In today’s world, the immediacy of humanitarian crises tends to bar a deeper interest in the complexity of the historical roots of a conflict. The deteriorating situation of the Muslim minority in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, a group now widely known as the Rohingya, is a case in point. They have been presented as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world due to a track record of human rights violations, while the local Islamic history and the emergence of Muslim nationalism at the margins of Muslim Bengal (East Pakistan/Bangladesh) and Buddhist Burma (Myanmar) has barely begun to inform international understanding of the regional conflict. The present article argues in favor of historical research as a prerequisite both for understanding the nature of the conflict and for keeping opportunities for competing historical interpretations alive. It also contributes to the ongoing question of collective representations of “voiceless” non-Western victims as deprived of political agency.1 The article supports the argument that victimhood is a form of agency, but, as in the case of the Rohingya crisis since 2012, it bears the risk of encapsulating people and isolating them from their historical context.
History and Victimhood: Engaging with Rohingya Issues
Since the late 1990s, the public representation of the Muslim minority of Rakhine State (Myanmar), widely known as Rohingyas after the 2012 communal violence, has focused on their status as victims of state oppression following an extended track record of human rights violations. As Rohingyas form huge migrant and refugee communities in several countries of the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, victimhood has increasingly come to define their identity as a persecuted minority. The present article argues that, while victimhood does not preclude the agency, the hegemonic role of a postulated passive victimhood invariably posits one community (and the state) against the other and hampers the possibility of open conversations about rivaling perceptions of the past and ultimately the prospect of political dialogue.
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