The Rohingya is a Sunni Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Roughly 800,000 to a million of the world’s 3.5 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, where they currently face severe institutionalized discrimination and violence in what is framed as a religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. Many have settled elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and in Australia, Europe, New Zealand, North America, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Large refugee communities exist in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand.
British Colonialism & WWII
British colonialism shifted power balances and generated deep tensions between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims. The British took Arakan in their first campaign against Myanmar in 1824–1826, and encouraged an influx of Bengali Indian migrants. By the early 20th century, the immigrant population was twice the size of the local Muslim population. As the Muslim Rohingya community absorbed new migrants its religious networks expanded and the Rohingya began to look, dress, and act differently from their Buddhist neighbors. The growing population pushed into the south, displacing some Buddhist villages.
These changes led to competition over resources with Buddhists. Worse still, the Rohingya sided with the British against the Japanese in WWII while the dominant Burman ethnicity was barred from joining the military. Rohingya engaged in armed combat with Burmese Buddhists who supported the Japanese against the British, which degenerated into cycles of retributive violence on the village level. The British appointed Rohingya to positions of power in the post-war government, from which some retaliated against Buddhists who had harmed them during the war. Additionally, some Muslims believed that the British would grant them an autonomous area following the war, and of those, some hoped to secede from Myanmar and join with India or Pakistan. In 1946, a few Muslim political leaders announced their intentions to form an independent Muslim state, and in the following year met with Ali Jinnah, who would go on to found Pakistan.
The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism
Opposition to Muslim migration became a key point in the mid-century Burmese National Movement, which coincided with a Buddhist religious revival. This would have a profound impact on the experience of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Burma. Following independence in 1948, Burmese Muslims steadily began losing citizenship status.
Some of the Rohingya in Arakan took part in a rebellion against the post-independence Burmese government, though most Rohingya did not and some religious leaders condemned the religious justifications used by the rebels. However, the rebels issued demands that were shared by many, including a desire to be recognized as indigenous Burmese peoples and a rejection of Buddhist claims that Burmese Muslims were outsiders. Rebels—while seeking an autonomous state—also demanded that Muslims be integrated into the Burmese government and army, for the government to improve the economy and education in Arakan, to lift restrictions on Muslim travel, and to permit Muslim refugees to return to their villages. When talks with the government failed, rebels intensified guerrilla combat and drove Buddhists out of villages in Arakan. The Burmese army responded by razing Muslim villages and mosques, only deepening divisions.
The rebellion ended with surrender in 1961 in an atmosphere in which Muslims and Buddhists were deeply distrustful of the other. The military coup in 1962 effectively ended formal Muslim (and all other minority) political activity, which was seen as a threat to Burmese national identity. The military government nationalized all “foreign”-owned businesses, triggering massive emigration from Myanmar into neighboring countries and economically crippling the local Muslim community that remained.
A Refugee Crisis
There have been numerous waves of flight from Myanmar into Bangladesh over the last half-century, and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims has proved a sore point in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations. In 1978, Rohingya protests against extreme anti-immigration measures were put down with violence, sending hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing for safety. Under international pressure, the Burmese government agreed to repatriate roughly 200,000 refugees to Arakan. Many of the refugees were prevented from returning to their home villages upon re-entry.
In 1982, the government passed the Burma Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to most ethnic minority groups but denied citizenship to the Rohingya. By 1989, the government began settling Buddhists in Muslim-majority areas in Arakan and Rakhine, displacing Muslim families. Reports of soldiers raping Rohingya women, destroying or confiscating property, conscripting forced labor, and murdering men and women triggered another major refugee crisis. The United Nations General Assembly and UN Human Rights Commission issued condemnations of the Burmese government, pointing to both the repression of pro-democracy activists and violence against Muslims.
Today, the Rohingya face discrimination in areas of education, employment, public health, housing, religious activity, movement, and family life. In May 2013, the Burmese government reaffirmed support for a 2005 two-child policy applied only to Rohingya families. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, estimated at 250,000 in 2012, continue to be a challenge for the Bangladesh government, which seeks a repatriation solution even as refugees continue to enter the country. Outbursts of violence since 2012 have claimed the lives of hundreds, including both Muslims and Buddhists, and have fed the refugee crisis.
Ironically, speech and censorship reforms since the 2011 democratic elections have worsened the situation, and public opinion is loudly swayed against the Rohingya. Prejudice is also commonplace among the Sangha. Buddhist monks such as Ashin Wirathu (leader of the anti-Muslim 969 Movement) have been accused of blocking aid to Muslims, delivering anti-Muslim sermons, and have encouraged Buddhists to purchase goods only from Buddhist owned businesses marked with a 969 sticker. These monks claim that Burmese and Buddhist culture is under attack by outsiders, specifically foreign “Bengali” Muslims, who threaten to demographically overtake the nation due to their supposed high fertility rates. Problematically, the government has failed to take any real action against hate speech, and the relationship between anti-Muslim monks and some government figures has raised questions about collusion between the Sangha and government in the attacks.
Anti-Rohingya monks and others also claim that radical Islamists among the Rohingya are a danger to the Burmese state. While militant Islamist groups in Indonesia and Pakistan have threatened violence and have targeted Burmese sites outside of Myanmar in response to the treatment of the Rohingya, international observers have not seen significant levels of radicalization among Myanmar’s Muslims. That said, organizations such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization have had ties with Pakistan’s Jamaat-e Islami and other Islamist organizations. The 969 Movement calls into question the democratic government’s ability and willingness to take necessary measures to “protect” Burmese society.
Vitriol against the Rohingya is popular, but far from uniform. Monks and lay Buddhists alike have spoken out against the violence. Buddhists outside of Myanmar have decried violence against the Rohingya, and point to the isolation of Burmese Buddhist monks from the international Buddhist community as contributing to the problem. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the ascendant National League for Democracy and a presidential hopeful for 2015, has found herself caught between international condemnation of Myanmar’s policy towards the Rohingya, and the widespread unpopularity of any statements in support of the Rohingya in Myanmar itself. While she has condemned the two child policy as being against human rights, she has otherwise kept relatively silent about the Rohingya situation for which she has been roundly criticized by Rohingya activists and some in the Western media.
In April 2013, the international rights group Human Rights Watch called the violence against the Rohingya a case of “ethnic cleansing” in which monks and some government officials were complicit. In September 2013, the Toronto-based Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention issued a chilling report warning that, with escalating violence, there is a high risk of genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya. While violence continues to target the Rohingya, there is evidence showing that it has spread to target other Muslim minorities as well, including the Muslim Kaman, who are recognized as legal Burmese citizens.
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