Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis demands action, but don’t forget the good news

Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis demands action, but don’t forget the good news

From democratization to growth, the country can boast plenty of positives

A man works at the site of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, located on the outskirts of Yangon. © Reuters

Myanmar has the distinction of being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, clocking more than 8% annual growth for 2016, according to some estimates. The country’s growth trajectory is likely to continue upward, thanks to a low economic base (roughly $65 billion), a young population (at about 54 million) and an abundance of natural resources. It is a frontier economy at the forefront of its peers as it breaks out of a dark and authoritarian past.

But the world’s view of Myanmar has recently focused on a single issue: the persecution of Rohingya Muslims who live mainly in Rakhine State, in the western region bordering Bangladesh. There is no doubt that Myanmar’s “Rohingya problem” is grave. It reflects ethnic and racial animosity caused by religious tensions between Buddhism and Islam that have resulted in communal violence. This situation has been worsened by economic deprivation in the country’s poorest state. Even so, a broader perspective is needed. There is more to Myanmar than the Rohingya.

GRAVE CONCERNS The latest bout of violence to grab global media attention began on Oct. 9, when several hundred lightly armed Muslims in the Rakhine region attacked police border posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, killing nine policemen and looting some 50 guns along with ammunition. The Myanmar authorities locked down much of northern Rakhine in the aftermath for an operational sweep, targeting Muslim suspects allegedly supported by networks in the Middle East.

The government’s swift and brutal response has generated allegations of wanton violence, including killings, torture and destruction of villages by Myanmar’s security forces. Nearly 30,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and humanitarian relief workers and reporters have found access to the region difficult. By early December, claims that the Myanmar army was pursuing a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya dominated global media coverage of the country.

Rohingya Muslim children in the village of U Shey Kya, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State © Reuters


Malaysia, with its Muslim majority population, sought to politicize the situation for domestic reasons to distract attention from the corruption scandal threatening the government. Prime Minister Najib Razak accused the government of Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, of presiding over genocide of the Rohingya, and called for a review of Myanmar’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, took a more low-key approach but expressed similar concerns in private talks between its foreign minister and Suu Kyi, who is also Myanmar’s foreign minister. In the aftermath, Suu Kyi convened a special informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers. While the meeting, held on Dec. 19 in Yangon, provided a forum for discussion, the deep-seated Rakhine crisis will likely not be resolved in the foreseeable future.

The Rohingya issue runs deep. Even the use of language is instructive. Myanmar officials avoid using the term “Rohingya” and insist that the estimated 1.1 million Rakhine Muslims, who identify themselves as Rohingya, should be called “Bengalis.” This nomenclature reflects the fact that the presence of the Muslim population in Rakhine State is also a matter of historical dispute.

BLAME GAME Myanmar’s Buddhist Burmese, who make up 88% of the country’s population, claim that British colonial rulers imported Bengali workers from India into what was then known as Burma beginning in the 1820s. Their descendants settled in Rakhine, where two-thirds of the population remains Buddhist. The Rohingya say they migrated to Burma before the British conquered the country in a series of 19th-century wars.

The Burmese interpretation of history is meant to assert that the legacy of British colonial rule is largely to blame for the Rohingya “problem.” This reflects a nationalist narrative that the Burmese Buddhists, who dominated mainland Southeast Asia between the 16th and 18th centuries, were forced to accept the presence of the Rohingya after their defeat by the British. In addition, the Burmese Buddhists claim that they have been subject to attacks in Muslim areas of Rakhine.

The result is that the “stateless” Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, many with large families, have no prospects for a decent life or upward mobility. As they eke out a living from local farming and menial work, their plight has become a cause celebre among international journalists.

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By Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia ( MERHROM) Posted in Uncategorized

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