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Refugee Horizons

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The way one is named can make a great difference. The truth of this proposition has special relevance for the Muslim group who call themselves Rohingya. The government of Myanmar (before 1989, Burma), the state that includes the territory where most Rohingya lived until recent mass expulsions, refuses to acknowledge their self-designation. They are, instead, asked to register themselves as Bengali for purposes of acquiring national identity papers and other bureaucratic functions. If unwilling to do so, they become foreigners.

To be a stateless person in a world run based on nation-states is a severe disenfranchisement that conditions how individuals and a community understand their future. The historical picture of Muslims in Myanmar (of which the Rohingya are only one group) goes back centuries and varies by particular regions within the boundaries of the modern state. In this section I highlight the Rohingya’s statelessness as an acute predicament that can help us to see the mutually constitutive relationship between pasts and futures.

The Rohingya/Bengali difference has to do with different understandings of the group’s past. For the Rohingya themselves, they are following in the wake of ancestors who have lived in the Rakhine/Arakan region of Myanmar for anywhere between five and ten centuries. These ancestors are claimed to have been Muslims who arrived in the region at various points in the premodern period, married into local communities, and established long-lasting indigenous Muslim communities. Archival materials to support this claim are sparse, although circumstantial evidence for the Muslim presence in the area is extensive.

The Myanmar state passed a nationality law in 1982 that codified the notion that the Rohingya arrived in the territory between 1823 and 1949, the period of British colonialism. This view is now espoused by a substantial part of the country’s Buddhist majority. This temporal placement is seen as a reason to exclude the group from being considered one of the indigenous peoples of the land that constitutes Myanmar. Colonial authorities encouraged Indians, especially from the neighboring Bengal, to settle in Rakhine. Contrary to the Rohingya’s own understanding of their past, the state sees the Rohingya population to consist of descendants of Indian migrants, doubly marked for being foreigners and a side effect of the colonial encounter. Facing, first, systematic discrimination and, subsequently, full-scale ethnic cleansing during the twenty-first century, an estimated one million Rohingya have left Myanmar and now live in refugee camps primarily in Bangladesh.

The Myanmar state’s refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya’s own understanding of their past has resulted in statelessness, a condition that severs the relationship between futures and pasts that is presumed secure in modern nationalism as well as in community accounts of ethnogenesis. To understand the place of Islam in this story, I treat Buddhist views sympathetic to the notion that the Rohingya are, at best, aliens in Myanmar. Not all Myanmar Buddhists agree with the position of the state, and many Buddhist monasteries have acted as protectors and refuges for Rohingyas in times of violence. The army that has controlled Myanmar for most of its existence has sometimes acted harshly against Buddhist monks as well. Nevertheless, the type and level of invective that has been directed at the Rohingya indicates significant overlap between positions held by the state and a group of very vocal Buddhists willing to undertake ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s demographic future, understood in ethnoreligious terms, looms large in these Buddhist views.

Most of this section is devoted to how the future looks to the Rohingya refugees outside Myanmar, especially in Bangladesh. How do they understand the relationship between Islam and their past? And what does their situation tell us about the possibilities and limits of Islamic affiliation as an aspect of the future? The case of the Rohingya helps to clarify the stakes of invoking Islam as an explanatory factor when discussing a context concerned with Muslims.

Silhouettes of people with a river and mountains in the background.

People in Teknaf, Bangladesh, awaiting arrival of refugees across the Naf River that forms the boundary with Myanmar.


akg-images / UIG / Majority World 7912292


Refugee Horizons

A Buddhist State

Depending on one’s viewpoint, Ashin Wirathu is either famous or scandalous among Buddhist monks in Myanmar. He is the most public face for the Buddhist position against the Rohingya receiving the rights and privileges of Myanmar citizenship. For Wirathu and his sympathizers, Myanmar is a Buddhist nation by definition and one that must safeguard itself against the threat of being overrun by Muslims.

When asked how his views fit within the requirement of being a Buddhist, Wirathu responded with the following:

This is not a religious belief issue. The problem is one of religious colonization. If we do not defend, we will become like Malaysia. Islam is like a religion and political system that cannot be separated. Religion is like a mask with politics behind it. Religion becomes the means through which politics are expressed. This is a subtle but scary tactic. People are entrapped by this formula. And so we have problems like this in Kosovo, southern Thailand, and Myanmar.…What they [the Muslims] aim is to make the whole world Islam. They are targeting small countries to colonize first (Holt, Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis, 213).

Wirathu’s statement contains a specific view of the past in which the agency of Islam, the Rohingya transhistorical community, and individual Rohingya are collapsed into one. To understand the argument fully, it helps to separate these out for analytical purposes. Islam here is an entity that has been taking over territory for centuries through a deceptive but powerful mechanism built into it. The expansion of Islam has a specific footprint in Asia through which it has become politically dominant whenever the population becomes Muslim.

Another prominent monk cited in a study explains this issue as follows: “Let’s take Indonesia as an example. Buddhism arrived in Indonesia in the second century, and from the seventh to the thirteenth century it was a glorious period for Buddhism in Asia. but after that, Islam arrived, and within a few hundred years Buddhism had fallen. The same is happening in Rakhine State, in Buthidaung” (Wade, Myanmar’s Enemy Within, 233).

