Q and A: The ‘Rohingya’ word

Johanna Son
Q and A: The ‘Rohingya’ word
'Definitely the term is divisive,' says sociologist Su-Ann Oh, who has done fieldwork in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border since 2005

BANGKOK, Thailand – What’s in a name? In this conversation, we go deep into the surface to understand the political, emotional, and societal load behind the term “Rohingya” with Su-Ann Oh, visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute) in Singapore.

This word, the name of a Muslim minority living for generations in Myanmar that do not have citizenship, has been nothing short of “explosive” in that Southeast Asian country. The Myanmar state has issued an order to government officials to avoid the use of “Rohingya,” preferring the term “Bengalis” that present them as undocumented migrants from across the border in Bangladesh, or “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine state.”

Local media have largely had to pick their way through this term, in some instances using Bengali and putting “Rohingya” in parenthesis. Many outlets, not to mention diplomats, use the geographic description instead and refer to “the crisis in Rakhine” or “the Rakhine situation,” without mentioning the Rohingya.

“Definitely the term is divisive,” says Oh, a sociologist who has done fieldwork in 7 refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border since 2005.

“The term – it’s never used in Myanmar; they only refer to them as Bengali, so this is not a word that is used at all,” in local society, unlike in international media and academic and other circles, as Oh tells Bangkok-based editor Johanna Son in this chat.

Oh is also writing a book on education in these camps.

What’s the narrative contained in barring the name by which a community calls itself? Who gets to determine how a community, whether ethnic or religiously defined as the Rohingya are, calls itself? What is the messaging in, and difference among, calling them “refugees” or “migrants” or describing them as Muslims from Rakhine, for instance?

There are now nearly a million mostly Rohingya refugees (there are some Hindus and other groups) living on the Bangladesh side of the border, at the heart of what is now Southeast Asia’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Nearly 700,000 of these fled in the wake of the military’s clearing operations in August 2017, which were carried out after the attacks on police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, whose leadership is based in Karachi.

There is little sign that significant repatriation of the unwanted, stateless Rohingya, who speak a Chittangongian dialect of Bengali, will happen. Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state that has seen communal tensions over the years, state remains off-limits.

QUESTION: How sensitive is the word Rohingya? Is there a formula that works to get around this issue around the term?

SU-ANN OH: I’m not sure there is a formula…. From my own point of view, if people define themselves in whichever ethnic way, then that’s the term that we should use to describe them.

There is a community in the US that looks white – they look white, right, but they call themselves black. If they call themselves black but they look white, I’ll call them black because that’s the ethnic, political identity that they have decided for themselves. So that question – this sits on the foundation that ethnicity is a social construct, so it means it’s not related to notions to race and genetics….

Because it’s a social construct, that means it is flexible, it is fluid, it is relative, it’s relational. People define themselves as Rohingya in relation to the Rakhine, or in relation to Burmese, because in everyday language and in the way that people talk about ethnicity, people don’t think about ethnicity as a social construct. A lot of time they think about it in terms of culture, your food, the clothes that you wear, your religion, your language, and this notion of some sort of tradition and genetic marker of some kind.

The problem is that people are talking about different things when they are talking about ethnicity. So some people will be talking about it as a social construct; some people will be talking about it as a fixed entity that cannot be changed. And the second definition is what most people believe ethnicity to be about.

If we believe the second definition of ethnicity as being this fixed element and innate with us, then it means you need to have a history – ‘we’ve been here for generations, we have culture….’ If you follow this reasoning, the you need these markers of face, or body, or clothes as well as this idea that your great great great great great great great great grandparents were also Rohingya and that there was such a term before. This line of reasoning means that it requires some sort of history to justify the existence of this type of ethnicity.

If we go down that line – and that’s the line that Myanmar uses and that’s the line that most people in the world use – then it’s this constant search, it’s this constant “he says, she says.”

We’ll never know 400 years ago, 200 years ago, whether there were Rohingya who were living in Rakhine state or in the Bangladesh-Burma (area) or Arakan state (the old name of Rakhine state) or whatever. People have dug into archives or tried to find evidence to say that yes, there was this term that has been changed, transformed, and now it’s actually Rohingya, but that was the root of it. For me, that is a very futile exercise – because it’s not about that sort of history. It’s about how people define themselves.

