Understanding the Rohingya Refugee Crisis through Foucault, Chakrabarty, and Guha

Image courtesy of Danish Siddiqui, Reuters (retrieved from http://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/multimedia/slideshow/09/14/17/slideshow-the-main-players-in-myanmars-refugee-crisis)

The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic and religious minority within Myanmar and have “their own language and culture” unique to their identity as self-described “descendants of Arab traders” (Myanmar). Myanmar is a majority Buddhist nation, and the Rohingya people are being systematically persecuted by for their religious beliefs and for their ethnic minority status. The Myanmar government refused to recognize the Rohingya people as a nation in the 2014 census, and has been accused of horrific violence against this group of people, specifically against their women and girls. The government has destroyed almost 300 Rohingya villages in the Rakhine province, and the UN has reported that this is the “world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” according to the BBC (Myanmar). The BBC also reports that there are over 10,000 people living in refugee camps outside of the country, and over 100,000 more living outside of camps (Myanmar). The Rohingya people are fleeing out of the country and into neighboring Bangladesh, which is placing stress on the country’s infrastructure and ability to provide for so many international refugees. The issue stems from continual conflicts between the state of Myanmar and the Rohingya people that have been occurring since the 1970s. Myanmar became an independent state in 1948, and the many ethnic minorities throughout the country have been negatively affected by subsequent systems of rule ever since (Myanmar).

Although this is not an explicitly colonialist issue, it represents relationships of power in modern politics. The violence against the Rohingya people is due to bigoted, biased relationships that represent westernized ways of thinking that favor the majority power within a country. In a way, the religious persecution of the Rohingya Muslims can be compared to colonization due to its parallels of violence and subordination.

Michel Foucault’s discussion of the subject and power helps us to understand the relationship between the subordinate Rohingya Muslims and the dominant Myanmar government. Foucault argues that one can either be a subject of an external force, or a subject of your own design (Foucault 781). The Rohingya people are made to be subjects of their own identities that are created by an external force; therefore, they are dually subjects of both themselves and their government, similar to the “individualizing and totalizing form of power” (Foucault 782) that the state represents. This violent relationship between the two is one that “separates the individual, breaks up his links with others, splits up community life…and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way” (Foucault 781). Although the Myanmar state is not one that is actively colonizing in the traditional sense, we can compare the government to a “colonizer” for ideology’s sake. This relationship is one that exists through the subordination of a minority group through violence and persecution, effectively representing Foucault’s definition of a “relationship of violence” (Foucault 789).

This subordination by the Myanmar state is representative of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s understanding of a duality of history and differences between History 1 and History 2. The dominant, Buddhist state of Myanmar represents History 1, a story of colonialist action and subordinating violence — the dominant narrative in Western history. The Rohingya Muslims are representative of History 2, “a category charged with the function of constantly interrupting the totalizing thrusts of History 1” (Chakrabarty 66). This refugee crisis represents the transition between History 1 and History 2. The state, at the moment, is representative of the dominant History 1, but the fact that this issue is recognized by global media, and that there are humanitarian efforts to help the Rohingya people, shows that History 2 is beginning to invade and interrupt History 1. History 2s are defined as “less powerful” (Chakrabarty 70) than History 1, but regardless, they are the marginalized groups that are working to have their voices heard. The situation itself is a creation of History 1, of violence and subordination enacted by an entity in power. The reaction of the world and its impact on global politics is representative of the “small voices” of History 2 interrupting the dominant, westernized ideals of History 1. The world is beginning a slow but steady transition to self-recognition of the Western hegemony that is modern society.

Ranajit Guha’s discussion of dominant and subaltern histories ties in with Chakrabarty and his interpretation of this crisis particularly well. Guha discusses the importance of recognizing the “small voices” of history; the marginalized peoples who have been subjected to violence and subordination; the people who power History 2. The Rohingya Muslims are the small voices of history, those who have been placed in their socioeconomic position in life by a westernized, power hungry society pitted against them. Additionally, Guha discusses the hegemonic production of history from a western point of view, or statism. He writes, “this ideology…is what authorizes the dominant values of the state to determine the criteria of the historic” (Guha 1). In short, Guha argues that history has been created and specifically narrated by those in power to make their narrative as beneficial to them as possible. In the case of Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted for decades in a situation where “an alien power ruled over a state without citizens, where the right of conquest rather than the consent of its subjects constituted its charter…” (Guha 3). The rights and requests of the Rohingya Muslims have been ignored since Myanmar’s independence in 1948; they are living in a state that actively ignores their nation’s existence in order to further their own political interests. In order to fully and effectively stop this situation from continuing to happen, we need to recognize, and listen to, the small voices of history.

The only way to protect and respond to a crisis such as this is to make it a global goal to listen and respond to the needs of the Rohingya people. Subaltern narratives, as Guha describes them, are ones that have the capacity to make real change, but they must be welcomed into society with open arms, outside of a subordinating relationship of power. How, exactly, do we welcome these narratives into popular discussion? Through writing, education, and active discussion. Mass education and the initiative to make this crisis (and others like it) a major issue in the public eye is the only way to move forward and enact real, global change.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Two Histories of Capital.” Global Studies 165 Reader: Colonialism, Neocolonialism, & Globalization. SB Printer, 2017, Santa Barbara (pps. 47–71).

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, №4. University of Chicago Press, 1982, Chicago (pp. 777–795.).

Guha, Ranajit. “The Samll Voice of History.” Subaltern Studies IX. Writings on South Asian History and Society. Eds. Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakraparty, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 1996 (pps 1–12.).

“Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis.” BBC News, BBC, 19. Oct. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.



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Erin Walsh

Erin Walsh

Global Studies student with a passion for news, travel, and culture.