Arakan Conflict Spurs Hatred for Asia’s Outcasts

A protest outside the BBC headquarters in Rangoon which claims that Rohingya are not Burmese. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

BANGKOK—They have been called ogres and animals, terrorists and much worse—when their existence is even acknowledged.

Asia’s more than one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims are considered by rights groups to be among the most persecuted people on Earth. Most live in an anachronistic purgatory without passports, unable to travel freely or call any place home.

In Burma, shaken this week by a bloody spasm of violence involving Rohingyas in which dozens of civilians died, they are almost universally despised. The military junta whose half-century of rule ended only last year treated them as foreigners—fueling a profound resentment now reflected in waves of vitriol being posted online.

“People feel it very acceptable to say that ‘We will work on wiping out all the Rohingyas,’” said Debbie Stothard, an activist with the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, referring to hyperbolic Internet comments she called “disturbing.”

The Burmese government regards Rohingyas mostly as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many of their families have lived in Burma for generations. Bangladesh rejects them just as stridently.

“This is the tragedy of being stateless,” said Chris Lewa, who runs a non-governmental organization called the Arakan Project that advocates for the Rohingya cause worldwide.

“In Burma they’re told they’re illegals who should go back to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, they’re told they’re Burmese who should go back home,” Lewa said. “Unfortunately, they’re just caught in the middle. They have been persecuted for decades, and it’s only getting worse.”

That was made painfully clear this week as Bangladeshi coast guard units turned back boatload after boatload of terrified Rohingya refugees trying to escape the violence in Burma’s Arakan State. The clashes between Rohingyas and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists have taken a roughly equal toll on both communities, though each blames the other for the violence.

The boats were filled with women and children, and Bangladesh defied international calls to accept them, saying the impoverished country’s resources are already too strained.

A few have slipped through, including a month-old baby abandoned on Wednesday in a boat after its occupants fled border guards. Three other Rohingyas have been treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital in the Bangladeshi town of Chittagong, including one who died.

The unrest, which has seen more than 2,500 homes charred and 30,000 people displaced internally, erupted after a mob lynched 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation for the rape and murder last month of a 27-year-old Buddhist woman, allegedly by Muslims.

On Thursday, Arakan State was reportedly calm. But Rohingyas living there””very much feel like they’re trapped in a box,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “They’re surrounded by enemies, and there is an extremely high level of frustration.”

The grudges go back far. Bitterness against the Rohingya in Burma has roots in a complex web of issues—the fear that Muslims are encroaching illegally on scarce land in a predominantly Buddhist country; the fact that the Rohingya look different than other Burmese; an effort by the former junta to portray them as foreigners.

Across the border in Bangladesh, civilians—not the government—are more tolerant. But even there, Rohingyas are largely unwanted because their presence in the overpopulated country only adds to competition for scarce resources and jobs.

Burma’s government has the largest Rohingya population in the world—800,000 according to the United Nations. Another 250,000 are in Bangladesh, and hundreds of thousands more are scattered around the world, primarily the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch and other independent advocacy groups say Rohingyas face discriminated routinely. In Burma, they are subjected to forced labor by the army, a humiliation not usually applied to ethnic Arakanese in the same area, Lewa said.

Rohingyas must get government permission to travel outside their own villages and to marry. Apparently concerned about population growth, authorities have barred Rohingyas from having more than two children.

In 1978, Burma’s army drove more than 200,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh, according to rights groups and the US Campaign for Burma. Some 10,000 died in squalid conditions, and the rest returned to Burma. The campaign was repeated in 1991-1992, and again a majority returned.

In 2009, five boatloads of haggard Rohingya migrants fleeing Burma were intercepted by Thai authorities. Rights groups allege they were detained and beaten, then forced back to sea, emaciated and bloodied, in vessels with no engines and little food or water. Hundreds are believed to have drowned.

The same year, Burma’s consul general in Hong Kong—now a UN ambassador—described the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres” in an open letter to diplomats in which he compared their “dark brown” skin to that of the “fair and soft” ethnic Burmese majority.

The latest unrest has focused fresh attention on the Rohingyas’ plight, but it has also galvanized a virulent new strain of resentment. Many Burmese have taken to the Internet to denounce the Rohingya as foreign invaders, with some comparing them to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

While vitriol has come from both sides, what makes the latest unrest unique is that virtually “the entire population is openly and completely against” them, said Sai Latt, a writer and Burma analyst studying at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

“We have heard of scholars, journalists, writers, celebrities, even the so-called democracy fighters openly making comments against Rohingyas,” Sai Latt said.

