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Finding Foucault in the Rohingya Discourses

WENDELL GLENN P. CAGAPE


PhD in Southeast Asian Studies
Centro Escolar University
wendellglenncagape@gmail.com

Abstract:

The year is 2018 and for the first time in the history of the
atrocities against the Rohingya in the Rakhine, the Myanmar
Tatmadaw admitted that there were 10 Rohingya Muslims who
were murdered in the coastal village of Inn Din (Murdoch, 2018 ),
which happened in the beginning of September 2017, after
Buddhist villagers had forced the captured men into a grave they
had dug (Reuters, 2018 ). The admission was relayed by Min Aung
Hlaing (Taylor, 2018).
The admission was a rare acknowledgment of wrongdoing by
the Myanmar military during the operation it launched in northern
Rakhine in response to Rohingya militant attacks on Aug. 25 (Lewis,
2018).
These atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims played very much
into the hands of the majority in Myanmar who continued to
perpetuate this hate against an ethnic group who peacefully existed
in the Rakhine State since the 7th century. Until this most recent
admission by the Tatmadaw. For years since Burma was granted
independence in 1948 by Great Britain, they started the policy to
exclude the Rohingya in the very fiber of the Myanmarese tapestry
and society. Deemed intruders into Myanmar, the Rohingya were
slowly deprived of inclusiveness in 1949 until today. There were
episodes of abuses against this ethnic group in the Rakhine that
sporadically happened from the period 1949 to 2018.
These abuses too are characteristics of power dynamics wielded
by the majority Buddhist, usually sanctioned by the Tatmadaw
against the Rohingya.
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This paper attempts to find Michel Foucault in all these horrible


abuses in the light of his treaties on subject and power. It was
Frenchman Michel Foucault, born in October 15, 1926 who studied
power. Foucault contend that “the exercise of power is not simply
a relationship between partners, individuals or collective; it is a way
in which certain actions modify others.” He continued that “power
exists only when it is put into action, even if, of course, it is
integrated into a disparate field of possibilities brought to bear
upon permanent structures (Foucault, 1982)”.
This paper situates Michel Foucault’s thesis in his article The
Subject and Power as published in the Journal Critical Inquiry and
to find it in the Rohingya discourses, on print – may it be based on
reports by the United National Rapporteur on Human Rights,
speeches at the United Nations, in the Final Report of the Annan
Commission and several newswires that discuss the abuses of the
Rohingya in 2017-2018.
The paper considers the reports of abuses by the Tatmadaw
against the Rohingya after the August 25, 2017 to the present.
Entirely based on secondary data found in online sources such as
online scholarly journals, books, news reports by international news
agencies, narratives from the United Nations documenting the
Rohingya, and other official reports. This paper possesses a
qualitative approach in cross-analyzing these documents and
extricate meanings that support/validate Foucault’s definition of
power and juxtaposing accounts that confronts Foucault’s limits on
the definition of power.

Keywords: Rohingya, Foucault, Southeast Asia, Muslims, Myanmar, power, power relations,
abuses, persecution
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The year is 2018 and for the first time in the history of the atrocities against the Rohingya
in the Rakhine, the Myanmar Tatmadaw admitted that there were 10 Rohingya Muslims who
were murdered in the coastal village of Inn Din (Murdoch, 2018 ), which happened in the
beginning of September 2017, after Buddhist villagers had forced the captured men into a grave
they had dug (Reuters, 2018 ). The admission was relayed by Min Aung Hlaing (Taylor, 2018).
The admission was a rare acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the Myanmar military
during the operation it launched in northern Rakhine in response to Rohingya militant attacks on
Aug. 25 (Lewis, 2018).
These atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims played very much into the hands of the
majority in Myanmar who continued to perpetuate this hate against an ethnic group who
peacefully existed in the Rakhine State since the 7th century. Until this most recent admission by
the Tatmadaw. For years since Burma was granted independence in 1948 by Great Britain, they
started the policy to exclude the Rohingya in the very fiber of the Myanmarese tapestry and
society. Deemed intruders into Myanmar, the Rohingya were slowly deprived of inclusiveness in
1949 until today. There were episodes of abuses against this ethnic group in the northern Rakhine
State that sporadically happened from the period 1949 to 2018.
These abuses too are characteristics of power dynamics wielded by the majority Buddhist,
usually sanctioned by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya.
This paper attempts to find Michel Foucault in all these horrible abuses in the light of his
writings on subject and power. It was Frenchman Michel Foucault, born in October 15, 1926 who
studied power and power relations. Foucault contends that “the exercise of power is not simply
a relationship between partners, individuals or collective; it is a way in which certain actions
modify others.” He continued that “power exists only when it is put into action, even if, of course,
it is integrated into a disparate field of possibilities brought to bear upon permanent structures
(Foucault, 1982)”.
This paper situates Michel Foucault’s thesis in his article The Subject and Power as
published in the journal Critical Inquiry published by the University of Chicago Press and to find
it in the Rohingya discourses, on print – may it be based on reports by the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on Human Rights, United Nations Resolutions, the resolutions adopted by the Human
Rights Council and in the Final Report of the Annan Commission or the Advisory Commission on
the Rakhine State and several newswires that discuss the abuses of the Rohingya in 2017-2018.
The paper considers the reports of abuses by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya after
the August 25, 2017 to the present although footnotes are done to past atrocities to justify them
in our discourses. Entirely based on secondary data found in online sources such as journals,
books, news reports by international news agencies, narratives from the United Nations
documenting the Rohingya, and other official reports. This paper possesses a qualitative
approach in cross-analyzing these documents and extricate accounts that support/validate
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Foucault’s definition of power and to juxtaposing accounts that confronts Foucault’s limits on the
definition of power.
As widely reported, Muslim militants in Myanmar staged a coordinated attack on 30
police posts and an army base in Rakhine state on Friday, and at least 59 of the insurgents and
12 members of the security forces were killed. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a
group previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which instigated the October attacks, claimed
responsibility for the early morning offensive, and warned of more (Lone & Naing, 2017).
As a result, 605,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Rakhine State (Asrar, 2017). It was after the
carnage that resulted to the killing of more than 70 people. In the melee, 12 policemen were
killed while 59 Rohingya were killed. According to the Tatmadaw, the militants used knives, small
arms and explosives in coordinated early-morning attacks on several police and military posts
around Buthidaung and Maungdaw, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh (Ramzy, 2017).

