To be Burmese is to be Buddhist

The Rohingya RefugeeCrisis in Myanmar has most recently been titled as the biggest human rightsviolation in the world.

In fact, it may be titled as one of the world’s largestgovernment-enforced genocides. The ongoing persecutions and violence directedat the Rohingya group has caused them to flee to neighbouring countries asrefugees.  Islamophobic notions andanti-Muslim movements have caused widespread oppression directed at the group,and towards various others within the area. The oppression and abuse of humanrights has been a spiralling effect of the nationalistic ideals that have beenharbouring in Myanmar’s Buddhist population for centuries.  The treatment they receive from the Myanmargovernment and military is an unquestionable threat to human rights laws.  The contribution of the Myanmar Governmentenforces deliberate exclusionary policies on the group. Policies as such haveultimately systematically marginalized and persecuted the group population.

(Ullah). From country to country, the Rohingyagroup struggles to obtain official identity and recognition. They have mostrecently been recognised in the media as the “people with no nation”.  The group population has continuously failedto obtain any form of citizenship, especially within Myanmar.

The Rohingyasaccount for one eighth of the world’s stateless population. (Mahmood).  While not only have the laws and legislationin Myanmar allowed for the evident marginalization of the group, but that themilitary treatment has swayed and influenced the larger society of Myanmar ontheir actions and behaviours towards the group.The Rohingya tribe isfamously labeled as “the world’s most persecuted minorities.

” (Al Jazeera).Thegroup consists of roughly 1.5 to 2 million people, living across SoutheastAsia. However, a large concentration of the group is found in Rakhine state. Thisstate is located on the western coast of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh.

  Theword “Rohingya” derives from the historical word for “Arakanese” Muslims livingin the area who were referred to as “Rohaing” before the state was establishedas “Arakan”, which is currently called “Rakhine” state. (Ullah).  The Rakhine state is one of the mostimpoverished states in Myanmar. Many villages in the area are classified as“ghettoized” with frequent referencing to slums.

(Mahmood). The Rohingya grouplargely identifies as Muslim, with a small fraction of a Buddhist population.  Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation in theSoutheastern region of the world.  Forcenturies, Buddhism has been a prevailing religion practiced throughoutMyanmar’s history. In 1044, Buddhism wastitled as the official religion of the nation. (Harvard).

  However, Islam has been present in Myanmar asearly as the 8th century CE, which had arrived through the contextof trade. (Harvard).  The earliestpresumed date of the Rohingya group’s existence as a community in Myanmar maybe traced back to the 7th century – before the arrival of Islam.

(ARNO).  Between the 16th and 18thcentury, historical documents suggest that Muslims had been serving alongsidewith the Myanmar Buddhist in the country’s army. Intermarriage between theMuslims and Buddhist had also been noted throughout the pre-colonial period inMyanmar.

(Harvard).  However, beginningin 1824, British colonizers embarked on their mission to colonize Myanmar. By1886, their quest had been completed – which then occupied Myanmar as aprovince of British India. (King). This occupation of the British gave rise thesocial incompatibility between the Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar.

(Harvard).In this period, the Muslims of the then-Arakan state sided and aligned with theBritish colonizers during the emergence of World War II.  Distrust and conflict from that point enabledmuch of the later struggles between the groups. (King). It was not until nearlyone century later, in 1942 that Japan had invaded the then-province of BritishIndia. This escalated and resulted in the breaking of the British colonial rule.

The invasion also resulted in the fleeing of many minority group such as theRohingyas, to temporarily reside in various East-Asian countries. (Ullah)  By 1947, Myanmar was established as anindependent nation. The newfound nationalism of Myanmar developed ideas influencingmany to desire dominance over various ethnic groups settled throughout thenation. This independence allowed Buddhism to be reckoned as the dominatingreligion, and further, as a “dominant” identity. The effects of this hadheightened the conflict between nationalists and many minority groups – withemphasis on the Rohingya group.

(Burke, 262). After the establishment ofindependence, some of the Rohingya people received national registration cards– but by the early 1960’s the dubious civil relationship between the groupsexcelled in its erosion. (Mahmood).  Bythe late 1960’s, the government started to call the group “Bengalis” to imposean immigration status on the population. (Ullah).  Even so, the Arakan Rohingya NationalOrganisation claims that ancestors of the group have lived there “from time immemorial.”(ARNO).  However, the Myanmar government fails torecognise them as one of their “official ethnic groups”.

