According to the United Nations, the Rohingya Muslims are the most persecuted minority in the world. Yet their tragic story is not often discussed. Amid the whirlwind of other breaking news events, persecution in Myanmar takes a backseat. So, who are these persecuted people? Why is this minority targeted, what exactly is happening to them, and what is being done to help?
Who are the Rohingya Muslims?
Muslims comprise 4% of Myanmar’s population of around 60 million. The country is 90% Buddhist. Of the 135 races that are recognized by the government of Myanmar, one, the Rohingya (or “Rakhine” in Burmese) is largely Muslim. Since 1982, however, the Rohingya have been considered stateless, undocumented immigrants - they have no citizenship and, since the passing of the Burmese Citizenship Law (Pyithu Hluttaw Law no. 4), no longer constitute an ethnic group. So when these people are attacked or blamed for bouts of instability, violence, or rioting, they are defenseless. Human rights groups, including the Organization of Islamic Countries, have been denied entry into the country. In 1991 and 1992, some 260,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to neighboring countries following human rights violations, including torture, rape, and summary executions carried out by the Burmese military. In 2012, following a spate of attacks by the majority Rakhine Buddhists, between 140-200,000 Rohingya became internally displaced. 2015 estimates show 86,000 fled to other Southeast Asian countries. With no papers, no sponsors, and no resettlement options, the UN classifies the Rohingya as “the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
Why are the Rohingya being persecuted?
While the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law is largely to blame for the Rohingya’s statelessness and their lack of access to employment, education and even basic healthcare services as well as the confiscation of their property, the conflict has its origins in Myanmar’s colonial period in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many Rohingya began migrating from modern-day Bangladesh in the late 18th century, but in 1826 Britain annexed the part of Myanmar where most Rohingya Muslims live today. Rohingya remain there today as Britain’s takeover of the Arakan state encouraged mass migration of Bengali Muslims who would become laborers and administrators in the newly established colony. As a result of the influx, Burmese Buddhist peasants were internally displaced. It’s not difficult to understand then, why, in 1948, after Burma gained its independence from Britain, the government sought to rectify the plight of its displaced Buddhist population. However, this was no simple task. New generations of now-Burmese Muslims were born and raised in the country and so, in response to attempts to force them out, they attempted to declare their own independence. They failed. Tensions with the government escalated again in 1961 when the Rohingya tried their hand at secession once more and were put down. Recent political events, along with a historical narrative that blames the Rohingya victims rather than the British colonial forces, have unfortunately converged into a lethal dose of Islamophobia.
What is being done to help?
Not enough. In 2010 Myanmar transitioned from a military junta to a democracy but, during that period, its minority Muslim population faced unprecedented levels of violence. The newly-minted government allowed the self-styled “969 movement” led by a Buddhist monk named Wirathu to form (969 are numbers that refer to attributes of the Buddha). Wirathu had been imprisoned by the ruling military junta for violence against Muslims. He calls himself “the Burmese bin Laden”. The group is supported by present-day senior leadership in the government, including the army’s former lieutenant general and current minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, as well as other Buddhist monks and members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. 969 believes in the “moral justification… of anti-Muslim bloodshed” and encourages the boycotting of Muslim-owned businesses; it also opposes interfaith marriages and regards mosques as “enemy bases”.
In 2015, Myo Win, a member of the Burmese Muslim Association compared 969 to the KKK and argued that the group is backed by the government. Despite numerous deadly attacks on Rohingya Muslims by 969, the current government, and Suu Kyi herself, have refused to recognize what Desmond Tutu has termed “the slow genocide”. In an interview with Today’s Mishal Husain, Suu Kyi seemed exasperated by repeated questions about Human Rights Watch reports that identified Arakan’s extremist Buddhist 969 movement as responsible for the systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing of Muslims. Suu Kyi dismissed the possibility of extending government aid to the targeted Muslim population and attempted to change the subject by instead citing the need to create security and stability for all — not unlike the ‘all lives matter’ tack in the United States. After the interview’s abrupt end, Suu Kyi was caught on microphone saying, “No-one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. Her comments shocked many and prompted questions about her true commitment to human rights and democracy in Myanmar. Her biographer, Peter Popham, was quick to point out, however, that Suu Kyi had had a Muslim Pakistani boyfriend while a student at Oxford and that she was inspired to join the struggle to democratize Burma by a Muslim journalist named Maung Thaw Ka.
Still, as the fate of the Rohingya Muslims hangs in the balance, some important questions remain.
Is the worst behind us?
There have been some improvements under Suu Kyi’s NLD-led government but some 1.2 million Rohingya remained internally displaced and are still denied basic rights and freedoms. The leaders of the violent 969 group continue their pogrom-like attacks against the Rohingya with impunity. They incite hate and violence against the Muslim minority by fabricating conspiracy theories about “a jihad threat” and Muslim drug dealers doping Buddhist youth and convincing them to take up arms against the government. Like Islamophobic fear-mongers in the United States and Europe, 969’s discourse is replete with references to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ doctrine. So brazen is 969’s Islamophobic rhetoric that The Daily Show’s November 2015 spoof - “The Myanmar Daily Show with Trevor Noah” - included an interview with Wirathu wherein he compares Muslims to “mad dogs” and, when asked if Muslims have a place in the country, replied coldly: “Muslims were [expletive meaning defecating] on Burma”.
Stop scapegoating Muslims
Suu Kyi’s government must recognize the Rohingya as citizens with full and equal rights. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are not to blame for the migration policies of 19th century colonial Britain. The 969 movement must be dismantled, its leadership acknowledged as militants who have committed crimes against humanity, and those crimes must be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of both national and international law.
Islamophobia is racism. Anti-Muslim sentiment and violence are no lesser offenses than anti-Semitism or other forms of racism. The existence of monstrous, contemptible terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda who claim Muslim identity or to have some sort of Islamic license to legitimize their heinous actions, does not justify harassment, hatred, threats against, violence to, occupation, internment, ethnic cleansing or genocide of ordinary Muslims in Myanmar or anywhere else in the world. Muslim lives are human lives too. Islamophobia kills because it does not differentiate between the acts of a handful of terrorists and the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world who lead peaceful, normal lives and who are just as weary of terrorism, if not more so, as everyone else.