Postcolonial million Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar altogether

Postcolonial theory and
thought can be used to help understand a range of topics and issues in the
world today. In looking at the world through a postcolonial lens, it is
important to consider its importance and influence. At a basic level,
post-colonialism examines a world after the colonial period in which
experiences were created by the powers and knowledges of European exploitation,
an as a critical theoretical project ‘which challenges western assumptions
stereotypes and ways of knowing’ (Sharp, 2009:7). Consequently, it is about the
complex relationship between the past and the present, a complexity that cannot
be reduced by the notion that wither one has broken from the other (Ahmed,
2000). This ultimately allows us to investigate how colonial encounters
operated in different ways that penetrates all aspects of social and material


Through an understanding of
postcolonial theory outlines here, I will apply it in this essay to focus upon
the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar. I will begin with an introduction to the
crisis and an understanding of its foundations. I will then bring it literature
surrounding postcolonial theory, focusing on the idea of the subaltern, before
intergrading and applying the theory to my topic.

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The Rohingya Muslim crisis,
the issue being discussed and analysed in this essay refers to the ongoing
attacks on Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar by the army and
police. The ongoing violence has led to over 630,000 refugees fleeing to
Bangladesh since August 2017, with over half a million Rohingya refugees
fleeing violence in Myanmar altogether (UNHCR, 2018). The recent outbreak of
violence included reports of villages being burnt down, families being shot and
killed and women and girls being raped (UNOCHA, 2018). These appalling
violations and abuses of human rights in Myanmar have been slammed as a
“textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (Al Hussein, 2017). This is an indication
of the extent of the violence that is ongoing.


Despite the recent violations
against the Rohingya Muslim population, the crisis can be set within a wider
historical context. Up until 1948, Britain had ruled Myanmar, then known as
Burma. Prior to independence in Burma, the British had fought the Japanese in
the region during World War two. During this period, the Burmese population had
backed the Japanese, whilst the Rohingya supporting the British, and with them
actually promising independence to the Rohingya during the war (Uddin, 2017).
This division, encouraged by the British can be seen to have laid the
blue-print for the escalating tensions to come, with some Rohingyas even
petitioning to be included into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the 1947


Following independence, the
military regime began creating a new sense of nationhood, which included
scapegoating of the Rohingya Muslim population. Seen as different from the
majority of the Buddhist population, and their noticeable darker skin colour,
the myth that these communities came from Bangladesh began to be strengthened
and repeated. This was solidified with the 1948 Union Citizenship Act of Burma,
which enshrined the principle of citizenship by descent form of the indigenous races
of Burma, of which the Rohingya were not considered one and founding the
country on a ‘ethnic identity rather than a constitutional one’ (Kumar, 2017).
Sidway (2012) highlights how often in ‘new states’, especially post-colonial
ones, citizenship is sometimes blended with populism and counter-hegemonic


Following the introduction of
this Citizenship Act, the 1982 Citizenship law was introduced. Haque (2017:466)
outlines how the Citizenship law deliberately targeted the Rohingya population,
purposely denying nationality to this ethnic group, Leaving them as a
‘stateless persons’. This combination of laws creates what Kironska (2016)
referred to as the ‘Rohingya oxymoron’, leaving people stateless in their own


These events show the build-up
which has led to the current crisis in Myanmar, in which this ‘stateless’
ethnic group have been persecuted. In recognising the issue, we can begin to
examine and understand it through a postcolonial lens, focusing on the complex
relationship that still exists between the past and the present and the way
power relations penetrate all aspects of social life.


In using a postcolonial lens
to offer an in-depth analyse and understanding of the Rohingya Muslim crisis,
we can focus this to the ideas and theories surrounding the subaltern and
subalternity. The term ‘subaltern’ eludes a complex definition as its formative
theorist, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, provided only a fragmented
account of the term (Clayton, 2011). At a basic level, it has a dual meaning: firstly,
as a person or group that have subordinate status; and second, a junior army
officer below the rank of a captain. When we begin to think about the subaltern
in more depth it ‘signals a concern with the most oppressed, disadvantaged and voiceless
sectors of society’ (Clayton, 2011:248). This idea is reinforced by Gidwani
(2009:66) who provides a explanation of subalternity referring to those ‘hierarchically
positioned as subordinate or inferiors within nation states, capitalist
production relations, or relations of patriarchy, race, caste, and so forth’.


Through these initial understandings
of what the subaltern means we can begin to see the importance of the term to
postcolonial theory in providing a critical understanding of power subordination
and social relations, and how these ideas can start to be applied to the Rohingya
Muslim crisis. The term subaltern is usually reserved for non-western, colonial
setting, where it can be argued that the subaltern is the production of the colonial
west (Spivak, 2000), ‘outside the spaces of hegemonic politics’ (Grossberg,


The Subaltern Studies project
was launched in the early 1980s, with a focus on South Asia and has a number of
significant contributors including Chatterjee, Guha, Chakrabarty, and
Stokes. One of the most influential interventions into Subaltern Studies came from
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who’s most notable intercession ‘Can the Subaltern
Speak?’ (1988) marked a turn towards a critical perspectives of power relations,
from conceptualising the subject as an autonomous discourse to seeing it as an ‘effect
of discursive systems (Nilsen & Roy, 2010:6), that had been removed from ‘lines
of social mobility’ (Spivak, 1988:180).  