In 1982, the MyanmarCitizenship Law was divided into three categories – citizens, associatecitizens, and naturalised citizens. (Ullah) From this categorisation ofcitizenship, the Rohingya group was categorized as “resident foreigners”,denying them of citizenship. Following the three categories of citizenship, wasa ranking of Myanmar’s “official ethnic groups”.  Any group that had been placed from 1stto 135th were to be recognised as an official ethnic group withinMyanmar.

The Rohingyas were ranked as number 136th on the chart,rejecting the population as a recognised ethnic group.  The Myanmar government claims the reason theircitizenship was dismissed is that they were not able to provide sufficientevidence on the settlement of their ancestors before the year 1823. (Mahmood).

Thebleak struggle of acceptance to the Rohingyas status has grown to a point ofnot just passive disregard and dislike – but has now escalated to the point ofmany committing acts of physical violence and terror on the group. The State Counsellor ofMyanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of Aung San, a major General during 1940’sto 1950’s – assumed a position as a Member of Parliament in 2012 and is theleader of the National League for Democracy in 2012. (Lee). Suu Kyi has casteda profound influence over the majority group in Myanmar, however, she hasturned a blind eye on the ongoing human rights violations taking place in hernation. She has been an active political figure since 1988, and was awarded theNobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her “personification of democratic ideals”.(Lee). Various scholars suggest that some of the various factors shaping SuuKyi’s attitudes and actions towards the group may be in relation to her senseof obligation towards her father’s political legacy.

(Lee).  Her father, Aung San, who was thefirst president of Myanmar, stated that “to be Burman is to be Buddhist”.  This notion was amplified and insisted bymany successors of the position. Aung San’s successor, U Nu, promised toconstitute Buddhism as the national religion – successful in his act, supreme Buddhistnationalism was born. (Van Klinken). An additional factor towards Suu Kyi’sbehaviours may be a result of the unsettled historical relationship between theMuslims and Buddhist Nationalists in Myanmar.

The concept of “BuddhistNationalism” in the context of Myanmar proposes a strong sense of an anti-Muslimoutlook. Nationalism and strong distaste for the “Others” can often be a sideeffect of fear – fear of losing traditional dominance and power to theunfamiliar “others”. Alternatively, perhaps, the behaviour she omits is aneffect of her own internalized ethical views and personal biases towardscertain ethnic groups such as the Rohingyas. (Green).

Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’sblatant silence towards the abuse towards the minority group has generateddismay throughout the global community and beyond human rights organizations.The current, yet-to-be-passed legislation package in was proposed in Myanmar toactively exclude various religious groups from practicing, getting involved inpolitics, and to some extent, reproduction. This package is proposed to protect concerns of “racial purity”.  Within this legislation package lies fourmain bills: the Population Control Health Care law, the Religious ConversionBill, the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, and the MonogamyBill. Throughout each part of this legislation package, elements are found torestrict and constrain many aspects in the lives of those specifically whoidentify as Muslim, even more so, as Rohingya. (Green). In 2015, 180 Myanmarcivil society organisations made a joint statement proposing against thelegislation. Together, the organisations proclaimed that likelihood of thebills would “destroy stability and incite conflict and tensions” within thewider society of Myanmar.

(Green). However, this statement was certain not tostop the re-elected president, Thein Sein, to pass the first bill, being thePopulation Control Health Care law.  Thisenforces “birthing spaces” and allows the Myanmar government to regulatepopulation growth in communities where “population growth leads to imbalancedresources”. (Green). Currently, the government exercises strict laws andpolicies specifically towards Rakhine state. For example, people of Rakhinestate are not issued citizenship, given proof of identification, or admitted birthcertificates.

Further, they are prohibited from engaging in elections and participatingas members of political parties. Moreover, no one living in Rakhine state isentitled to leave without government permission. (Van Klinken).

