Photo by Jameson Wu
Asia-Pacific / Burma

The World’s Most Forgotten People

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a moderately sized nation in Southeast Asia bordering China, India, Thailand, and Laos. Formerly a colony administered under the British Raj, Burma was, after a brief stint of independence under democratic leadership, taken over in a military coup in 1962. Under this military junta, Burma became one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world, despite its wealth in arable land and natural resources. The dissolution of the junta in 2011 and the ensuing political reforms have opened up the country after almost half a century of isolation and oppression. Consequently, foreign investment has flowed in and many have rejoiced in both the economic upswing and their newfound freedom of expression. Burma, still facing abject poverty, appears to be on the road to reclaiming its title as ‘The Breadbasket of Asia’ that it held in ages past. But this encouraging vision of Burma’s future is far from the reality experienced by one oppressed minority group.

Among the many ethnic groups in Burma are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority making up 800,000 of Burma’s 60 million people. Experts trace the history of the group to Muslim settlements that have existed in the Rhakine state of Burma since at least the fifteenth century. Despite this long history, much of which was spent in relatively peaceful coexistence with the population at large, in recent times a festering resentment toward the Rohingya has become manifest in Burma’s primarily Buddhist majority. As Burma’s political and economic situation has improved, the plight of the Rohingya has actually worsened due to a state-backed policy of intolerance.

The Rohingya have for decades suffered systematic discrimination in a country that views them as undesirable aliens. Even under today’s nominally democratic government, the Rohingya continue to be marginalized; they are not included on the list of over 130 ethnic groups recognized by the Republic of Myanmar and, as such, are denied citizenship. The official stance for the past few decades has been that the label and identity of ‘Rohingya’ was a myth created in the 1950s to legitimize illegal Bengali immigrants; government documents continue to refer to the group as Bengali. For this and related reasons, the Rohingya are known by some as the world’s most persecuted people, virtually isolated in a country that continues to deny them basic rights.

Political reforms in recent years have loosened government control of the people. The military, for the most part, has halted its policies of violently oppressing free speech. Unfortunately, this new freedom has also allowed long-held prejudices against the Rohingya to be openly expressed. The 969, a hypernationalist movement led by a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu has become a nationwide phenomenon, encouraging boycotts against Muslim establishments and other anti-Muslim measures. It has done so by tapping into long-held fears that Burma would fall under Muslim sway along the lines of Indonesia and other neighboring nations. Frequently described as “neo-Nazi” in its rhetoric, 969 propaganda has painted the Rohingya as “parasites” eroding Burma’s Buddhist identity. The government has at times openly encouraged this viewpoint, presumably to unite the nation against a powerless minority. However, with diplomatic ties with Western nations strengthening, it has in recent years been more reserved in its scapegoating attempts. Even so, the government has continued to treat the Rohingya with indifference bordering on contempt in the face of persecution.

Buddhism has long established itself as a peaceful religion, but the hate-filled sermons of Wirathu and other similarly inclined Buddhist monks have corrupted its message and inspired brutal violence. In June 2012, ethnic and religious tensions came to a head with the outbreak of riots in the Rhakine state that soon spread all over Burma. Buddhist lynch mobs, many led by monks, roamed the streets with machetes and bamboo staves, torching Rohingya-owned businesses and residences.

The rioters are further empowered by the fact that government forces have thus far been impotent, maybe even unwilling to suppress the violence. The government’s desire to do so is certainly dubious: several high-ranking officials have publically supported the 969’s message. Speculation aside, sporadic resurgences in anti-Muslim violence have continued to this day, over a year since their onset. Altogether, over 200 Rohingya have been killed, and more than 150,000 have been displaced. Without citizenship, they have little hope for justice or even protection.

Stateless and alone, the Rohingya have few friends even outside of Burma. Nearby countries are unwilling to accept refugees. Over 100 Rohingya fleeing by boat to Australia were deported back to Burma in September. Desperate to escape, many have been forced to pay human smugglers to transport them into Malaysia and Thailand.

With the rest of the world largely indifferent to their plight, it is clear that the only hope for the Rohingya lies in internal reform. Several of Burma’s opposition politicians have called for the amendment of the constitution. “The ethnic problem will not be solved by this present constitution, which does not meet the aspirations of the ethnic nationalities,” stated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Laureate and member of Parliament. But her voice, as influential as it is, is hardly enough to truly bring about the change the Rohingya need.

At present, the government indirectly encourages further abuse of the minority by refusing to recognize the Rohingya as citizens. To pacify the rioters, the military-dominated legislature must first agree to amend the constitution they drafted to grant the Rohingya citizenship and protection under the law – unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. A total resolution of the ethnic conflict, however, is perhaps unattainable; passing a law pales in difficulty to eliminating decades of prejudice.