What makes this admission a breakthrough in the context of the role of the Tatmadaw in
the abuses perpetuated against the Rohingya was the fact that for years and even in November
2017, the Tatmadaw vehemently denied wrongdoing against the Rohingya. Citing the Myanmar
Military Report, the BBC even wrote: “past investigations into human rights abuses by the
Myanmar authorities gave little cause for hope of a fair and thorough inquest this time. The
results of this inquiry show little has changed. The terms of the military's probe were
exceptionally narrow. The investigators were told only to ask whether soldiers had followed the
military's code of conduct, and whether they obeyed the commands they were given by their
officers (Head, 2017). In spite denials by the Tatmadaw then, a report on the Rohingya released
by Human Rights Watch, which focused on sexual violence, said that the raping of women and
girls appeared to be even more widespread and systematic than earlier suspected, and that
uniformed members of Myanmar’s military were responsible for it (Gladstone, 2017).

The mostly stateless Rohingya have been sequestered and preyed upon by Myanmar’s
military for years. Human rights groups have long accused the Tatmadaw, as the country’s
security forces are known, of regular assault of Rohingya girls and women. (The security forces
have been accused of that pattern with women of other ethnic minorities as well.)But the latest
campaign of gang rape against the Rohingya has been so brutal and systematic that Pramila
Patten, a United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, deemed it “a
calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group”
(Beech, 2017).

Under these abuses are descriptions of power as defined by Michel Foucault. Since
Foucault situated power in the human subject who are placed in power relations which are very
complex, the contextualization of the Rohingya’s discourses are apt. There are limits however of
how Foucault defined power in relation to our contemporary analysis of world and regional
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events, one can not help but perhaps, find Foucault in the Rohingya discourses to gain more
insights on the definition of power from his perspective.

This paper acknowledges the limitations on the study of power by Foucault and that
safely, it rests on its assumptions that under the scalpel analysis of the abuses done unto the
Rohingya and how their discourses are interplayed in the regional and world stages, one can
extract meaningful insights into Foucault’s definition of or perhaps, contribute to the continuing
criticism of his study of power.

Criticism of Foucault returns constantly to two themes: first, his descriptive analysis of
power provides us with no criteria for judgment, no basis upon which to condemn some regimes
of power as oppressive or to applaud others as involving progress in human freedom (Patton,
1998). Citing Nancy Fraser in his seminal piece on Foucault’s power, Paul Patton highlights:
“Because Foucault has no basis for distinguishing, for example, forms of power that involve
domination from those that do not, he appears to endorse a one-sided. Wholesale rejection of
modernity as such… clearly, what Foucault needs, and needs desperately, are normative criteria
for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable forms of power.