One Burmese actress posted “I hate them 100 percent” on her Facebook wall on Monday as the fires burned. By Thursday, her comment had nearly 250 “likes.”

Prominent Burmese language journals have reported “only the Rakhine [Arakanese] side,” Sai Latt said. And many people have lashed out at foreign media, accusing them of getting the story wrong.

Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent former political prisoner released in January, has said Rohingyas should not be mistreated but added they “are not an ethnic group in Myanmar at all.” He blamed the recent violence on illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The longtime leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has shied away from the blame game, saying the problem should be tackled by fair application of the law.

Speaking in Geneva on a five-nation European tour, she said that “without rule of law, such communal strife will only continue.

“The present situation will need to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity,” she told reporters.

The tide of nationalistic sentiment against the Rohingya puts Suu Kyi in a difficult position. Her conciliatory message risks alienating large blocs of supporters at a time when she and her National League for Democracy are trying to consolidate political gains attained after they entered Parliament for the first time in April.

The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect similar to one spoken by residents of southern Bangladesh. And physically, they are almost indistinguishable from their Bangladeshi counterparts, said Lewa, of the Arakan Project.

But their history—specifically the amount of time they’ve lived in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and who among them qualifies as a legitimate resident—is bitterly disputed.

Some say the Rohingya are descended from Arab settlers in the seventh century, and that their state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. Later waves arrived from British-run colonial India in the 1800s, but like the colonists themselves, they were regarded as foreigners.

That view persisted through half-a-century of military rule. Burma’s post-junta government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 indigenous ethnic groups. And many people stridently believe they are not even a real ethnic group—rather, they are only illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

President Thein Sein has warned that any escalation could jeopardize the nation’s fragile democratic reforms.

The International Crisis Group said that ironically, the nation’s newfound freedoms may have helped contribute to the unrest.

“The loosening of authoritarian constraints may well have enabled this current crisis to take on a virulent intensity,” the group said. “It is not uncommon that when an authoritarian state loosens its grip, old angers flare up and spread fast.”

Dear Readers: The Irrawaddy welcomes your opinions and views on the issue in Arakan State, irrespective of your race, religion or bias. However, we cannot publish and will not tolerate those who use offensive language or racial insults, or those who try to spread propaganda or who incite violence.

Please use this forum respectfully.

The Irrawaddy Team

24 Responses to Arakan Conflict Spurs Hatred for Asia’s Outcasts

  1. the ongoing sectarian conflicts in Arakan state is disturbing indeed and what we the people of Burma need to do at this crucial time is not to play the racial and religious card since this only will fan the intensity of the already frustrations from both sides. these conflicts have its causes deep rooted in colonial rules and successive military regime’s intentional tactic of “divide and rule”. the quasi-civilian government should immediately normalize the situations through using professional law enforcement body and as soon as the situation become calm, independent investigation team should be set up and allow freely to find facts on the conflicts and bring those who involve in criminal activities onto the rule of laws. for long term approach, government should invest more on education, especially in primary education in those conflict areas. otherwise, this kind of sectarian conflicts will only perpetuate unless the people of Burma get proper education with unbiased history reflecting the contributions of all ethnics within the country to the Burmese society. Until deep ignorance prevails in Burma, no model of democracy can bring the people to peace and prosperity. international communities and the government should focus more on national reconciliation process and social development in the future.

  2. Please be kind to each other as a challenge arises, and until it all is sorted. As Burma moves into freedom, it is important that the ‘issues’ which emerge (and highly charged emotions) do not degenerate into brutality or violence. This may indeed be one of the biggest challenges so far.

    The Rohingyas are people. They are Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist country, where the military posed as ‘Buddhist’ despite violence, exploitation and murder- and still display ignorance.

    There has been so much suffering, in so many states and lives, and targeting some groups especially. Perhaps it is time to step back now and take example from the world’s great leaders: resolve issues and disputes and differences in another way entirely, in new ways, not the way of the oppressors.

  3. So now that wise people prophesied Armageddon has failed to improve further newspaper circulations, people may perhaps find to say something useful than rather tired “the Burmese are “ogres”” in unison. Burmese bloggers did give plenty excuse for such condemnation.

    Are we now ready facing the ugly ground truth?

    There are truly desperately poor, disenfranchised people loathed and ignored by the dominant larger neighbors. Loathed and ignored is surely not their fault at all, but on all account they are feared as well. That surely can be / should be/ must be rectified.

