Melissa Crouch discusses the politics of belonging in Myanmar and the need to reframe understanding of the nation’s Muslim populations.

Recent anti-Muslim violence like the 2012 Rakhine riots in Myanmar has highlighted the plight of an often persecuted but little understood minority.

The ongoing crisis involving thousands of Rohingya (and Bangladeshi) asylum seekers and migrants off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand has now garnered worldwide attention, throwing more light on a complex issue with a complicated history.

All of this has also exposed a serious gap in knowledge of Muslim communities and how they interact with the state in Myanmar.

In this talk, Melissa Crouch from the University of NSW examines the politics of belonging in Myanmar with a focus on how we can deepen our understanding of the diverse Muslim communities there.

Crouch argues that there is a need to move away from rigid ethnic-based assumptions of Muslims in Myanmar and reframe our understanding to include how Muslim identity is shaped by their relations with the state.

“The politics of belonging can help us to understand some the challenges that Muslims face, both in terms of their relation with the state, as well as with their own communities and other communities,” says Crouch.

“It’s an idea that may be both individual or collective that embodies notions of identity, ideas or acceptance and levels of participation, as well as the ways in which the state responds to these particular communities.”

In Myanmar, Muslim populations like the country’s 1.1 million Rohingya are not allowed to identify as such, but are often considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many have been denied citizenship and are essentially stateless.

In order to reconceptualise the politics of belonging, and expand our understanding of the relation between Muslims and the state in Myanmar, Crouch suggests that we need to undertake two movements in scholarship.

“First, we need to move away from characterising Islam in Myanmar as violent, hostile and strange. To place Islam on an equal footing with other religions in Myanmar will inevitably require displacing Buddhism from its perceived position as a ‘non-violent’ religion,” says Crouch.

“Second, the study of Islam in Myanmar needs to be acknowledged and welcomed into wider academic discussions on Islam and the state. That is, rather than studying Muslims in Myanmar as an isolated anomaly, in this era of transnational Islam we need to reposition the study of Muslims in Myanmar as an important ‘Islamic crossroad’ between Central, South and Southeast Asia.”

Listen to the full talk in the player above and download from here.

Melissa Crouch is a Lecturer at the Law Faculty, the University of New South Wales. Her research covers Asian legal studies, Islamic law, law and society, public law and comparative law.

This seminar was delivered at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University. Photo of Rohingya woman in Myanmar by Austcare on flickr.