A stateless community

Published November 3, 2013

IN modern world affairs, it would appear odd to many that a religious and ethnic minority in a country wants to live with the majority but the latter does not want it so and keeps pushing away the former.

This is what appears to be happening in Myanmar where the Rohingya Muslim community is facing discrimination and persecution.

Under Burmese law, the Rohingya is a de jure stateless community that has no right of citizenship. Its members cannot travel even within Myanmar without prior permission from state authorities. For the last two years, the Rohingya Muslims’ growing tensions with the ethnic Rakhine people has caused the former’s living conditions to deteriorate further.

Before the current wave of violence in Myanmar, the Rohingya issue was ethnic and legal in essence. Now it has gradually become a religious one too. Extremist Buddhist monks and small radical Muslim groups with external links are adding fuel to the fire.

The Rohingya community says it wants to live with the majority and demands the right of citizenship but the Myanmar state, military and political elite appear reluctant to allow them to integrate with the mainstream.

Publicly, hardline Buddhist monks and Rakhine community leaders say it is up to the government to decide about the citizenship issue but, at the same time, they put pressure on the state not to grant the right of citizenship to the people they call “illegal Bengali immigrants”.

The Rohingya claim is that they have been living in the state of Arakan for centuries. They lobby at every forum for their status and present historical testimonies and documents to prove that they are sons of the soil. Their problem is not only related to socioeconomic injustice but also to their ethnic identification and full-fledged citizenship.

The military dictatorship of nearly half a century has weakened Myanmar’s ability to cope with emerging challenges. All citizens have suffered because of the military dictators’ policies, and the ethnic minority groups have suffered the most.

Apart from the Rohingya, the Christian and Hindu communities including the Kachin, Shan, Chin and Indians, are also facing multiple discrimination that involves, among other things, procedural hurdles in registering themselves as citizens. Many academics also claim that the animosity between the majority Burmese and Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities is a deep-rooted problem with non-Burmese communities long suspected of disloyalty.

Interestingly, the Rakhine Buddhist community, which has often clashed with the Rohingyas in the Arakan state, itself has grievances against the Burmese majority. But the Burmese establishment’s attitude towards the Rohingyas is more discriminatory. Apart from not being given citizenship rights, they are restricted to only certain areas of Arakan state. Even a Rohingya member of parliament has to get permission from the local police officer to travel to Yangon to participate in parliamentary proceedings.

International observers realised during their extensive interaction with moderate and hardline monks and Rakhine community leaders, during a recent visit organised by the Institute of Global Engagement and the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, that at a certain level this is a social issue as well.

For example, Rakhine community leaders complain of certain practices of the Muslim community ie animal slaughter at public places, polygamy and isolation from other communities. The Muslims do not participate in local rituals and cultural festivals, which causes resentment.

Ten Muslim organisations are operating in Myanmar out of which five are registered with the government. Interestingly, these organisations are divided on sectarian and political grounds and most of them comprise Indian and Chinese Muslims (Panthays) and they are reluctant to associate themselves with Rohingyas on religious grounds.

The Rohingya political and community leadership is organised but they are facing two major problems; one from other Muslim communities and the other from radical groups active among Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh and the Korangi area of Karachi. These groups are trying to penetrate Arakan state.

While other ethnic Muslim communities in Myanmar try to keep their distance from the Rohingyas, the second problem is more critical. Members of Rohingya radical groups, who studied at religious seminaries in Cox’s Bazar camps and Karachi, are not popular and believed to not enjoy the support of the majority of Rohingyas. But their presence provides justification to extremist monks that though the Rohingyas want citizenship they cannot coexist with other religious communities. The monks perceive the Rohingya demand for citizenship as legitimate grounds to demand and struggle for their own Muslim state.

The radical elements that exist within the Rohingya community are negatively impacting the rights movement of the Rohingya in Myanmar and making their cause dubious in the eyes of the Burmese majority.

The Rohingya refugees are another critical issue. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there are more than 200,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, including more than 30,000 documented refugees living in two government-run camps within 2km of the Burmese border. Bangladeshi authorities also view them as illegal migrants and have imposed restrictions on them.

As far as the solution is concerned, it is not simple. Myanmar is passing through political, social and religious transformation. Right of citizenship would be a first step for the Rohingyas’ integration in society but they cannot isolate themselves from the rest of the transformational process. Even their right of citizenship is linked with the ongoing transformation. First they have to end their isolation and start developing relations with other communities, especially with moderate Buddhist monks, and other religious, political and social groups.

The process of becoming a part of civil society is difficult but not impossible because the Rohingyas are an organised community, and second, the space for developing good relations with other communities still exists. An extensive debate on transformation is going on in Myanmar and Rohingyas need to be part of it. This is important to correct their image in the eyes of other communities.

If they lose this opportunity, the small radical groups will start claiming the lost space.

The writer is a security analyst.

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