In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a surgeon with the British East India Company, traveled to Myanmar and met members of a Muslim ethnic group “who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine], and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”
This statement is significant for it provides positive evidence that the Rohingya people were firmly established in Burma prior to 1823, the cut-off date for being officially recognised as one of the country’s minority ethnic groups. 135 groups currently qualify; oddly the Rohingya do not. They are branded as outcasts, ineligible for citizenship, their treatment by the government testament to such an unenviable status.
The lot of the Rohingya in Burma is an unhappy one. Constantly persecuted, their plight unrecognised by the powers in Naypyidaw, these Muslims are vulnerable to the Buddhist nationalism that pervades the country, open to abuse simply because of the exhortation of a zealous monk. Cries for help go unheeded, every minor act of protest deemed an insurrection. Attempts to flee to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh are rebuffed with casual brutality.
Given that the Rohingya make up some 4% of Burma’s population, such a state of affairs is both wholly unsatisfactory and frequently deadly, as a recent wave of forced evictions and murders in Rakhine state testify to. The Rohingya are linked to terrorist groups by the government; this may yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time, sanctions on the Burmese government are easing. The end of Junta rule and the rise to power of the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi have encouraged the international community, who identify the precursors to a genuinely democratic transition, not to mention lucrative economic opportunities in the underexploited country.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a darling of the West, famed for her stoic resistance during years of house arrest, her tolerance of her fellow human beings and propagation of forgiveness. That said, she has done little to help the Rohingya, even after the migrant boat crisis of last year. Desperate to maintain the loyalty of the population, championing the cause of a sizable Muslim minority is potentially an act of political suicide. Yet what better way to signal Burma’s miraculous change than to include the Rohingya in the nation, to strive to put an end to ethnic strife?
Parts of modern Burma (or Myanmar) were first united in the 11th century under a dynasty that succeeded the great states of Mon and Pyu. This was overthrown by the Mongols in the 13th century, breaking up into various statelets that from the 1600s saw an incursion of European traders, namely Portuguese, English and Dutch.
Burma was once more united in the 18th century under Alaungpaya, although the pervasive influence of the British in particular soon became ominously apparent. From their bases across the Indian border, the British fought a series of wars with Burma over the province of Assam before finally incorporating the nascent state into its Empire in 1885.
The British ruled Burma as a province of India until World War Two when the Japanese invaded, precipitating a period of jungle warfare that has passed into infamy for its tragic conditions and the unwillingness of Tokyo’s Imperial Army to surrender. After the eventual defeat of the invader, independence was secured from the British in 1948 before democracy was quashed by a succession of military regimes.
Through most of this history the Rohingya have been present, with Muslim settlement in Rakhine state recorded as early as the 16th century.
Aung San Suu Kyi should not be expected to solve all of Burma’s problems independently, yet she exercises the only unifying appeal in a country wrought by ethnic tension, still reeling from years of repressive military rule. A bold statement in support of the Rohingya, whilst in the short-term potentially damaging, could set a marker for communal tolerance, and a level of expectation that government representatives and the armed forces cannot continually dismiss these people as aliens to be trampled on.
History is always used selectively by those who rule, a political tool providing unity and exclusion in equal measure. Yet it is hard to doubt the legitimate claim for the Rohingya to receive recognition from Naypyidaw, to win their citizenship. Those who dismiss the term ‘Rohingya’ as a political construct nevertheless overlook the fact that these people are being persecuted simply for existing.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made recent attempts to hold conference with the various ethnic groups that make up modern Burma. The Rohingya must be included and recognised if she is to truly cement her legacy. Those thinking of ending sanctions, on the other hand, would do well to think twice before becoming all misty-eyed about the great Burmese transformation.
Democracy and equality remain a million miles away.