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The Rohingyas, resident in Myanmar but of another ethnic and religious descent, have been in the international spotlight since their mass exodus from the Rakhine state of Myanmar beginning last year. During the last four years, if not several decades, conflicts between the Rohingyas, the Rakhines and Myanmar’s state authorities have hardly ceased. Over 1 million Rohingyas are documented to have fled under the pressure of government persecution since the initial conflict in 1977. However, the world’s ‘most persecuted people’ remain opaque to the outside world, though there have recently been heavy international condemnations of the atrocities committed. Here I seek to disentangle and consider the deep-seated causes behind the humanitarian tragedy while reflecting on the role of media in our information-rich societies.

What is the conflict about?

Is the current conflict a religiously-motivated, one as most media outlets suggest, stressing on the faith of Muslim Rohingyas? A proper response can hardly be gauged without briefing ourselves on the history of the region.

Muslims arrived in the region surrounding Myanmar as early as the 8th century and the Rohingyas have claimed to be the descendants of these Arab traders. Before the 18th century, there was little tension between the Muslims (who also consist of many ethnicities in Myanmar) and other ethnic groups. Things then changed with the British colonisation of the country, which was ruled by the empire-builders as a province of India until 1937. During this period, many Chittagonians (mostly people from south-east Bangladesh) moved to Myanmar for work, mainly concentrated in the Rakhine region which borders Bangladesh. One of the counter-arguments to Rohingyas’ claim of origin is that most of them were immigrants from this period, which was well documented.

Immigration needed control but was not attended to by the British. Since the British ‘had their own community, and didn’t mix with the Burmese’ (E. Larkin in her book ‘Finding Orwell in Burma’), the brewing resentment between the locals and immigrant workers presumably would not be at the top of their agenda.

As circumstances changed with WW2, the colonisers’ indifference developed into a strategic divide-to-rule policy. The Japanese invaded and armed the Rakhines to fight against the Muslims who were armed by the British. With heavy casualties on both sides, the idea of peaceful coexistence would have ceased by then. Separatism soon surfaced after the war and the Rohingya movement, as one of the minority ethnic groups with a desire for more solidified ethnic identity, started to develop in the 1950s.

Current leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi (centre), with her family including her father Aung San (right), Father of the Nation of the country - AP
Current leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi (centre), with her family including her father Aung San (right), Father of the Nation of the country – AP

Then comes the part of history more often discussed in international media: the mistreatment and exile of the Rohingyas. The first wave occurred in 1978, the second in 1991. The Rohingyas suffer from statutory discrimination, from laws that refuse them citizenship status as they don’t speak languages recognised by the government. They are deprived of land ownership, marriage freedom and education opportunities. Illiteracy remains high, and their social mobility is severely constrained.

All the ethnicities in Burma, including the dominant Burmese, have undergone a history of exploitation and helplessness. The events that developed from the colonial period to the end of WW2 have fundamentally altered the path of Burma and her inter-ethnic relationships. The taking over by military government after independence further delays Myanmar’s development. As I intend to show later, the ‘ethnic’ conflict is not so simply ethnic. The seeds for mutual alienation were planted ever since immigrant workers were brought into the country without integration measures and were then encouraged to expand rapidly due to the hardly ideal economic and political conditions of the country.

The popular analysis on Rohingyas has mostly been condemnations of the current government, laments about democratic progress, or criticisms on religious hostility. News reporting can be partial. The sentiment of fear amongst Buddhists or locals was largely left out by media coverage (apart from Al Jazeera’s documentary here). Dr Khin Mar Mar Kyi, a UK-based Myanmar researcher, said that the Rakhine people were among the most marginalised minority in the country as well, and the one-sided condemnation could fuel more conflicts.

While international exposure of exerted cruelties may deter the government from further mass exiles, the inter-group hostility is not in the slightest resolved or ameliorated. And it is not likely to be if mutual recognitions of history and each other’s legitimacy cannot be established.

So why are the Rohingyas not recognised?

A lot of debate surrounds the Rohingyas’ origin, identity and the legitimacy of their claim to citizenship. Despite a presence in Rakhine since before the country’s independence, the other ethnic groups in the locality as well as elsewhere in the country still perceive them as Bengali immigrants.

But Myanmar is a diverse country of more than 135 ethnicities, so how come the Rohingyas have been singled out to be heavily discriminated against to the point where they are not even allowed recognition as an ethnicity? Why is the internationally respected Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, refraining from using ‘Rohingya’ to describe the group at the centre of the issue at hand? Much coverage has hinted at this being another example of persecution against Muslims, yet with a long history of diverse Muslim groups living in the country, the religious aspect can hardly account for the whole picture. The search for causes has to trace back to how the word Rohingya became known and used, back to the years of military government, and one may see the still relevant power struggles between the military and current government (Suu Kyi). This wider perspective may illustrate why the conflicts will not die down easily, as we would all wish.

Leider, a French scholar on this particular issue, is of the opinion that Rohingya is a political, not religious, identity, constructed for the sake of political mobilisation at the time when the group needed identity reaffirmation post-independence. He stresses that the term was put into wide use only from the 1950s, and was only able to be spotted in very few historical sources before then. It has become the basis on which these groups identify with themselves and against others, as well as prompting militancy such as the RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organisation). Insecurity was fostered among locals, especially the Buddhists whose group are not short of radicals such as Wirathu, a prominent Buddhist monk who espouses anti-Muslim sentiment. Fearmongering pamphlets have been circulated spreading “news” about Muslim plans of ‘invasion’ by building mosques and having large families.