As understood by these monks, Islam and Buddhism are politically competitive entities, the former malevolent and the latter pristine. When Wirathu says the issue is not about religion, he means that it has nothing to do with Buddhist ideas, although it does matter for Buddhists as society. Because Islam is perceived as not having a distinction between politics and religion, it is seen as a dangerous, false religion-like discourse in which ideas are the same thing as sociopolitical action. The confluence makes it both successful and dangerous.

As a social entity that embodies Islam, the Rohingya community is the vehicle through which Islam’s takeover of Myanmar has been occurring. On this score, Wirathu and others make no distinction between the Rohingya and other Muslims, often citing the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as a kind of head that is carrying out the universal Islamic mission by having Muslims from Bangladesh cross over into Myanmar. This process turns every “Bengali” to be encountered in Myanmar a threat: “Bangladesh is very poor and the OIC seeks to use money to enable more Bengalis to come to Myanmar” (Holt, Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis, 214).

The level to which the Rohingya are treated as an existential threat to Myanmar in general, and the Buddhists of Rakhine state in particular, is evident from the following newspaper editorial published in the wake of severe violence in 2012:

Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews, but they were probably heroes to the Germans.…In order for a country’s survival, the survival of a race, or in defense of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or inhuman 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 “crime against humanity,” or “inhuman” or “in-humane” (Wade, Myanmar’s Enemy Within, 186).

A statement such as this does not represent the views of all Myanmar Buddhists. But its severity helps us to see how a complex set of political and cultural developments in Myanmar since 1949 have turned the Islam-Rohingya combination into being perceived as an existential threat from within. Instances of similar demonization of minorities to secure the true nation are quite common in modern history around the world.

For monks like Wirathu, the specter of an Islamic takeover that lurks in the future drives actions in the present. This undesirable future is imagined according to what is understood to be the past of neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Looking around Southeast Asia in this perspective, the past, present, and future are available to be seen concurrently. The effort being promoted aims to stop the past and present of neighbors becoming one’s own future. The history being cited here, incidentally, is the modern version of the past of Asia as well as that of both Buddhism and Islam. Constructed first by orientalists and then combined with evolving stories of self-origins, these pasts are now seen as inalienable truths that guarantee a nation-state’s legitimacy.

Girls with their heads covered bent over reading Arabic script books. One of the girls is looking directly at the camera and smiling.

Rohingya girls in a school learning the Quran in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia district, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (April 16, 2018).


Richard Juilliart / Alamy Stock Photo Image ID: 2D8D93G


Refugee Horizons

Time Suspended

Understandably, the contemporary Rohingya’s own understanding of their position within Myanmar is radically at odds with that of the Buddhists opposed to their presence. It is important to note a point regarding the assignment of agency. For monks like Wirathu, Islam is the actor in the past and the future, and no credence is given to a Rohingya person who speaks. In fact, allowing a Rohingya to speak as an individual would nullify the very logic of the ideology.

However, Islam and the Rohingya community are abstractions whose “speech” can only be a metaphorical projection. The only one who can actually speak is the human being who calls themselves Rohingya. A Rohingya may speak for herself, or for the community, or for Islam. Whichever register may be active, the words would have to issue from a living body and mind that has had a specific material existence in time and space. The difference between Wirathu’s position and that of the Rohingya is therefore categorical rather than being a matter of opinion.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh see themselves as natives of Arakan but different from others in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Their understanding of their past is overwhelmingly about ostracization, internal displacement, and forced migration to become refugees as individuals, families, and the community. These matters pertain to regional politics during the past seventy-five years and have no connection to a grand Islamic plan for taking over the world. A politically and economically disadvantaged, predominantly rural population is not likely to entertain such possibilities. Where Islam does come in, it is a matter of identity and practice situated in the context of their ordinary lives. While little addressed in news coverage, the Rohingyas are said to maintain “social memory in their stories, tales, practical experiences, expressive words, and symbol of silence that preserve a vast reservoir of information and evidence which are evidently absent in the public claims” (Farzana, Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, 140).

Among the little available in the public domain of Rohingya voices, songs stand out as a popular form that has been adapted to the refugee situation. The lyrics for these indicate desire for returning home and resignation in the face of circumstances that are difficult to rationalize. For example, a recent ethnographic study reports the following two:

We have become Refugees

Oh God, Forgiving and Merciful

We are in exile

We have become refugees (II)

For how long will you keep us in this mountain caves

For how long will you make us eaten by insects(II)

We remained adrift suffering from tortures

Oh God make our country peaceful if you wish

Will there be peace ever?

From Maungdaw to Buthidaung the

Rakhines go

But they require nothing,

But when Muslims get into the bus they are

kicked off

Whom shall we narrate this sorrow, O God!

Will there ever be peace in our Arakan

O God! we are tired of despair

Will there ever be peace in our Arakan!

We Muslims always feel sad,

Due to oppression of the Mogs in Rakhine.

