Aung San Suu Kyi and the “R” word: Rohingyas or “Bangladeshis”?

By Loke Hoe Yeong

If there is one thing that Aung San Suu Kyi’s new NLD government and the military generals of Myanmar can agree on, it is that the word “Rohingya” is strictly taboo.

Recently, Ms Suu Kyi had requested the US ambassador to Myanmar not to refer to the Muslim ethnic group in Rakhine state as “Rohingyas”. Besides being at odds with the large swathe of the international community, it also defies Ms Suu Kyi’s long held international reputation as a standard bearer of human rights.

Ms Suu Kyi is no doubt under immense political pressure on this issue back home. It is not difficult to witness the incredible aversion that the Burmese hold on the issue of the Rohingya people. A recent ASEAN Today article on 8 May, following the practice of most international media outlets in using the word “Rohingyas”, drew some very raw emotions from our Burmese readers.

A classic problem of colonialism

The roots of ethnic conflict around the world are usually found in colonial-era policies. The case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is no different.

While Rohingya leaders claim to be the descendants of a precolonial Muslim community of Rakhine State, the term Rohingya only appeared in 1799, in a Western academic publication on languages in then Burma.

After Rakhine state was brought under British colonial administration in 1826, in the aftermath of the first Anglo-Burmese war, an open immigration policy was instituted, which brought about a wave of Bengali Muslim immigrants from neighbouring British India into the state.

Immigrants from South India – both Muslims and non-Muslims – were also welcomed to help form part of the British colonial administration of Burma.

Racial riots erupted in the 1930s between the majority Burman Buddhist ethnic group and the Indian-Muslim migrants, said to have roots in the resentment towards the latter group of people, given some of their control of land during the Great Depression in 1929.

These sentiments were compounded during both the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II. Muslims in British Burma sided loyally with the colonial British administrators, thereby pitting themselves with the Burmese Independence Movement.

Subsequently, the Rohingya Mujahideen Rebellion of 1948 to 1961, in which the Rohingya waged an unsuccessful campaign to create a separate Islamic state that would eventually join East Pakistan, the country since known as Bangladesh. This was just one among the many secessionist movements among the various ethnic groups of Burma.

It nevertheless led to the use of the moniker “Bangladeshis” to describe the Rohingyas among some of the Burmese, in what is regarded as a pejorative to highlight their foreignness to Burma.

The Burma Citizenship Law was enacted in 1982 did not recognize the Rohingyas as an ethnic group of Myanmar, on the basis that any ethnic group that settled in Myanmar after 1823 would not qualify for citizenship.

Given this relatively dispassionate account of the Rohingya people’s history in Myanmar though, two intriguing questions arise.

Why has the Rohingya crisis only erupted in recent years?

If the conflict between the Rohingyas and the majority Buddhist-Burmese people of Myanmar have had such a long gestation, why is it that it is only in the past few years that we have seen a crisis of the sort that resulted in a refugee situation?

This has been blamed, ironically, on the lifting of some of the draconian controls the military junta held in policing ethnic sentiments in Myanmar, around 2010. In line too with the junta’s own programme of democratising the country, it was natural for them to appeal to all elements of voters’ preferences.

It also allowed for extremist Buddhist groups such as the “969” economic-nationalist campaign fronted by Ashin Wirathu, an abbot.

This corresponds to yet another classic theory of “lifting the lid”, where the fading away of authoritarian rule results in ethnic conflict that was previously held in check. This happened in the aftermath of the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia.

Why does the Rohingya conflict stick out, amid the many ethnic groups in Myanmar?

There 135 ethnic groups recognised by the Myanmar government, some of which have formed armed resistance groups that were at war with the central government throughout the 20th century.

But in none of these other ethnic groups and conflicts did it result in refugee crisis on such a massive scale as for the Rohingyas. What sets the Rohingyas apart from the other 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar (of which the Rohingyas are not designated as one)?

A Rakhine state government spokesperson has said that the Rohingya “are trying to Islamise [the Buddhist majority of Myanmar] through their terrible birth rate,” citing that Rohingya population growth is 10 times that of the Buddhist population.

This fuels sentiments among the majority Burmese-Buddhist population of Myanmar that the Muslim Rohingyas are attempting to overrun the country, in spite of the mere 4% of the total population which they constitute.

In comparison, 89% of Myanmar’s population identify themselves as Buddhists.

Cases such as that of the rape in 2012 the 27-year-old Burmese-Buddhist seamstress Ma Thida Htwe, which sparked an eruption of Muslim-Buddhist tension and the displacement of 70,000 Rohingyas, are completely reprehensible.

But the perception of the majority Burmese people in Myanmar being under siege by a minority ethnic group is frankly astounding, especially when there are images after images of Rohingya peoples being driven out into the dangerous seas in rickety boats, facing death or human traffickers. This has been recurring for the past few years.

But labeling conflict as “genocide” also grossly unhelpful

While there is absolutely no justification for driving an entire people out into the sea and becoming refugees, it is perhaps not helpful to stick the “genocide” label as a means of tackling the problem, as some developing movements have attempted.

This is not merely for the sake of producing a balanced argument. Rather, there are some very real problems with megaphone advocacy, well meaning as they may be.

Ethnic conflicts like the one involving the Rohingyas often involving complex and intricate webs of relationships throughout history. There is often no clear “good guy” or “bad guy” in the course of the conflict.

To do so would not only be inaccurate, but it could also be explosive in engendering misunderstanding and ill will – the very ingredients for ethnic conflict in the first place.

To vilify the Burmese people as evil persecutors, or worse still, as genocidal, is grossly unhelpful, unless the situation has reached such a clear tipping point. So far, the existence of an official government policy of extermination of the Rohingyas – the ultimate and legal definition of genocide – has yet to be fully proven.