Rohingyas in Myanmar - a brief report

Rohingyas in Myanmar - a brief report 

Compiled by Card. Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon


Introduction - Rohingya issue has rocked the sensibilities of the international community.  The heart wrenching pictures of thousands fleeing is painfully etched in the conscience of the world. Many countries and Nobel Laureates have appealed to the Myanmar government, especially to its iconic Nobel Laureate and the de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to stop ‘the Genocide’.   The UN security council was requested by Britain and Sweden to convene the Security Council meeting situation1".


The tragedy: The restive Arakan state in the North West of Myanmar has been historically a boiling pot of ethnic conflict.  Provoked by a militant attack on 25 August that killed Myanmar border guards and police and civilians, the backlash resulted in nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to the nearby Bangladesh. This includes 230,000 children2. Their flight through treacherous slippery fields, dragging the children and famished women occupied TV screens. The exodus is an extra ordinary human tragedy.  While images of “Islamic terrorism’ haunts the minds of ordinary Myanmar citizen and smothers the compassion, the world is shocked by the huge tragedy.  A UN official called the events “a text book case of ethnic cleansing says UN3, Bangladesh foreign minister called it “genocide4.  Around 1000 were killed and 147 villages are totally empty.  The conflict also displaced nearly 30,000 Arakan Buddhists and number of Hindus. Unknown number Myanmar police and government officials were killed during the last one year. Rakhine state is the theater of human tragedy.


Trigger: Rohingya issue was a smoldering cauldron for long time. But their suffering has increased emboldened by the following global changes in the last two decades:
· Manufactured and marketed Islamophobia from the west. 
· Xenophobic official discrimination of Muslims in countries like US
· Treatment of minorities by the Muslim countries5. 
A new militant group attacked the government posts on 25th August killing many police. The present violence started after this attack. 


Rohingyas – a people without a home, without a name, without a country. 


What is in the name? In Myanmar it matters the most. The country itself has not settled down to one name.  Myanmar/Burma is the international term.   Myanmar was the name accepted by the military junta.  The democracy activists including Aung San Suu Kyi refused to accept this term and continue to use Burma till 2010.  Many western countries continue to use the term Burma.  The name remained very highly contested and politically polarizing till 2010.   Names are very political and cause for conflict.  Foremost among them is “Reword.  Anyone who utter this obscene word must be ready for ridicule and hatred in the social media and to be scorched by agents of hate speech.


A brief History: The term Rohingya has it origin in Bengali word”Rooganga” which was used to denote a person from Rakhine state. This term was used first in the 18th century to denote a DIALECT.   Presence of Muslims was historically recorded. There was a great Muslim ruler in Bengal whose influence spread to Arakan state.  Flow of people across the open borders was normal.  There was a Muslim population including the indigenous Kaman. 


During the Second World War, Rakhine people were divided. The Muslims fought with the British Army and the Rakhine like other Buddhists were fight with the Japanese.  Independence opened a Pandora’s Box.  Violent jihadi groups among the Muslims tried to have an autonomous state or merger with the Muslim East Pakistan (the present Bangladesh) a move not accepted by Pakistan.  Rohingya became more a political mobilization term. The military always looked at Muslim population withsuspicion. U Nu, the first primer of Burma, did give some identity Cards.  The military coup laid many restrictions.  Its 1982 Citizenship act by the junta virtually destroyed any hope of citizenship since it stipulated only those born before British occupation of Burma would be recognized as citizens. (That is around 1823)6


Rohingya -meaning:  At the risk of claims and counter claims we can strive on a basic meaning of this term.  The term “Rohingya” comes from Rakhanga or Roshanga, the Bengali words for the state of Arakan.7Muslims identified themselves as Rohingyas. Rohingya is not an easy term. It is politically charged term. Not to use it will incense the Rohingya support groups. Using that would provoke universal condemnation among the Burmese people, army and government.  Government, including Aung San Suu is very sensitive to this term. According to them there is NO Rohingya in Myanmar. Then who are the million people then?  They are ‘Bengalis” (illegals from nearby Bangladesh!).


Government Stand - Government had requested international community, diplomatic community and the church NOT to use the term Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi requested the Kofi Annan commission on Rakhine issue ordered that no mention of Rohingyas.  After the militant attack By ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) government castigated them as “Bengali terrorists”. 