The Rohingya: Name contextualization

The recent contemporary utterance of Rohingya which elicited widespread protests was
when United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Nay Pyi Taw in 2014. Like it was
always the reactions of majority Buddhist in Myanmar, cushioned by its government’s
detestation of the name “Rohingya”, foreign leaders are usually discouraged to use the term
“Rohingya” in the discourse of the Muslim minority in the Rakhine State in Myanmar. Mostly of
the Buddhist in Myanmar would prefer to refer to the Muslim people in the Rakhine as either
“Muslim Rakhine” or “Bengali”, never as “Rohingya”. These objections even reached the halls of
the United Nations where Myanmar’s diplomats repeatedly requested the international
community to refrain from using “Rohingya”. For the record, Aung San Suu Kyi shuns the word
“Rohingya” (Cohen, 2017) and because the word reviled by so majority Buddhists in Myanmar,
she requested the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by former United Nations
Secretary General Kofi Annan to refer them as “Muslim” or the “Muslim Community in the
Rakhine State” (Annan, 2017) instead of “Rohingya” or its other version, the “Bengali”.
The Rohingya versus Bengali debate has often seemed intractable. Is there some way to
find common ground on this community of more than 1 million people in Rakhine State? (Myint,
2014).
The misunderstood journey of the Rohingya starts from its questioned history. Many in
the sectors of contemporary Burmese society openly opined that the Rohingya are mere
imported labor from Bangladesh who works in infrastructure projects at the height of the British
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colonization of the country in the 20th century and chose to stay. This reference run contrary to
the claims of the Rohingya that they had been living in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State in as
early as the 7th century.
Arguing for the debate of the name in favor of the Rohingya, former US Ambassador to
Burma from 2012-2016, Derek Mitchell opined that “we in the international community see the
Rohingya as innocent people who just want to call themselves a name and who are uniquely
abused for it. And, of course, it’s true they are largely innocent and uniquely abused. But to
people in Myanmar, the name suggests something much more” (Calamur, 2017). To them, they
are Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are permanently residing in the Rakhine State.
But to arrive at the Rohingya as a nomenclature, one needs to go back to the history of
the Rakhine (Arakan) State. Early on in its history, Arakan is the only Muslim enclave in all of the
provinces of Burma. It was due to the influx of Arab seafarers who have reached the Arakan and
as chronicled comprehensively by Arab geographers. According to their record:
“The land Jazirat-al-Rahmi or Rahma mentioned by Arab
geographers of 9th and 10th centuries may have been referred to the
kingdom of Raham (God blessed land) corrupted later to Rohang /
Roshang / Roang. Ibn Khordadzbeh(844-48 A.D.),a Persian traveller from
Basara (in Ferrand) said that Jaziratal-Rahmi came after Sarandip (Cyelon)
and contained peculiar unicorn animals and little naked people. Arab
geographers, Persian travellers and marchants such as Sulymen (851
A.D.) Yaqubi (880 A.D.), Ibn al Fakih (902 A.D.), Masudi (943 A.D.),
HudulAl-Alam (982 A.D.) and Marvazi (1120 A.D.) also referred Delta
region of Burma and Arakan as Rahama. They and many other travellers
used route over Arakan yoma to travel to Burma and then to China. But
Ibn Batuta wrote the name of Arakans as Arkan, derived from the Arabic
word Al-Rukun. The authors of the Ain-i-Akbar, Baharistan-i- Ghaibi and
Siyar-ul-Mutakherin wrote it as Arkhang, which appears also with a slight
change in Alamgirnama and Fathya-i-ibria is close to the name Arakan. In
the medieval Bengali literary works and Rennell's map the name of
Arakan is written Roshang. To the Portuguese and other European
travellers mentioned it Arracan, Arracoo, Orrakan, Arrakan and Van
Linscoten writes it Arakan which is nearest to the modern name. The
British government turned Arakan from Arkan. As a matter of fact the
name was given by the Muslim Arabs. The meaning is land of peace” (Ba
Tha, 1998).
On the argument of them being “Bengali”, one must study its origin in the arguments laid
by the Foreign Minister of Myanmar, U Nyan Win in his remarks at Hua Hin, Thailand, prior to the
ASEAN Summit as he was quoted to have said: “willing to accept the return of refugees from
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Myanmar if they are listed as Bengali Muslim minorities but not if they are Rohingyas, because
Rohingyas are not Myanmar citizens” (EBO Briefing Paper No. 2, 2009).
“Buddhist Rakhaings, who make up the majority, claim that the Bengali Muslims in Arakan
State today came with the British Raj in the 19th and 20th centuries. They further claim that
during the War of Independence in Bangladesh and after cyclones devastated Bangladesh in 1978
and 1991, many more migrated illegally into Burma. They say that the name “Rohingya” was
coined by Bengali Muslims to confer on themselves the status of an indigenous ethnic nationality
like the Shan, Karen and Kachin, etc. This would, they say, enable the Bengalis to claim parts of
Arakan State as their indigenous homeland, and carve out a separate Muslim state. The
Rakhaings back up their arguments by pointing to the communal massacres in 1942, and the
Mujaheed movement in 1947 that demanded autonomy and, in some instances, even tried to
annex parts of Arakan State to then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). For their part, some Muslim
Rohingyas claim that, not only are the Rohingyas indigenous, but that Muslims kings also ruled
Arakan in 1430 for over a hundred years. This is, of course, hotly disputed by the Rakhaings who
are extremely proud of their Buddhist heritage” (EBO Briefing Paper No. 2, 2009). This argument
was also supported by Aye Chan of the Kanda University of International Studies. She wrote: “the
term “Rohingya” came into use in the 1950s by the educated Bengali residents from the Mayu
Frontier Area and cannot be found in any historical source in any language before then. The
creators of that term might have been from the second or third generations of the Bengali
immigrants from the Chittagong District in modern Bangladesh; however, this does not mean
that there was no Muslim community in Arakan before the state was absorbed into British India”
(Chan, 2005).
Perhaps one way to study the origins of the name of Rohingya is on the linguistic
attributes of the people residing in the Rakhine State who are not Buddhist. The Rohingya speak
Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout
Myanmar (Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?, 2017).

