The Rohingya of west Myanmar eke out a living on the margins of society, making do with subsistence farming and fishing in primitive conditions. They live in a state of smoldering enmity with their neighbors, the Rakhine, who occasionally pillage and murder them. But the real terror strikes when the soldiers arrive. Hardened by decades of indiscriminate violence against Myanmar’s minorities, they torch whole villages, gun down fleeing villagers, ravish the women, shoot the livestock, and force the Rohingya out of the country altogether.
The persecution of the Rohingya has gone on for a long time, although since Myanmar was such an obscure and isolated country, it was out of sight of the outside world until recently. The current crisis, though, is a serious escalation of their oppression, and it could have (other) dire consequences.
Myanmar is an old country; its history stretches back to the 800s. But it is a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, who conquered the fertile and hot Ayeyarwady Valley and subjugated the other ethnic groups that ring it. The Bamar are proud of their history and especially of the military prowess of their kings, and usually react to any uppitiness among the minorities with ferocity. This tendency has carried on into Myanmar’s modern history, since the country is dominated by its army, which reacts to any problem or threat or hint of a threat violently and ruthlessly.
But even though the Rohingya share this bitter relationship with the Myanma military with other ethnicities, they are different. They are closely related to the Bengalis, the ethnic group that dominates Myanmar’s western neighbor, Bangladesh. How exactly they came to Myanmar is a matter of heated dispute today; the Rohingya stress their heritage in the independent Kingdom of Arakan, when they were invited to serve in a royal court heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Most probably migrated to Arakan later, when the region was conquered by Britain and annexed to its huge Indian colony; the new colonists needed menial laborers for their tea plantations, and Bengalis had a lot of experience with that, especially in the area around Chittagong in southeast Bengal.
So the Rohingya originate from Bangladesh (which used to be Pakistan, and before that, India — but the point is, a foreign country); they are Muslim, while Myanmar is deeply Buddhist; and they are Aryan, while the rest of Myanmar is Mongoloid (basically, they have darker skin and rounder eyes). Their language is closely related to Bengali. They are seen as foreigners by the rest of Myanmar. Worse, they have links with the hated British overlords: as part of the classic imperial divide-and-rule strategy, the Rohingya were favored as enforcers in the colonial regime, which tended to admire Muslims as fierce warriors and loathe Myanma as duplicitous, scheming weaklings. When British rule was overthrown by Japan in 1942, ethnic riots broke out in Arakan as the local Arakanese got their revenge on the Rohingya, with the tacit approval of the Japanese.
Myanmar* gained its independence in 1948, giving the Bamar a chance to restore the national glory that had been tarnished by their humiliating conquest 60 years earlier. This meant seeking revenge against the many Indian migrants who had flocked to the colony and gotten rich at their ancestors’ expense. The Indians were encouraged to go back to India, especially forcefully after the army seized control in 1962. Their wealth made them a tempting target. The Rohingya, on the other hand, were too poor to bother with. They remained in Myanmar, laboring away in their neglected corner of the country and launching an insurgency to unite their area with Bangladesh. The local Rakhine, descendants of the Arakanese, held them in contempt and avoided having much to do with them. In 1982, the Rohingya were even stripped of their citizenship, and to this day are considered Bengalis by the rest of the country (although Bangladesh does not recognize them as such).
The army’s harsh and authoritarian regime, by all accounts, ran Myanmar into the ground. Its socialist, then corrupt capitalist economy impoverished the country. Its xenophobia and paranoia isolated Myanmar from even its neighbors. Its violent impulses dominated its interaction with its subjects. By 2011, the regime could no longer be sustained, and Myanmar has undergone a groundbreaking reform since then that has opened up the country and given its people democratic rights and a better standard of living.
On the other hand, the reform has also exposed how volatile Myanmar’s ethnic relations are. In 2012, a riot broke out in Sittwe, Rakhine’s main city, after a Rohingya was accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine. Dozens of Rohingya were killed, but the main effect of the violence was to drive the 2 communities further apart, with the Rohingya forced into concentration camps (“internally displaced persons camps”). It might be helpful for their own protection, but the camps are poorly guarded, squalid, and by most accounts saturated with an atmosphere of hopelessness and boredom and afflicted by the usual woes of poverty (domestic abuse, substance abuse, petty theft, hooliganism).
These problems pale in comparison to what happened when the army showed up in October 2016. The Myanma army has a long history of using brute force and terror to subdue rebellious minorities, and it has used the same tactics against the Rohingya. Hundreds of villages are put to the torch; families are terrorized and driven out; torture and rape are frequently used. Children and the elderly are gunned down.