    The people writing online in their name definately are not being persecuted themselves for sure. There definately is a “Rohingya Inc.” at work. They also form best or most desirable group to adopt for all the right reasons by The do-gooders and the self- righteous among others.

    The current inflammation is though caused by high level of social and financial difficulty among the populace along with uncertainty about their own life when they see every day their supposed leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and the jubilant international communities are celebrating something they cannot understand while striving for one meal a day. These “raped by kalar” rumors and real events happen more often than people would like to admit. And most of them do not give rise to any significant commotion, but some do and always at the time of difficulty.

    Most of all though, people rightly indignant about coarse racial profanities fail to realize or mention that they are clamouring to support in every which way the military which is well known for its chhauvinistic and racist views. This time round, the military did not change their character or hide it but they step up their evil ways all around and the international community enthusiastically go along with them to kill and torture the Kachins, to openly discriminate other religious members or coerce them into Buddhism.

    When people see the military acting with impunity with this much chauvinism and arrogance and are then loudly applauded by the international communities, what conclusion would they draw?

    Shameful, wicked, evil military, shameful, wicked, evil international communities.

    Should the drooling international community stop being two-faced?
    Perhaps not! Not even for the beloved Rohingya.

  4. We, as a human community, will never progress to our full potential until we realize that there is no genetic justification for separating ourselves by race or ethnicity. Our genetic make-up is 99% the same no matter where we were born or the culture to which we identify.

    It is more sad to let governments decide who is a ‘legal’ human and who is an ‘illegal’ human. How can life be illegal?

  5. i like Shwe Phou Phou’s comment.
    To those in the picture may i ask who is saying Rohingya is myanmar ethnicity? Whoever they are or whoever we are we have no rights to kill.

  6. I am encouraged by the more positive and humane statements expressed by the readers here.

    It’s quite shocking to read the hurtful and prejudicial statements by some of the authoritative and “influential” people in Myanmar. (including some of the ’88 student leaders).

    If the Thein Sein’s government truly desired to build Myanmar as a multi-ethnic nation based on the rule of law, it must rise to the challenge in resolving the Rohingya issue in a fair and just way. If the Rohingyas have been living in Burma for generations, the government must stop marginalizing these people. For those that were born in Bangladesh and sneaked across the borders, they should be rounded up and sent back to their native land. A successful resolution of this issue can serve as a model to resolve other ethnic conflicts going on for the last 60+ years.

    My hope is that the people in my native land would have the wisdom to choose the road that leads to a larger pie (for everyone) over the dead end road where people are fighting furiously over a small leftover piece.

  7. I urge the Myanmarese not to hate people. That is not the teaching of Buddhism. Rohingyas are human being, where ever they come from or descendents. Their present days plight are not their own creation. Successive rogue regimes in Myanmar has marginalized them, barred them from education and deprived them from basic human rights. You call them Kalar, they are like human being, hatred will not solve the issue, rather compassion, rule of law and integration of all communities living in all of Myanmar will bring peace and prosperity. It will be foolish to divide the country in ethnic lines. Rather, let new found nascent democracy should treat all inhabitants equally and ensure basic human rights. It is majority should be compassionate to the minorities as espoused by Hon’ble Daw Aung Sunn Suu Kyi.

  8. I don’t accept your phrase “…the fact that the Rohingya look different than other Burmese; an effort by the former junta to portray them as foreigners.” I have never heard what is Rhohingya during my life time before a few years. so also I have never heard people in our society interestingly talking about them but about daily business situation and against junta’s politics. No body is interested in Rhohingya so long as they behave humanly. Nobody is interested in them even if junta portray them as foreigners as you say. I know I have never heard of it.

    But ,of course, at a glance I truely believe they are foreigners. you have already acknowledged that they are Bangledesh descendants. “The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect similar to one spoken by residents of southern Bangladesh. And physically, they are almost indistinguishable from their Bangladeshi counterparts, said Lewa, of the Arakan Project.” What other proofs you need more ?? It simply answered that they should go back to Bangledesh.

    Why should we shy away from nationalism? Why?? We have the right to defend our nationalism.We are accountable to protect our land and society. Japan has its deep-rooted nationalism. So also Korea, China. Nobody can deny it. Looking to the west, Scandinavians and England are still conservative for their society. Nationalism in such issue is a true nature of human in everywhere. Society must have demarcation border for the sake of own’s integrity . Society means we solely are responsible for own growth,prosperousness,security and peace.

