Causes of Rohingya Conflict

By Shucheesmita Simonti

Image result for Ethnic cleansing rohingya
Photo Credit: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Asia Correspondent: Israel Refuses to Stop Arms sales to Burma

History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them. B. R. Ambedkar

In the case study of Rohingya, two root causes have been identified: ethnic and religious dispute. This section briefly discusses the religious and ethnic dimension to the conflict. 

In India, UNHCR issues a refugee card and provides medicine supply. As I the researcher found out through the field interviews, in the Kalindi Kunj slum occupied by Rohingya refugees, the land belongs to Zakat foundation. 

Most of the men made a living by selling vegetables or as vendors, whereas the women confined themselves to their tiny cramped rooms, reluctant to venture out. Mohd.Shah also narrated in his interview that in Myanmar they were issued a Mehman card which stated them to be Bengali Muslims and while leaving Myanmar, that card was confiscated by the government and their names were removed from the list of Mehman card holders. As their Mehman card is seized, it implies they cannot return to Myanmar again. 

With regard to definitions of ethnicity, varying opinions exist amongst scholars. One definition of ethnicity is―either a large or a small group of people, in either backward or advanced societies, who are united by a common inherited culture (including language, music, food, dress, and customs and practices, racial similarity, common religion, and belief in common history, and ancestry and who exhibit a strong psychological sentiment of belonging to the group)‖ (Taras, R. & Ganguly, R., 1998; Phadnis, U. & Ganguly, R., 2001). 

To understand the source of ethnic conflict, one needs to understand 'what constitutes a nation' and the extent to which it is in contradiction with the concept of ethnic nationalism. Benedict Anderson (1983) defined a nation as ―an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign…It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. 

Thus, a nation is a limited sovereign territory which is limited by geography and gives a collective identity to its inhabitants. In contrast, ethnic-nationalism is a sense of belonging derived from shared past and cultural roots; as argued by Smith(1999): ―a central theme of historical ethnic-symbolism is the relationship of shared memories to collective cultural identities: memory, almost by definition, is integral to cultural identity, and cultivation of shared memories is essential to the survival and destiny of such collective identities.

In contrast, Vamik Volkan (2006 cited Karl & Steffan 2010) approaches the concept of ethnicity from a psychoanalytic perspective and argues that people form images about themselves and others through symbols such as flags, icons, memorials, groups of people with whom they may have positive or negative connotations, which is similar to Calhoun (2007)‘s argument which asserted that ―The translation of ethnicity into nationalism is partly a matter of converting the cultural traditions of everyday life into more specific cultural claims.

Thus, in context of the nature of the most modern nation-states where the collective identity is derived from the geographically confined territory, it can be asserted that the concept of ethnic nationalism transcends geographical boundaries and is derived from the notion of an imagined historical homeland. 

Across the world, it is the struggle between the ethnic identity and the collective identity that leads to the rise of ethno-nationalist secessionist movements. Glatzer(2002) hinted at the prehistoric significance of ethnic and tribal identity, who argued: ―Due to its inherent primordial connotations, ethnic and tribal identity is connected with strong emotions and therefore easily leads to particular aggressiveness when conflicts arise.

This prehistoric significance of ethnic identity is often associated with the notion of a shared past, of a historical homeland that once belonged to the ethnic group. 

Given the socio-cultural context of Myanmar, it can be deduced that people‘s perception towards the Rohingya community is based on negative connotations, as they have been considered as outsiders. With regard to memory, they are considered as Bengali Muslims owing to migration and porous border in earlier times and thus the Buddhist Burmese found it difficult to consider them as part of ―Burmese identity.

Linguistic divide plays a role too in this conflict, as the Rohingyas have their own distinct language which is a mixture of Arakanese, Bengali and Urdu. Arakan province got integrated into Burma only in 1785, and thus the community does not have shared glories to feel a sense of kinship with the mainstream Burmese. 

As asserted by Ross (2007), culture and identity play a dominant role in any ethnic conflict. In case of Rohingyas, the identity crisis imposed upon them can be observed. As narrated by Kulsum Khatoon, a 31-year-old refugee residing in Kalindi Kunj with her husband and 4 children, ―The Buddhists told us we are outsiders. We are Bengali Muslims, we don‘t belong here. But my heart still yearns for Arakans; this is where I was born, I grew up. If the conflict is ever resolved, I would like to go back there.

However, the protests that took place earlier demanding that the voting rights of Rohingyas be revoked on the ground that they are not citizens of Myanmar and can never be, it can be assumed that the process of reintegration is indeed a blood mammoth task. 


Apart from ethnic divide, the major factor that triggered the conflict in Arakan state is the religious divide, since about 85% of people in Myanmar practice Buddhism and the Buddhist clergies play an important role in promoting nationalist movements which is often intertwined with religion. 

According to Benedict Anderson, a nation is an imagined community because, ―regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. (Anderson,1991). 

However, in context of Rohingyas, over centuries, the community has never been considered a part of the ―Burmese community‖; they have always been considered to be outsiders. As narrated by several refugees, they have been obstructed from practicing their religion; the Burmese army demolished the mosques and tried to stop them from praying. According to Sultan Ahmad, who was once a rich farmer in Arakan state, ―The Buddhist seized our mosques, dishonored the holy places. 

There was no freedom of religion. Abdullah who assumes an influential position amongst the refugee families too asserted that they were dehumanized by the Myanmar government due to religious divide.

This article is extracted from the Research paper titled 'Gender Based Violence and Subsequent Safety Challenges experienced by Rohingya Women'  in Chapter 3 of the Safety Report by SAFIGI Foundation 'Safety First for Girls'.

The Safety Report by SAFIGI is a two-fold Open research on 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The first part of the Safety Report is a Research Paper. The second part is a detailed Data Analysis. 

The Safety Report Research paper is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The paper starts with an abstract before focusing on subjects in the key regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A total of 7 Research papers make up the safety Report (sans the introduction and conclusion), including:

  1. The psychological effect of mass sexual harassment on girls in Egypt (P.24) by Heba Elasiouty.
  2. Safety concerns in relation to social media: Growing up female in an increasingly digital world (P.45) by Karin Temperley.
  3. Psychosocial challenges faced by parents raising children with physical disabilities in Oshana region (P.68) by Misumbi Shikaputo.
  4. Gender-based violence and subsequent safety challenges experienced by Rohingya women (P.119) by Shucheesmita Simonti.
  5. LGBT policies and overall safety in Brazil (P.141) by Alinne Lopes Gomes.
  6. Silent voices‘: Violence against the female body as consequence of machismo culture (P.177)  by Steffica Warwick.
  7. America‘s Public Policy on Sexuality: The Repression of Girls in Vulnerable Populations (P.208) by Dr. Christina Sisti.

SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a volunteer-based and youth led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented the Safety Report in order to understand the multifaceted concept of safety and how it applies to the female gender in diverse settings. And therefore, further prove safety is intrinsic, and that vices in society stem from an intimate level of the human being before its manifestation. This way, when we create safety solutions, whether it be in a developing nation, conflict zone, refugee camp, or patriarchal society, the problem is resolved from a deeply rooted cause. Such that, we treat the disease itself and not mere symptoms.

This study is as a result of collaborative effort pursued in the spirit of volunteerism via UN Online Volunteers.


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