O God, will there ever be peace in our

Arakan! (II) (Farzana, Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, 199, 202)

The speaker’s Muslimness is clear here via references to God as well as the comparison with the treatment with the Mogs (i.e., Buddhists from Rakhine who are different from the Bamar, the dominant ethnicity in Myanmar as a whole that is also Buddhist).

In early 2021, the YouTube channel Rohingya Vision released a patriotic song with a stylized video. A small girl asks her father to show her their homeland on a map, which brings back memories for him of walking on the land, touching the soil, and so on. The song’s lyrics are provided in English subtitles and are as follows:

Ei Woton (My Homeland)

O homeland, O homeland!

The most precious wealth

How long I roamed

In Saudi Arabia to Yemen

How long I stayed

In Bengal and Pakistan

Finally, you are the most favorite

For all hearts and minds

We are never to leave each other,

You and I both.

The unfaithful to you,

We will ruin him into pieces

The betrayer to you

We will destruct him into pieces

How precious you are in my heart

I am always imprisoned

By your affection

O homeland, O homeland!

The most precious wealth (Rohingya Vision, Ei Woton)

This song has pathos similar to the first two I have quoted. However, it has a more pronounced sense of resistance to the situation and a determination to recover the homeland. Between the references to other countries and the mention of punishment for those who might betray the cause, one gets the sense of the threat, that the connection between the community and its land might dissolve as the dislocation continues.

In all the songs, time is in a state of suspension. The past has become ephemeral with the loss of land, and the future is either entirely undetermined or will cause a further loss of identity if one is settled permanently in a different country. For the latter, the fact that the new country may be majority Muslim is little consolation. For belonging to a place, with links to one’s ancestors and kin, Islamic commonality is not a replacement for what has been lost.

Rohingya refugees’ stories paint a horrifying picture of the atrocities that drove them from their homes and into refugee camps. The trauma of the situation does not end there, however, since the camps are places of great precarity on their own. An ethnographer reports talking to a young woman who experienced sexual assault from a community leader at a very young age. Since the assault is known publicly, she has not been able to get married. To express her sense of the future, she made a drawing of a girl standing at a window and explained it as follows:

This is me, inside our small hut, standing by the side of the window. The other day, you asked me, how do I feel to live in this refugee camp? I drew this picture to tell you that I feel extremely sad in my refugee life when I think about the future. I wish…I could study more, could go to schools, and could sit for the national examination! When I see those Bangladeshi girls from the nearest village…some of them would be of same age as me, but they are having such a beautiful life; honestly, it makes me sad.

I don’t know whether I will ever get married, will have children! Will they also be refugees like me? What will be their future? When I look at the village and see people having nice houses under the shade of various tall trees in their yard, by the side of a pond.…I dream to have a tree. You know, during summer time, it is incredibly hot here in the camp as we don’t have trees. I wish, I could also have a life like the villagers! So here, I am standing by the window, hoping to find a better life (Farzana, Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, 221–222).

The Rohingya as a social group are self-consciously Muslim, and their very Muslimness is the cause of their current terrible predicament at the level of a vast society. Yet, only the people who perpetrate or support violence against the Rohingya cite Islam as a part of the explanation of the situation.

Islam’s Limits

A consideration of futures as they pertain to the Rohingya should compel us to be extremely cautious when using Islam as an explanation for understanding particular situations. The Rohingya as a social group are self-consciously Muslim, and their very Muslimness is the cause of their current terrible predicament at the level of a vast society. Yet, only the people who perpetrate or support violence against the Rohingya cite Islam as a part of the explanation of the situation.

The positions with respect to Islam taken by Wirathu and other like-minded Myanmar Buddhists are nearly identical to reasoning deployed by European powers during the colonization of Asia and Africa from the eighteenth century onward. The ideas invoked can be found prominently as well in documents such as American and other counterinsurgency manuals since the Second World War. More broadly, fears regarding population replacement and other forms of demographic threat have a long history in the context of severe repression of minorities and the creation and decimation of “others” in societies on a worldwide basis. When seeking sociohistorical explanations involving Islam and Muslims, it is important to ensure that one is not falling into patterns laid by these types of precedents in which Islam or some other abstraction is turned into an active agent.

I do not wish to dismiss the significance of Islam as a powerful idea in social contexts. The coverage I have provided in this book should speak against a dismissal of Islam. But we should understand Islam through close attention to the specifics of its articulation in particular circumstances. Islam as a generality—shorn of attention to distinctive placement and articulation with respect to time and space—always makes for a bad and positively dangerous explanation. Complex assessments, that are attentive to ideational as well as material factors, should bring to light the specifics of how Islam is created and made a factor within situations. On this score, Islam is not a preserve of those who are Muslims.

In historical rather than theological terms, the anti-Rohingya monks of Myanmar are as much the makers of Islam as the refugees now in Bangladesh. The stark difference between the two understandings signals the vast variety that the term Islam can designate. Acknowledging this variety does not absolve us from adopting moral positions with respect to a situation. It matters a great deal whether we choose to see the future with Wirathu or a young woman looking out from a window in a hut in a refugee camp. However, the relevant choice is a matter of our ethical and political commitments that should be pressing on us as human agents irrespective of explanation via citing Islam.

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