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Beyond religious freedom: the Rohingya and the politics of religious rights in Myanmar

Date:24 August 2017
Author:Roos Feringa
Beyond religious freedom
Beyond religious freedom

In today’s blogpost the key note speaker of our Jubilee ConferenceElizabeth Shakman Hurdexplores the politics of religious difference and the problems and challenges raised by religious freedom in the protection of minorities through a case study of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Prof Hurd will be speaking on the topic of ‘Thinking Differently about religion, politics and power’ on 13 September. Today’s post is a brief introduction to themes she will explore in greater depth in her talk.

By all accounts, the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar is dire. Though claiming Burmese citizenship, most Rohingya are denied citizenship by the Burmese state, classified as Bengali immigrants, and subject to virulent forms of discrimination. State-sanctioned violence has worsened in recent years, with many driven out of their villages, separated from their families, and confined to squalid refugee camps. Prominent monks also have turned against them, blocking humanitarian assistance and calling for their social and political exclusion along the lines of what some compare to apartheid in South Africa. Leading the charge is a Buddhist activist group composed of monks and laity called 969. Its spokesperson, a Mandalay-based monk named U Wirathu, calls for the Rohingya to be driven out of Burma.

What is the role of religion in this conflict and how should the international community respond to it? Religious difference has borne a heavy explanatory load in explanations of the Rohingya’s predicament. In 2012 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom identified them as persecuted Muslims. The international media describes them as a Muslim minority suffering from religious persecution at the hands of an intolerant Buddhist majority. Myanmar is incompletely secularized, such accounts imply, with intolerant forms of religion stubbornly persisting in public life. Protections for religious minorities appear as a plausible solution.

They are not. When policymakers describe the Rohingya’s plight as a problem of religious persecution and develop policy based on that understanding, they misconstrue the situation, overlook the real culprits, and risk exacerbating the violence against them and other vulnerable communities. To focus on intolerant religion as the problem, and religious freedom as the solution, blinds us to a larger and more complex set of challenges. An informed response requires that the international community grapple with a bigger picture and a longer global history.

Understanding three factors is crucial to developing an informed response to the crisis: the legacy of Burma’s “divide and rule” colonial history, the social perils of economic liberalization, and the rise of a violent and exclusionary form of Burmese nationalism.

Rakhine state, where many Rohingya live, was independent from Rangoon and Mandalay until the Burman conquest in 1785, and a strong sense of territorial identity distinguishing the region from the rest of Burma persists. Muslim-Buddhist “divide and rule” policy in that area dates to the British colonial era (1824–1948) and was exacerbated throughout the twentieth century into the present. During the Japanese occupation, which began with the Imperial Army’s invasion in 1942, the British armed Rohingya “Force V” militias while the Japanese armed a variety of Buddhist-led groups, with the two sides pitted against each other in a proxy struggle. In 1962, the Burmese military seized power and sought to impose ethnic purity by marginalizing minorities and non-Buddhists, again increasing tensions. This legacy of marginalization lingers in the present.

A second factor is the impact of economic liberalization on center-periphery relations. The rise of economic competition due to the relaxation of military rule and the heightened competition for jobs and scarce natural resources has translated into an increasingly precarious status for the Rohingya and other vulnerable populations in Myanmar. They are easily scapegoated as illegal immigrants and potential threats to job or rent seekers. Heightened state securitization of border areas related to Burma’s economic opening also has exacerbated tensions. With large-scale energy, trade, and infrastructure projects under development in ethnic minority borderlands, analysts foresee increased state securitization and rising tensions between center and periphery.

A third factor is the intensification of linguistic violence and the rise of a virulent form of Burmese ethno-nationalism. While the name “Rooinga” had been recognized as early as 1799, and was recognized by the Burmese state on several previous occasions, today security forces compel Rohingya to refer to themselves as Bengalis. A 2013 government report refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” emphasizing their status as outsiders.

The Rohingya are not excluded from Burmese society only with religious slurs but with racist and other de-humanizing terms. Discrimination against them is ethnic, racial, economic, political, linguistic, postcolonial, and statist. All of these dimensions of the crisis—and in particular the state’s role in perpetuating the persecution by actively abetting or turning a blind eye to violence—demand the attention of the international community.

To approach their plight as the affliction of a persecuted religious minority in need of emancipation masks the economic and political interests that profit from their subordination and repression. It deflects attention away from state-sponsored violence, political and economic disagreements among the governing elite concerning the speed and shape of reform, the xenophobic basis of the discrimination, and the role of economic insecurities and regional power dynamics accompanying Burma’s opening to trade and investment.

But the problem with religious rights also runs deeper. Characterizing the violence against the Rohingya as religious in nature not only absolves the governing elite from their complicity in it but also actively reinforces 969’s dangerous narrative that religious difference is the most salient aspect of the crisis.

Let’s look at this claim more closely. The discourse of religious rights creates and reinforces—legally and politically—the salience of whatever the authorities designate as religion: in this case, Buddhist-Muslim difference. Crucially, rather than defanging 969 and its allies, the discourse of religious rights reinforces religious divides while deferring and subduing the potential of alternative, crosscutting movements to challenge those who profit most from the Rohingya’s exclusion. It breathes life into an exclusionary nationalism that relies on a toxic combination of majoritarian Buddhism, race, and Burmese national identity. The specificities of this formation are crucial. Entangled hierarchies of difference and discrimination involving race, religion, economic class, and national belonging are all bound up together.

To insist on the Rohingya’s status as a “Muslim minority” while ignoring these other aspects of their exclusion from Burmese state and society cements the Rohingya’s status as religious outsiders while feeding exclusionary forms of  both  politics and religion.

We need to ask a different question: Are the Rohingya being persecuted because they’re Muslim, immigrants, threatening to the former junta, or to other national or regional economic interests? Or all of the above? In Myanmar and far beyond, many factors lead to discrimination and violence: local histories, class disparities, environmental factors, immigration status, urban-rural tensions, family grievances, oppressive governance, outside interventions, colonial legacies, land disputes, tensions surrounding gender and sexuality, economic rivalries. Reducing violence to a problem of religious intolerance obscures the complex tapestry of human sociality, rendering the problems faced by vulnerable groups more intractable.

In Myanmar and beyond, decision-makers would do well to avoid locking into a narrative that protects religion in law and posits it as a coherent category of government policy and international intervention. As I argue in more detail in my book Beyond Religious Freedom, governing through religious rights marks religious difference as an exceptionally threatening form of social difference that must be kept in check by the authorities. It renders religious difference more salient politically, eclipsing other axes of being and belonging. It bestows political authenticity and agency on groups defined as “religions,” conjuring fixed and stable categories of affiliation and granting them social and legal currency. In doing so it often exacerbates the social tensions it is meant to manage or transcend. Governing through religious rights obscures other causes of social tension and discrimination. It diminishes the prospects of crosscutting, nonsectarian forms of solidarity and politics.

Today it is precisely those forms of solidarity, from local to global, that the Rohingya need most.

This post is adapted from  Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion  by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. © 2015 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by  permission.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is professor of politics at Northwestern University where she teaches on the intersections of politics, religion, and international relations. For an interview on her most recent book Beyond Religious Freedom (now in paper) see here. On why she wrote the book see here. Hurd is the recipient of a Buffett “Big Ideas” grant and co-directs the Buffett Faculty Research Group on Global Politics and Religion at Northwestern. She co-organizes the projects “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” and, most recently, “Talking Religion: Publics, Politics and the Media.”


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