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Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Problem – OpEd


Human rights groups say the Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. My own research work on endangered people has also shown that they are the most persecuted people in our time. More than a million people in Myanmar from the Muslim minority are currently stateless, and genocidal violence in the country’s west has put nearly 140,000 of them in internment camps.

Although Myanmar has gone through a political change with an elected government running the state, it still doesn’t want to recognize its Rohingya people whose ties to the soil of Arakan (Rakhine) state are older than others. This is a sad matter for all the human rights groups around the globe who expected better from a government that is now led by Suu Kyi. With her inexcusable silences to condemn the crimes of her Buddhist people against unarmed Rohingya and other minority Muslims living inside Myanmar she has been a disappointing icon since the latest genocidal pogroms started in 2012. But there was always that hope in the midst of hopelessness that she will Human rights groupseventually self-correct and do the right thing once put into power.

Well, all such wishful hopes are evaporating fast. Suu Kyi does not want to recognize the existence of the Rohingya people, but more problematically doesn’t want the U.S. to, either call this most persecuted people as the ‘Rohingya’.

According to the New York Times, her government recently made an official request to the US ambassador to Myanmar to not even use the term “Rohingya.” “We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups,” said Kyaw Zay Ya, a foreign ministry official quoted by the Times. “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems.”

So, here is the problem. Though they’ve lived in Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya are viewed by many in this Buddhist majority country, which has transformed into what I have been calling a den of unfathomable intolerance, as illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh because of their racial and religious similarities with them. The Myanmar majority (approximately 80%) practices Buddhism and supports anti-Muslim policies. Like their government, they refuse to use the term “Rohingya,” and instead use “Bengalis.”

Suu Kyi supporters including the Dalai Lama had hoped she would defend the stateless Rohingya after her party’s big victory in elections last November. But this newest diplomatic request suggests an end to the crisis is perhaps even further away than expected.

Since mid-2012, the Rohingyas of the Arakan (Rakhine) state have been confined to concentration camps, where conditions are simply atrocious, and had their citizenship revoked. Some have attempted to flee by taking a dangerous ocean voyage in rickety boats, often with tragic results.

Last month’s tragic boat accident off the coast of Burma’s Arakan State killed an estimated 21 Rohingya Muslims, including nine children, and left another 20 missing. The government-controlled newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar, made a rare admission that the tragedy, in which a packed boat capsized in heavy seas, resulted from government travel restrictions that prevent Rohingya from traveling overland, forcing them to travel by boat even when conditions are dangerous.

The accident underscores the serious plight of Burma’s long-persecuted Rohingya minority. The boat was making a regular trip from an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in Pauktaw to the markets near camps around the state capital, Sittwe.

With the latest directive from the government of Suu Kyi banning the use of the ‘Rohingya’ term, it is highly doubtful that the deplorable condition of this most persecuted people will improve any time soon.

The Buddhist monks of the fascist organization Ma Ba Tha are also making sure that there is no let down on the Rohingya problem whom they want either eliminated inside or forced out, thus making a mockery of their so-called peaceful religion. They have been behind the ethnic cleansing/ genocidal drives in Myanmar against the minority Muslims that resulted in internal displacement of nearly a million people since 2012, let alone the torching of hundreds of Muslim towns and villages, and deaths of thousands. They were the gay hound-dogs of the erstwhile Thein Sein’s military regime and were very vocal against the NLD in the last election. Although their anti-NLD campaign failed to sway the voters away who elected Suu Kyi’s party with a landslide victory, as a powerful and revered group in this Buddhist majority country, the fascist monks continue to rekindle the flames of intolerance and hatred to create problem for the new government. Typical of the genocidal maniacs of the past, they deny the very existence of the targeted victim – the Rohingya people.

In recent weeks, hundreds of demonstrators, including Buddhist monks, denounced the United States for its use of the term Rohingya to describe Myanmar’s stateless Muslim community during a protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Yangon on Thursday. The demonstration was sparked by a statement from the embassy last week expressing condolences for an estimated 21 people, who media said were Rohingya, who drowned off the coast of Rakhine State and came just a day after President Htin Kyaw accepted the credentials of the new U.S. Ambassador, Scot Marciel.

“Today, we, from here, want to declare to the U.S. embassy and the ambassador to Myanmar, to all the other countries, that there is no Rohingya in our country,” Parmaukkha, a monk and member of the hardline Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, told about 300 people who gathered on a busy road across from the embassy compound. “If the U.S. accepts the term ‘Rohingya,’ you (U.S.) should take them back to your country.”

Just imagine the audacity of these fascist monks who have hijacked Buddhism!

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said the United States supports the right to demonstrate and added that “around the world, people have the ability to self-identify”.

More importantly, Ambassador Marciel said on Tuesday he will keep using the term Rohingya for the persecuted Muslim minority, even after the government controlled by Suu Kyi asked him to refrain from it. “Our position globally and our international practice is to recognize that communities anywhere have the ability to choose what they should be called… and we respect that,” said Marciel, in response to a question on whether he intended to continue using the term Rohingya.

