Myanmar from a medley to a muddle

We tend to believe that people in developed nations do not discriminate against minorities on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity, but the recent riots in the United States expose the ugly truth that much needs to be done to bring about a land of equality.

In Japan, officially, the ‘B’ word was banned in the aftermath of World War II, but the prejudices against the Burakumin community still persist. Although successive governments have taken measures to end the discrimination against members of this three-million strong community, also known as ‘Eta’, they remain ostracised, with many companies showing reluctance to employ them. They largely do menial jobs and live in neighbourhoods shunned by the ‘high caste’ Japanese who also regard marriage with a Buraku the ultimate disgrace.

If this is happening in Japan, the world’s third largest economy and a culture nourished by Shintoism and Buddhism, then it comes as no surprise that Myanmar discriminates against the Rohingyas, who in their desperation brave the grave in the depths of the Indian Ocean to flee persecution.

History is replete with the horrors of persecution of minority groups. The Jews have been subjected to discrimination in the West for centuries. During World War II, they were rounded up and incarcerated. Many died in concentration camps. This was because the Nazi ideology claimed Jews to be a race inferior to the Aryan people or the full-blooded Europeans. Today, in Israel and occupied Palestine, not only are the are being persecuted because of their ethnicity and religion, but also the Falashas, the Ethiopian Jews, because of their skin colour.

In South Africa, the system of apartheid employed by the minority white rulers – the colonisers -- denied the native people their basic fundamental rights for four decades until it was abolished in 1994.

Despite many a lesson that history teaches mankind, the barbarity continues. Among the modern day victims are Myanmar’s Rohingya community, who, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, are “the most vulnerable and marginalised group in Myanmar.” 

Charging that the military-backed government blocks even humanitarian aid to the Rohingya people, human rights groups accuse the Thein Sein regime of committing crimes against humanity.

The Rohingyas undertake the perilous journey in search of a safe haven even in any hell to escape the oppression and ethnic violence that has become a regular feature in Myanmar’s Arakan/Rakhine State where about 1.1 million Rohingyas, who are Muslims, live with the majority Buddhists.  The violence, which is often the work of racist organisations that operate with state patronage, thrives in the silence of the so-called good people, among them the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Rohingyas have been living in Arakan for more than a thousand years. But many Myanmarese reject the Rohingya’s claim to indigenousness and brand them as unwelcome migrants from Muslim Bangladesh across the border. Even the state-run media often refer to the Rohingyas as ‘Bengalis’.

But Bangladesh denies any links with the Rohingyas and has tightened security on the border with Myanmar to prevent the arrival of Rohingya refugees. True, the opening of the borders for the Rohingyas would be an added burden for a country grappling with many internal problems. Bangladesh, a developing nation, probably does not want to share its meagre resources with the Rohingyas. About 35,000 Rohingyas live in refugee camps in the southern areas of Bangladesh. They are being supported by the United Nations and the Bangladesh government. They are the lucky ones. But some 400,000 Rohingyas live in villages surrounding the camps. Bangladesh refuses to give them refugee status and is forcing them to go back to Myanmar, though international law and humanitarianism call on countries to welcome people escaping persecution. To discourage the flow of refugees, the Bangladeshi authorities in the past, it is alleged, had resorted to inhumane measures such as withholding food aid. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 Rohingya asylum seekers died of starvation in the late 1980s.

Thus caught between two devils, the Rohingyas have now chosen the deep sea. Their plight received international media focus when they washed up in rickety old boats on the shores of Southeast Asia. But the Southeast Asian nations refused to welcome these refugees who had sold all that they had to pay the human smuggling vultures who take them to mid sea and disappear. It was only after an international outcry that Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand agreed to house them temporarily. It is sad to note that Rohingyas have become disposable pawns in Myanmar’s politics. The military-backed rulers while whipping up ethnic hatred against the Rohingyas have succeeded in diverting the people’s attention away from the excesses committed by the government. But in the process, the regime is allowing groups like Ma Ba Tha and 969-led by the monk Wirathu to dehumanise society and tarnish the image of Buddhism. On the recommendations of these groups, the government has passed controversial laws even restricting the births of children.  With landmark national elections scheduled to be held in November, there is little dialogue or debate on the democracy deficiency, corruption or the military’s atrocious land grabs. The party that stands firm against the Rohingyas and promotes itself as the most trusted guardian of Buddhism and Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage will win the polls. This is why Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which is expected to win the elections, keeps mum.

Politicising religion and promoting ethnic hatred are sad legacies of Myanmar’s path from decades of dictatorship to democracy. Myanmar was once known for its ethnic tolerance with the majority Buddhists living in harmony with the country’s Muslims, Hindus and Christians. The word ‘plural society’ owes its academic origin to Burma. It was anthropologist J.S. Furnivall who first developed the notion when studying different societies in Burma and Java. He wrote in his book, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and the Netherlands (1956):  

“In Burma, as in Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples – European, Chinese, Indian and native. It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine…. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately within the same political unit.”

This was so only some six decades ago. Today Myanmar is a case of a medley gone wrong. The world community cannot just sit and let the values that humanity promotes be drowned in the seas or buried on the shores of Southeast Asian nations or on the borders of Bangladesh. The United States President Barack Obama has spoken in support of the Rohingya cause. But he should lead the campaign proving his country’s ‘soft’ power capabilities, till Myanmar sings the old medley.

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