    Looking to US where the whole world’s ethnics come to stay as americans , the society ‘s loss of standardization on value system is accountable for reckless environment with daily shootings, kidnappings, unhumanized acts and ideations and so on. Daily sense of security is far less scoring than Japan’s public safetyness.

    Burma has been already loaded with 130 official ethnics. And we are facing problems and concentrating on issues between these official ethnics. All our ethnics are basically simple-minded and honest. We need to set standardized value system based on nationalism.

    Bangledesh openly defied to accept Rhohingyas. Then why should we?? Whatever problem Rhohingyas have, we are not obliged to accept them. It is their business not ours.Bangladesh already proves this. No way; Rhonhingyas are not Burma’s ethnic!

  9. Since the British colonialism created this problem the UK should take all of the one million Rohingyas.

  10. Give the Rohingas their own little piece of land so they can establish their own state. Maybe somewhere in between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Otherwise this conflict will never end. The cultural differences due to different religions are hard to overcome. See Pakistan and India!

  11. For long term concern they should accepted by Bangladesh . They have histiory and same nation , same living standard, same culture .
    No food or no place is not acceptable for human.
    Otherwise this problem may no be end.

  12. The Arakan communal Riot was unfortunate. The Sandwe mob who killed 10 Muslim pilgrims did a blunder. They should wait the verdict against the three Muslim boys suspected involved in killing of A Rakhine girl.In fact, they were incited by distributing leaflet by a vested quarter caused a great loss for both the races and hamper to the country`s image. It is also true that if the Thein Sein goverment
    play a vital role against Muslim Rohingyas, peace and harmony will be established in Arakan. As long as the Rohingya ethnicity issue is not solved, the violence will not be stopped. But how long to be hanging the issue. Better to solve it immediately because Myanmar is on way to Democracy.
    Nurul Islam

  13. Did you remember the Buddhist statues in afghan being destroyed by Taliban extreme muslims? It was a symbol of Buddhism, an item of world heritage, not a suicide terrorist training camp. But it was destroyed by stupid Taliban. I am a Myanmar. I like peace. But I don’t want to see the Buddhist buildings in arakan state being razed, being destroyed again like in afghan. We know the trand. Rohingya are minority at first. Then, they become bigger population. Why? They usually treat woman as a tool for reproduction. Don’t they? I have seen a man taking 56 women as wives. Honor killing? Whole body of woman covered with black in pubic place? Such abnormal, foolish, stupid acts they do. When they become bigger population, they started attacking the host race from armed battles to suicide warfare. Then they will ask for autonomy and eventually independence state. But it will not be an independence state but an Islamic state like Iran. We will not give an inch of our golden land to their course. Foreigners may sympathize them. But let me ask you. If your beloved sister is raped by them, will you still care for their course? If so, then you are not a human, but a saint who doesn’t deserved to live in this cruel world. So just go to heaven and get the god’s favor. Don’t interfere in our national business. They are the most irrational, illogical people who preferred blind fate rather than scientific facts who will bring instability to the region.

  14. Ethnic or non-ethnic, people who have lived in the country for generations and are contributing to the society should be granted Burmese citizenship. If Burma is to move forward the people must be re-educated on the subject of tolerance and co-existence with one another.
    Buddhism taught in monasteries should also be re-examined, as genuine Buddhism teaches tolerance and respect which many are lacking.

  15. Burmese are devoid of true teachings of Lord Buddha.

  16. Bangladesh for now, Bangladesh forever, Rohingyas for now in Bangladesh for ever; this is where they belong…or go to Iran where Ahmedajad will accept them with open arms since he is so passionate about their well being.

  17. all the myanmar women must be care of muslim people everytime everywhere
    or our country will be myanmarnesia islamic country

  18. Rouf rohingyas are devoid of the good teachings of Islam; and so are you. Has Myahammad (pbuh) taught to start killing people, raising arson, burning homes and Buddhist monasteries after Friday prayers? rohingyas did that and you are still supporting them? Are you a proper Muslim? Are you still following the tenets of Islam – the greatest of the religions? You must be ashamed for talking onesidedly. Mr Nurul Islam said right – peace, and peace should be restored at the first and quickest opportunity – if I didn’t read his message wrong. since these rohingyas are to stay in burma for generations to come, they must learn to live peacefully with their neighbours. As a Muslim we all must be believer and supporter of the truth. If we fail to do so, we are no more Muslims. Am I wrong?

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