Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Burma's Rohingya fight for identity and awareness

The signs for Burma look better now than they have for a very long time. Renamed Myanmar in 1989, possibly to deflect attention from the real hegemony of the Burmese, the largest ethnic group in the country, over the past decade there have been big changes as the ruling military junta has worked to redesign the polity along lines that are both acceptable to the international community, and useful for themselves. In the greenfield capital of Naypyidaw the parliament sits and while it contains opposition parties such as the National League for Democracy, which carries Aung Sung Suu Kyi on its ticket, there is a hefty proportion of seats reserved for military officers. A measure of press freedom has been declared.

But problems abound. This year ethnic tensions have erupted in the western state of Rakhine, where Muslims who identify as Rohingya live. Violence is generating bad feelings within the government, which must be unwelcome news for the peace-loving Burmese people, and even Buddhist monks have come out publicly to protest against the minority. A couple of months ago, the Burmese president, Thein Sein, lobbied the UN to help resettle all 800,000-odd Rohingya living in Rakhine state abroad, according to reports. For her part, ASSK, as she's unofficially known, is catching flak among the few westerns who know anything of the unrest for not speaking out in defense of the Rohingya. Mass resettlement of a significant ethnic group can only be a cause for alarm for those in the international community who care about human rights. The Rakhine situation is at least an extreme form of apartheid, if not something akin to genocide. But awareness within the international community is weak. Commentators in Muslim countries appear to be dealing in information that is at least unreliable, if not completely false. Burmese people alive to the debate are also upset.

There are no fixed points of debate and few reliable information sources, such as stories in the Western media. Details are fragmentary but it appears that most Burmese, or at least the officials who are given leave to comment publicly, are saying that the Rohingya do not merit citizenship as they are recent arrivals from Bengal. From the 1950s, they say. But only a cursory reading of objective material shows that this is false, and that the Rohingya have been settled in Rakhine since the 15th Century after Bengali soldiers helped an Arakanese king defeat in war his Burmese enemies. At least as early as the 18th Century European observers were able to identify the Rohingya as a distinct linguistic group in Rakhine, then called Arakan. This is just a sketch taken from easily available online sources, but it clashes radically with the picture being used within Burma by partisan Buddhist spokespeople.

The clash of historical narratives is symptomatic of the violence the issue generates in Burma, whose people are normally very obliging and peaceful. The lack of strong evidence in the Western media is a major part of the problem the Rohingya are experiencing, and more media organisations are needed to visit the country to draw out the real lines of debate at both the government level and at the level of local communities, where it appears that people are dying. The issue also threatens to destabilise interstate relations between Burma and Bangladesh. Most importantly, from a Western perspective, is the human rights issue, and for this reason criticism of ASSK appears inevitable. Possibly political considerations are holding her back from commenting publicly, but until that happens it seems that awareness of the plight of the Rohingya within the international community will be very slight.

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