Human Rights observers say that the Myanmar Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world. This week, their oppressors showed them an impressive PowerPoint. Learn about their reaction here.
Ever since 9/11, the news media have covered Muslims in one form or another every day. We hear about suicide bombers and terrorist attacks. We hear opinions on whether these actions represent true Islam. Pundits talk about human rights abuses in Muslim countries. Evangelical leaders tell us about the way Muslims mistreat Christians and other religious minorities.
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 news media have mentioned them 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. Human rights observers call the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted minority. It may surprise readers to learn that they are Muslim.
Muslims in Myanmar since at least the 12th century.
Muslims have lived 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. The government declared that the Rohingya were 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.
Over a million Rohingya fled the country
As readers might expect, over a million Rohingya fled the country. Most live 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. The storms injured 11 people and wiped out 273 shelters. More than 2,000 refugees needed new homes.. 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! It won’t surprise readers that the Rohingya rebuffed them.
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.
Muslims, stereotyped as oppressors, are victims
Anti-religionists often paint this conflict as an example of the toxicity of religion. Oddly, though, Muslims, who people stereotype as oppressors, are the victims here. Conversely, Buddhists, who we tend to stereotype as enlightened and peaceful, are the oppressors.
The truth is, religion has nothing to do with any of this. 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 the people of Myanmar would resent this.Neither group were white Christians, so the imperialists considered their cultures 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.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Human Rights Watch