In this there is great unity. If there’s one thing that unites Aung San Suu Kya’s party, the army that once tried to crush her, and the majority of people in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, it is their vehement dislike of the Rohingya Muslims, seen as a threat to national security8. (REUTERS 14 SEP2017). Even many Burmese like 88 students, who have devoted their lives to the cause of democracy and human rights, seem to have no tolerance for the Rohingya.9 No Ethnic Armed Group that are in conflict with the government has come forward to condemn the exodus or support the Rohingya case. 


There is an overwhelming consensus among the people of Myanmar:  That is There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.  These are Bengalis brought by British.
It is very difficult to find any group supporting the Rohingya cause. Sometimes the use of this term provokes riots. Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment makes it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group10.


Deadlock : Use of the term “Muslim community in Rakhine state” to describe the region’s Rohingya group has also led to problems, drawing unnecessary concern from Islamic countries and organizations around the world.11 The refusal of the government and Rakhine community to accept the use of the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, have created a deadlock. Last year the verification process was going ahead without resolving this, and it was boycotted by a majority of Rohingya.12


The whole population of Rohingyas are spread out all over. Number of Rohingyas in various countries of the world. 
1. Myanmar 1 million (120,000 in camps, recently 470,000 fled to Bangladesh) 
2. Bangladesh  750,000 
3. India 40,000 
4. Pakistan  350,000 
5. UAE  10,000 
6. Saudi Arabia 200,000
These numbers are very important! 


The nationalists openly and the government implicitly fear the following: 

  • Despairing Muslim groups try to congregate under the name “Rohingya”.
  • Any legalizing the status of the 1 million Rohingyas would be a great pull factors for other Rohingyas to return thus changing the demography.
  • Global influence is spreading to the Rohingyas living in various countries and individuals in Saudi Arabia are becoming major players
  • There is a population explosion among the Rohingyas – there is a deliberate attempt to change the demography favoring Muslims.  Locals are already minority.
  • Two Major concerns Buddhist groups and government.
  • 1. Emergence of transnational insurgent group.
  • 2. The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Hadaka al-Yawing (Faith Movement, Hay), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.13 Kashmiri militant groups and  Al Qaeda  rally Muslims worldwide to support Rohingya14


2. Ethno demographic Dynamics of Rohingya Buddhist Conflict  

  • A common nationalistic refrain is that the Rohingya population is threateningly growing, sinking the local Rakhine population in the deluge. “Ethnodemographic grievances define the conflict between Buddhist and Rohingya” says the population scholar Rachel Blomquist15
  • The data that out of 400,000 refugees who reached Bangladesh, 230,000 are children (more than 50 percent of the fleeing people) seems to affirm the opinion of the extremists groups16.  
  • This is the widely held belief by Rakhine people, most of the politicians and extremists monks.  Studies have shown there is definitely there is a disparity in fertility rate (Rohingyas and the Chins have high fertility rate  than others as per George town study17) 
  • This “demographic dilemma” points out, scholars say,   to the lack of rights and access to services and extreme poverty are triggers for population increase.  This is a ‘forced trend’ in oppressed populations – Palestinians, Afghans, Srilankan Tamils.  Population increase is not the cause of conflict, is the result of the pestering displacement problems, consequent to conflicts.  Further no study has been done on the crude death rate of Rohingya people (which must be higher than the national average).
  • Not Articulated Underlying Root Causes - Modern day conflicts are conflicts over Resources. What happens to Rohingyas is another 


1. Long history of Deprivation:  Rohingyas live in Northern Rakhine state populated with Rakhine tribes.  Historically the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists are antagonistic players. Rakhine themselves are a long-oppressed minority, The Rakhines fear their own marginalization. Longstanding discrimination by the state, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalization, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression.18 They had their own ethnic armed groups to fight the central government.  But after 2012 when anti Rohingya riots happened the Rakhine are more influenced by extremist nationalistic discourse. 


2. Corporate Greed and need to expel the poor and vulnerable to grab the resources. China needs Myanmar. For its resources. Myanmar is rich in resources. Corporations from dozens of other countries – U.S., France, Canada, Japan, and India and so on – have carved up various parts of Myanmar. So what happens when corporations and countries build oil wells, offshore rigs, sea ports, railways, highways and fancy hotels for the foreign workers? Well, the native poor people have to be evacuated.