In Spivaks writing on ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, she explains how the
Subaltern, who is gendered female in Spivaks work, lacks the ability to speak
for themselves. This control upon the Subaltern bares them from access to all
public resources that would allow upwards mobility. Her work also shows how
often Western academics will try and fail to speak for the subaltern. They feel
like they know what they are going to say, and believe that they are representing
them. However, we can never truly speak for the subaltern as we have never
lived through their experiences and by trying to speak for them it can be
argued, we instead speak over them, rendering them voiceless and removing
authority from their speech. Building
upon her work her, Spivak goes on to show how in order free the Subaltern to
speak and govern for themselves we have ‘to learn to learn’ to teach the subaltern
(Spivak, 2013). Here, we need to learn to teach the subaltern by unlearning our
own intellectual prejudices, otherwise we are just lecturing, and keeping the subaltern
in their place.


Despite Spivaks work influence
and importance within Subaltern Studies, prominent critics have highlighted how
her position limits the subaltern to ‘effectively efface any possibility of resistance’
(Nilsen & Roy, 2015:10). Her critique has been challenged for its ‘unremitting
exposure of complicity rather than the carting of opposition’ (Varangharajan,
1995:xii). Therefore, it is important given what we know of the ability of
subaltern groups to develop oppositional agency, to not limit the subaltern of ‘agential
capacities’ (Nilsen & Roy, 2011:11). These ideas are reiterated by Greens
(2002:20) rereading of Gramsci, in which he highlights how political intellect and
agency for the subaltern does not equate to the end of the subalternity as one
can only cease this ‘once they have transformed the relations of subordination
that cause their marginalization’.


Through a working understanding of Subalternity outlined here, we
are able to use and apply these ideas to the case of the Rohingya Muslims. By
thinking of the situation and crisis in relation to Myanmar’s history as a
former British colony, we can begin to see the basis for why postcolonial
thought is relevant here (Burke, 2016). We can see that even before independence,
racial and ethnic divides existed, and were adopted to suit the needs and visons
of a post-independent state. By distinguishing themselves as different from one
another, the state helped implement a ‘common sentiment of identity based on an
ethnically defined concept of nationalism’ (Burke, 2016:262). This situation
renders the Rohingya as the ‘Other’ to what national identity is based upon,
casting them as less equal and subordinate. Here the Rohingya can be thought of
as the ‘alien’, ‘one who does not belong in a nation space, and who is already
defined as such by the Law’ (Ahmed, 2000:3) as shown through both the Union Citizenship
Act and the Citizenship law.


Furthermore, we can still see and understand today how Rohingya
Muslims are casted as a Subaltern group. Within Myanmar, their lack of rights
and freedoms renders them voiceless, which begins to show us how subaltern
thought relating to Spivak can be brought in here. Thus, remaining outside and
isolated from the hegemonic power structures allows use to refer the term the Subaltern
in reference to the Rohingya (Zine, 2016:29). The use of this term is
reinforced by the violence and oppression faced by the Rohingya population
which continually places them as inferior.

As well as these structures which construct the Rohingya as the Subaltern,
their lack of nationhood in also a contributing factor. Here, the Rohingya are
not just the non-elite, but are those who are ‘so displaces they lack political
organisation and representation’ (Green, 2000:18). This shows how current
problems facing the Rohingya can be traced back to a colonial legacy and issues
at the start of a new nation state. In Myanmar today, this leads to the Myanmar
government using the term Bengali instead of Rohingya, placing emphasis on its
historical origin, and again distancing themselves and their national identity
from that of the Rohingya (Burke, 2016).

Through understanding Spivaks
work in relation to the Subaltern, we can see how it can be useful in
understanding the case of the Rohingya Muslims. We can see how the control upon
them which marginalises them and their lack of nationhood means that they
become voiceless and are removed from ‘lines of social mobility’. Through this understanding
we can see that in order for the Rohingya to free themselves, they need to be
able to speak and learn themselves, and the western world cannot do this for
them. In addition to Spivaks work here, we can also bring in the ideas of
Green, which challenges Spivaks understanding of the possibility of resistance.
From this, it could be argued that retaliations by Rohingya Muslim groups does
not remove their agency as their subaltern, and that some would argue that it
would be a useful method of resistance.

Overall, it is important to bring
together a range of thought and ideas when applying postcolonial theory. In the
case of the Rohingya Muslim crisis, it can be argued that through a postcolonial
analysis, one is able to develop a greater understating not only of the historical
blueprint which set the foundations for today’s current situation, but also
helps foster an understanding of the ongoing relations and structures that are
at play in modern day Myanmar. Bringing in different ideas relating to the Subaltern
school of thought, this analysis has allowed us to develop a greater
understanding of both how and why the subaltern is marginalised. These ideas
relate to the ways they experience violence, placing them outside the spaces of
hegemonic politics, and becoming voiceless due to their lack of nationhood
which continues to cast them as the other. Therefore, it is clear that a postcolonial
reading of the Rohingya Muslim crisis is important in helping develop our
understanding of the crisis, and will help encourage more appropriate ideas in
relation to how to support this group free themselves.