  Ironically, the large majority have beenforced to leave the state from 2012, following into 2017.  “The recent violence in Myanmar builds on thepast… on the legacy of colonialism.” (Burke, 262)  Between 2012 and 2013, over 1,000 Rohingyapeople were found dead from repetitive violent attacks and cases of harassment,and had additionally displaced over 125,000. (Burke, 261). Throughout thisseries of events, participants in the attacks followed with the gang rape ofwomen, burning of homes, and murder of men and children.

(Van Klinken). Thishad commenced the organized violence and attacks on the Rohingya groups inMyanmar. However, the events that took place between 2012 and 2013 were only acontinuation of decades of lurking oppression and dissent. The crimes hadheightened and promoted Myanmar’s broad society’s hatred towards ethnic groups,more frequently towards religious groups, such as the Rohingyas.  Military and police forces were oftenhesitant to intervene the violence, taking place in early 2012, yet over time,the military junta increasing took part and enforced the merciless violence.  The treatment imposed on the Rohingyas andsimilar groups in Southeast Asia is an apparent and frank infringement on humanright’s laws.

As stated in the United Nations Core International Human RightsTreaties:“Havingregard to article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 7of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of whichprovide that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman ordegrading treatment or punishment.” (UN)Yet, this subjection ofcruel, inhumane, and widely degrading treatment occurs – and occurs through governmentsupported military raids. These hate crimes imposed against Rohingya Muslimshas altered into crimes of violence and terror attacks on many other religiousminority groups’ situation across Southeast Asia. Anti-Muslim and anti-Hinduriots have been occurring in the country as early as the 1930’s. In 1993, largenumbers of protests occurred with military enforcers tolerating the riots and“standing by”. (Van Klinken).

  Inhumane treatmentand mass pillaging has been persistent within the state for several years. InSeptember of 2017, a reported interview from Wall Street Journal writes on aninterview with a now-orphaned young girl. The article states:  “…shehad just finished taking the cows to pasture that morning when soldiers inolive-green uniform stormed her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. She saidher absence saved her life… she described how troops dragged her mother andseveral other women into a hut.

She heard screams from inside. Then thesoldiers came out and set the hut ablaze.” (Al-Mahmood). Since the internationalrecognition of events as such in the media, the Myanmar military has closed allentrances into Rakhine state from humanitarian assistance. This accounts for UNinvestigative groups, to human rights groups, to the media. (Breyer). The onlyfootage and proof of the tragedies and destruction occurring in the state isprovided from helicopters overhead, and satellite images.

Additionally, reportsof military-assembled landmines had been situated around the villages inattempt to “seize” fleeing residents. Multiple accounts state that the Myanmarmilitary insist that the Rohingya people are burning their own homes andterrorizing their own villages. They claim their military enforcement to beacts of “anti-terrorism”. (Breyer).The Rohingya people ofRakhine state have been historically marginalised and oppressed by theoverwhelmingly Buddhist majority group in Myanmar. Categorized as “residentforeigners”, the group fails to be accepted as citizens of the nation ofMyanmar. Additionally, many other minority groups who are not Rohingya facemilitary oppression and persecution – most of which are Muslim groups.

(Breyer). Factors of religion, “race”, and the concept of national identityplace high importance in the views of the Buddhist majority group, as well asthe government of Myanmar and their attitudes conveyed towards the Rohingyapopulation. Ideologies and concepts of nationalism prevail and govern fear ofthe religious – and the racial – “other”.  Those who view themselves as Myanmar “nationalists”embody a false sense of identity – yet, this identity is authentic in that itexists, and exists among many.

“To be Burmese is to be Buddhist”.  Religion acts as both a detrimental aspect ofMyanmar’s society and an aspect of internalized identity. In Myanmar, religionhas been engulfed into a sense of nationality, and desire for “racial purity”.In the context of Myanmar, religion is conceptualized into the understanding of“race”. These concepts, throughout time, have escalated into visions on whatreligions – and cultures – are and are not suitable to be represented andsanctioned in the social sphere of Myanmar.  Religion does not condone acts of hate andother crimes, but it is how individuals internalize and suppress dissent thatmay lead to widespread moral panic among those who share corresponding views.

 Currently, the majority of Rohingyas areseeking refuge in nearby villages in Bangladesh, many others have escaped toIndia, Pakistan, and Thailand. With the global community watching with a keeneye, humanitarian groups and the United Nations are continuously workingtowards a better resolution to, with hope, ease the situation.


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