History is rife with examples of minority ethnic groups getting the short end of the stick. Such a metaphor glosses over some highly egregious human rights violations, but to go into detail in every such instance would take a long time. However, it is a fact to state that non-titular groups are, at this moment, being persecuted all across the globe from Latin America and Europe to the Mideast and all throughout Africa.
One story that has started to gain some traction in international news outlets is the narrative of the Rohingya people living in western Myanmar in the state of Rakhine. The Rohingya are a Muslim group living far from the capital city of Naypyidaw, a hub of activity since the country’s recent attempt at a transition to a more open and democratic society.
A Brief Historical Background of the Rohingya People.
Tracing their lineage back through history, the Rohingya originally came from present day Bangladesh. They became a very powerful actor in the region, working handedly with the sultans of Bengal in the time period between the 15th – 18th centuries. Their reign came to an end in the late 1700s when the Burmese conquered Arakan, forcing many Rohingya to flee to the British Raj, mostly toward the region of Chittagong.
Thousands of Rohingya were executed, and this became an area of increased tension between the Burmese and the Muslims in Chittagong. Eventually, British intervention was necessary which led to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1823. Throughout the 19th century, occasional flare ups occurred between the Burmese and the British occupiers. In 1886, Burma was officially annexed by the British Empire.
The British began bringing in all sorts of unskilled laborers from the Raj, including the Rohingya. This led to a feeling of xenophobia and caused great resentment among the local Burmese population.
When the British abandoned Burma during WWII, the lid was blown off the powder keg and ethnic hatred was unleashed on a tremendous scale. According to political scientist Kurt Jonassohn, after learning that the Rohingya had been conducting espionage for the British, the conquering Japanese army which occupied Burma “engaged in an orgy of rape, murder, and torture” of ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
The Rohingya People Today
Last year, when the Burmese ruling junta announced its plan to liberalize the country’s political system and allow elections, there were a few keen observers who cautioned not to pop the bottles of champagne just yet. They warned us that Myanmar was still inundated with ethnic conflict and hatreds, many of which go back decades, even centuries. These analysts posited that Myanmar could never fully transition to democracy until these ethnic divisions were healed. Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said:
“How serious is the government about resolving its conflicts with ethnic militias?…[W]hile much of the country seems energized by Thein Sein’s reforms, the ethnic minorities in the north and northeast are actually more unstable than they were just a year or two ago. Without a resolution of these conflicts, no real systemic change is possible in Burma.”
This is more or less a reference to the Kachin rebels in the north of the country. No one was quite prepared for the situation in Rakhine state to go as sour as it has over the last few months.
Much like the violence which accompanied the British withdrawal from Burma in 1942, violence between Buddhists and Muslims has once again filled the power vacuum now that the military junta has been dissolved and replaced with a “democratic” apparatus.
This past June, there were riots after the revenge killings of Muslims by Buddhists for the alleged rape of a Buddhist Burmese girl.
Buddhists have called for all Rohingya to be forcibly sent to Bangladesh, but Dhaka doesn’t want them either. Bangladesh security forces routinely turn away refugees attempting to cross the border, a violation of international law. Myanmar’s constitution has denied the Rohingya citizenship. Even the country’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, has remained strangely silent on the issue. With politicians from every spectrum trying to appeal to its citizens’ nationalism, the Rohingya seem to make an easy target for which to score political points. Thus, the world has seen a “gang up” affect in recent months with all groups, including the supposed “democratic” parties, picking on this beaten down group of undesirables.
Western NGOs lay blame squarely on the government. One such organization cites the “severe restrictions on movement, employment, right to marriage, and right to a family which are linked to the Citizenship Law of 1982 that rendered [the Rohingya] stateless,” as to why there has been a recent explosion in violence.
The more open Myanmar becomes, the more pressure it will face from international actors to deal assertively with its myriad ethnic complications. Continuing to stoke the fires of ethnic hatred and playing on its citizens’ xenophobic tendencies will only serve to augment and already combustible situation.