Dubbing Myanmar the “last Asian frontier,” mining corporations and oil/gas companies from all over the world rushed into Myanmar and discovered plenty of untapped natural resources. Myanmar’s GDP quadrupled in the last ten years, thanks to revenues from natural gas, tin, forestry, rubber, gold, precious metals (jade) and more. Unfortunately, all these operations also result in ruthless exploitation of laborers, destruction of environment, and mass eviction of people from their lands. Rohingya Muslims are primarily concentrated in a state on the west coast in Myanmar where the resources are waiting to be exploited and the future lucrative trade routes wait to be developed.19 (The whole para is a quote from Nation of change).


3. Scapegoating and simulation of “Mechanical Solidarity” Scape goat – a concept popularized by the French Philosopher, Rene Girard, is a process by which violent and frustrated societies with a deep sense of collective victimization channelizes their anger on individuals or groups to smother their frustration. The scapegoat is “sacrificed” either through massacre or expulsion to the “desert”. Bosnia, Serbia after long years of totalitarianism went into a spiral of fratricidal genocide till international community intervened.  Large scale exodus of Rohingyas may be the ‘scapegoat’ sent to the desert. 
Myanmar went through throes of an inhuman totalitarian experience of sixty years. Hundreds were buried in unknown graves “unwept and unsung”.  A long night of silent tears of a great people nourished by noble ideas of Theravada Buddhism seemed to end in 2010 with great dreams.  But there were no open discussion on “Truth and Recollection”.   Instead a search for a scapegoat was in full earnest. And it came in the form of an incident of rape in Rakhine.  Some Muslim youth were involved.  Widespread attacks on Muslims happened. 


Rohingyas increasingly become the scapegoat.  A “mechanical Solidarity’ fabricated and welded by hate speeches of monks like Wrath seems to be succeeding in fermenting a xenophobic bigotry view of Muslims. There is none to support the Rohingya cause20.  Even the ethnic armed groups in conflict with the government do not support. These parochial efforts to scapegoat one community and to build a nation state “based on antithetical model grounded in the singular right of an exclusive group” has ended in disastrous consequences elsewhere21


Though Aung San Suu Kyi embraced diversity by bringing in Christians and Muslims into her inner circle, the agenda of nationalists and extremist monks has been threatening to shred the social fabric especially in Rakhine state.  And it has happened now. 


Aung San Suu Kyi – her predicament. Perhaps no one in the modern world has been so admired as a moral icon, then fallen so far in global estimation, as Aung San Suu Kyi22.  Her response to Rohingya crisis has been very disappointing to the world, especially the west for whom she was an icon of hope. The Rohingya issue has put Suu Kyi in an awkward position politically, the diplomats in Myanmar said. The military still controls much of the state apparatus even after the 2011 transition to democracy. It portrays itself as the true guardians of nationalism and Buddhism. They say that could be a reason for Suu Kya’s reticence.  “If she speaks out on such a sensitive issue, the situation will explode, making it harder for her to solve the problem in Rakhine,” said Nyman Win, the NLD executive.23 For the last one year, she has said, over and over, that Naypyidaw is in control of the situation in northern Rakhine. She has blamed foreign groups for stirring up tension in Rakhine State.24 She even appointed a known human rights violator and former military strong man MintSew to investigate issues in Rakhine state after the October civil disturbances.  She wants anyone coming from outside NOT TO CRITICISE but to help “I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, Instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” Suu Kyi told Singapore state-owned broadcaster Channel News Asia during a visit to the city-state.25 Observers point out she is helpless. Her status is not official.  Her movements are curtailed and she sees the upsurge of nationalism stoked by extremist monks. BBC observes “if she were to condemn the crackdown, or even call for military restraint, Aung San Suu Kyi would find few supporters here. The military understands this well and there are senior figures who will take satisfaction from her present international isolation”.26


Pope’s visit – a tight rope walk - Pope’s visit has been welcomed as a blessing for “peace and harmony” by the government.  For any observer both the civil government led by Aung San suu Kyi and the military seem to be enthusiastic about the visit.  Surely most of the people look for a “healing visit”.  Many followed his visit to Columbia – a country that seeks peace with itself. But newspapers, both international and locals ones see many challenges to the Pope.  


a. The “R” word and the Burmese. The New York Times wrote an article with the heading: Pope’s Planned Visit to Myanmar Risks Stoking Religious Tensions27 And says: like his previous interventions, any comments on Rohingyas are likely to infuriate nationalists who maintain that the Rohingya are not Burmese but rather Bangladeshis with no right to live in the country.


