Rohingyas: A Name With No Place

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Rohingya refugees, found at sea on a boat, collecting rainwater at a temporary refugee camp in Maungdaw. Reuters
Rohingya refugees, found at sea on a boat, collecting rainwater at a temporary refugee camp in Maungdaw. Reuters

While there have been clashes between the Burman-dominated military and the armed militia of other ethnic min­orities, the problem of the Rohingya, Muslims among the people of Rak­hine, are unique. Their religion in the Buddhist maj­ority state and country has led to their marginalization from all sides. Boatfuls of Rohingya refugees are floating in the seas off the coast of Rakhine, searching desperately for a port of disembarka­tion (their destination being Thailand, Indonesia, Malayasia or Bang­ladesh). Fleeing persecution and ghettoisation at home, they are ripe for human trafficking, lured by the hope of deli­verance and a better life. The first Indian publication to visit Burma to report on the Rohingya, Outlook brings back both sides of story

“Will any American or European country allow one of its citizens, a man, to have two wives? And will these countries give in to the demands of a community or people who want a separate set of laws for themselves based on their religion?” asks a Myanmar government official rhetorically. “No, they won’t,” he says emphatically. “Myanmar won’t either.”

Wherever Outlook goes, whether to erstwhile capital Yangon or new one Naypyidaw, and puts the question of the persecution of the Rohin­gya to the country’s ruling establishment, the response is on the same trajectory: “What’s being referred to as ‘persecution’ by the global community and international media is really our refusal to comply with an ethnic group’s unreasonable demand for preferential treatment.”

Prejudice against the Muslim overflows in Myanmar officialdom. The refusal of the Islamic community “to adapt to the ‘indigenous culture’ of the land and its insistence on establishing its own” is believed to be at the root of the conflict between the minority Muslims of Myanmar and the majority Buddh­ists, culminating in the violence of June 2012 which left hundreds dead and some 1,25,000 displaced.

If the Rohingya have subsequently been confined to camps and their movement restricted (see following story) it is to prevent them from waging further violent attacks, say officials. “Let’s not deny that this community has a history of ‘jehad’—waging war against those who thwart its att­empts to force its religion on others. Unless we nip the aggressive behaviour in the bud, it will have a detrimental effect on Myanmar,” pronounces an official. “But the international community, especially the global media, has largely ignored our point of view. They come with one eye shut and go back with one-sided reports.”


‘Relieved’ Rakhini Sander Saw Khin. (Photograph by Dola Mitra)

Burma, or Myanmar as it came to be called in 1989, has over 135 ethnic gro­ups. The Burmans or Bamars are the majority, making up nearly 68 per cent of the population, dominating the country’s military and government and followers mainly of Theravada Buddh­ism. Besides them, there are seven other major ethnic gro­ups—Chin, Kachin, Kare­nni, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and the Shan—each with their own history, culture and language, and several other sub-groups. Most of them are recognised, but not the 1.4 mill­ion-strong Rohingya Muslims in the north of Rakhine state. Believed to be immigrants from Chitta­gong, they are still seen as outsiders and denied usage of the ethnonym Rohingya (ostensibly derived from the word Roh­ang, the word used in Bengal for Rakhine or Arakan) as identity.

Recognition has eluded the Rohingya forever. In February 1947, Gen Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) met ethnic and other national leaders at Panglong to sign an agreement guaranteeing all other ethnic nationalities the same rights and privileges as the Burmans. He, however, was killed soon after in a coup, and neither the succeeding military or civilian rulers implemented the agreement.

Hope receded further with the controversial Citizenship Law of 1982 (see graphic). The new 2008 constitution ignored the rights of ethnic minorities again, as has the latest census which has turned a blind eye to their existence. While there have been clashes between the Burman-dominated military and the armed militia of other ethnic min­orities, the problem of the Rohingya, Muslims among the people of Rak­hine, are unique. Their religion in the Buddhist maj­ority state and country has led to their marginalization from all sides.

