The suppression or the “slow burning genocide” of the Rohingya Muslims is not a problem concerning human rights but that of identity, a similar argument Karl Marx implied with his Jewish question in 1843. The Rohingya Muslim identity is layered with perceptions and expectations which international political authorities have either ignored or simply avoided the topic altogether. As a consequence, the only way it seems the Rohingya Muslims will ever find themselves politically equal before humanely equal is by answering the question of identity. Until then we may become accustomed to the discovery of more graves which simply extends the matter by asking the same questions in different ways.
From past to present
Who or what are the Rohingya? Rohingya translates as ‘inhabitants of Rohang’, the name used when Bengali Muslims in the 17th century were captured and enslaved by the Kingdom of Arakan, now known as Rakhine. The Kingdom was later conquered by the Burmese in 1785. Tensions between the Muslims and the Arakanese only arose after the British conquest in 1825 when high levels of immigration saw Bengalis move in; the Arakanese blamed mass immigration for the lack of jobs. However the line would be drawn during the Second World War when the British armed the Muslims to fight the Arakanese, allies of Japan. Then came the fight for independence in 1948.
The plight of the Rohingya Muslims has lasted over three decades, emphatically deteriorating in the last couple of years. In post-independent Burma [or Myanmar] between 1948 and 1962, three successive governments had initially recognised the Rohingya as citizens of the State. However in 1960 as U Nu is elected to office as the first Prime Minister of Burma, his policy to replace socialist ideology with Buddhism and his lax attitude towards separatism caused a resentful military to overthrow him in a coup led by General Ne Win. Ne Win would go on to rule under socialist principles with a one-party system, removing the previous form of a semi-functioning representative democracy. As such in 1978 Ne Win would lead a campaign against the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State, forcing their abdication from Western Burma. Ever since, Burma has experienced political unrest with riots and protests against the ruling party which also includes opposition to the implementation of martial law in 1989. In 2011 signs of change emerged as the military handed over power but the resulting political factions and struggle for democracy would continue to exclude the Rohingya Muslims from the process. Consequently, according to the UN, the Rohingya Muslims have now become one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
The Rohingya Identity Problem
After graves of over 150 bodies were discovered in camps across South East Asia, based on the response it would seem the buried had more of a home in the ground than above the ground. A crackdown on human trafficking may be a cause as smugglers look to dump what is a potential illegal and cheap workforce anywhere and everywhere. But it is more that being Rohingya bares a cost of having nowhere to go; firstly because the majority who reside in Burma are being forced out and secondly the places in which they are arriving, force them to go back or prove more risky.
An explanation offered by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Begum in an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2012 stated: the Rohingya refugees were not Bangladesh’s problem and that Bangladesh could not accommodate for anymore refugees when it was already host to 300,000 Rohingya refugees. Though it may seem that proximity is the only reason for the journey to Bangladesh from Burma, it is also the labelling of the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ and in so doing, the labelling proposes a home. The debate as to whether the Rohingya are originally from the Rakhine State or Bangladesh hides the fact that they are denied residency and citizenry by means of violent discrimination in their current homes. As Sheikh Hasina herself refuted, the questions should be asked of Burma and not Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are subject to all forms of violence, that is the reality and it is made worse by the rhetoric of Burmese officials who completely reject any accountability. For instance, in 2013 the official spokesperson for the Rakhine State government declared that ethnic cleansing was not taking place because the Rohingya are not an ethnic group. A couple of months later speaking at Chatham House, Prime Minister Thein Sein refused acknowledgment of the issue by claiming “we do not have the term ‘Rohingya’”. Not only are the Rohingya denied citizenry but almost denied existence and this has enabled religion to be politicised as a result, legitimating sectarian violence on the grounds that the Rohingya are Muslims and therefore unlike Burmese Buddhists.
The Muslim Problem
It is all too easy to spew out facts and figures about the dead and the dying in order to collectivise an international response and sell a story that is read for a moment and forgotten in an instance. However, what is often marginalised in this story is the fact that Asia is experiencing a Muslim problem which it is dealing with based on international narratives.
Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, to be Muslim has been an almost difficult identity to uphold made more so difficult by the birth of Islamist terrorist groups. In Britain, only recently teachers complained about having to spy on Muslim children who may be deemed radical as a part of the government’s Prevent initiative. In the US, a Muslim woman was refused a can of Coke because the flight attendants feared it would be used as a weapon; in the very same country a Muslim teen has just won a case against Abercrombie & Fitch who refused to employ her on the grounds of her headscarf. In 2014 France banned Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public service jobs and Denmark announced its ban on both kosher and halal meats. All of this was taken to the next level by the likes of China and Tajikistan. The former decided to ban Muslim clothing on buses and ‘Islamic beards’, whilst the latter deemed it appropriate to class Muslim women wearing the hijab as prostitutes and also banning Arabic names. In a more political context Egypt joined in by overthrowing and then banning the fairly elected Muslim Brotherhood and shooting down supporters whilst sentencing its members to death; and Bangladesh similarly executed the leaders of its largest Islamist party by opening up closed cases where once amnesty had originally been granted post-independence in 1971.
Unfortunately these events have been used by Burmese Buddhists who have decided to abandon a core principle of Buddhism – non-violence. Not more so evidenced by the leading figure on the issue, the Buddhist Monk – Wirathu, who refers to himself as the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. His videos are watched countless times on Youtube whilst he openly shares his dislike of Muslims by declaring “[Muslims] target young innocent girls and rape them” followed by “in every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority”. He continues and theorises that the Middle East has been financing the military prowess of the 5% that make up Burma’s total population. By Middle East, he is of course implying Arab and by Arab he is implying Muslim. His words of wisdom have had a much unwanted effect. Monks have slaughtered Rohingya Muslims simply on the basis that they continued practising their religion when they were told not to. Furthermore, Wirathu has encouraged the non-Muslim Burmese populace to buy from their own and boycott Muslim businesses which further leaves the Rohingya Muslims with very little to live off.
As recent events indicate, all these issues have now become apparent as many have sought to travel to areas where they aspire to live free from persecution, most notably Malaysia alongside Thailand and Bangladesh. But as we have now witnessed these destinations have led to greater catastrophes. The Rohingya Muslims have become victims of places where they thought they would find freedom yet now they are having to flee from these destinations. It is now estimated that numbers fleeing from Burma [and Bangladesh] have increased from 11,000 in 2011/12 to 68,000 in 2014/15. These numbers will continue to surge as will the death toll if a solution is not found soon but this all depends on how the international community deals with the identity problem. But sadly history informs us that such cases tend to worsen before they get better.
Rubel Mozlu has recently obtained an MSc from the University of Bristol in International Relations with the intention of pursuing a PhD on the topic of philosophy, religion and terrorism. His MSc main thesis focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.
Cover image ‘Bangladesh: Rohingyas 2015‘ by European Commission DG ECHO