About Us
Back Issues
Forthcoming Issues
Print Edition
Contact Us
IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 03   16-30 June 2012

Myanmar’s Despised Muslim Minority

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority of Myanmar, present a picture of poverty and destitution (Reuters)

The Rohingya: Myanmar’s Outcastes

Akbar Ahmed

The image of a smiling Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receiving flowers from her supporters is a powerful message of freedom and optimism in Myanmar, the symbol of democracy in a country which has known nothing but authoritarian oppression for decades.

Yet few ask one of the most pressing questions facing Daw Suu Kyi. How will she deal with the Rohingya? "The Rohingya," you will ask. "Who are they?" The Rohingya, whom the BBC calls "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups", are the little-publicised and largely forgotten Muslim people of the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Their historic lineage in Rakhine dates back centuries, as fishermen and farmers. Over the past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically driven out of their homeland by Myanmar's military junta and subjected to widespread violence and the total negation of their rights and citizenship within Myanmar. They are a stateless Muslim minority.

The Muslim minority of Myanmar is not recognized by the government (Gallo/Getty)

The continued tragedy of the unrecognised Rohingya, both in Myanmar and as refugees abroad, casts a dark shadow over the bright hopes and prospects for democracy in a country plagued by violence and civil war. Suu Kyi is ideally placed to extend democratic reforms to all ethnic peoples, including the Rohingya, in a free Myanmar.

Though the Rohingya may be small in number at less than two million, the real lesson of the Arab Spring is that no notion of democracy can succeed without the inclusion of all people within a country's borders. Every member of society, regardless of race and religion, must be given their due rights as citizens.

While many ethnic minorities in Myanmar have been the victims of the central government's oppressive measures, the Rohingya stand apart in that their very existence is threatened. The Rohingya's plight abroad as refugees in places such as Bangladesh and Thailand has seen glimmers of the media spotlight, but less attention has been brought to the underlying cause of their flight: the violence and cultural oppression at home.

These policies were enacted by Myanmar's government to force the Rohingya outside of Myanmar as a result of their being Muslim and ethnically non-Myanma. The government erroneously labelled them as "illegal Bengali immigrants" in their efforts to eradicate the Rohingya culture.

Kings to refugees

Yet, the long history of the Rohingya and the Rakhine state contradicts the government's claims. The medieval Kingdom of Arakan, encompassing the Muslim Rohingya, was once an enlightened centre of culture, knowledge and trade, displaying a harmonic blend of Buddhism and Islam in its administration and court life. The kingdom's cosmopolitan and international capital city, Mrauk U, was described in the 17th century as "a second Venice" by a Portuguese Jesuit priest and was often compared to Amsterdam and London by travellers and writers of the time.

It was the 1784 military conquest by Bodawpaya, the king of Burma (now Myanmar), that transformed this once vibrant kingdom into an oppressed peripheral region. After this, many haunting tales began to circulate of Burmese soldiers rounding up the Rohingya in bamboo enclosures to burn them alive, and marching thousands to the city of Amarapura to work, effectivley as slave labour, on infrastructure projects.

With the rise to power of the military junta in 1962 under General Ne Win, a policy of "Myanmarisation" was implemented as an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Myanma ethnicity and its Buddhist faith. The Rohingya, as both Muslims and non-Myanma, were stripped of their legitimacy and officially declared foreigners in their own native land. With the passage of the junta's 1982 Citizenship Law, they effectively ceased to exist legally.

Stripped officially of their citizenship, the Rohingya found their lives in limbo: prohibited from the right to own land or property, barred from travelling outside their villages, repairing their decaying places of worship, receiving an education in any language or even marrying and having children without rarely granted government permission. The Rohingya have also been subjected to modern-day slavery, forced to work on infrastructure projects, such as constructing "model villages" to house the Myanmar settlers intended to displace them, reminiscent of their treatment at the hands of the Burmese kings of history.

The denial of citizenship and rights was accompanied by a military strategy of physical and cultural war designed to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar. The initial push of the military's ethnic cleansing campaign came in 1978 under Operation Naga Min, or Operation King Dragon. The purpose of this operation was to scrutinise each individual within the state as either a citizen or alleged "illegal immigrant". This resulted in widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages and confiscation of lands among the Rohingya people. In the wake of this violence, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, many of whom were later repatriated to Myanmar where they faced further torture, rape, jail and death.

In 1991, a second push, known as Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched with the same purpose, resulting in further violence and another massive flow of 200,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. Non-governmental organisations from Europe and North America estimate that 300,000 Rohingya refugees remain in Bangladesh, with only 35,000 residing in registered refugee camps and receiving some sort of assistance from NGOs.

Acknowledging the Rohingya

Those remaining, more than 250,000, are in a desperate situation without food and medical assistance, largely left to slowly starve to death. The December 2011 refugee repatriation agreement reached between Myanmar President Thein Sein and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will exclude the Rohingya, due to their lack of Myanmar citizenship, one of the conditions for repatriation for the expected 2,500 returning refugees.

