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Remember the Rohingya

Original illustration by Temilola Matanmi '24, a Film/Animation/Video major at RISD

Rohingya Muslims, who have long been denied Burmese citizenship and identity, are no closer to seeing a new age of justice. Having been targeted by Myanmar’s military juntas and Rakhine State’s Buddhists for years in a brutal genocide, the group’s prospects seem to have scant hope for improvement. Now, living in the state of Rakhine in devastating poverty, Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya population has endured even more suffering since the military coup in 2021, which has restricted their access to basic health care, food, education, and travel.  

In the face of such oppression, Rohingyas are once again fleeing to neighboring countries, where they are greeted less than warmly. Bangladesh reports that it is currently sheltering one million Rohingya refugees and that the rest of the world has done “absolutely nothing” to ease this burden. But this global apathy and discrimination toward Rohingyas is nothing new. Examining Myanmar’s complex history shows a deep-seated hatred for this group, catalyzed by post-colonial tensions, Islamophobia in Asia, and Burmese militarism. The intersection of these factors has led to the present-day situation in which the Rohingyas have no nation to call their own.

The term “Rohingya” is itself controversial. Most citizens of Myanmar do not acknowledge the existence of a separate Rohingya community, instead describing the Rohingyas as direct descendants of illegal Bengali immigrants who came to Burma during the British colonial reign. In reality, the exact origin of the Rohingya ethnicity is difficult to discern, with the earliest documented use of the term occurring in 1799. Historians do confirm, however, that Muslims were present in the region long before the British took over Burma. For instance, there is evidence from the 15th century of a hybrid Buddhist-Islamic court presided over by the Arakan kings of old. 

The Muslim population of Arakan climbed throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually reaching a high of 179,000 people in 1911, compared to a mere  58,000 in 1871. Many use this fact to argue that the present-day Rohingyas are descendants of these immigrants and consequently do not have proof of Burmese ancestry preceding the British Raj. As a result, they cannot claim Burmese nationality under Burmese law. Indeed, the 1982 law that formally codified the ethnicities of Myanmar conspicuously failed to include the Rohingyas, rendering them illegal migrants in the eyes of the law. 

But the systematic discrimination by the Burmese state with respect to the Rohingyas cannot be explained just by concerns over illegal migration. The darker ramifications of colonialism are also partially responsible.     

By the beginning of the 20th  century, Britain’s “divide and rule” strategy had already intensified ethnic hostility throughout the Raj. In Burma, this took the form of policies encouraging the migration of “loyal” Indians to counter the influence of “less reliable” Burmese. During World War II, India, Burma, and other British colonies came under threat of Japanese conquest, further straining ethnic tensions between groups. The Burmese National Army—commanded by the future “Father of Burma” Aung Sang (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father)—sided with the Japanese, while the Rohingya Muslims sided with the British, aiding their Allied Burma Campaign and receiving a (later to be broken) promise of independence in return. Fighting on opposing sides of a war perceived by many as a struggle for liberation only aggravated existing tensions between the government-backed Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims. 

After a little over a decade of democratic rule following the end of World War II, the government of Burma was replaced by a military junta, worsening Rohingya Muslims’ conditions. The Burmese army initiated a series of crackdowns against the Rohingyas in an attempt to drive them out of the country. In 1977, the government initiated a program called Naga Min, with the aim of bringing every resident’s citizenship under scrutiny. Killings, mass arrests, and torture as a result of the program drove over 200,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. This state violence against the Rohingyas has continued to the present day. In 2017 alone, more than 310,000 Rohingyas fled the country, and 6,700 were killed in what has been described as a pure massacre, an ethnic cleansing, and a genocide.

Such brutality cannot be explained away as merely a product of colonial history. To this day, Muslims in southeast Asia are generally regarded with suspicion unless they live in a Muslim-majority nation—a result of the anti-Muslim sentiment that has been brewing in the region in recent years. Many Muslims are forced to seek refuge in Muslim-majority nations like Pakistan or Bangladesh—places where Rohingyas are not welcome due to their being perceived as Burmese. In Myanmar, Rohingyas’ supposed homeland, the group’s Islamic traditions and practices cause them to be viewed with even more mistrust, as demonstrated by the use of the slur “Kala”—a word that suggests that Rohingyas are dark-skinned aliens of Indian origin living in Myanmar. But Rohingyas don’t seem to be welcome in India. The pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that governs India calls the Rohingyas “terrorists” or “infiltrators” and refuses them proper shelter. In the face of such universal discrimination, it is not a stretch to reason that the general Islamophobia that has taken root globally since the 9/11 attacks has especially increased in Hindu-majority or Buddhist-majority Asian countries, where Islam and terrorism are considered synonymous.  

This underlying prejudice, in addition to historical enmity, may account for Myanmar’s failure to end the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, even during a time of democracy. When Aung San Suu Kyi became state counselor in 2015, the West nurtured the false hope that military action against Rohingyas would end. But Aung San Suu Kyi not only turned a blind eye to the 2017 massacre of the Rohingyas, but also defended the military in the International Court of Justice, claiming that their actions were in response to attacks by a Rohingya militant organization. Her response clearly suggests that she is not the human-rights icon the West wanted her to be. Not only has she bowed to the military’s pressure regarding the Rohingya crisis, but her word-choice suggests that she, too, believes that Rohingya Muslims are “militant” instigators of terrorism. 

Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government was still, to a limited extent, answerable to the West. But even that small spark of hope for the Rohingyas has been extinguished since the 2021 coup. The current anti-Muslim, militaristic junta, like those before it, judges the Rohingyas’ ambiguous origins harshly and is perfectly happy to use violence to drive the ethnic group into extinction. 

[Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Fall 2022 issue of the BPR magazine.]