Boatfuls of Rohingya refugees are floating in the seas off the coast of Rakhine, searching desperately for a port of disembarka­tion (their destination being Thailand, Indonesia, Malayasia or Bang­ladesh). Fleeing persecution and ghettoization at home, they are ripe for human trafficking, lured by the hope of deli­verance and a better life. Myanmar officials Outlook spoke to maintained that the boat people were from Bangladesh; as for the Rohingya, they had only themselves to blame for their plight. And then the reiteration, this time by Rakhine chief minister Maoung Maoung Ohn.

“Their adamant adherence to this dem­and (to be given special status as Rohingya) is delaying the process of granting them citizenship rights,” he told Outlook. “We welcome a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious environment as any other progressive nation but it is they (the Rohingya Muslims) who insist on being different. Myanmar has its own culture. Its people belong to a peace-loving race and Buddh­ism is a tolerant religion.” A less moderate view in the establishment adds, “But we’ll strike back if attacked and go to the root and eradicate any threat.”


Daw Show welcome Rohingya confinement. (Photograph by Dola Mitra)

And the sentiments of the people are in perfect sync with the voice of their government. Even the majority sometimes differs on some aspects of decisions taken by democratically elected governments, but Rakhine is a rarity. The common man in Rakhine, which is 90 per cent Buddhist, repeats what the government says.

 

“What’s being seen as persecution is just Myanmar’s refusal to accede to a demand that’s unreasonable.”

In a fishing village on the outskirts of Rakhine capital Sittwe, 31-year-old San­der Saw Khin sits beside the pork stew slowly simmering in a large vessel over a massive earthen stove in the roadside eatery her husband runs. “They even consider our food dirty,” she says indignantly. “This is our country and our culture and they think they can tell us what to eat and what not to?” Pausing for a lunch break, she dips into the stew, taking out a ladleful with chunks of meat, pours it generously over a heap of rice and plops herself down on the floor of the extended grocery store. “It’s good that they (Rohingya Muslims) keep to themselves and don’t come out of their confined areas,” she adds. “We’re happy to be finally left alone.” 

Sixty-one-year-old Daw Show, wife of a farmer and grandmot­her to a teenage girl, says she feels safe with the Rohingyas “not roaming around on the streets”. Talking of the “scary days that preceded the riots of 2012”, she says, “we were always worrying about whether our girls are getting raped and molested.”

Driver Kot Thoung Aung, 47, had Muslim friends. “Not all of them are bad,” he concedes. But 2012 marked a turning point. “They showed their true colors during the riots. Even people known to us went on a rampage in our Buddhist villages, setting our houses afire. Since then I have no contact with any of them. I feel betrayed because I did truly like some of them.” When told they too have been victims of violence and persecution, he says, “That violence was retaliatory. And our government is now doing what it thinks is the best way to contain them.”

Stretching along the easternmost coast of the Bay of Bengal and known for its beautiful beaches, Rakhine is Myanmar’s prized tourist possession. In the summer, off-season months, locals sustain themselves on agriculture and fishing. The state also hosts the academic elite, the wealthy business communities who own and run resorts and hotels and, of course, the white-collar administrators.

Through the high cyclonic winds tearing down the Rakhine shore, I strain to hear even one whisper of a ‘dissenting’ voice. I cannot. Not even a murmur. I strike up conversations on the streets to find one person who would shed a tear for the Rohingya holed up in camps not very far from where they live and work, but in all the rain-lashed, late June days that I spend in Rakhine, nothing. Not even the educated Rakhini, from whom one could expect a more cautious if not sympathetic tone, if only for “political correctness”.


Palm reading Buddhist monk protesting against Rohingya

Says a Rakhini scholar unwilling to be named, “It’s difficult for people who’ve lived thr­ough a riot and been victims of communal hatred to apply nuanced or tolerant intellectual stances to real situations. The feelings here are raw, the anger deep.”