The Rohingya predicament underlines a paradox for the world's great faiths, straddling the divide between Islamic Asia and Buddhist Asia. Each emphasises compassion and kindness and yet, we see little evidence of this in their dealings with the Rohingya people.

As part of this current study on the relationship between centre and periphery in the Muslim world, we recently interviewed Dr Wakar Uddin, Chairman of The Burmese Rohingya Association of North America (BRANA). A gentle and learned man, he is an energetic ambassador for his Rohingya people with a firm grasp of regional history. All the Rohingya want is the reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, as revoked by the former dictator General Ne Win, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it.

Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy have a unique opportunity to reach out to the Rohingya people and include them in the new democratic process. The NLD should work with the central government to expand the role of all ethnic minorities as full Myanma citizens.

By acknowledging their rights, the government will bestow upon the Rohingya the dignity and the responsibilities of citizenship and present opportunities for mutual cultural understanding and the repatriation of the thousands of refugees existing in purgatory, separated from their homes and families. Great strides have recently been made by the Myanmar government towards the creation of an open and democratic political system and an end to ethnic violence, yet this is only the beginning.

With the recognition of the Rohingya as Myanma citizens, Suu Kyi will honour the memory of her father, Aung San, as he, before his untimely and tragic death, also reached out to ethnic minorities to participate in an independent Myanmar. Only then can a democratic and modern Myanmar be legitimate and successful in the eyes of its own people.

But the first step is to acknowledge the Rohingya exist.

(Source: Al Jazeera, 30 January 2012)

Islamophobia and the ‘fear of the Other’ in Myanmar

Francis Wade

Chiang Mai, Thailand - The mob that set upon and killed a group of Muslims riding a bus through western Myanmar on June 3 displayed a depravity normally the hallmark of the country's military. News reports that emerged in the wake of the incident, allegedly in response to the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim men days before, described the ten victims of a frenzied beating being urinated upon before the bus was set ablaze.

Comments that circulated the internet in the wake of the massacre were almost as shocking. "Killing Kalars is good!" one person said, using the pejorative slur that has become a popular and casual way of referring to Muslims of South Asian decent (one that state media also regularly employs). It mattered little that the men accused of the rape had already been arrested.

The attack was a rare incident; the reactions suggest however that heightened levels of resentment towards the presence of Muslims in Myanmar society exist on a much wider scale. This animosity is shared by senior figures in the government - current representative to the UN, Ye Myint Aung, once described the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Arakan state who are singled out for particularly savage treatment, as "ugly as ogres", while since 1982 the government has denied them citizenship, claiming they are "illegal Bengali immigrants". Persecution of the group has been so protracted and debased that Medicins San Frontieres describes them as being among the world minority groups "most in danger of extinction".

While Myanmar's myriad ethnic groups have all suffered egregious treatment at the hands of the military government, which has sought to bring the country "under one flag", the fear of Muslims is a particular one. On the website of The Voice journal, which issued an apology after being bombarded with threats following its coverage of the massacre, one visitor wrote: "We should either kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist".

The 'other'

Treatment of Muslims as the 'other' persists despite the country's push to embrace the outside world and everything it offers. There is something of a contradiction then in the population's desire to become global players, which will see it interacting far more with non-Myanmar, non-Buddhist ethnicities. In Arakan state, where tension between Buddhists and Muslims often spills over into violence, hypocrisy is also evident in attempts by Arakanese to goad public opinion against the Rohingya in the name of "nationalism". These are the same Arakanese who, ironically, regularly accuse the government of attempting to aggressively assimilate Arakanese into the Burman way of life.

Such is the treatment of Rohingya that up to 300,000 now reside in Bangladesh, which in turn sees them as illegal immigrants from Myanmar and denies them citizenship. They are the epitome of stateless, and spend their lives in unofficial camps where conditions are notoriously poor (only 28,000 are registered by the UN). Their disaffection has made them ripe for Islamic militant groups and human traffickers. Many attempt the perilous sea journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia and beyond to find work - in December last year, a boatload of more than 60 who ran into trouble off the coast of southern Myanmar were detained by Myanmar police, ironically on immigration charges.

Accusations that the government has sought to dilute, or "Burmanise", Myanmar's 135 distinct ethnic groups have existed for decades, and factor in the apparently institutional practice of rape of ethnic women by Myanmar troops, as well as the forced learning of the Myanmar language in ethnic schools.

In Northern Arakan state, where the majority of Rohingya reside, and where foreigners are barred from entering, the practice is effectively official: government policy stipulates that Rohingya babies born out of wedlock be placed on blacklists that bar them from attending school and later marrying. A Rohingya couple must apply well in advance before attempting to wed; the frequent denial by authorities, as well as a strict two-child policy reserved only for Rohingya, has led rights groups to accuse the government of attempting to slowly wipe out the population.

Racism or religious discrimination?