· Ashin Wirathu, a monk who leads the hardline Buddhist movement Ma Ba Tha, denounced the papal visit as politically instigated. “There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false,” he said28.


· But supporters  of Rohingyas  expect the Pope to express his opinion29.  


b. Social Media and other Ethnic Groups - Social media reactions from Ethnic groups are mixed.  Most of them are Christians and have been involved in struggle for their rights for sixty years. About Pope Visit many of them are disappointed that this Pope visit is built up as ‘a compassionate journey to address the question of Rohingyas”.  Many of them have commented that the Pope has already has thrice spoken about Rohingyas but he has not mentioned anything about Kachin or Karen struggles.  They are also not happy that there is no official meeting with the Pope of the ethnic groups.  This is a sensitive issue. 


Recommendations - 1. Aung San Suu Kyi -  

  • She needs all the support. Her position is people need not come to this country to point out the mistakes of her or her government rather provide solutions for future. 
  • She has been attacked by the media and sometimes mercilessly. She is deeply disappointed with western media and calls them “ice berg of misinformation.30” She is a strong personality. She would listen to constructive suggestion. 
  • Her achievements have been many but they have sunk in the recent events. Her own lifetime sacrifice to resurrect from the ruins of junta misrule of sixty years. It is a great historic achievement.  In her fragile hands she holds the dreams of millions of this country. She needs to work some more years. Her perceptions may be wrong but her integrity and commitment are above suspect. Her leadership needs to continue if the army needs to be sidelined eventually.  Appreciation of her role in democratizing this nation is much needed. 
  • Her commitment to Panglong peace agreement of her Father.   She resurrected the process and did commendable process of bringing all warring parties and the army under one roof.  Two such conference were held.  She is providing spaces for dialogue among the antagonistic parties.  This process needs full support and appreciation. 
  • Her efforts against hate speech and hate Mongers.  Her government boldly silenced the extreme fringe of monks. Through senior monks her government silence the rancorous   monk Wirathu.   Her government also went ahead in dismantling racist MA BA Tha organization.
  • Her success in appointment of Kofi Annan commission and the efforts to implement the recommendations. And with this a gentle recommendation to keep the international community on her side despite their criticism, to keep the channels of communication open with the world on this issue. 

About Rohingya:  

  • May be the word needs to be avoided in interaction with her. She has been strongly contesting the term. She would not welcome of this term being used. Muslims in Rakhine may be welcome. A compassionate appeal to facilitate humanitarian access to the affected people – displaced Rohingyas, Rakhines and Hindus  
  • This issue of large scale exodus needed to be touched as a humanitarian issue with the suggestion that her efforts at enumeration should continue.  She started this process last year but disturbed by militant violence. She need not start newly. The previous government DID give white cards and Foreign Registration Cards (FRC). She can explore the option of regularizing this documents.   
  • Gently can be stressed that the corporates and geo strategic interests need not influence the political decisions that end in conflict.  
  • Aggressive military responses that is not embedded in the long term plan for regularize the citizenship issue may be counterproductive.  As Kofi Annan pointed out dithering in a solution will radicalize the population. 
  • About Use of the Term Rohingya with AUNG SAND SUU KYI  and other places - NOT ADVISABLE. But need to talk of humanitarian rights of the suffering Rakhine Muslims   - need for durable solution – not violent solutions – need for regional co operation.

Myanmar Monks: 

  • The Monks meet will be of  the mainstream – not the extreme fringe
  • Use of word Rohingya can be avoided.  Rakhine Muslim.
  • Can talk about the Buddhist concept of nib ban that is nameless and formless. The Inter-dependence of all life and the great concept of compassion.  Connecting through the goodness of all human beings.
  • Peace and Love are the two eyes for a unified vision of a nation without conflict.
  • Avoiding any reference to extremist monks or hate speech per se.  But pointing out that religions need to bring peace and harmony not hatred.
    General approach:
  • Myanmar is a multicultural country. It has resources to all.  Economic Justice and Environmental justice is the vision that can bring enduring peace. Greater democracy and stronger inclusiveness will heal historic wounds.  Church wishes to help in the peace through inter religious initiatives.  
  • Violent solutions have not proved effective for the last six decades.  Peace with the ethnic groups through federal solutions.
  • Flexibility in 1982 citizenship and finalizing the citizenship claims - especially Muslim population. 



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