A Polemic Against Liberal Analyses of the Rohingya Crisis

Tim Frewer shows the limits of liberal analyses of the Rohingya crisis.

The liberal analyst always works in the best interests of “the people”. He himself has no stake in the issue at hand – he merely offers the world his insights. His crisp analysis carefully rummages through events sorting fact from fiction– each false claim uncovered elevating his writing above the humdrum. He weighs up one side against the other. He never takes sides- centrism is his sanctuary. He is always careful to avoid strong sentiments. He always has the long term in mind. His game is truth and objectivity – as long as he is the one producing that truth and policing objectivity. He can always see the entire field where others are blinded or led astray by passions and politics. He determines who’s to blame, who took the wrong path and who is acting short sightedly. But above all he is pragmatic. He knows what must be done to achieve the best outcome for all involved – or the least worse. But his pragmatism is always confined to the safe limits of the liberal worldview. As a man who has been nurtured by state thinking, he naturally tends toward the state as the ultimate fixer and either ignores or looks on with disdain at the struggles of people who have real stakes in an issue.

It may seem unhelpful to engage in a seemingly pedantic critique at a time of such enormous human suffering. Yet the Rohingya crisis has revealed the limits of the liberal analyst where some profoundly unhelpful commentaries and analyses have been produced which not only obscure the politics of the event but even blame the Rohingya for the unfolding tragedy. If conflicts and crisis are revealing of underlying politics and positions, the Rohingya crisis has shown the extraordinarily level to which some analysts, diplomats and academics will go to defend the Burmese state and undermine the Rohingya. When David Scott Mathieson, for instance, stated that ‘pro-Rohingya social media traffic [sic] trades’ in ‘exaggerations, half-truths and fabricated videos and photos of security force-perpetuated abuses.’ Without actually bothering to give any examples, he not only creates a false correspondence between the well-oiled state propaganda machine and Rohingya media, but actively undermines the efforts of Rohingya activists. Several others have since engaged in similar commentaries. Yet the reason why critique of liberal analysis is so urgent during this time of great suffering is its complicity with power. Not only is it highly influential within the thinking of journalists, diplomats and academics alike, but its tendency to polarise the situation and its pseudo pragmatic message of ‘it’s complicated’ have become handmaidens to both the Tatmadaw’s own propaganda machine and to other states like Australia who wish to secure their own interests in Myanmar.


The fundamental sin of the liberal analyst is political feebleness. Always positioning his own analysis in the safety of the centre, he is careful to avoid any real commitment to the people who are suffering. But the centre is a relative concept and the centre for the analyst is far different to the centre of the people involved in the conflict. The liberal analyst constructs the centre by putting two things alongside each other as if both have equal and exactly opposite power to determine outcomes. The Rakhine against the Rohingya; the tenacity of the Rohingya to protect their self-identification vs the Rakhine and Burmese tendency to denounce it; victimising the Rohingya vs blaming them[i]; the ARSA against the Tatmadaw. Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s silence against her tenuous position with the military[ii]; taking a moral stand vs a pragmatic position of working with power; short term vs long term solutions and so and so forth.

For the liberal analyst, the binary is an indispensable tool that helps give the sense that his analysis is moderate and reasonable. The liberal analyst cannot resist the temptation to condemn the Tatmadaw without condemning the ARSA; to be critical of the repeated government clearance operations without being critical of supposed Rohingya stubbornness (i.e. to demand official recognition of their ethnic title or engage in violent struggle). This inevitably leads to a confusion of the situation as very different and disparate material and discursive forces become jumbled up together as if all are on an equal playing field. Rather than viewing the long-term and progressive state-backed project for what it is, genocidal ethnic cleansing becomes watered down comparable to the primitive attacks of the ARSA. Causality often gets mixed up – ARSA attacks suddenly become the cause of ethnic cleansing. Communal violence becomes a key explanatory factor rather than manifestation of some ethnic cleansing.

By constantly defining the centre according to the analyst’s own interpretive limitations and whims, the entire situation becomes reframed in terms that inevitably benefit both the analyst and the state. The pragmatism that the liberal analyst always predictably rests upon reinforces the importance of patience, dialogue and understanding – as if violent conflict originally arose due to a lack of these things. It doesn’t matter that for thirty years, Rohingya patience and a desire for dialogue has been met with machetes and automatic rifle fire.

