent’ aspects of civil society ”(Lauderdale, 1998: 148). The Rakhine monks, as organic intellectuals, are especially important in waging the latter war.
For Gramsci, the role of organic intellectuals is similar to that of contemporary scholar-activists. The demonstration by the Rakhine monks in May 2019 is an excellent example of this. On May 19, 2019, a group of Rakhine monks took to the streets and called for an end to the fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA. Their march was in response to the inaction of the Myanmar authorities against the letter sent by high-ranking monks on May 9 of the same year. An interesting fact about this demonstration is that the monks sent their letter to the President, the Council of State and the Colonel General; however, no letter was sent to the Arakan Army, the other axis of the current Rakhine conflict. This very action implies that the monks of Rakhine State believe that the Myanmar authorities are more responsible than the AA for the current situation in Rakhine State. The Rakhinese monks with their respected social position fulfill the role of organic intellectuals, which Gramsci defines as intellectuals who “can no longer exist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructors, organizers,” permanent persuasers “and not just a simple speaker ”(2018: 95). Through their teachings and actions, the Rakhinese monks have stood at the forefront of Rakhine nationalism and will continue to exert their influence in the future as the organic intellectuals of Gramscia speaking for the ruling powers of the Rakhine state in each historical epoch.
This article has attempted to examine the unique circumstances of the multilayered Rakhine conflict from the theoretical perspective of Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Antonio Gramsci. The theories of these three thinkers are applicable to the integrative discussion of the history, society, politics and culture of Rakhine State, revealing: the relationship between individuals and institutions, the political identity formation that establishes national identity, and the governance mechanism, who tries to reconcile the interests of the ruling group with the everyday life of the people of Rakhine by spreading socially constructed realities. As the Rakhine conflict depends on the assimilation of ethno-religious nationalism and identity politics, further research is needed with greater attention to the future direction of Myanmar after the Myanmar military took over government in 2021 and the developments that will follow Final judgment of the ICJ on the Rohingya genocide.
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