Note: In this piece I will use Myanmar and Burma interchangeably, because the history of the name change in 1983 is linked to the military coup of 1982, thereby bringing forward questions of whether the Burmese people really supported the name change. Additionally, the United States and United Kingdom do not recognize the name Myanmar, while the United Nations does. For a history lesson on why no one is sure what to call Burma (Myanmar), check out this article.
In an unfolding story that is eerily similar to the build up to genocide in Rwanda, the recent clashes between the Buddhist Burmese and Muslim Burmese in western Myanmar (Burma) has led to the mass exodus of the Rohingya people.
Who are the Rohingya, and why are they so important to discussions on freedom in Myanmar?
The Rohingya are a stateless, Muslim minority who up until recently resided in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar. According to the U.S. Campaign for Burma 1.33 million Rohingya have called Myanmar home since at least 1799, when they were first documented by a member of the British East India Company in the Rakhine area. The relationship between the Rohingya and Myanmar has been tenuous at best, with periods of conflict interwoven into Myanmar’s history as a British colony and the more recent violent struggle for democracy. This complex and violent history makes weeding through the conflict to reach its origin almost impossible.
Myanmar, located along the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand, is home to 55.7 million people. Despite 68 percent of the population identifying as native Burman, Burma is home to 135 governmentally recognized religious and ethnic groups, who have resided in the country since at least 1823. These groups are recognized as Burmese citizens and are represented in the political process. Because the Rohingya are not citizens, they do not have access to education, unrestricted movement beyond the Rakhine state, or the right to practice Islam without fear of persecution. Additionally, many human rights groups speculate that many Rohingya have been arbitrarily arrested and many more are subject to forced labor in the region. So why are the Rohingya left out of politics, culture, and everyday life in Burma?
There appears to be two causes; the British and Buddhism. Myanmar became a British colony in 1824, which some argue explains why the military junta led by dictator Ne Win chose 1823 as the cut off date for citizenship. In fact, the Burmese government refers to the Rohingya as Bengali, implying that they are illegal immigrants. This claim, however, goes even further back, and appears to stem from long standing tension over British imperialism. The Burmese people understandably carry some resentment from their time as a colony, and the resulting loss of political, cultural, and historical sovereignty was used as a weapon by the military junta to seize control. Even today, with its more democratically inclined government, President Thein Sein refuses to recognize that the Rohingya are more than illegal immigrants.
Another issue at play in the Rohingya conflict is that 89 percent of the population identify as Buddhist. While historically, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims in the country have been able to live relatively peacefully, the concentration of Rohingyas in the Rakhine state appears to be the main cause of the conflict. Buddhists and Muslims in this area have clashed since 2012, when three Rohingya men were accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine Buddhist woman. The Rakhine State Riots began on June 3rd, when 300 Buddhists attacked a bus and killed 10 Rohingya. This was followed by a day long massacre on Oct. 23 which led to the death of at least 70 Rohingya. Since then the violence has only escalated, with Human Rights Watch estimating that at least 125,000 Rohingya have been displaced since then.
Facing violence, and without any legal recourse because they are not recognized as citizens, the Rohingya have been leaving the country en masse, only to find themselves being exploited by human traffickers, or, worse, after a crackdown by the Thai government on human traffickers led to many crews to abandon their cargo in the Andaman Sea. By May 14, an estimated 3,000 Rohingya were stuck starving to death, adrift in Thai waters. The situation is magnified by recent data from Human Rights Watch which suggests that some of those stuck in this seemingly unending limbo were forcibly removed from their homes. While the Thai government stepped in on May 13, and resupplied the ship with food, little else has been done. The discovery of mass graves of Rohingya in Thailand, and the influx of Rohingya into Malaysia illegally has led both countries to limit the number of Rohingya being granted asylum. A May 20 conference between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to discuss viable options for addressing the crisis before it gets worse appears to have gone nowhere, as it is believed that at least 2,500 Rohingya still remain adrift off the coast of Thailand.
The Burmese government’s decision to strip the Rohingya of their citizenship and rights in 1983 was a conscious decision, motivated by a desire to eradicate all aspects of British imperialism, including the people the Burmese feel were forced upon them. However, the Burmese government’s decision to basically ignore the existence of over a million people because they look darker than most Burmans, and practice Islam has created a hostile environment. As Southeast Asia continues to argue over who will take responsibility for the Rohingya, Buddhists in the region are being allowed to wage an ethnic cleansing.
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