Conflict Sensitive Development

The rise in popularity of conflict sensitive development epitomises the weaknesses of the liberal analytic framework. The twentieth century complicated the generally optimistic view that liberalism has of itself where it predicts that violence and conflict will generally subside as liberalism takes hold across the world. Instead liberal democracies have at least a complicated relation with violence and ethnic cleansing. Not only have liberal democracies developed their own unique modes of mass killing (through overseas wars),[iii] but there has always been a related risk that democracies will slip into modes of exclusion and violence through legal exceptions[iv] and pre-emptive attempts to immunise against threats.[v] This is the context of the Holocaust and the war on terror. The violent exclusions which settler colonial liberalisms[vi] are based upon unsettle the myth of the peaceful foundations of liberalism. As Soe Lin Aung points out in regard to liberalism and Myanmar “liberalism is no bulwark against the most extreme forms of violence, exclusion, and suffering.”

Yet rather than come to terms with the very insightful and productive work that came out of twentieth century genocide and ethnic cleansing, conflict sensitive development instead fixates on a simplistic liberal framework of opposed but rational actors. In place of the potency of political theories coming out of the work of Benjamin, Arendt, Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, Esposito and Mbembe, conflict sensitive development uses the impotent analytical framework derived from international aid donors and their failed interventions in conflict settings.

Conflict sensitive development offers several tools to analyse and provide guidance on working in conflict settings. This includes many of the usual tropes of the development industry – capacity development, participation, and do no harm. Mostly orientated towards NGOs operating in conflict zones, it has also become an influential analytical framework for understanding conflict more broadly. The emphasis of conflict sensitive development is on working with actors and engaging in transparent dialogue and communications. It adheres to an essentially liberal world view which understands subjects as rational actors whose grievances become multiplied and violent when communication failures are rife. It calls for interventions and modes of analysis that are ‘sensitive’ to the diverse views of concerned actors. Like all liberal theories, it places a large emphasis on communication as this is seen as the fundamental trait of the liberal subject that allows him to express his rationality. What gets hopelessly lost in the explanations of conflict analyses however is any coherent accounts of how the state and capitalism play a part in violence.

Take for instance, the NGO CDA’s 2016 Reshaping Engagements: Perspective on Conflict Sensitivity in Rakhine State.  Despite aiming “to serve as a platform to build common understanding across stakeholder groups on the current conflict” and “provide a basis for joint action”, the report does not actually consider the perspective of Rohingya. In fact, it does not even mention the word ‘Rohingya’ preferring to simply use the term ‘Muslims’.  The report mentions nothing of ethnic cleansing, genocide or the long history of state exclusion of the Rohingya. Instead it focuses on ‘breakdowns in communication’ and ‘competing agendas’. The author has since gone on to publicly defend the military and Aung San Suu Kyi. In another conflict analysis produced by the Harvard Kennedy school for Proximity Designs, the author similarly nervously approaches the subject of ethnicity, noting that Rohingya is a ‘controversial’ title and preferring to use the term ‘Muslim’. Although acknowledging that ‘Muslims’ and Rakhine are on unequal footing, the report still falls into the bi-polar Buddhist-Islam modality while barely touching on the role of the state and capital – “[W]ith a lack of many close links between the Muslim and Buddhist communities, the recent violence has further frayed any trust… It is difficult on the Burmese side to fully recognize this lack of parity of damage. It is difficult for the Muslim side to admit that their actions have, at times, also inflamed the situation.’ Another major project on conflict analysis from Deakin University Australia also insists on using inverted commas when talking about the Rohingya. Once again, the research predominantly focuses on the grievances of Buddhists and Muslims and ways for improved engagement.

