Why is Myanmar so scared of the Rohingya?

Photo: European Commission DG ECHO/CC BY-ND 2.0

Myanmar’s minority Muslim group has long suffered at the hands of both the majority Buddhist communities and national authorities, who claim these “illegal settlers” are a threat and a menace.

By Holly Reeves

Imagine you own a house. For a while, you rent that house to someone else, and they invite their friends to stay. But when you get that house back, the tenant’s friends will not leave and say it is now their house too. What is more, they are willing to defend their new home with rape, murder and violence.

This is a highly simplistic explanation of the incredibly complex concerns behind Myanmar’s most high-profile ethnic issue; the distrust and outright persecution of the so-called Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. Despite a history of Muslim groups living in the area for hundreds of years, they are not recognised as one of the nation’s 135 official ethnic groups, and this denies them citizenship, human rights and, apparently, protection from genocide.

To hell and back?

According to Amnesty International, this leaves people like Yasmine, a young woman with two small children, no other choice but to flee in a 16-day boat journey and hide in a tiny room in Thailand. But although she is physically safe, she and her children remain stateless and terrified they will be deported and returned. This desperate and vulnerable family belong nowhere, are never welcome – members of what the United Nations calls the “most persecuted group in the world.”

The story of the so-called Rohingyas begins in Bangladesh. And this is the root of the problem. Advocates for the group say their migration began as far back as the 1700’s, or even a thousand years ago, making them legitimate claimants to a history and stake in Rakhine. Others say the arrivals are much more recent and the result of British colonialism welcoming in large numbers of Bengali farm workers, internal displacement thanks to instability and war in Bangladesh and outright land-grabbing by Bengalis in the 1950s.

Estimates of just how many of these people live in Myanmar today vary, and numbers change as they move, run and hide from pockets of persecution by the authorities, but somewhere around 500,000 is a decent guess. Others put the figure at over a million but as the community is excluded from official registration it is hard to be sure. Their communities are mostly in poorly-constructed camps in Rakhine State, on the north-west tip of Myanmar.

Shut out

Successive laws and moves by the government have isolated the community, for example, you need to prove you have lived in Myanmar for 60 years to get citizenship but they are not allowed the paperwork to prove this. The lack of papers also shuts them out from just about every aspect of public life. They cannot study, work, travel, marry, practise their religion or access health services. As far as the authorities are concerned; they do not exist.

Adding to the integration problem is the fact that many do not speak Burmese (no surprise as they have no access to education) and instead use Chittagonian, a dialect found in southeastern Bangladesh. As politicians regularly point out, they do not look or speak like the locals.

Burmese academic Kyaw Yin Hlaing tried to dig down further into why the Buddhist society of Myanmar was so resistant to the so-called Rohingya group. As part of his work he completed surveys in seven cities in Myanmar and found that anti-Muslim propaganda was a regular part of the national conversation; 85% of his respondents feared Muslims would turn the country Islamic.

It is also about territory. Myanmar’s leader in all but name Aung San Suu Kyi says the indigenous people in the north-west, “are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population, percentage-wise” as the Muslim population grows.

No excuse

This is why Myanmar hates the so-called Rohingya. A fear of violence. A fear of the other. A fear of powerful Islam washing over the country behind a wave of illegal immigrants.

But this is no excuse for the shameful lack of action and ethnic cleansing happening in the Muslim group’s communities. And in the face of a growing humanitarian disaster and discontent in Muslim majority countries like Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia it must be the governments of ASEAN that step up in their own backyard and help those fleeing violence.

A meeting between ASEAN foreign ministers this week has taken the first early steps towards action. “I believe that in the spirit of maintaining ASEAN centrality and cohesiveness, we have to address this issue collectively,” said Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman after the session, which Suu Kyi herself attended. As part of the talks she and her government agreed to provide more information to fellow nations “to maintain ASEAN solidarity.”

There must be a better option than the 16-days on a boat, and constant fear lived by Yasmine’s family. Neighbouring nations must do better than turning away boatloads of people who say they are in fear of their lives. Aung San Suu Kyi and her paper-thin “short-sighted, counterproductive, even callous” government will do nothing – it is time for the maturing, confident and powerful southeast Asian bloc to show the world what it is made of.