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Two Sides of the Same Arakanese Coin ‘Rakhine,’ ‘Rohingya,’ and Ethnogenesis as Schismogenesis

 Category: Culture, History  Publisher: Elliott Prasse-Freeman; Kirt Mausert  Published: 1 January 2020  Tags: ArakanRakhineRohingya |  Download

Introduction: A Theory of Longue Duree Ethnogenesis

In the wake of ongoing cycles of ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, the most recent of which saw over 700,000 driven out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, the world has been searching for answers to what has motivated these brutal pogroms. Journalistic and academic accounts have generally characterized the violence as deriving from some mixture of internecine conflict (between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya) and state-sponsored military cleansing operations. Although the modality of violence is quite different across these explanations, what they have in common is reducing the conflict to Buddhists versus Muslims, or the autochthonous Rakhine (with backing of their co- religionists, the Bamar, amongst other ‘national races’ of Burma) versus the putatively allochthonous Rohingya.

The problem with these accounts is that while religion and indigeneity have certainly proven to be potent discourses for mobilizing the violence, an exclusive focus on them ultimately obscures factors that would illuminate deeper motivations of the conflict. Specifically, while both folk and academic histories draw on particular interpretations of official British colonial records and Arakanese royal chronicles to present the Rakhine and Rohingya as unrelated ethnic groups – a division that has allowed elites of both to make political claims to autonomy within Myanmar – re-examination and retheorization of historical sources, linguistic patterns, archaeological records, and anthropological data casts doubt upon that conclusion and the very epistemological stance that insists upon such a project of categorization. Instead, we suggest that beginning after the migration of the Mranma people to Arakan around the 9th century,iii processes of schismogenesisiv (creation through differentiation) have been underway which have resulted today in the binary Rakhine/Rohingya, with the former considered “native” and the latter “foreign” to Arakan. We suggest here that both emblems of identity in fact are intimately related to one another rather than either preceding the other in a meaningful sense.

Hence, contemporary conflicts over the status of the Rohingya – of the validity and legitimacy of the emblem itself – are animated by a misapprehension of the centuries-long process whereby the Rakhine identity (imagined as an ethnic group in relation to Burma’s other national ”races”, chiefly the Bamar) has gone through fundamental change as its proponents appropriated as their exclusive cultural patrimony many of the symbols of the general “Arakanese” culture that preceded it. “Arakan” here is the name given to the political kingdoms derived from the preceding “Indic” kingdoms which variously incorporated Buddhist, Hindu, and, later, Muslim subjects and symbols in what is now the trans-civilizational zone extended across Rakhine Statevi and southeastern Bangladesh. While Rakhine/Rohingya should index changes in the complex trans-ethnic political-cultural systemvi i constituted by Arakan/Chittagong over a millennium, the dyad instead stands for the aggrandizement of the first term at the expense of the latter’s erasure.

But even as we encourage the consideration of the Arakan/Chittagong system, it too is ensconced in other systems. Michael Charney has labeled the Rakhine ethnogenetic project of cultural-symbolic appropriation, the other side of which has been the denial of indigeneity to this Muslim populationvi i i of whom some ultimately came to recognize themselves as Rohingya, as “Irrawaddy-ification.”ix Charney describes this as a process deriving from the historical contingencies of the 17th and 18th century decline of Arakan, followed by the policies of the derogatory Bamar conquerors that began with the annexation of Arakan in 1784/85. A review of the recent relative explosion of research on 17th century Arakan and Bengalxi brings those initial cycles of schismogenesis into focus – in which conceptions of difference were generated, boundaries drawn, cultural borders established that re-oriented Arakan east toward the Irrawaddy on one hand, and Chittagong (across the Naf river from Arakanxi i ) west toward Bengal and the wider Muslim world on the other. The early 19th century British colonial occupation that followed the Bamar conquest further exacerbated these divisions, compelling additional cycles of ethnogenesis often achieved through violent projects of separation. The British gave way to a further intensification of the essentialization of Rakhine identity in the post-colonial era, as Rakhine nationalists have sought to affirm their place within the post-colonial Myanmar state’s “national races” pantheon, an imaginary animated by an ideology which privileges Buddhism and concomitant narratives of indigeneity, while Rohingya elites have insisted upon the ethnonym ‘Rohingya’ and privileged Muslim identity over non-Muslim traditions as way of connecting to Arakan. We conclude by arguing that the Rohingya/Rakine conflict can be perceived as microcosmic of a broader anxiety in Myanmar society about indigeneity – itself a metonym for belonging in the polity, in which the ability to claim membership may be the only way of securing access to scarce resources and opportunities. This is particularly potent given the current inefficacy and irrelevance of formal citizenship status.xi i i Hence, deconstructing ‘Rakhine’ and contesting Rohingya exclusion together unravel the flimsy fabric with which Myanmar’s indigeneity discourse is currently woven.

To describe these various processes, the article will proceed in a speculative vein, drawing from a four-fields (Biological, Linguistic, Archaeological, Sociocultural) anthropological methodology. This project, while ambitious in its theorization, is also humble – in that we are re- reading work generated by others, reassembling texts arranged by those who have come before us, and proposing new trajectories for research that either we have recently begun (through an ongoing multi-sited ethnographic project in Cox Bazar, Kuala Lumpur, and Yangon), or which we ourselves cannot follow. By examining earlier claims, we ask: are there other reasonable ways of interpreting the data? Such questioning can critique current interpretive theories and advance alternative ones, based on what fieldwork conducted elsewhere in Burma (and beyond) has generated. This is especially necessary when many current arguments about the ethnogenesis of the Rohingya take colonial records as dispositive,xi v or fixate on the existence of the ethonyms “Rohingya” and “Rakhine” in various archives without considering the potential for, on one hand, radical cultural differences within those respective terms across time and space, and on the other, the existence of groups of people sharing culture, dress, religion, language despite the absence of a consistent ethnic name inscribed within discursive traditions.