Even religious monks associa­ted with some of Myanmar’s most well-established mona­ste­ries freely air anti-Rohingya sentiment. In an interview Yangon-based journalist Eaint Thiri Thu did for Outlook soon after the 2012 riots, Bhikkhu Wirathu—the controversial monk of Mandalay’s New Maesoeyin Monastery, who was dubbed the ‘bin Laden of Burma’ for what Myanmar’s liberals call his “hardline fundamentalism” and rabidly anti-Isla­mic stance—bluntly justified Rohingya ostracisation by comparing it to Gandhi’s rejection of foreign merchandise during India’s non-cooperation movement. Rakhine’s popular spiritual tea­cher Alodawpyei Sayadaw in a speech on ‘Rakhine’s Conflict’ (published in the December 2014 issue of Rakhini news journal RNSWO), said, “(sic) The most recent problems happened in Rakhine state…the problem star­ted when Muslims from other places transfer their living space to Rakhine state…enter illeg­ally…. They are not actual local citizens. They wanted to be citizen and they use the Rakhine Culture in a bad way… We hope that the people in worldwide can look into the history of Rakhine Culture. Not just to look at the people choice of freedom.” Only one monk I spoke to said, “Buddhists today have become selfish. We need to be more tolerant.”

Tolerance is in short supply. In her part-time job as interpreter, Khin Thet Soe, 21, of Sanpiya town, has made acquainta­nce with many “foreigners: journalists, aid workers and others”. But she disag­rees with their “support of the Rohingya”. She cannot erase the night in 2012 when “a huge gang of Rohingya men brandishing sticks and knives charged into our town, setting our homes on fire and molesting us girls. They didn’t spare anyone,” she says.

She also dislikes Myan­mar’s iconic pro-democracy activist and leader of Myanmar opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi. “You like her?” she asks me. “Why, don’t you?” I ask her, surprised. “Not at all,” she says contemptuously. “We Rakhinis hate her. When she visited Rak­hine sometime ago, she only went and met the Rohingya. She didn’t visit even a single Rakhini Buddhist home.” Suu Kyi’s recent silence on the plight of the Rohingya boat people, despite the criticism it has drawn even from the Dalai Lama, may well be related to such reactions from the people of Myanmar. General elections in the country are due in Nov­e­mber and she would not want to antagonise voters. They love her in the more cosmopolitan Yangon, though. “I love the lady,” says taxi-driver Win Win Soe. “I’ll vote for her bec­a­use she stands for democracy,” says a Yangon university student.

Back in Rakhine, anti-Rohin­gya sentiment spans the usual gamut. “They don’t have the concept of family planning,” says the manager of a beach resort, who admits being exposed to a wide range of cultures and religi­ons. “The men marry as many times as they want to. They want to take over the world.”

Part of the animosity against the Rohingya stems from the belief that they are outsiders, daring to impose their own ide­n­tity. It is interesting how this has now become the dominant narrative because historically Rakhine has had a strong indepe­ndent streak. During WW-II, the Rakhines joined the Jap­anese army which gave them autonomy and also allo­wed them their own armed force, the Arakan Defense Force.

The force turned against the Japanese and joined the British in early 1945 and by the time of the Panglong Conference became part of modern Burma. However, Rakhines made unsuccessful atte­m­pts from time to time to gain independe­nce from Burman-dominated Myan­mar. Today, however, the Burmans have managed to con­vince the majority Buddhists in Rakhine that their main problem stems from the Rohingya who are not only Muslims, but also outsiders.

It is against this environment of deep-roo­ted animosity, which grows stronger with each perceived “excess” committed by the community, that the world issues futile appeals to “end the persecution”. Even Malala Yousufzai has lent her voice to the demand. But “it’s evaporating like water poured into a hot pan,” says a Myanmar official, “because these appeals don’t carry any weight without a proper perspective, without an understanding of what the ground reality in Myanmar is, what the people of Myanmar want.” What they do not want, end of the day, is to see the Rohingya as a people of Myanmar.


Courtesy Outlook India

http://www.outlookindia.com/article/a-name-with-no-place/294780

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