Who are the Rohingya and Why is Myanmar Persecuting Them?

Who are the Rohingya and Why is Myanmar Persecuting Them?

One of the worst refugee crises for decades is currently taking place in Southeast Asia, and world leaders are looking the other way. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Their suffering is immense, but not immense enough to make the world care. This is their story.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people who have lived in Southeast Asia for centuries. In recent years, however, Myanmar has made it very clear that it does not want the Rohingya. The government took away their citizenship in 1982. That makes them stateless. They are denied education, health care, voting rights, and the freedom to move around the country. Many live in detention camps where they are subject to torture, forced labour, and sexual exploitation.

No wonder hundreds of thousands have fled. Many never make it to safety, either drowning on the way or finding themselves as unwelcome and exploited as before, just in a new country.

What have the Rohingya done to deserve this? Very little. Some Rohingya have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack their antagonizers, but not many.

The easiest explanation is that Myanmar has decided that to be a citizen you have to demonstrate that your ethnic group has been in the country for more than 150 years. The Rohingya seem to satisfy the requirement but because they have been called by different names it is impossible to prove. Thus the government feels free to deny them basic human rights.

But why would Myanmar take such a drastic line on citizenship? Rewind 200 years. Myanmar, or Burma as it was known, was an independent Buddhist kingdom. It wasn’t perfectly peaceful but it wasn’t a mess.

Then the British invaded and the Burmese found themselves second-class citizens in their own land. Actually, they quickly became third-class, as Indians moved in and took the best jobs.

The Burmese thus developed an understandable hatred of foreigners, whether British or Indian. Britain made things worse with its “divide and rule” strategy—playing off Burma’s different ethnic and religious groups against each other in order to retain overall control. At its worst, this policy looked liked the British allying with non-Buddhist minorities to terrorize the population into submission. They burnt villages and paid bounties for monks’ heads.

As the Burmese mobilized to resist the British, some called for a new Burma in which all ethnic and religious groups were equal. One was Aung San, a general and early leader of the independence movement. But he wouldn’t live to implement his dream. He was assassinated in 1947, one year before Burma won its independence.

Ever since, Aung San’s vision has lost out to nationalist paranoia. For decades, generals ruled the country, justifying their ugly rule with the claim that they were protecting Myanmar from foreign influence. They began the persecution of the Rohingya, who were clearly of a different ethnicity and religion.

Sadly, Buddhism is an essential part of this story. Ancient Burma was Buddhist and you had to be Buddhist to be part of the kingdom. Buddhism is usually associated with peace, but in Myanmar some Buddhist monks have ben among the loudest and most violent nationalists. The Muslim Rohingya are an easy target. 

In recent years, Myanmar has enacted democratic reforms. Aung San Siu Kyi—Aung San’s daughter, Nobel Peace prize winner, and a long-time advocate for democracy in Myanmar—is now the most powerful woman in the land. But even she has refused to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya. Either she shares the crude nationalism of the generals or she has decided that standing up for the Rohingya would cost her too much in forthcoming elections. Either way, it’s distressing that the Rohingya have suffered more on her watch than ever before.

The Rohingya deserve our sympathy and more. What about the Buddhist majority of Myanmar? Some of their sickness can be traced to the selfish rule of the British, after all. But to understand is not to excuse. Myanmar has gone from persecuted to persecutor.

The Rohingya are the perfect example of why the world needs strong states willing to fight for the weak. In the absence of countries with the strength and will to intervene, the government of Myanmar can continue to persecute the Rohingya with terrifying impunity. 

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