Many of the conflict analyses share an intellectual cynicism about the Rohingya ethnic category. Highly influenced by the work of Jacques Leider and the work of Derek Tonkin, several pieces have criticised the Rohingya for their insistence on self-identification. As the Burmese and Rakhine are trying to violently exclude Rohingya from Myanmar in a physical and cultural sense, some western intellectuals have continued to unhelpfully question their right to self-identification. A Harvard university student wrote in the Diplomat “[I]n even a cursory survey of Rohingya history, it is clear that the Rohingya are not an ethnic, but rather a political construction…. At stake are issues of legitimacy. The international community’s use of the term ‘Rohingya’ validates the narrative of essentialising a Muslim identity in Rakhine state”. Many such analyses give a pseudo sense of complexity that seeks to water down murderous ethnic cleansing and deny any political urgency. By maintaining a centrism that can supposedly see all sides, the liberal analyst can always claim the situation is complex and nuanced. Yet for Rohingya in Rakhine, the violence of genocidal ethnic cleansing is straightforward, obvious and immediate. Convoluted liberal analyses that deny this immediacy and criticise the actions of the Rohingya are politically feeble.

Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

 Unlike other ethnic groups, the state does not frame the Rohingya issue as one of needing to subjugate a rebellious ethnic minority. It does not matter whether one is a good Rohingya or a bad Rohingya or involved in armed resistance or not. It is the mere fact of being a Rohingya that the state takes issue with. Elsewhere I have given a detailed account of this.

Moreover, this is the reason the state makes blurry distinctions between insurgents and civilians and why so many non-combatant Rohingya are killed with every military action. The enemy is never just the Mujahidin, RSO or the ARSA but always Rohingya people themselves. That anyone could be surprised at this in light of the 50-year military campaign that has sought to either drive Rohingya out of the country or kill them, is astounding. As  Min Aung Hlaing himself has put it, the Rohingya ‘problem’ is a ‘long standing’ and  ‘unfinished job’. The Tatmadaw has never seriously tried to conceal the fact that the Rohingya need to be violently excluded – it won’t even allow for the term ‘Rohingya’ to be uttered in the country. There is nothing more violent than preventing a people from denoting their own existence.  With each wave of deadly state violence, journalists and analysts seem caught unaware – shocked and surprised, falling over one another to offer explanations – was it because of the ARSA? Was it communal violence? Was it the failures of the Kofi Annan commission? Was it that Rakhine felt excluded? Maybe the NGOs weren’t conflict sensitive enough?

The vulnerability of the Rohingya comes from the fact that in the eyes of the state, their identity has become separate from their bodies. The state has extinguished the legal ethnic identity of the Rohingya effectively, eliminating it from the political community. Yet the Rohingya as a people – as a collection of bodies –  remain in Myanmar’s territory. It is this existence in the indeterminate zone of having a physical presence within the territory but without a corresponding political and legal presence that makes Rohingya so vulnerable to death. As philosophers like Agamben[vii] have been at pains to point out, it is this condition of being able to be killed without sanction that facilitates mass murder. For Rohingya in Myanmar, death could come at any time and from any angle with little or no legal retribution for the perpetrators. It is the deliberate production of vulnerability – the progressive stripping back of political rights of Rohingya, so they are merely bodies in the eyes of the state, that allows such systematic and unthinkable violence to be repeatedly cast upon them.  And this is no doubt why people in Northern Rakhine have so desperately insisted on state recognition of the Rohingya ethnic category – a move that some liberal analysts have sought to undermine.

If the Rohingya have become merely bodies in the eyes of the state, it is the presence and even rise in the number of these bodies that the state takes issue with. Fertility and the concern that these bodies will multiply and even contaminate the Buddhist political community has been at the forefront of state and ultra-nationalist concerns. This is why the state is so heavily invested in measures to control birth, mobility and demographics in Rakhine state. This is why a ludicrous proposition in the lower house to protect racial purity was inspired by events in Rakhine. This is also why the state has for a long time invested in ‘model villages’ in northern Rakhine to counter ‘demographic pressure of the Rohingya’[viii] and why the state systematically deprives the Rohingya of the most basic elements to sustain life. The state has taken a multi-pronged approach to excluding, or at least reducing the expansion of these bodies which ranges from benign neglect, starvation, economic restrictions, mobility restrictions, ad hoc violence, rape and systematic exclusion. Here the state oscillates between begrudgingly tolerating the presence of these bodies on its territory, and engaging in sudden bouts of violence to clear them out. At times, it tolerates NGOs and the international development industry keeping these people alive, but never tolerates any action or program that would treat them as political subjects deserving of rights. Mob attacks on NGOs in Maungdaw and Sittwe sent a clear message; Rohingya who have been attacked by police and soldiers do not have a right to medical treatment. The state’s insistence that it has the right to take Rohingya life is absolute.

