The Rohingya Muslims, known as the most severely persecuted minority in the 21st century, and a recent series of tragic events in Myanmar are drawing the eyes of the world once again. While the majority of international media simply interprets the case as a massive act of violence perpetrated by the Myanmar government, the inside story is not as straightforward as it seems.
On September 28, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), exhorted Myanmar to take action regarding the ongoing conflicts in Rakhine State, one of Myanmar’s many states located near the border with Bangladesh. The UN has been sending wake-up calls to the Myanmarese government. In September, one of the UN officials condemned military actions against the Rohingya Muslims as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” However, as State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed in her official speech on September 19, the Myanmarese government sees the Rohingya problem as an internal affair and has rejected any intervention from the international community.
Who are the Rohingya Muslims?
The dispute between the Rohingya Muslims and the government concernsthe question of citizenship. While the Rohingya community identifies itself as a minority group within Myanmar, other native groups, along with the Burmese government do not see eye to eye with them. The Myanmar Citizenship Law established in 1982 stipulates that only those ethnic groups who have immigrated to what is today’s Myanmar before the Anglo-Burmese War in 1823 count as the founding 135 ethnic groups. According to the law, the Rohingya Muslims are illegal immigrants, and thus Rohingya infants are deprived of any protection or privileges as Myanmarese citizens.
Difficulties looking into the issue stem from the ambiguity surrounding the word “Rohingya.” The government claims that there are no written records of the origin of the Rohingya to prove their historic involvement within Myanmar and that they are more likely to be immigrants who came after the British empire colonised Rakhine State. In fact, the term “Rohingya” was first introduced in history later in the 1950s, with no records showing the existence of the Rohingya before then.
According to Professor Park Jang Sik (Department of Myanmar, Busan University of Foreign Studies), a leading expert in Korea’s Myanmar research, the Rohingya community is most accurately described as Muslims living in Rakhine State. “Geographic characteristics of the Rakhine State allowed active interactions with the Bengal Muslims, and it is historically proven that many Muslims came to reside in the Rakhine State for this reason. While the government asserts that the Rohingya Muslims would be a fraction of those Muslims, it is impossible to track down specific origins of Muslims within Rakhine State,” explained Professor Park. The Rohingya historians insist that the word Rohingya is derived from “Rohang,” an Arab word for Rakhine.
▲ Rohingya woman with her ill son in the makeshift camp, PROVIDED BY NATIONALITYFORALL.ORG
Game of Politics
Like many conflicts plaguing the globe, the Rohingya persecution is easily understood as another example of religious conflict; while Myanmar is a Buddhist nation, the Rohingya population is mostly Muslim. However, pinning down the Rohingya crisis simply as a religious conflict does not quite capture the complexity involved in the Rohingya persecution. “Religion is more of an excuse used to hide the politics behind the oppression,” stated Professor Park. Because Buddhism is a uniting spiritual and cultural force within Myanmar, an increase in Muslim population appears as a threat to the government.
The anti-Muslim military of Myanmar has been a vehement opponent of the Rohingya Muslims. The military has been exploiting the Rohingya Muslims as a scapegoat to unite different ethnic groups under their collective hatred, and to divert attention from the military’s long-term seizure of power. Consequently, the military provoked the Buddhists’ anxiety by stressing that the region will turn into a Muslim State. Still after the military rule was replaced by the democratic government, administrations have constantly oppressed the Rohingya Muslims to consolidate and legitimize their power.
Against such a backdrop, the conflict has grown even bigger in the 21st century. The growing prominence of Islam and the religious indifference seen in younger generations have come to weaken the power of Buddhism and stirred bitter anxiety among extremists. Recent incidents of terrorism in Rakhine, such as a mass arson of households and sexual assaults, that aimed not only the Rohingya Muslims but also other groups of Muslims have been orchestrated by Buddhist extremists seeking to remove every last Muslim from their country. Such extreme views are in line with a latent Islamophobia and fear that Muslims are taking over the world with their rapidly multiplying population, which in turn justifies horrific acts of violence in the eyes of anti-Muslim extremists.
This paralyzing complexity puts Aung San Suu Kyi in a difficult position to extend a hand to the Rohingya. Although she is a legendary human rights activist and Nobel Prize laureate, she is still very much bound by critical public opinion and the covert influence of the military, limiting her say in this highly sensitive issue. “Articles demanding to take away Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize show a lack of understanding about Myanmar. The Myanmarese citizens see the Rohingya issue as a religious and ethnic conflict rather than a human rights problem. Given the current state of affairs in Myanmar's domestic politics, Suu Kyi cannot risk polarizing the country even further,” Professor Park stated.
▲Wrecked village of the Rohingya Muslims, PHOTOGRAPHED BY GREG CONSTANTINE, POST MAGAZINE
With vested interests determined to maintain their hold on power at the expense of the Rohingya Muslims, this crisis can only be solved from within Myanmar. Unless the social status of the Rohingya changes, brutal violence is likely to continue for years to come. The only solution is for the Burmese government to officially accept the Rohingya Muslims and give them the citizenship they deserve. Yet, the brutal game of politics in this country does not seem to promise peace for the Rohingya Muslims any time soon.
Today’s Rohingya Muslims are second and third generation Rohingya, most of whom were born in the Myanmarese territory and are familiar with its culture. Whatever the method of entry their ancestors used to enter Myanmar, successive generations of the Rohingya Muslims are not guilty of illegal entry, nor do they have any reason to be denied citizenship. History should not serve as a rationale for the violence and cruelty they are suffering.
▲A Rohingya Muslim infant, PHOTOGRAPHED BY MRIDULA AMIN