Myanmar’s Bizarre Rohingya Charm Offensive

Ever since 9/11, Muslims have been in the news in one form or another every day. We hear about suicide bombers and terrorist attacks. We hear opinions on whether these actions represent Islam. Pundits talk about human rights abuses in Muslim countries. Evangelical leaders tell us about the way Christians and other religious minorities are treated in the Muslim world.

These narratives have something in common. The Muslims always have the upper hand. They are the attackers or the oppressors. Other people and groups are the victims. Conservatives often think that this is a fundamental characteristic of Islam. A popular view is that Islam is different from other religions. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are no problem. They argue that, for whatever reason, Islam inspires violence and intolerance.

This brings us to an Asian ethnic group called the Rohingya. They have been mentioned in the news, but typically as a side note. They live in the Buddhist country of Myanmar, the country some readers may know as Burma. The Rohingya have been called the world’s most persecuted minority. It may surprise readers to learn that they are Muslim.

There have been Muslims in Myanmar since at least the 12th century. Yet, as always, colonialism drives the Rohingya conflict. The traditional homeland of the Rohingya is in India and what we now call Bangladesh. Under the British Empire, thousands of Rohingya migrant workers traveled to Myanmar to find work.

The British didn’t pay much attention to the differences is ethnic groups inside the empire, so they didn’t even think of this as an ethnic migration. The British authorities didn’t notice that the local Buddhists in Myanmar resented these Muslim newcomers. When Myanmar gained its independence, the new government denied citizenship to the Rohingya and insisted that they were Bengalis.

Over time, events got even worse. Rohingya were declared foreigners in 1962. Then, in 1982, the government rendered them stateless. In 2016, a UN official accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing. In 2017, in retaliation for attacks against police and army posts, the military killed thousands of innocent Rohingya civilians, raped women and girls and burned Rohingya villages to the ground.

As readers might expect, over a million Rohingya fled the country. Most are in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and others have sought refuge in Malaysia. Last month, in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, where 900,000 Rohingya live in camps, heavy monsoons poured rain onto the refugees for three days. Eleven people were injured and 273 shelters were wiped out. More than 2,000 refugees had to be relocated. The UNHCR has sent Emergency Response Teams to distribute supplies to rebuild shelters.

Then, something inexplicable happened this week in the same camp. In what Human Rights Watch called a “bizarre charm offensive”, government officials from Myanmar met with the Rohingya to persuade them to go back there. These officials still refused to use the word “Rohingya” to describe the refugees. We suggest these bureaucrats work on their approach! Readers will not be surprised to learn that they were rebuffed.

What the Rohingya expect from Myanmar is not an impressive PowerPoint presentation. They have said that they will not return without assurances that they and their children will be safe. Until that happens, they are unwilling to even discuss repatriation to Myanmar. They also want to see an end to these discriminatory citizenship laws. As far as the Rohingya are concerned, they are citizens of Myanmar. They were born in that country, and they deserve equal rights.

This conflict is often painted as an example of the toxicity of religion. Oddly, though, Muslims, who are stereotyped as oppressors, are the victims here. Conversely, Buddhists, who are stereotyped as enlightened and peaceful, are the oppressors.

The truth is, none of this has anything to do with religion. Like other ethnic conflicts around the world, it’s a remnant of colonialism. The colonial masters found it expedient and profitable to move people from Bangladesh to Myanmar. They neither knew nor cared that this would be resented by the people of Myanmar. Neither group were white Christians, so their cultures were irrelevant. The disaster we’ve described above is their legacy.

Stories like this can discourage readers. One way to cope is to find ways to help. Both Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR are accepting donations to support the Rohingya refugees. Doing something is more empowering than ruminating on their plight or railing against the injustices of colonialism.


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