The Rohingya Muslims of Burma face rampant persecution on a truly shocking scale, so much so that the UN Council on Human rights considers the 1.3 million Rohingya of Myanmar to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They lack nearly all basic citizenship rights and face horrific attacks from rampaging Buddhists, which cause many to brave the perilous oceans. 300,000 of them currently languish in refugee camps in Bangladesh alone.
Despite the plight of this minority getting sporadic media coverage, a proper western advocacy group that could champion their cause similar to that of the Palestinians has shamefully not yet emerged (although Matt Dillon has done some campaigning on the issue). True humanitarians and internationalists should spend less time apotheosising Aung San Suu Kyi (a woman whose Nobel Peace Prize should be taken away from her over her weakness on this pertinent issue), and more time standing up for the Rohingya of the Rakhine state (said state was originally called the Arakan but its name was changed to spite the Rohingya) when discussing the issues of Myanmar.
Shockingly, other Nobel peace prize laureates have been more vocal about the issue than Suu Kyi herself! Myanmar’s supposed democratic renewal post the recent elections is in fact only a pseudo renewal: the Ma Ba Tha (an aggressively xenophobic Buddhist organisation, who alongside the 969 movement often incite mob violence against the Rohingya and non-Rohingya muslims) possesses just as much political muscle as the military, and they will flex it (such as the four extremist bills they lobbied for and managed to get passed).
To illustrate one should take note of how Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party purged themselves of all Islamic candidates to appease the aforementioned forces. Until the Rohingya are recognised as citizens and allowed to fully partake in the democratic exercise, Burma will not be a democracy – it will be merely a façade that’s determined by the whims of ultranationalist Buddhist monks. There are many facets of this heinous oppression, but before delving into such, let’s look at the history of this gross repression.
‘Not even a people ’
Since the 15th century Muslims had been employed by the kings of Myanmar and allowed to live in the Arakan state. In 1785 Buddhist Burmese from the country’s south conquered the Rohingyan state of Arakan, driving out or executing any Rohingya men they caught. Many then fled to British occupied Bengal where they built a new life primarily in the farming sector. When the British then claimed the sate back via annexation in 1826, the people who had moved away were encouraged to return back to the Arakan state alongside a new influx of Bengali farmers and British Indians to serve as imperial labour. Tensions built up between the two, and reached a violent crescendo when the British abandoned the territory during World War Two.
Many Rohingya actually ended up once again fleeing to Bengal once more, as the Japanese (who were allied and supported by the Burmese nationalists) launched a campaign of rape and torture against them due to many of them working as spies for the British. The ethnic polarisation of the Rakhine was greatly catalysed by the 1942 Arkan massacres. The power vacuum and proxy influences allowed dissonance to flourish.
Post World War Two the Rohingya at first tried to be recognised as part of Pakistan after Burma became independent, however in the 1950’s they then abandoned this and called for regional Autonomy, which they tried to claim via insurgency: this period of Nationalist action (1947-1961) is called the Mujahideen movements. Things turned very dire for the Rohingya and the ethnic Chinese when General Ne Win (who had served in a prior caretaker government) and his military Junta seized power in a Coup D’état in 1962. Once in power the General pursued a policy of genocide, denying the Rohingyans citizenship and classifying them as Bengali Muslims. In 1964 he imposed a law that restricted the movements of the Rohingya, who were trying to move out of the poor provinces they inhabited.
For a brief period (mainly triggered by the 1967 rice crisis) the Muslims and Buddhists of Arakan actually saw their groups united in an anti-junta force, however they were unfortunately crushed swiftly during the late sixties. The Arakan saw a large influx of Bengali Refugees in the early seventies, as many fled the atrocities being perpetuated by the Pakistani militia forces of Yaya Khar during the Bangladeshi independence war. Alarmed by this population growth in 1978 the General launched the racist King Dragon operation, which caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to be tortured and arrested on mass, for merely being suspected sympathisers to Arakan militants/rebels, understandably this lead to an exodus. (for more on this history I recomend this source and this other source too)
The 1982 Citizenship Laws
This act is so important in what it caused that I have chosen to give it its own section. It is undoubtedly the key factor in enshrining the marginalisation of the Rohingya, as it was the law that robbed them of their rightful citizenship and nationality, such was the raison d’etre of the law; it is also the spiritual predecessor to President Thein Sein’s recent freedom encroaching laws I mentioned earlier. The 1945 constitution had provided many with citizenship, this law sought and succeeded to stop that. Burma has 135 ethnic groups residing within it, a true diaspora of peoples.
Ne Win devised this law to create three classes of citizens: the first of which is those who fall under the full citizenship category, the national races who are said to be of pure blood as they can unequivocally prove that their ancestors settled in the Arakan state prior to 1823 – the start of the British colonial occupation.
The second class of citizenship is associate citizen, to be considered such one must have or be a citizen that qualified for citizenship based on the 1948 law (this only counts though if said person or ancestor applied for citizenship prior to 1948).
The third type is “naturalised citizenship” which requires one to provide conclusive evidence of their relatives settling in Myanmar before 1948. If ‘conclusive evidence’ wasn’t enough of an onus, section 44 of the act stipulates that a citizen must also speak one of the national languages (Rohingya dialect which stems from Chittagonian is not classified as one) and be of ‘sound mind’. These laws deny the Rohingya their rightful nationality, in spite of the long history of their people – no wonder the UN special rapporteur told the Burmese Government to “abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities”. The Rakhine state capital Sittwe was once a stable multicultural environment, but this law has broken this down and promoted segregation.
“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room” – Mahamoud Darwish, Palestinian Poet