He added that this has been Washington’s policy before and that the administration intended to stick to it. It takes moral courage for a new ambassador to restate its government’s policy on such an ‘unpopular’ matter. My sincere appreciation and salutation to the Ambassador for his courage to stand for what is right.

The US Embassy’s stand on the Rohingya issue is morally right and laudable. Denial of the right to self-identify is tantamount to serious crime, e.g., genocide, and should never be taken lightly.

In a recent interview with Frontier at his Yangon home on March 26, the former chief minister of Arakan State, Gen. Maung Maung Ohn, was quoted to have said that the 2012 violence should never be repeated. This is a delayed realization from a former top official of the government but a good one, nonetheless. If they are really serious to avoid a repeat of the genocidal crimes, they must understand that the Burmese government’s rejection of Rohingya claims to self-identification along with discriminatory citizenship and other laws fuels public animosity toward the group and encourages repressive local regulations.

The Rohingyas of Myanmar expect better from the Suu Kyi’s government. They expect her to stand for what is right, away from the Buddhist mob culture of hatred and intolerance against the persecuted Muslim minorities. Before leaving office, outgoing President Thein Sein lifted the state of emergency in Arakan State that had been imposed following the outbreak of genocidal violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in 2012. Yet local authorities have maintained restrictions on the movement of Rohingya in IDP camps and in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships that limit their access to health care and education, make it nearly impossible to work, and impinge on religious freedoms. Such restrictions must be lifted immediately.

International attention has focused on Arakan State since an estimated 31,000 Rohingya fled the region by boat in the first half of 2015. But so far the feared resumption of the maritime exodus of Rohingya asylum seekers and migrant workers has not materialized, partly the result of limits on boat departures and harsh pushbacks from Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.

United Nations and European Union officials recently stated that the drop in maritime departures and a UN-backed government program to resettle 25,000 Rohingya in new homes heralds an improved situation. This is premature given the fact that Burmese government laws and policies that deny the stateless Rohingya their rights and basic freedoms remain. The latest maritime disaster again underscores the need to finding a genuine solution to the old Rohingya crisis urgently. The desperate humanitarian situation and the potential for anti-Rohingya violence needs to be urgently addressed. This is no time for complacency.

The new government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy could markedly improve the everyday lives of the Rohingya by removing the restrictions that led to last month’s boat accident, and from there establish the Rohingya’s genuine inclusion in a more rights-respecting Burma. As we have learned from history, a nonchalance attitude towards growing fascism can be disastrous. As such, if NLD is serious about stopping such fascistic trends, it must come hard on those fascist Ma Ba Tha monks and their supporters within the Buddhist country. Failing this, the country can revert back to days of targeted pogroms again, thus seriously tampering its much needed economic growth through investments from the international community.

But will Suu Kyi tighten the screw against the criminal Ma Ba Tha? That question remains unanswered now.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

One thought on “Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Problem – OpEd

  • May 16, 2016 at 8:37 am

    While I fully share Mr Siddiqui’s views on the appalling treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, he and I differ fundamentally about the Rohingya identity. I doubt that there is much difference between us about how and when they came to live in what is now Rakhine State over the centuries. But whereas he takes their Rohingya identity back a thousand years or more, I hold to the view, based on opinions expressed by the Muslim scholarly and clerical elite in the 1950s and 1960s and as recorded especially in periodicals at the time like “The Guardian Monthly Magazine”, that this identity is a modern fusion of both indigenous and non-indigenous Muslim ethnicities, which as a whole reflect a veritable kaleidoscope of their civilisation.

    In my analysis, the Rohingya identity is as real as his version, but it is a modernising, coalescing and transformative identity created about 60 years ago at a time when the State still recognised the “old” individual Muslim ethnicities set out in the ethno-linguistic census tables created during British rule. Although politicians like U Nu paid lip service to the Rohingya identity, it was never formally incorporated into Burmese law as a national ethnicity. As late as the 1973 Census Muslim ethnicities were recorded as “Arakan-Chittagonian”, “Myedu”, “Burmese Muslim”, “Chinese Muslim”, “Kaman” and “Other Indian” until these were abolished in the new list of 135 “national races” first published in 1990 – apart from the “Kaman” minority.

    It is this emergence of a proactive, assertive ethnicity which is seen as a threat by the Buddhist community in Rakhine State. That is why the authorities are so opposed to the “Rohingya” label which they see as a political enterprise.

    The future though is not all gloom. A seminar held by the UK Foreign Office last month concluded informally that we might be “cautiously optimistic” about the situation. It is also important to recall that on 11 July 2012 President Thein Sein confirmed to UNHCR Antonio Guterres that Myanmar recognised as legal immigrants all those who came from Bengal during British rule and that their descendants are fully entitled to Myanmar citizenship. But he added that those who arrived after independence in 1948 (whom he called “Rohingya”) did so illegally.

    The practical issue now is to expand on the citizenship review which has been restarted in Myebon. The situation generally in Northern Rakhine though remains both delicate and volatile.


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