Naypyidaw uses the premise of "illegal migration management" and "control on population growth" to justify the persecution of this group. The "immigrant" label however does not match with evidence that modern-era Muslim political participation in Arakan state goes back to the 1930s, while the Arakanese city of Mrauk U, in its zenith in the 17th century a key trading hub in Asia, was ruled by Muslim sultans.

Nor is this a consistent measure, given the millions of Chinese that have migrated to Myanmar in recent decades to become powerful players in the economy. Is there an issue then with the often darker skin of Muslim groups in Myanmar, or that their religion conflicts with Buddhism?

Few seem to know, but one major cause for concern is that this hostility exists across the entire spectrum of Myanmar politics. The post-colonial civilian government of U Nu in the early 1950s expelled the Burma Muslim Congress and made Buddhism the state religion; then came Myanmar's first dictator, Ne Win, who used anti-Muslim propaganda to powerful effect during the mass expulsion of Indians in the 1960s. He branded the tens of thousands brought in for work by the British as colonial stooges, and exploited the subsequent anti-Islam sentiment to ban all Muslims from the army. The same key issue that fuelled the infamous anti-Chinese riots of the late 1960s and 1970s - that Myanmar were aggrieved at jobs going to foreigners - had also driven the anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots in 1930 and 1938.

Ne Win's propaganda may have had a lingering effect, given the marked levels of resentment and suspicion of Muslims that remain, particularly in the west of the country. Nicholas Farrelly, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Australia National University, thinks however that this is consistent with the attitudes that many Buddhists elsewhere in the region have towards Muslims:

"In general, they find their habits foreign, their lack of integration exasperating, and their proselytising unwelcome. When we compare them to other groups, Myanmar's Muslims enjoy none of the educational or international prestige that is widely associated with the country's Christian minorities. While Kachin and Karen Christians have suffered atrocious treatment I think there is at least some mainstream Myanmar Buddhist respect for their cultures and religion. Such respect is rarely accorded to Muslims."

An 'open', but racist, Myanmar?

In an era of cautious opening, the continued inability of Myanma to debate the subject rationally is worrying. The opposition National League for Democracy, viewed by the outside world as the driving force for change in Myanmar, itself tiptoes around the subject - one party official told the BBC earlier this year that "even in our organisation the Rohingya question has not been settled". Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent pro-democracy activist, said last week that the Rohingya "are not a Myanmar ethnic race... It has become a national concern infringing on our sovereignty". Does he also think that Thailand, for example, should hold the same attitude towards the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Burma living on its soil?

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised for failing to properly address the wider "ethnic issue" in Myanmar, urged the Buddhist majority to "have sympathy for minorities" in the wake of the June 3 killings, but refuses to weigh in heavily on the debate. She justified this tentativeness by saying that her party "must cautiously avoid amplifying the situation" - that may be true, but what could also be at stake is the risk of losing support from Arakan state's Buddhist population.

Even among the revered monastic community, often seen as staunch defenders of equality in Myanmar, there has been controversy. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported on a statement released by influential monk and former political prisoner, Ashin Virathu, that said: "I see that Muslims make up a larger percentage of the perpetrators in rape and murder cases". It was "reasonable", he continued, that the "[rape] victim's side see this as an insult to their people and [Buddhist] religion."

Now, despite the government announcing an investigation into the killings, race riots have erupted in western Myanmar and President Thein Sein on Sunday announced a state of emergency. At least eight people have been killed, some allegedly by government troops who opened fire on crowds.

Below the surface

The marked difference between now and past periods of heightened racial tension however is that there has been no major influx of Muslims in recent years - perhaps this points to a tension within Myanmar society that has simmered for years, unaddressed and awaiting a trigger.

One hopes this grisly period will bring about some thorough and measured questioning of the catalysts behind the massacre and resultant crisis, but the often inflammatory nature of these discussions induces avoidance. Few therefore acknowledge that xenophobia and fear of "the other" exists in Myanmar, meaning it goes unchallenged.

A census is due to take place in 2014 - the first in 25 years - but at present around 800,000 Rohingya are unlikely to be included. Such discriminatory policies are a major blight on Myanmar's revamped international image, but are largely obscured by the taboo that surrounds exposure of it - observers are loath to broach the subject, given the ramifications that accompany accusations of racism.

But evidence of an ingrained hostility among civilians is there, and it needs to be recognised. The massacre is not the first such sign - a BBC report last year that carried a map depicting Arakan state as the home of the Rohingya sparked an alarming uproar, and online forums again became hubs of bitter discussions, including calls for a nationwide boycott of the BBC and demonstrations outside the British embassy in Yangon.

If Myanmar is to truly join the global community, the floor must be opened to debate. There must be acknowledgement that a malaise exists among the very Myanma that for decades have felt the pain of antipathy and isolation. Taking a sensitive but head-on approach to the problem, rather than the pussyfooting demonstrated even by powerful figures in the pro-democracy movement, would be the first step.

(Source: Al Jazeera, 11 June 2012)

Name * :
E-mail * :
Add Your Comment :
Home About Us Announcement Forthcoming Features Feed Back Contact Us
Copyright © 2010 All rights reserved.