Myanmar’s Muslim communities unbound: the Rohingya and beyond

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The Rohingya are a community at a cusp. Deported and cleansed over several waves of violence they have mostly been removed from the territory they call home. Located at the political, legal, and cultural margins of both Myanmar and Bangladesh, this ethnic community of just over two million people2 belong to neither and are othered by both states, as they unsettle their nation-building projects. Over time, and particularly from 1962 onwards, the Myanmar3 authorities have disenfranchised and later persecuted this group, which has for very long been indigenous to Arakan/Rakhine. It has done so through a combined discourse of national unity centred around ‘Myanmafication’ (or Burmanization) and the Bengalization of the country’s Muslims. While immigration of both Muslims and Hindus has in fact increased from India, including Bengal, during British colonial rule, bundling all Muslims into one undistinguished, bounded, and – the argument goes – illegal immigrant group, the argument is used to justify the marginalisation, even expulsion of a large portion of Myanmar’s society. A ‘purified’, coherent and cohesive Myanmar society could then emerge, no longer under siege from an alien other, built around Burman ethnicity and the Buddhist faith.
This chapter is concerned with interrogating and debunking the discourses of unity prevalent in certain periods of Burma/Myanmar’s political life. Privileging ‘Myanmafication’ and collapsing ethnicity, race and religion all in one, the Rohingya, and the country’s various – and varied - Muslim communities have been bundled into a single meta-group, in fact a ‘meta-other’. In Myanmar at least, the Rohingya’s ‘alterity is perceived as inassimilable and irrefragable’ (Frydelund 2020: 238). Increasingly, this has become the case for many other Muslim communities too. The chapter takes issue with such tendencies to essentialise and reify the Rohingya and more generally Myanmar’s Muslim experiences. To do so, it draws on the insights of constructivist (Brubaker, 2002 and 2009) and more critical, anti-essentialist literature on trans-border identities and diasporic conditions (Appadurai, 1996; Anthias, 1998; Clifford 1994) and, empirically, the more nuanced anthropological studies of the Rohingya (Uddin, 2019; Uddin and Chowdhory 2019) and Myanmar’s Kamans (Nyi Nyi Kyaw 2016). By so doing, this chapter aims to shed light on this diversity by offering a more nuanced view on Myanmar’s Muslims and contribute to a de-essentialisation and a more fluid understanding of Myanmar’s ‘Muslim mosaic’ (Crouch, 2016). The contribution embeds the case of the Rohingya in a comparative perspective on Myanmar’s Muslims, focusing especially on the Kaman, the Panthay (Chinese Muslims), Burmese Muslims, and the Malay (Pashu) Muslims4. The chapter details the heterogeneity of Myanmar’s Muslim communities by considering variation in size, region of settlement, historical patterns of settlement, and status in today’s Myanmar. The chapter’s main added value lies in its attempt to bring some nuance and problematisation to the study of the Rohingya which, after decades of neglect, has benefited from expanding interest, hitherto mostly confined to single case studies of the community. The chapter is structured as follows. First, I briefly review the key themes in the scholarship on the Rohingya. Next, I embed the case study in a broader critique of the study of ethnicity and nations in a substantialist and essentialist manner and advance the case for anti-essentialism and a greater appreciation of hybridity and change. I subsequently detail the similarities and differences between Myanmar’s various Muslim communities, before concluding.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Rohingya crisis
Subtitle of host publicationHuman Rights Issues, Policy Issues and Burden Sharing
EditorsNasir Uddin
Place of PublicationNew Delhi
Number of pages27
ISBN (Print)9789354791307, 9789354791451
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021


  • Rohingya
  • Myanmar
  • Bangladesh
  • Muslim
  • Minorities
  • Islam
  • South Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • Arakan
  • Rakhine
  • Conflict
  • Heterogeneity
  • Empire
  • Colonialism
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Violence
  • Ethnic cleansing
  • Genocide
  • British Empire
  • India


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