The forgotten Rohingya


The image of a smiling Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receiving flowers from her supporters is a powerful message of freedom and optimism in Myanmar, the symbol of democracy in a country which has known nothing but authoritarian oppression for decades.

Yet few ask one of the most pressing questions facing Daw Suu Kyi. How will she deal with the Rohingya?

"The Rohingya," you will ask. "Who are they?"

The Rohingya, whom the BBC calls "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups", are the little-publicised and largely forgotten Muslim people of the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Their historic lineage in Rakhine dates back centuries, as fishermen and farmers. Over the past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically driven out of their homeland by Myanmar's military junta and subjected to widespread violence and the total negation of their rights and citizenship within Myanmar. They are a stateless Muslim minority.

The continued tragedy of the unrecognised Rohingya, both in Myanmar and as refugees abroad, casts a dark shadow over the bright hopes and prospects for democracy in a country plagued by violence and civil war. Suu Kyi is ideally placed to extend democratic reforms to all ethnic peoples, including the Rohingya, in a free Myanmar.

Though the Rohingya may be small in number at less than two million, the real lesson of the Arab Spring is that no notion of democracy can succeed without the inclusion of all people within a country's borders. Every member of society, regardless of race and religion, must be given their due rights as citizens.

While many ethnic minorities in Myanmar have been the victims of the central government's oppressive measures, the Rohingya stand apart in that their very existence is threatened. The Rohingya's plight abroad as refugees in places such as Bangladesh and Thailand has seen glimmers of the media spotlight, but less attention has been brought to the underlying cause of their flight: the violence and cultural oppression at home.
These policies were enacted by Myanmar's government to force the Rohingya outside of Myanmar as a result of their being Muslim and ethnically non-Myanma. The government erroneously labelled them as "illegal Bengali immigrants" in their efforts to eradicate the Rohingya culture.

Kings to refugees

Yet, the long history of the Rohingya and the Rakhine state contradicts the government's claims. The medieval Kingdom of Arakan, encompassing the Muslim Rohingya, was once an enlightened centre of culture, knowledge and trade, displaying a harmonic blend of Buddhism and Islam in its administration and court life. The kingdom's cosmopolitan and international capital city, Mrauk U, was described in the 17th century as "a second Venice" by a Portuguese Jesuit priest and was often compared to Amsterdam and London by travellers and writers of the time.

It was the 1784 military conquest by Bodawpaya, the king of Burma (now Myanmar), that transformed this once vibrant kingdom into an oppressed peripheral region. After this, many haunting tales began to circulate of Burmese soldiers rounding up the Rohingya in bamboo enclosures to burn them alive, and marching thousands to the city of Amarapura to work, effectivley as slave labour, on infrastructure projects.

With the rise to power of the military junta in 1962 under General Ne Win, a policy of "Myanmarisation" was implemented as an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Myanma ethnicity and its Buddhist faith. The Rohingya, as both Muslims and non-Myanma, were stripped of their legitimacy and officially declared foreigners in their own native land. With the passage of the junta's 1982 Citizenship Law, they effectively ceased to exist legally.

Stripped officially of their citizenship, the Rohingya found their lives in limbo: prohibited from the right to own land or property, barred from travelling outside their villages, repairing their decaying places of worship, receiving an education in any language or even marrying and having children without rarely granted government permission. The Rohingya have also been subjected to modern-day slavery, forced to work on infrastructure projects, such as constructing "model villages" to house the Myanmar settlers intended to displace them, reminiscent of their treatment at the hands of the Burmese kings of history.

The denial of citizenship and rights was accompanied by a military strategy of physical and cultural war designed to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar.

The initial push of the military's ethnic cleansing campaign came in 1978 under Operation Naga Min, or Operation King Dragon. The purpose of this operation was to scrutinise each individual within the state as either a citizen or alleged "illegal immigrant". This resulted in widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages and confiscation of lands among the Rohingya people. In the wake of this violence, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, many of whom were later repatriated to Myanmar where they faced further torture, rape, jail and death.

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