This paper will examine the perilous effects of transnationalism and forced migration on the Rohingyas and Uighurs. It is imperative that their histories are laid out first, with ethnicity, religion, language, and identity established so as to cement the Rohingya and Uighur people as first-class citizens while highlighting their plight. We will then inspect transnationalism as a multi-faceted concept and operationalise its broad definitions with heightened focus on the migratory and political aspects. Along the way, we will uncover how governments weaponised ethnicity, identity, religion, and language to discriminate against and displace the Rohingya and Uighur people from homes, and more importantly, their host nations. In doing so, the paper hopes to shed light on the disparate effects that transnationalism contains for different ethnicities and people.
The Rohingyas were formally Muslim settlers who arrived in Arakan State (now known as Myanmar) in the 1430s and are predominantly Muslims with smaller numbers as Hindus. After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the government failed to acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic group. 34 years later, Myanmar would go on to deny the Rohingya people citizenship by passing a law, rendering them stateless and relegating them to the status of non-citizens (Blakemore, 2019). Already an ethnic minority in a majority-Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya people experienced state-sponsored violence towards them. They were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Today, Myanmar considers the Rohingya as illegal immigrants. Already stateless, Ahmed (2019) reports that Rohingya women were trafficked for marriage to Rohingya men in Malaysia. Once settled migrants to Arakan State centuries ago, they now lack citizenship rights instead, making the Rohingyas effectively refugees and asylum seekers. Ultimately, the Rohingyas experienced forced transnational migration, trafficking, and displacement.
The Uighurs experienced a different fate. Living in the Xinjiang region of China, the Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, minority ethnic group of Muslims. After China annexed Xinjiang in 1949, Han Chinese migrated into the region over time and nearly equalised the ethnic ratio between them and the Uighurs. Recently, the China government arrested and imprisoned Muslim minorities. These arrests were sparked off by concerns of Uighur-linked terrorism and rising Islamophobia. Beijing disallows any form of Uighur criticism or resistance towards forced indoctrination, of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), seeing discontent as a threat. Hence, the CCP attempts to assimilate the Uighurs by forcing them into camps to undergo vocational training with ramifications for Uighurs outside of China. An estimated one million Uighurs were reportedly detained in China’s “vocational training centres” (Hayes, 2019). With foreign Chinese missions stopping passport renewals, the Uighurs are marked as illegal immigrants and pressured into returning to China to face potentially deleterious futures (“Chinese Uighurs”, 2020). In contrast to the Rohingya, the Uighurs faced restrictions in movement, and many were pressured to return back to Xinjiang; They were citizens turned prisoners all while living in the very same birthplace that adopted a counter-pluralism stance.
In both cases, the Rohingya and Uighurs should be considered citizens native to their region, able to exercise the right to freely migrate or move within. Crucially, they ought to have full citizenship rights. Yet, they were turned into refugees and treated as prisoners. Myanmar rendered the Rohingyas stateless, while China coerced the Uighur people into camps and exerted political power in foreign lands to corral Uighurs back home. Forced movement of ethnic peoples are indicative of state-exercised political power often reaching far beyond one nation to find agreement among countries with a common goal (Dwyer, 2005, Executive Summary). This is merely one aspect of transnationalism at work, showcasing the ability to weave national narratives into the deep crevices of social and political spheres.
Still, we must further examine the concept of transnationalism to illuminate how communities experienced controlled movement across time and space. In particular, we will examine how identity stems from a location yet can morph into a malleable, transnational form. The Rohingyas and Uighurs can be found outside of Myanmar and Xinjiang respectively even though they largely originated from these lands. As ethnic diasporas, they “embody a variety of historical and contemporary conditions, characteristics, trajectories and experiences” (Vertovec, 1999, p. 449). Despite being alienated, displaced, and discriminated against, the Rohingya and Uighur people not only chose to retain their identities, most also refused to identify as anything else in an act of nationalistic fevour (“The Arakan Project”, 2016; Dwyer, 2005). They would rather retain their ethnic identities and risk their own survival against the face of governments working to strip the Rohingya and Uighur identities to fit the narratives of states increasingly bent on nationalism.