Foucault’s Power at the crux of the Rohingya discourses


The study of Foucault should be gleaned in the schematized presentation of thesis on
power. This paper will be referenced by the essay written by Michel Foucault as an afterword to
Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul
Rabinow which was reprinted with arrangement with the University of Chicago Press.
In it, Foucault discussed the limits of his definition of power. He admitted that the goal of
his work in the last 20 years “has not been to analyze the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate
the foundations of such an analysis”. He batted moreover on “creating a history of the different
modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects”. The contemporary juxtaposing
of the narratives of the Rohingya who escaped the northern Rakhine State into Bangladesh can
be echoed by the Report of the OHCHR Mission to Bangladesh dated February 3, 2017. The Flash
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Report1 contains the interview results done to 220 persons who fled the nRS since 9 October
2016, with an end view of assessing the potential human rights violations taking place there since
then. The interview was conducted from 12 January 2017 to 21 January 2017 in the district of
Cox’z Bazar, Bangladesh.
Foucault’s motives can be gleaned in the contemporary situations faced by the Rohingya
in the northern Rakhine State. They “face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement”.
Further, “they require official authorization to move between, and often within, townships”
(OHCHR, 2017). These among many other atrocities reported in mainstream media effectively
made the Rohingya subjects in the contextualization of power by Foucault. They are made
subjects to power relations in Myanmar although the fact remains that they are stateless and
Myanmar erases its history (Beech, 2017).
Further, Foucault acknowledged too that there are “no tools of the study” of power. But
he raised the pertinent question of “what is the state?” in its ability to legitimate power and
furthermore, raised the “recourse to ways of thinking about power based on institutional
models”. Here, State and institutional models are the Government of Myanmar and its state
agents (such as the Tatmadaw, the Border Guard Police, the Police Force and ragtag boys
affiliated to militias commanded by the military in the northern Rakhine State. Now to answer
the question raised by Foucault on “what is the state?’, let us consider the Government of
Myanmar, including its civilian-led parliament and its State Counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The
State here was even accused of “ethnic cleansing” by the United States (Gowen, 2017). Her moral
authority was even questioned (Kurlantzick, 2017), and she “refused to criticize the country’s
military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning” (Beech
& Paddock, 2017). The state here is one that is characterized as oppressive against the Rohingya
people since 1948.

In his article, Foucault mentioned two “pathological forms” – “diseases of power” which
are “fascism and Stalinism”. In this, Myanmar harassed the Rohingya unceasingly, and arbitrarily.
“Rohingya youths are targets of intimidation, harassment and persecution by the Myanmar
authorities. The Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) from the Camp 12 based at the village of
‘YweNyoTaung’ has recently issued the warrants considered as arbitrary by the human rights
observers for the following number of youths from the following villages: (Siddiqi, 2017)

105 from the village of ‘Ye Khae Chaung KhwaSone’ locally known as ‘Bor Gozi Bil.’
69 from the village of ‘Ye Dwin Chaung’ locally known as ‘Raimma Bil’, and
59 from the village of ‘Kyar Gaung Taung’ locally known as ‘Rabailla’.

These, among so many other abuses done against the Rohingya is the same ‘banal facts’
argued by Foucault and he suggested that we “need to discover which specific and perhaps

1
The OHCHR Flash Report was the report of the OHCHR four-man team who were granted access to Bangladesh
from 8-23 January 2017 to interview Rohingyas who have entered Bangladesh from northern Rakhine State in the
aftermath of the 9 October 2016 attacks.
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original problem connected with them”. To further understand this context, let us refer to the
historical narratives mentioned in the Annan Commission Final Report: “Rakhine State –
separated from the rest of Myanmar by a rugged chain of mountains – has for most of its history
been a distinct political entity. While there are records of independent kingdoms since antiquity,
the final Rakhine kingdom was established in 1430, with its capital in Mrauk U. Situated on the
border between Buddhist and Muslim Asia, the kingdom had strong economic, trade and other
relations with the Sultanate of Bengal. For the next 350 years, Mrauk U thrived as a prosperous
trading hub, until it came under Burmese control in 1784-85. The annexation of Rakhine was
short-lived, as the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) brought the area under British control
and subsequent incorporation into British India. While there has been a Muslim community in
Rakhine since before the Burmese invasion, its size increased rapidly during colonial times. British
colonial policies to expand rice cultivation in Rakhine required significant labour, a need which
was largely filled by Muslim workers from Bengal. While many came on a seasonal basis, some
settled down permanently – altering the ethnic and religious mix of the area. From the 1880s to
the 1930s, the size of the Muslim community (as part of the total population of the state) seems
to have doubled, increasing from about 13 to 25 percent.2 Since then, the relative increase of
the Muslim population has slowed down significantly, and is now estimated to be around a third
of the state’s total population. (Annan, 2017)”. All these contemporary struggles and abuses
against the Rohingya is wholly or partially related to these historical narratives. This is where
Foucault wanted us to connect and rationalized in our study of power, in view of the Rohingya
discourses.