To give you an example, there are lots of Muslims from Myanmar who look like the Rohingya in refugee camps in the Thai-Burmese border. And when we talk to them and ask them what ethnicity they were, they said they were Muslim. Being Muslim is a religious identity but they use Muslim as an ethnic identity, and they could, they could probably call themselves Rohingya if they wanted to.

For me, ethnicity is socially constructed – you decide whether this particular identity fits you and if you do, then fine, you want to be identified as that.

Q: But in Myanmar, this is the problem…

OH: The problem with Myanmar is because there is a social, political, and economic consequences for how you are defined ethnically, right? These are huge – just the word itself – is a huge thing.

If I were to talk to someone in Myanmar and say to them, “but actually ethnicity is socially constructed,” it wouldn’t matter to them. Because in Myanmar society, people may agree that ethnicity is socially constructed – because people do say, “my father is Karen, my mother is Muslim. I speak Burmese, I don’t speak Karen” (and) you know they do realize that there is this fluidity of it – but because of the political, and social and economic structure of it, as (the French thinker Michel) Foucault says, this truth regime is dominant – the truth regime that ethnicity is about race and genetic and history, and being there for years and years and years.

Because it’s so powerful, this truth regime – the Rohingya – this term will always be disputed, because it comes with such high stakes. Whether you call it Bengali or Rohingya, it’s high stakes, particularly now.

Q: Is there a way of getting past the term to address the immediate issues, especially basic humanitarian ones?

OH: I think that whatever term that is used will be difficult. Okay, there are self-identifying Rohingya, yes. We could probably use “Muslims from northern Rakhine,” right? That’s as bland and neutral as possible.

But the issue here is not about that right? It’s a political issue. There is a political agenda here. There has been for decades, to erase these Muslims who live in north Rakhine, from the landscape – either the administrative landscape, or the political landscape or the actual physical landscape. So the fact that they call themselves Rohingya is part of a response to this state agenda. The term “Rohingya” is a political term – it encapsulates the type of othering and discrimination that has been visited upon them for decades.

So I can see that, I mean that even it’s just human respect, if the Rohingya want to be called Rohingya, as part of the media or whatever, it’s only respectful to call them what they want to be called. I don’t see that this term actually stops the humanitarian aid or humanitarian negotiations from happening.

Q: What’s the import of calling them refugees or trying not to call them refugees –

Oh: It’s typical. Most countries in Southeast Asia and it would seem in Asia don’t like to call refugees “refugees,” because the term refugee in the international legal context carries with it certain obligations, the 1951 convention. So for example, Thailand likes to call a lot of refugees “displaced people’ or ‘persons of concern.” It means that they do not recognize them as refugees with all the political implications of that, but they recognize them as people who have left their country for particular reasons, specifically political, want to come to live in Thailand and they need assistance….

So I don’t think it changes the humanitarian angle, because the governments realize – they know it’s a refugee issue, they know they need the humanitarian aid, the help that the organizations can provide.

But what I do think the sort of impact it has – in using this particular term, what happens is that it reduces the political. It strips the political aspects of people’s flight from their homes into another country. And lay people – people who live in Thailand, people living around the world – become very confused by these terms; they think “oh no no, they’re not refugees, they’re just displaced; they’re just, you know, they’re migrants.” What it does is it confuses people and so then, it makes it easier for governments to make policies that can go through without as much protest or discussion with its electorate.

Q: As a social scientist, is there any other community in Southeast Asia that is a bit of a similar situation with the Rohingya? There but unwanted, and defined as non-citizens.

OH: The Rohingya, the fact that they are stateless, that makes them slightly different from other refugee groups from other parts of Myanmar. I know people who are in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border who have been able to go back into Myanmar and get passports and then try to get into university afterwards with those passports. So they are still recognized as citizens of Myanmar. But the Rohingya – they are not recognized at all as citizens, so that makes a huge difference.

There are other stateless people in Southeast Asia, but there isn’t at the moment – I can’t think of any – that is both stateless and refugee at the same time. – Rappler.com

Johanna Son, Bangkok-based editor/manager of the Reporting ASEAN series, has followed Southeast Asian issues for more than two decades.

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