It is crucial to point out here that this does not represent a movement away from democracy or modernity. As Achille Mbembe states, ‘the sovereign right to kill and the mechanisms of biopower are inscribed in the way all modern states function indeed, they can be seen as constitutive elements of state power in modernity’ [ix]. Necropolitics or the production of death by the state, does not represent an aberration of democracy, it is a result of democracy. As the line between the inside political community and those who are outside it becomes increasingly rigid, it is no surprise that with the transition to democracy, violent exclusion of the latter group occurs. That the UN has been complicit in this arrangement where they have ultimately accepted the state’s sovereign right to kill the Rohingya at any moment, should in hindsight be seen as unforgivable.

In the 21st century, any state – and especially the Burmese state – faces great logistical, political and economic challenges in producing the same kind of systematic genocidal violence as say the Nazi state did in the 1930s. The Burmese state has simply never functioned along the same organisational lines of the Third Reich with its enormous and highly efficient bureaucracy. Even compared to say the Rwandan state, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, there are important differences with the current Burmese state that make genocide logistically challenging. The fragmented Burmese state is simultaneously fighting numerous insurgencies and has been deeply unpopular since independence. Furthermore, economically and politically, it is entering a phase where international acceptance and foreign investment are crucial. Yet these are not strong enough reasons to reject that genocide is occurring. At the domestic level, there have been important logistical steps towards genocide. For Michael Mann, one of the preconditions of murderous ethnic cleansing (which includes genocide) is that “ordinary people are brought by normal social structures into committing murderous ethnic cleansing, and their motives are mundane” [x]. The most remarkable thing about the politics of Rakhine state and anti-Muslim sentiment more generally is that the state has been able to very effectively channel localised discontent against the Burmese elite into rabid anti-Rohingya violence. The relationship between the Rakhine and the state has very rapidly evolved in this regard. From the state looking on as the Rakhine engaged in pogroms of deadly violence in 2012, the state now blatantly arms Rakhine and uses them in its program of systematic arson. In fact, the big lesson of the 2012 violence was that the state lost control of these violent populist movements as they spread like cancer across the country.  Here is another one of Mann’s preconditions for murderous ethnic cleansing – that it typically occurs organically: ‘[M]urderous cleansing is rarely the initial intent of perpetrators” yet where “cleansing typically emerges as a kind of Plan C, developed only after the first two responses to a perceived ethnic threat fail. Plan A typically envisages a carefully planned solution in terms of either compromise or straightforward repression. Plan B is a more radically repressive adaptation to the failure of Plan A, more hastily conceived amid rising violence and some political destabilization.[xi]

At a discursive level, various elements have rapidly come together to premeditate murderous ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya have slowly transitioned from a marginalised ethnic group that was nonetheless tolerated by the state –  which at times the state even used for electoral advantage – to enemies of the state. This has been facilitated by two uniquely Burmese concerns; the spread of Islam and its supposed deleterious impacts on the Burmese Buddhist political community and the uncontrollable flow of ethnic Bengali’s into Burmese territory. What is crucial from the perspective of genocidal ethnic cleansing is that these concerns are quite literally embodied by the Rohingya. If fertility, intermarriage and migration are the mechanisms of spreading the disease, the disease itself is Islam – or more specifically the variant of Islam held by “illegal Bengali immigrants”. It is here that Burmese genocide – like all modern genocide – takes on an undeniably biopolitical logic. That is that the disease can only be stopped by the physical expulsion or destruction of Rohingya bodies in which it dwells. Even sexual violence takes on a deeply disturbing biopolitical logic. More than just an excess of the machoism used to stoke state inflicted violence, systematic rape and mutilation is likely a strategy to replace Rohingya children with Burmese or prevent further children. On several occasions, Burmese military officials, when faced with the allegation of systematic rape have responded that no Burmese soldier would desire a Rohingya woman.

