Rohingya. Dehumanisation of a forgotten population

Thinking of Buddhism, we have some concepts in mind, such as peace, respect, illumination, wisdom, calm and internal balance. Myanmar is a Country of Buddhist prevalence: almost 90% of the population practices it, it’s the Country with the highest percentage of monks in relation to population and with the highest expenses for religion. But it’s exactly here that lives one of the most persecuted and forgotten ethnic groups: the Rohingya. They are an ethnical minority of Muslim origin, of about 800,000 individuals, forced to live in a sort of apartheid in the Western part of Myanmar, in the Burmese State of Rakhine.

As stated by the Burmese citizenship law, Rohingya are not part of the 135 recognized ethnical groups of Myanmar, therefore they have no Burmese citizenship right, de facto being stateless. They’re not permitted to travel without an official authorization, to own plots of land, they’re obliged to have no more than two children per family and they’re not even allowed to say the word “Rohingya”. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya escaped to Bangladesh to avoid undergoing those that have been declared crimes against humanity. RohingyaCentinaia di migliaia di rohingya sono scappati in Bangladesh per fuggire da quelli che sono stati dichiarati crimini contro l’umanità. 

In 2018 Annual Report by Amnesty International, we can read:

The army, often in collaboration with border patrol and local vigilantes, killed an unspecified number of Rohingya women, men and children, tortured of abused Rohingya women and girls, even with rapes and other forms of sexual assault, laid down anti-personnel mines and set fire to Rohingya villages, in what UNHCHR described as ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. The behavior of law enforcement agencies appears to be a crime against humanity.1

All in all, the Nobel peace prize Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years under house arrest for her fights in favor of human rights, now State Councilor and Burmese head of State de facto, doesn’t mention nor recognizes the seriousness of such crimes. Rohingya’s persecution history isn’t recent: it starts in 1825, with the colonization of the British Empire and continues with WWII, because, contrary to other Burmese minorities, Rohingya supported Japan. From there it’s a succession of pogroms, until 2012, when a group of extremist Buddhist monks incite violence against Rohingya Muslims, since they’re considered a danger for religion and traditions of the majority, according to a particular interpretation of Buddhist message. 200 dead and 100,000 evacuees are enough for calming down the spirits until 2016, when an armed attack to Burmese police checkpoints causes a reaction that ends up in fires, murders, rapes and 80,000 stateless refugees camped beyond Naf river, that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar.

But what brings a group of persons to define the identity of other individuals and describe them, in the collective imagination, as a danger if not even something non human? The process of identity attribution has been studied at length by anthropologists that generally agree in stating that identities as an ontological-political entity are in fact nonexistent, they’re not objects but have a materiality that can have effects on the world, sometimes lethal, like in this case. Making my point clear, identity isn’t something given by nature, but it’s the result of a process: “identity is a matter of decisions” (Remotti, 1996: 5). The identity is something that, even without existing, becomes visible and real through the administrative and structural systems of a society, wholly defining individuals’ life. Through discrimination and exclusion, we set the conditions for the very existence of identity.

In the case of Rohingya, we are in front of what can be defined an ethnic conflict, since one of the main traits of these conflicts is to define the groups in conflict based on a belonging to certain racial and cultural traits such s kin, religion, language, perceived as primordial heritage of the group. Another peculiar feature of these conflicts can be found in the causes of the conflict itself, that are often to be identified with ancestral hatreds that periodically emerge in a violent way. Ethnicities elicit conflicts only when they’re used by political leaders and propaganda campaigns that leverage and are based on feelings of fear and hate. These forms of structural violence are characterized by a strong bond with institutions and their forms of power, that do everything to safeguard the privileges of the dominant groups, and by the tendency of hierarchically classifying individuals and groups, penalizing those who are not considered totally human, thus carrying out processes of dehumanization, as in the case of Rohingya.

Another aspect that many observers have highlighted concerns the policy of land expropriation for this minority, that has been dispossessed of more than 1,200,000 hectares. As Ugo Fabietti explains, the matters of ethnical identity are connected to conflicts of groups that often compete “for the access to certain material and symbolic resources” (1995: 19). So, identity also becomes a powerful means in the fight for resources.

The question is still unresolved and, despite the increasing opening of Myanmar to tourism, the northern part of the Country is still unreachable.




2 Francesco Remotti, Contro l’identità, Editori Laterza, 1996
3 Ugo Fabietti, L’identità etnica. Storia e critica di un concetto equivoco, La Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1995


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