In the debate surrounding Rohingyas’ legitimacy as citizens, the Rakhines and many others have remained adamant that the Rohingyas are Bangladeshi immigrants. Leider’s opinion may offer an understanding of the Rakhines’ perspective. But more than that, the enmity between the groups stems from more than the question of who has lived here for longer. It ultimately comes from the insecurity and helplessness among people on both sides. And this insecurity has been at its worst for many years due to Myanmar’s prolonged economic and political hardship.

myanmar econ

Myanmar, although a member of ASEAN, is hardly as prosperous and open as her neighbours. The country was plunged into military dictatorship for several decades, and, unlike what the world wants to believe, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi cannot democratise the country overnight despite her party being elected into power in 2015.

It won’t be exaggerating to say that the Myanmar of the last decade resembles the dictatorial world in Orwell’s 1984, a police state where every word and action are censored and foreigners closely watched. The military government seems to have replicated the Big Brother as envisaged by the late English writer. Even Orwell’s books such as Animal Farm and 1984 were banned from being circulated in the country, given how the state authorities can dangerously see parallels between fiction and reality.

Things have improved slightly, as Freedom House declares Myanmar to be on an upward trend after Suu Kyi’s party — the NLD — won a landslide victory in 2015. However, the freedom score moved from the worst rating of  7 up only to a 5, as the military still has an effective veto on the constitution despite the NLD’s majority win.

Suu Kyi now still treads very carefully, balancing between pleasing military stakeholders and her very hopeful electorate. On the issue of Rohingyas, she has been accused of not defending the minority group and therefore being complicit. Nevertheless, her fragile status and vulnerability towards other stakeholders in the government might have also made such defence not so realistic.

Although ruled by turbulent and authoritarian politics, Myanmar has extraordinarily fertile lands and resources in favour of her development. Back in Orwell’s days, Myanmar enjoyed a prosperous agricultural economy founded on her rice paddy. But now Myanmar falls behind her neighbours in most aspects of modernisation. The need to unleash her potential is however hindered by the government’s action to grab as many resources as possible. Many farmers struggle to feed themselves as the government confiscates harvest by force.

Buddhist citizens of Myanmar living in Thailand hold anti-Rohingya banners as they gather outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok (Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters).
Buddhist citizens of Myanmar living in Thailand hold anti-Rohingya banners as they gather outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok (Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters).

The sociologist Sassen suggests that the Rohingya exile may be one way of freeing up more land, as well as shifting the attention away from government misconduct. The strategy to instil inter-group hatred and to divert attention away from what is at the core of things may make things much easier for those ruling.

Economic hardship in all ways renders the citizens more susceptible to exploitation. Falling behind on basic development and education is detrimental for both the Rakhines and the Rohingyas. The Rakhines’ impoverishment is turned into discrimination and even hatred towards those who are different, and the low literacy rate renders people gullible in the face of fear mongering. Extremist groups put much time and efforts into the creation of fake news, which are readily digested without scepticism. The mist around truth may be bad enough already in this age of over-abundant information but is especially exacerbated by people’s lack of a discerning eye.

What about Rohingyas’ destinations?

While the Rohingyas are in a way Asia’s version of a refugee crisis, the recipient countries they flee to could but promise much less optimistic conditions than their European counterparts. Myanmar is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. The refugees from Rakhine would also seek out ways to reach Malaysia. Yet in most places they have been met with minimal welcoming. Bangladeshi scholars point out how the crisis poses threats to Bangladesh’s internal stability, putting strain on an already large population. Religious extremists in the country also exploited refugee camps to develop militancy and facilitate arms trafficking. Malaysia and Thailand face similarly challenging situations while struggling to provide basic infrastructure and jobs to refugees, let alone the brewing friction between the refugees and locals. At the end of the day, the Rohingyas’ long-term place of residence rests with Myanmar and her path forward.

I have tried to outline a lesser-known perspective on the Rohingya story, to shed more light on a people who cannot suffer more degradation. The persecution forced upon them is undeniable, but accusing the Myanmar government and the country’s dominant ethnic groups of genocide or ethnic cleansing is not exactly helping.

Developments in the Rakhine state have not merely been a one-sided repression of Muslims according to the will of radical Buddhists. But instead, the military and previous governments made decisions to exploit this local rivalry. Trapped in poverty and helplessness, the Rakhines and Rohingyas were both seeking to rationalise their respective situations. Stories should be told to disentangle the causes of all the inter-group resentment, but not to simply lambast the persecution as a religious hate crime. More responsibility is shouldered by the media when the groups involved are both vulnerable and voiceless.

A hatred that has been brewing for nearly a century does not shatter easily. While the economy of Myanmar experiences a take-off and politics undergoes a precious democratisation, there still exist plenty of structural flaws in the public institutions of the country. The laws, of which some date back to colonial times; education, especially that of ethnic minorities; regional development, so that some ethnic groups do not have to live in conditions even worse than Rohingya refugee camps — only after dealing with these flaws can a peaceful ethnic coexistence be realised.

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