The timidity with which liberal analysts have approached the question of genocide is astounding. Relying upon an overly legalistic interpretation, many have not only failed to appreciate the biopolitical and political significance of genocide but even sought to undermine the use of the term by the Rohingya community. Raphael Lemkin’s original concept was specifically concerned with the Holocaust and thus the legal definition is limited to very specific circumstances comparable to the Holocaust (yet there is still a strong legal argument that what is happening in Myanmar now matches this limited legal definition). Maung Zarni amongst others has done much to popularise the concept of a ‘slow burning genocide’ which is tailored to the unique situation in Myanmar. Yet most liberal analysts have either ignored or looked on in disdain at both this concept as well as the use of the term by the Rohingya community.


Liberal analysts have similarly stumbled through the question of fascism. Ignoring the large list of very productive work that comes out of actually existing fascisms, liberal analysts have preferred terms like ‘inter-communal conflict’, ‘anti-Muslim sentiments’ and ‘xenophobia’. Like much of the analysis on Myanmar which cannot help take on an orientalist inflexion, analysis on anti-Islam and anti-Rohingya violence and discourse tend to be understood as a lingering primitivistic tendency that the transition to modernism has not yet managed to wipe out. In other instances, it is understood as an elite plot to exploit the masses for political gain. These explanations have always struggled to account for the increasingly populist nature of these sentiments and their coalescence with democratisation.

As Deleuze has famously pointed out, fascism is not confined to either the historical European forms it took with Italian fascism or Nazism, nor is it confined to totalitarian regimes. Fascism for Deleuze is a micro-political movement that inhabits the actions, thoughts, even habits of individuals, yet in distinct ways which reproduce state thinking. As opposed to totalitarianism which is disciplinary in nature, fascism is populist and expressed through flows of desire. Yet fascism does not represent any flow of desire. Fascism forms when the desire of individuals becomes infected with state categories; where individuals take it on themselves to rid the political body of all that threatens it – to sort the legitimate citizens from the illegitimate. Rather than citizens oppressed by soldiers and police, citizens take it on themselves to carry out the duties of police and soldiers – to violently root out all that is illegal and opposed to the state. Elsewhere I have analysed long running Burmese fascisms and their recent renewal.

What is remarkable about the Rohingya crisis and what makes it unique in comparison to the long list of historic ethnic insurgencies is the way in which the Bamar population has organically rallied around the government and military. From anti-government rallies, the last year has for the first time seen mass pro-government rallies. So too, large numbers of Bamar across many classes have been involved in online harassment campaigns of Rohingya activists and anyone who opposes the brutal treatment of the Rohingya.


In this time of suffering it is crucial to remain indefatigable to the political realities of a slow burning genocide. Rather than obscuring the forces and processes that allow large scale violence to occur, it is urgent to keep these forces and their effects at the centre of accounts of the unfolding tragedy. The way events are framed and talked about have important political ramifications at all levels. It is the political feebleness of liberal analysis that makes it ideal as a discursive tool on the part of so many states and actors that wish to remain apathetic towards the Rohingya cause.

 Tim Frewer is an Australian geographer whose research focuses on Southeast Asia.

[i] For instance, within one analysis it is stated ‘[T]he genocide narrative has also become deeply embedded in the psyche of the Rohingya themselves, both in Myanmar and among the diaspora. As the accusation of terrorism from the other side, it makes any negotiated solution highly difficult.’  This statement is remarkable not only for the fact that it casually pathologizes the psychological impacts of deadly violence, but that it even blames the very people who are suffering from that violence for the political situation they find themselves in.
[ii] Numerous analyses have suggested that Aung Sun Suu Kyi is balancing her reluctance to speak out on the Rohingya issue against a potential military plot to seize power. Andrew Selth has helpfully deconstructed some of the ‘conspiracy theories’ of pundits who have suggested ‘that the generals always intended the fledgling administration to fail.’
[iii] See Dillon, M., & Reid, J. (2009). The liberal way of war: Killing to make life live. New York: Routledge.
[iv] Agamben, G. (2005). State of exception: University of Chicago Press.
[v] Esposito, R. (2004). Immunitas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[vi] See Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.
[vii] Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer. Stanford: University Press Stanford.
[viii] See Wade, F. (2017). Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Zed Books.
[ix] Mbembé, J.-A. (2001). On the postcolony. London: Univ of California Press, p.17.
[x]  Mann, M. (2005). The dark side of democracy: explaining ethnic cleansing: Cambridge University Press, p. 5
[xi]  ibid, p.7.