Why the Rohingya? Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing is driven by an irrational fear of Muslims becoming the majority
Gwynne Dyer says mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities is not uncommon in Myanmar, but the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims is driven by a unique anti-Muslim paranoia
During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma [Myanmar], the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.
Less than two-thirds of Myanmar’s 51.4 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military takeover in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.
The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.
The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Myanmar. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to citizenship was unquestioned until the military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.
The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.
‘Textbook ethnic cleansing’: UN human rights chief slams Myanmar over Rohingya violence and calls for investigation
The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further 250,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.
The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after the area was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.
What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Myanmar as it has in other once-Buddhist countries, from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just 4 per cent of Myanmar’s population according to the government’s own census – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed with it.
The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Myanmar’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Myanmar where Muslims are – or, more precisely, were until recently – almost half the population.
The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.
It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on August 25, killing 12 people.
They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counteroffensive” that is the local version of a final solution.
According to the United Nations, nearly 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingya in Myanmar, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.
And what about Myanmar’s resident saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practise the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist