The Irrawaddy

Analysis: Rohingya Desire for Ethnicity Seen as Separatist Agenda: Former US Ambassador to Myanmar

A Rohingya refugee waits for aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 20, 2017. / Reuters

YANGON — The former US ambassador to Myanmar said ethnic Arakanese and others in Myanmar see the self-identifying Rohingya’s desire for recognized ethnicity in the country and the current militant activity in their name as a separatist agenda by other means that many in the West fail to understand.

Derek Mitchell, who served as US ambassador to Burma from 2012 to 2016, told The Atlantic that while the international community saw the self-identifying Rohingya as innocent people who just want to call themselves a name and who are uniquely abused for it, the name suggests something much more to people in Myanmar.

The northwestern part of Rakhine State in western Myanmar is now reeling from Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks on 30 police outposts on Aug. 25 and subsequent violence affecting civilians. The Myanmar government declared the Muslim militant group a terrorist organization has since begun military “clearance operations” in the area, leading to Buddhist Arakanese and other Rakhine sub-ethnicities to flee their homes while more than 400,000 self-identifying Rohingya have sought shelter at refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

No other subject in Myanmar has gotten the same international attention as the persecution of the self-identifying Rohingya, who have been called to be recognized as an ethnicity of Myanmar.

But the government, military and the majority of the country’s people insist that they are “Bengali” and claim they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh brought to Rakhine State by the British in the early 1900s.

Successive governments had restricted their basic rights, such as freedom of movement, as they do not hold citizenship status. The previous U Thein Sein government as well as the current National League for Democracy (NLD) administration said such rights would be granted only with citizenship, but most Muslims in the region refused to apply for it as the process did not acknowledge them ethnically as Rohingya.

The story ‘The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis’ in The Atlantic says where humanitarian groups and Western nations see the self-identifying Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted minority, the government of Myanmar and an overwhelming majority of its people see a foreign group with a separatist agenda, fueled by Islam, and funded from overseas. It’s this difference in perception that will make any resolution of the Rohingya issue extremely difficult.

“It gets to this notion of ethnicity in the Myanmar mind that I think the West doesn’t quite understand,” Derek Mitchell was quoted as saying in the story.

The former ambassador was in Myanmar when communal strife between Muslim and Buddhists hit Rakhine in 2012 and witnessed the following unrest across the country during his term. He  told The Atlantic that activists and leaders in the [Rohingya] community are very protective of that name. They see it as protective of their identity and dignity after so many basic rights have been taken from them in recent years.

“The name has also been essential to their international campaign for attention,” Mitchell said to the magazine.

The article also explained the government’s concern about the acknowledgement of Rakhine’s Muslims as members of the Rohingya ethnic group. The writer says if the government acknowledges Rakhine’s Muslims as members of the Rohingya ethnic group, the Muslims would be allowed an autonomous area within the country and the Myanmar people fear a Rohingya autonomous area along the border with Bangladesh would come at the expense of Rakhine territory. The Burmese military, which has cracked down on Rohingya civilians, views this as a possible staging area for terrorism by groups like ARSA.

This fear was also reflected in what the government said in the wake of the militants’ attack last month.

In the diplomatic briefing about the attacks, Myanmar’s home affairs minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe said ARSA was trying to establish an “Islamic State” in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.

“They plan to take over the area as a Bengali-only land,” said Police Brig-Gen Win Tun at the briefing, using the term for Rohingya Muslims that implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh.

“This fear is very deeply felt and not understood in the West—and it comes from a real place rooted in Burma’s history,” Mitchell said to The Atlantic.

That “real place” dates back to the aftermath of World War II, when the forebears of the Rohingya appealed to Pakistan, which at the time included what is now Bangladesh, to annex their territory. Pakistan did not do so. Subsequently, many of the Muslims took up arms and fought a separatist rebellion until the 1960s, though vestiges of the rebellion continued until the 1990s.

“So when the [Arakanese] and others in Myanmar look at what’s going on with the name Rohingya, the desire for recognition as an accepted ethnicity, now this militant activity in their name, and calls by some for international intervention, including a safe zone, they see that as a separatist agenda by other means,” Mitchell was quoted as saying in the story.

“And those caught in the middle are hundreds of thousands of innocent Rohingya,” the former US ambassador to Myanmar said.