The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
As Burma Reforms, Its Social Fabric Frays

When mobs rampaged through parts of western Burma in June, villages were burnt to the ground, dozens of people were slaughtered, and thousands fled for their lives to other parts of the country or to Bangladesh. The army joined the fray, and fleeing refugees carried tales of executions and mass arrests of Rohingya Muslims. Ethnic and religious tension that was long bottled up under authoritarian rule has exploded in recent months, exacerbated by Muslim immigration to Buddhist areas.

An article at the Asia Sentinel tries to make sense of the situation for foreign readers:

In this situation, the already unclear definition of race/nation, and the elements that constitute this category, further blur the boundary between ethnic Rakhine, Burmans and Burmese citizenry. But it takes the general categorical form of ‘Buddhist and/or Burmese’ where ‘Burmese’ generally refers to the ethnic Bumans, who make up 60 to 70 percent of the country’s citizenry.

They also blur the boundaries between Rohingyas, Islam and Myanmese Muslims. Ethnic Burmans, a Buddhist majority group with or without the Rakhines’ mobilization, joined the campaign [against the Rohingya] in the name of “safeguarding the nation against Muslims.”

Therefore, differences and historical antagonism between ethnic Rakhine and Burmans have temporarily faded into a common “Buddhist Burmese” identity vis-à-vis the Rohingya. This merger is obvious as the Burmese government as well as senior opposition leaders from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party . . . jumped on the bandwagon to speak out against the Rohingyas.

The BBC elaborates:

There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims living in western Burma. The Burmese authorities argue that the Rohingyas are recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent.

But Dhaka [the capital of Bangladesh] says they belong to Burma, so they are not welcome in Bangladesh either. Dhaka says there are already 400,000 Rohingyas living inside the country, most of them, it says illegally.

The Rohingya are caught between a rock and a hard place, unwanted by either of the countries where they have traditionally lived. Most settled in Burma after that country’s independence and thus, according to law, are ineligible for citizenship. Many more fled Bangladesh to Burma because of persecution. And now, as a result of Burma’s newfound political openness, long-standing grievances are being aired in public. The Rohingya face a campaign led by the Burmese government, media, and army that seeks to paint the Rohingyas as not just unwelcome but dangerous and dirty. Well-known Burmese journals and newspapers, celebrities, and politicians support the view that in the interest of Burma’s national security, the Rohingya must be denied basic human rights and ejected from the country.

Intense dislike of the Rohingya goes right to the top of the Burmese government. President Thein Sein, viewed by the West as the leader of Burma’s new reforms, told the UN that the Rohingya were unwelcome in Burma and said they should all be sent to another country. Aung San Suu Kyi, beloved by the West and in Burma as a champion of human rights, has so far refused to publicly stand up for the Rohingya. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” she said on a recent trip to Geneva, the implication being that there were groups of people who were not entitled to Burmese citizenship.

Washington is right to encourage Burma’s political reforms. Western politicians and analysts initially cheered Burma’s reforms and the government’s release and subsequent election to parliament of human rights champion Suu Kyi, and didn’t consider that an increase in democracy for Burma would might mean an increase in ethnic tension. Those early hopes—that the reform process would lead quickly to human rights for marginalized minorities and gradually to a more cohesive society—were clearly misplaced.

Published on July 23, 2012 5:00 pm
  • Corlyss

    “Well-known Burmese journals and newspapers, celebrities, and politicians support the view that in the interest of Burma’s national security, the Rohingya must be denied basic human rights and ejected from the country.”

    They should never have let them in in the first place. Awfully hard to get ‘em out when they’re already squatting in your backyard.

    Something has to be done about this screwball notion that any Tom, Dick, or Harry from anywhere in the world has a right to move into your country and you don’t have any right to prevent him.

  • Wifman

    In my opinion, what we see here seems to be the typical islamist expansion strategy, that can also be observed in Israel: Though they used to be citizens of other, surrounding countries, the minorities are suddenly cut off from the mother-countries, and left to fight against the oppression (fake in the case of Israel, potentially real in the case of Burma) by themselves – in the name of allah, of course.

    Or, as Cem Özdemir, a “German” politician said: “What we failed to do with military might in 1683, we will achieve today with our intelligence.”

  • Karl

    Those of us who have studied the history, will understand that trying to assimilate Rohingyas into the Myanmar ethnicity is a non-starter. Whereas, looking just across the border in Bangladesh, one reads the local newspapers crying about how EASILY the Rohingyas blend in…. virtually identical languages, bodyforms, religion.