Foucault highlighted in his article several oppositions to power. He opined that it is not
enough to say that there are anti-authority struggles and defined it in context. He added specifics
that best suits the Rohingya experience also. He added that “they are struggles which question
the status of the individual: on the one hand, they assert the right to be different, and they
underline everything which makes individuals truly individual. On the other hand, they attack
everything which separates the individual, breaks his links with others, splits up community life,
forces the individual back on himself, and ties him to his own identify in a constraining way.”
These lines aptly explain the manner by which the Government of Myanmar and its society denies
the Rohingya their name yet continually persecuted them because of their name. In the eyes of
Myanmar government as well as even the Buddhist majority population, the Rohingya are
‘bengalis’. Since World War Two they have been treated increasingly by Burmese authorities as
illegal, interloping Bengalis, facing apartheid-like conditions that deny them free movement or
state education while government forces intermittently drive out and slaughter them (Krol &
Smith, 2017). Footnoting this is the exclusion of the Rohingya in the 1982 Citizenship Law which
effectively excluded them from the 135 recognized ethnic groups inside Myanmar and openly
segregated them for being Rohingya. In the eyes of the Government of Myanmar, the Rohingya
simply “do not exists” (Malik, 2014), worse, they are now “facing the final stages of genocide”
(Iyengar, 2015).

Officially, this was echoed also by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations through
A/HRC/RES/34/22 adopted in its 34th Session. The UNGA recalled the report of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and
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other minorities in Myanmar as recorded in A/HRC/32/18 and the adoption of the Flash Report
of the OMHCHR.

A more chilling account was reported by Reuters on the abuses against the Rohingya
which can be subsumed to be under the contextualization of Foucault in his article. The report
corroborated the accusations of the Rohingya against the Tatmadaw by the Buddhist residents
who witnessed the murder of the 10 Rohingya men. Michael G. Karnavas, a US lawyer based in
The Hague who has worked on cases at International Criminal Tribunals, said evidence that the
military had organized Buddhist civilians to commit violence against Rohingya “would be the
closest thing to a smoking gun in establishing not just intent, since the attacks seem designed to
destroy the Rohingya or at least a significant part of them” (Lewis, Lone, Slodkowski, & Soe Oo,
2018).

More so, Foucault elucidated that “all these present struggles revolve around the
question: Who are we? They are a refusal of these abstractions, of economic and ideological state
violence, which ignore who we are individually, and also a refusal of a scientific or administrative
inquisition which determines who one is”. In his article, he said all these to lay the groundwork
for the institution of power and those who fought against it.

Foucault further wrote that “generally, it can be said that there are three types of
struggles: either against forms of domination (ethnic, social and religious); against forms of
exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or against that which ties the
individual to himself and submits him to others in thus way (struggles against subjection, against
forms of subjectivity and submission)”. Understandably, these three are present in the Rohingya
discourses. Because they were subjected to ethnic cleansing, deprivation of basic human rights
and civil liberties for their name and ethnicity, their social construct and their Islamic faith, some
Rohingya resisted the Tatmadaw and the Government of Myanmar. The rise of armed insurgents
against the Government of Myanmar from the ranks of the Rohingya is an evident footnote in
this ensuing humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia. A report by the International Crisis Group
revealed that Haraka al-Yaqin is believed to be of hundred new recruits who now becomes
popular counter-balance to the abuses inflicted by the Tatmadaw and the Government of
Myanmar. Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “Faith Movement,” is directed by about 20 Rohingya
émigrés in Saudi Arabia and led on the field by another 20 or so Rohingya with international
training and experience in guerrilla warfare, the report said. It is well connected in Pakistan
and Bangladesh and appears to be attracting financial backing from the Rohingya diaspora and
major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the report said (Barry, Ives, & Paddock,
2017). They exist to protect the rights of the Rohingya in norther Rakhine State. They are recently
renamed to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which now has a council situated in Saudi
Arabia and its leaders have backgrounds from Pakistan (Davis, 2017).

