The Rohingya of Myanmar: Staring Into the Abyss of Uncertainty – Part 1
A refugee camp for Rohingyas in Myanmar // Source: Common Creatives / Flickr / EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

The Rohingya of Myanmar: Staring Into the Abyss of Uncertainty – Part 1

28 August 2012

By Amjad Saleem

The recent violence against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar has brought to the fold the hidden tensions within a society long isolated from the international community. This is part one in a series of two articles.

The two most repeated words in the English Language are “Never Again”, heard in commemorations of the Holocaust to express the commitment that genocide will never again take place. Yet “Never Again” has also come to symbolise the absolute weakness in the will of the international community to act against genocide. This weakness was exposed in Bosnia and in Rwanda and now it seems that it is being exposed yet again, now in Myanmar with its ethnic Rohingya people, a Muslim minority living in the Arakan region.

As reports of mass killings, mass graves, rape, and torture come out of Myanmar with figures of at least 20,000 Rohingya killed since June 28, it seems that like Rwanda and Bosnia, a group of voiceless people are once again being systematically wiped out. This seems to be sanctioned by their government, under the eyes of the international community. The pictures in circulation (although it is hard to verify their authenticity sometimes) depict the horrific nature and scale of the existing tensions in Myanmar.

Many of the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to Bangladesh by boat with some reportedly travelling for days on end to escape the trauma of the current situation. However, they have been refused entry by the Bangladeshi government which has also suspended aid agencies from working in the camps which harbour Rohingya refugees.

Perhaps what is even more shocking is the complicity of the entire country of Myanmar, from the President down to the grass roots. The President has come on record to tell the UN to “establish refugee camps and allow for the deportation of ethnic Rohingya as the ‘only solution’”, whilst Buddhist monks have backed calls for the extermination of the race of Rohingyas. This statewide support for the killing of “Kalaras”, which is the pejorative slur that has become a popular and casual way of referring to Muslims of South Asian decent - or the Rohingyas - is once again reminiscent of Rwanda which witnessed an exhortation for mass killings over the public airwaves.

The flood of nationalist sentiment that has followed these incidents will serve to distract the population from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers' strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government's standing in recent months. There is in fact good reason to suspect that government officials may also have a role in whipping up anti Rohingya sentiments. This has been verified by a Human Rights Watch report, which accused security forces of actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during the most recent bout of violence. There are some who have also suggested that the timing of the latest cycle of violence is related to the growing acceptance of the country within the international community and the rising prospects for investment. Myanmar has untapped natural resources (which could render the country quite prosperous), yet a fair proportion of this is in areas which are now occupied by the Rohingyas. Hence the pogroms perhaps have an economic incentive as well.

The violence has reached an international level and the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into claims that security forces are systematically targeting the Rohingya. Yet with the banning of Foreign NGOs from the region by the government of Myanmar, and the prohibitions imposed by the government of Bangladesh, the ground realities are unclear. Whilst the Turkish government has led the way in its response to the humanitarian crisis, it seems that there is still some uncertainty in the international community over how best to respond to the humanitarian and human rights crisis unfolding in Myanmar.

The trigger for this violence was the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by Muslim boys. Though the exact details of what had happened are unclear, what is clear is that the ethnic (and religious tensions) are so high, particularly in the province of Rakhian, that a strong rumour is enough to spark off riots and killings.

Rumours or not, the violence is a symbol of the underlying tensions that run deep in Myanmar and have to do with the fear of "the other"; a fear that has reared its head sporadically in the anti-Chinese and anti-Indian riots of the past century. However, this fear of the “other” has not been as great as the simmering resentment against the Muslims of Myanmar (and in particular against the citizenship of the ethnic Rohingyas who are all Muslims). This resentment is exploited by politicians pandering to nationalist passions and religious prejudice, and has been largely overlooked in black-and-white depictions of the situation.