The whole crisis has understandably sparked an outflow of refugees from the conflict zone. In earlier years, Rohingya would brave the Andaman Sea in flimsy boats and set sail for Thailand or more distant but also more Muslim countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). Now most just head out on foot for nearby Bangladesh, accessible by crossing the narrow Naf River. All face the woes of refugees everywhere: locals unable or unwilling to help them; crowded, dangerous and filthy conditions; difficulty in finding jobs or integrating into society; a tendency to fall into the clutches of unsavory and unscrupulous characters who abuse them in exchange for money or food. Bangladesh has done what it can to provide for their needs, but it is overwhelmed by the latest inflow: over 400,000 since August 25. Bengalis are sympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, but Bangladesh is very poor and crowded already, and most locals hope or assume that the refugees will go back to Myanmar at some point.
The situation has provoked an international outcry, especially from Muslim countries sensitive to religious persecution. The UN has carried out a fact-finding mission under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and puts the onus on the Myanma military. Protests have been held in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia against the repression. Myanmar is facing increasing international isolation and condemnation. Some NGOs and media outlets, less cautious and diplomatic than governments, label the conflict ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Ayman az-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, mentioned the Rohingya in a rant against persecution of Muslims in South Asia, and there are fears that the Rohingya will be radicalized and gain support from jihadists eager for a war with infidels.
Why is Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya so much? In part it’s because they have never really been accepted as Myanma. To a large extent it is a religious conflict: militant Buddhism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and like others, they see little distinction between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. Wirathu, an outspoken monk with a huge fan following, likes to remind his audiences that Indonesia used to be a Buddhist country until it was swamped by the forces of Islam, and claims (unrealistically) that Buddhist Myanma are being outbred by hordes of Muslim infiltrators. For the Rakhine, they are seen as illegitimate competitors for their state’s scarce resources. I visited Yangon in March to conduct a research project on the conflict, and the Rakhine I spoke with were mostly unsympathetic to the Rohingya. They were well aware of the international sympathy for them and claimed that they were burning down their own houses in hopes of getting food aid. They claimed that there was a thriving black market within the camps. They had little comment on the military assault that provoked the recent refugee outflow, and focused much more on the Rohingya attacks that had provoked it. Most refused to call them “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” in an obvious attempt to deny them a separate identity from Bangladeshis.
The Rohingya do have an insurgency fighting on their behalf: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is shadowy and poorly understood. (I have noticed this report is the main source for most articles on the subject.) It is mostly funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and carries out attacks on police and army outposts. It might receive support from the villagers that the army targets. It might grow as the conflict heats up, but for now it is outmatched by the army and the Rakhine militias that pillage the Rohingya alongside it, and it is surely reliant on outside assistance.
The case of Myanmar is an excellent example of the complicated results of a long-repressed society suddenly awakening to democracy and the realities of the modern world. A people long oppressed and terrorized by their army can rally to the same army’s side when it turns on those it considers outsiders. Conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islam, it is easy to see local Muslims as sleeper cells ready to carry out terrorist attacks and bring down Myanmar’s old Buddhist civilization. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a world-renowned icon who endured decades of house arrest for winning an election in 1990, now must heed her people’s demands to stand up to meddling foreigners. She has no wish to confront an army that still controls 25% of the national legislature and a big part of the economy and could easily take over again. And hey, the Rohingya can’t vote anyway.
What can the outside world do? It’s hard to say. Western and non-Muslim Asian countries have been reluctant to press Myanmar too hard, out of fear of imperiling its fragile and very young process of democratization. Reviving the national economy (including Rakhine too, maybe) seems to be a higher priority than a million or so Rohingya. China, annoyed at losing influence in Myanmar since its opening, sees an opportunity to regain favor by not criticizing the government for its crackdown and maybe even mediating the conflict with Bangladesh. India, under the Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi, has become unfriendly to Muslims in general and wants to deport the Rohingya that have ended up there.
Given the widespread popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, hostility toward Muslims, and resentment of foreign criticism, there might be little that the outside world can realistically do to sway Myanmar. This might be a golden opportunity for Indonesia to exercise its latent political power: an NGO I spoke with claimed it has a reputation as an honest broker with experience in quelling ethnic unrest and a distaste for the sort of grandstanding favored by, say, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan (who have both used the issue to whip up their voters). Helping Bangladesh, which shoulders most of the burden for caring for the refugees, would also go a long way. And of course, countries could take in Rohingya refugees themselves — although the international climate does not seem very receptive to accommodating Muslim refugees these days.
Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989. I have avoided using “Burma” in this post to avoid needless confusion.