The previous assumptions of the accounts of Foucault on power has been vitally
illustrated by John Hartmann from the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in his
presentation at the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Foucault Circle at the John Carroll University in
Cleaveland, Ohio. He quoted Foucault to have said: “Where there is power, there is resistance,
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and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to
power.” It is thus assumed to be encompassed. Hartmann continued by explaining that “because
power is not coercive in the sense of direct threat of violence, it must be understood as an
assymetrical set of relations in which the existence of this multiplicity of nodal points or relations
necessarily entails the possibility of resistance” (Hartmann, 2003). However, sustaining these
passages by Hartmann is a quick footnote he cited on the discussion by Michel Foucault and
Michael Bess which was published in issue 4 of the History of the Present (1988) in which Foucault
argued that “power should not be understood as an oppressive system bearing down on
individuals from above, smiting them with prohibitors of this or that. Power is a set of relations.
What does it mean to exercise power? It does not mean picking up this tape recorder and
throwing it on the ground. I have the capacity to do so – materially, physically, sportively. But I
would not be exercising power if I did that. However, if I take this tape recorder and throw it on
the ground to make you mad, or so that you can’t repeat what I’ve said, or to put pressure on so
that you’ll behave in such and such a way, or to intimidate you – well, what I’ve done, by shaping
your behavior through certain means, that is power. I’m not forcing you at all and I’m leaving you
completely free – that’s when I begin to exercise power. It’s clear that power should not be
defined as a constraining force of violence that represses individuals, forcing them to do
something or preventing them from doing some other thing. But it takes place when there is a
relation between two free subjects, and this relation is unbalanced, so that one can act upon the
other, and the other is acted upon, or allows himself to be acted upon. Therefore, power is not
always repressive. It can take a certain number of forms. And it is possible to have relations of
power that are open”.

In the extant situation, the Government of Myanmar and the Rohingya, based on the
accounts of Michel Foucault has an existing power relations, one that is oppressive, abusive,
exploitative and violative of the inherent rights of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, which
is very contrary to his key points that “power is not always repressive”.

This power relationship can be studied from 2011 onward. Fortify Rights and the Yale
University commissioned the Lowenstein Clinic to conduct a legal analysis if indeed genocide or
its elements are present in the abuses inflicted against the Rohingya. This legal analysis will bring
to light the sad fate of the Rohingya under the hands of the Government of Myanmar and its
people and society.

First is the denial of citizenship of the Rohingya. “Efforts to deprive Rohingya of citizenship
began shortly after Myanmar’s independence. The 1948 Union Citizenship Act defined Myanmar
citizenship and identified specific ethnicities—the “indigenous races of Burma”—that were
allowed to gain citizenship. The list did not include Rohingya. The Union Citizenship Act allowed
people whose families had lived for two generations in Myanmar to apply for identity cards.
Initially, the government provided many Rohingya with citizenship or identification cards under
this provision. However, after the military coup in 1962, the government began giving
documentation to fewer and fewer Rohingya children, refusing to recognize fully new
generations of the Rohingya population. In 1974, Myanmar began requiring all citizens to obtain
National Registration Cards but allowed Rohingya to obtain only Foreign Registration Cards.
12

Because many schools and employers did not recognize these cards, Rohingya faced limited
educational and job opportunities. In 1982, General Ne Win instituted a new citizenship law that
prohibited Rohingya from obtaining equal access to full Myanmar citizenship, effectively
rendering a majority of Rohingya stateless. Under the Citizenship Law, in order to be a citizen, a
person had to provide proof that his or her family had lived in Myanmar since before 1948. Many
Rohingya lack records of their family’s historical residence. After the law was passed, the
government withheld identity cards from Rohingya. Naturalization under the law also requires
fluency in one of Myanmar’s national languages. Rohingya speak the “Rohingya” dialect and, with
limited access to education, they have had little opportunity to learn a nationally recognized
language. General Ne Win justified the Citizenship Law on national security grounds"`` (Lindblom,
Marsh, Motala, & Munyan, 2015).

Second is the Forced Displacement of the Rohingya.

Quoting from the same report, “in 1978, the military began Operation Naga Min, or
“Dragon King,” to find and take action against persons the military junta deemed to be illegal
immigrants. This operation targeted Rohingya in Rakhine State; the government claimed
Rohingya were foreigners rather than an ethnic minority of Myanmar. The military abused, raped,
and murdered many Rohingya. As a result, more than 200,000 Rohingya fled across the border
into Bangladesh. To deter Rohingya refugees from entering Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi
government withheld food and humanitarian aid from the refugee camps. More than 12,000
refugees died of starvation. Following international condemnation, Myanmar’s General Ne Win
repatriated many of these refugees, but they continued to face persecution within Myanmar.
Rohingya refugees continued to flood into Bangladesh over the next twenty years, with periodic
attempts by the Bangladeshi government to expel them forcibly, including as recently as 2010”

Third is Forced Labor. “The Nay-Sat Kut-kwey ye (NaSaKa), a security force consisting of
police, military, intelligence, customs officers, and riot police, operated in Rakhine State until
2013 under the control of the Ministry for Border Affairs. The NaSaKa forced Rohingya either to
pay a weekly fee to avoid work – a fee that many Rohingya cannot afford – or to perform manual
labor such as construction work, agricultural work, portering, or serving as guards. The Myanmar
Army and local police also forced Rohingya into labor. In 2008, the U.N. Special Rapporteur
reported allegations that Rohingya had been killed for refusal to perform forced labor. Rohingya
reported that the Myanmar Army and NaSaKa beat forced laborers.”