Such ethnic displacement is an example of how states exert political power over other nations in a globally connected world. Vertovec (1999, p. 455) contends that home-countries engage in transnational political activities just as ethnic diasporas do. He adds that transnational action sees nations operate outside of their national boundaries. It is reported that the Uighurs in Saudi Arabia avoided consultation with the Chinese mission for fear of having their passports invalidated and thereby facing deportation to China. Yet, it is not immediately clear whether China pressured Saudi Arabia into deporting the Uighurs, or whether Saudi Arabia cooperated out of mutual gain. In all cases, it must be recognised that China wields power with far-reaching effects, marking 26 countries as “sensitive” while claiming that Uighurs with links to these countries were “prone to ‘extremist thought’” (“Chinese Uighurs”, 2020). This Uighur-extremist narrative originated in China, yet spread beyond its borders, ultimately compelling foreign governments to move in lockstep with the Chinese. It must be noted also that China since the mid-1980s embarked on a “shift from cultural accommodation towards an overt policy of assimilation” (Dwyer, 2005). Xinjiang was home to multilingualism and cultural pluralism then, with Han Chinese and the Uighurs living together. Now, the Chinese government instituted monolingualism and a monocultural model, all to craft a dominant Han Chinese identity by assimilating the Uighurs. This is a form of ethnic cleansing and erasure of the Uighur identities.
If ethnicity and language form part of the characteristics of clearly defined ethnic groups such as the Rohingya and Uighur, then these concepts have been politicised and attacked through state-sponsored persecution. Taylor (2016) reports that Myanmar people demanded that the United States stop using the word “Rohingya” in a bid to erase the ethnic group. Similarly, China systematically eradicates the Uighur language through linguistic policy and phased it out of tertiary institutions by instating Chinese as the instructional language instead. The Chinese language is even used to teach classes on Uyghur poetry and literature (Dwyer, 2005, p. 50). Those actions can be constituted as a form of linguistic discrimination and subjugation of ethnicity.
China further weaponised language and branded the Uighurs from “separatists” to “Islamic terrorists”. As a result, the United States “conflated Uighur nationalism with ‘terrorism’”, lending credence to the cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese government in suppressing the Chinese minorities. In one blow, all Uighurs were now stereotyped as terrorists with the full weight of China and U.S. backing the stance (Dwyer, 2005, p. 55). This is an issue of identity taking on transnational properties; That China can attribute misleading and damaging traits to an ethnic group and propagate it to another economic superpower with full cooperation speaks to transnationalism as a powerful motivational force. This is indicative of stereotyping taken to its extreme, conflating Uighurs, Muslims, and terrorists. The Uighur people pay a hefty price for a state-spun narrative hawked to the world.
The Rohingya and Uighur identities were incrementally decimated and false stereotypes harped on already stateless people lacking political capital. These ethnic groups face a hazy future further compounded by countries adopting a nationalistic stance seeking to protect its own interests while elevating their own dominant ethnic narrative. In all cases, the states refused to recognise the legitimacy of these ethnic groups. When countries leave multiculturalism behind and adopt monoculturalism, they risk alienating existing ethnicities while stoking the nationalistic fires of the same ethnic groups instead. Myanmar instituted state-sponsored ethnic discrimination by acknowledging 135 ethnic groups but not the Rohingyas, culminating in the refusal to recognise “Rohingya” as a term (Blakemore, 2019).
In closing, we see that the Rohingyas and Uighurs are socially excluded from participating in the normative aspects of life, politics, healthcare, and community. Whether they face difficulties in voting, have had their movements restricted, were forcefully displaced from their birthplaces, or experienced violence, the two ethnic groups faced state-sponsored discrimination and prejudice. For the Rohingyas, they were discriminated against on the basis of being Muslims in the majority-Buddhist state of Myanmar. The Uighurs experienced stereotyping by virtue of being Muslims in a nation that wove Uighur ethnicity with terrorism into a national and transnational narrative. Both ethnic groups experienced parallels of transnationalism perils instead, and one can only hope more governments of the world can end such violence on vulnerable populations.
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