Fourth is Religious Persecution of the Rohingya. “The Myanmar government has


participated in racial and religious persecution of Rohingya. In 2002, Human Rights Watch
reported that the government issued military orders demanding that unauthorized mosques be
destroyed. The government has closed mosques and Islamic schools and used them as
government administrative offices. The government has also prohibited Muslims from repairing
or renovating mosques. In 2001, mobs attacked at least 28 mosques and religious schools. State
security not only did nothing to stop the attacks, but also participated in the destruction.” This
persecution can be gleaned from the report issued by the US Commission on International
Religious Freedom in 2016. It documented the religious persecution of the Rohingya since 2011
13

up to 2016. “Rohingya Muslims are at the epicenter of this ill treatment: government-directed
abuses and/or government indifference to riots and mob violence against Rohingya and other
Muslims have killed hundreds, displaced thousands, and destroyed hundreds of religious
properties, including religious sites, since 2012” (Liden, 2016).

Consequently, these are the issues surrounding the power relationship of the Rohingya
and Myanmar. Here, Foucault’s arguments that ‘power exists only when it is put into action, even
if, of course, it is integrated into a disparate field of possibilities brought to bear upon permanent
structures.” He continued that “power also not a function of consent” and finally, he opined that
“the relationship of power can be the result of a prior or permanent consent, but it is not by
nature the manifestation of a consensus”. Under this premise, the affairs in Myanmar involving
its ethnic groups justified the use of power against ethnic individuals including the Rohingya. The
Human Rights Watch in its 2017 Country Report on Burma stated that “Fighting between the
Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) and ethnic armed groups worsened over the year in Kachin,
Rakhine, Karen, and Northern Shan States, displacing thousands of civilians. Government forces
have been responsible for serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence,
and destruction of property. Government shelling and airstrikes have been conducted against
ethnic areas, in violation of the laws of war. Both government and non-state groups have been
implicated in the use of anti-personnel landmines and forced recruitment, including of children”
(HRW, 2017).

With this backdrop, Foucault’s thoughts can be found in the Rohingya discourses. He
argued in his article that “what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which
does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action
upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future”.
Yanghee Lee, the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur reported that “On 9 October 2016, three
BGP facilities in Rakhine State (in Kyee Kan Pyin and Nga Khu Ya in Maungdaw township and Koe
Tan Kauk in Rathedaung township) were reportedly attacked by groups of armed men in a
coordinated manner. In addition to nine members of the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) reportedly
killed, the armed attackers appeared to have seized arms, weaponry and ammunitions. The
security forces (Tatmadaw, MPF and the BGP) immediately responded with a counter-operation
to pursue the attackers and recover stolen items. The Defense Ministry issued a statement on 14
October, announcing the initial operations will last three months and that this period is
extendable (Lee, 2017).” These attacks feared to have escalated the tension between the
Rohingya and the Tatmadaw (Perlez & Moe, 2016). Myanmar said at least nine police officers
were killed and four were wounded Sunday in multiple assaults on border guard posts along the
Southeast Asian nation’s troubled frontier with Bangladesh (Lewis, Oziel, & Tun, 2016). As a
result, the Government of Myanmar retaliated at the Rohingya and on October 10, 2016,
“Humanitarian aid was completely suspended. Troops were deployed to the areas
surrounding Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung towns in northern Arakan state. An
estimated 162,000 people in the area normally receive life-saving assistance from the World
Food Programme and other U.N. agencies. Within days of the lockdown, more than 800
Arakanese Buddhists arrived in the state capital Sittwe. More than 1,200 Muslims fled their
villages and sought shelter in Buthidaung town. State media reported that Buddhists were
14

being evacuated by helicopter citing safety concerns; Buddhists reportedly feared that their
villages would be ambushed by mobs of armed Muslims” (Solomon, 2016). At that time, “the
politics that lies behind these measures against Rakhine's Rohingya appear geared more towards
"expulsion" and "exclusion" than "extermination" and "extinction". It is a "get out" campaign
rather than "genocide" (Pongsudhirak, 2017).
However, Foucault also contradicts his thesis on power relations. According to him,
“when one defines the exercise of power as a mode of action upon the actions of others, when
one characterizes these actions by the government of men by other men – in the broadest sense
of the term – one includes an important element: freedom.” The Rohingya are never free men
and women since persecution are directed against them for decades since 1948. When the 1982
Citizenship law was passed, they were effectively “stateless” and therefore, does not share the
freedom the world’s citizens enjoy in anywhere in the world. Further, Foucault opined that
“power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. By this we mean
individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways
of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments, may be realized.” In responding to the
abuses by the Tatmadaw against them, the Rohingya only exercised their right to self-
preservation and defense. They are free however to render their voices to gain international
attention on their plight. They are free however to flee and that was what the world witnessed
in 2017 which has spiralled to be the world fastest growing humanitarian crisis (Ayres, 2017).
Foucault provided points to analyse power relations. He argued: “The system of
differentiations; the types of objectives; the means of bringing power relations into being; Forms
of Institutionalization; and the degrees of rationalization”
On Foucault’s system of differentiation: the Rakhine State remains poor amidst the
economic forecasts of 7.9 % in GDP growth in 2018 (ADB, 2017). According to Foucault, the
analysis of power relations must proceed from the point of “economic differences in the
appropriation of riches and goods” and this is where the disparity is very high. The dynamics of
Rakhine state’s agricultural economy may also be conflict factors. These include a 2010 state ban
on inter-state trade of cultivated rice. It led to a drop in rice prices and lower profits.
Consequently the Rakhines will grow more protective of their product. This may be a factor for
them refusing to sell rice to the Rohingya. The level of conflict was to such a level that a Rakhine
trader was killed in 2012 for having sold rice to Rohingya. The situation was exacerbated by forces
of nature playing havoc on the economy. Cyclone Giri in 2010 destroyed large tracts of crop
fields. Ensuing shortages cause higher restrictions on Rakhine traders’ sales to the Rohingya. The
storm also led to difficulties for aid agencies to supply rice for displaced Rohingya in camps. It
increases their impetus to migration and thus exposure to conflict (Masood, 2013). As early as
2011, the Rakhine State played a vital role in the oil and gas exploration in Myanmar. The oil and
gas pipeline, which was projected to cost an estimated $1.5 billion, was to run from the Bay of
Bengal in Arakan State in west Burma, through the central and the northeastern part of the
country, to Yunnan Province in China. The project, which was expected to be commissioned in
mid-2013, was to be built and operated by China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) and
15

unspecified partners from India and the Republic of Korea. When finished, the pipeline would
total 3,900 km in length, of which 2,800 km would have the capacity to carry 12 million cubic
meters per year of natural gas and 1,100 km would have the capacity to carry 22 Mt/yr of crude
oil that had been transported to the coast of Burma by tanker from Africa and the Middle East
(Fong-Sam, 2013).

In Foucault’s type of objectives, the maintenance of privileges, the accumulation of


profits, the bringing into operation of statutory authority, the exercise of a function or of a trade
is very akin to the first point raised by this paper as espoused by Foucault.

On the third point raised by Foucault, “according to which power is exercised by the threat
of arms, by the effects of the word, by means of economic disparity, by more or less complex
means of control, by systems of surveillance, with or without archives, according to rules which
are or are not explicit, fixed or modifiable, with or without the technological means to put all
these things into action”, the Rohingya has been persecuted continuously in all of these points.
Their precarious situation were over time, exacerbated by the violence they have to faced at the
hands of the police, the Tatmadaw and even the buddhist population. Armed with assault riffles
and machetes, Rohingya population flee to Bangladesh with horror stories to tell. On accounts of
the witnesses, the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR, 2017) recorded that, of the 204 persons
interviewed:

-134 (65%) reported killings.


-115 (56%) reported disappearances (including persons having been ‘taken away’
by the security forces and not heard of since).
-131 (64%) reported beatings.
-88 (43%) reported rape.
-63 (31%) reported sexual violence.
-131 (64%) reported burning or other destruction of property.
- 81 (40%) reported looting/theft of property.

On the fourth point: Forms of Institutionalization. Let us review the recommendation of


the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (Annan, 2017) since much of what made the Rohingya
stateless is because of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The recommendation simply followed the
principle of the citizenship verification process started by the Government of Myanmar. “The
Government should immediately ensure that those who are verified as citizens enjoy all benefits,
rights and freedoms associated with citizenship. This will not only serve to strengthen the
Government’s rule-of-law agenda, but also demonstrate immediate tangible benefits of the
verification exercise.” And that “Government should clarify the status of those whose citizenship
application is not accepted”. The Advisory Commission has ideally sustained the
institutionalization of the power relations between the Government of Myanmar and the
16

Rohingya by abiding through its citizenship verification process but stopped short of
recommending its repeal so as the Rohingya will not remain “stateless” forever.
On the fifth point: The degrees of rationalization. Let us analyse the position taken by
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. On April 1, 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD
party won forty-three of the forty-four seats they contested, sending a strong message to the
government she was quoted to have said: “We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era”
(Loviny, 2013). We hope that the new era for a more open and democratic Myanmar includes
the marginalized and the “stateless” Rohingya.

-o0o-

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