Skip to main content
8 min read

The systematic repression of the Rohingya minority continues

Maung Zarni is a Burmese scholar in exile. He is an expert on the political affairs of Myanmar, and currently Visiting Fellow at London School of Economics. In this article he writes about the oppression of the minority people Rohingya, whom the Burmese government classifies as “immigrants” and thus not eligible for citizenship.

Credits Text: Maung Zarni March 13 2014

“What can we do, brother? There are too many. We can’t kill them all.”

He said it matter-of-factly—a former brigadier and diplomat from my native country, Myanmar, about Rohingya Muslims.

We were in the spacious ambassadorial office at Myanmar Embassy in an ASEAN country when this “brotherly” conversation took place. I am familiar with Myanmar's racist nationalist narrative. I have also worked with the country’s military intelligence services in pushing for the gradual re-engagement between the West and our country, then an international pariah. Apparently, knowledge of my background made the soldier feel so at ease that he could make such a hateful call in a friendly conversation on official premises in total candor: Islamophobia normalized in the highest ranks of the bureaucracy and military in Myanmar.

He wanted to make sure I understood he had special knowledge of the situation, stressing that he was stationed for years in Rakhine state, the state that borders Bangladesh and is the Rohingya ancestral homeland. The diplomat then went on to tell me that Bangladeshi even use folk songs to encourage people to migrate to Myanmar, mythically envisioned as the land of plenty, and cross the river that divides the two countries’ porous borders. He recited one particular stanza:

“There, Buddhist women are beautiful.
Staple rice is plentiful. Land is fertile.
Opportunities are ample. Resources are abundant.
Go ye go to Myanmar.”

His point is that these “Bengali,” a racist local reference to the Rohingya, are “invaders” in our predominantly Buddhist country, whose virus-like spread must be repelled by any means necessary. It’s incredibly important to realize that this conversation is in no way an extreme example in Myanmar. It’s not even that shocking that a relatively better-educated graduate of the country’s elite military academy would express such genocidal views. This is where generations of young—and largely Buddhist Burmese—men between the ages of 16 and 21 are conditioned to view themselves as Myanmar’s future ruling elites. Even more troubling is this: my friend’s view is widely held among virtually all Myanmar people from all walks of life—common men on the street, socially influential Buddhist monks, Christian minorities, former dissident leaders (most notably Aung San Suu Kyi), the mainstream intelligentsia, the ruling generals in uniform and ex-generals in silk skirts.

Myanmar’s prevailing popular psyche has been molded by decades of fear of Islam manufactured by the state. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi chillingly spoke about “the global rise of Muslim power” in a BBC interview.

As a group, the Rohingyas’ ancestral home straddles strategically important western Myanmar, neighboring Bangladesh, and the Bay of Bengal, which opens into the Indian Ocean. The Rohingyas’ demographic and ethnic history is not different from the histories of peoples around the world, like Croatians, Serbs or Macedonians, whose ancestral lands have been erased from the political maps of the big powers. Even within Myanmar itself, the ancestral roots of other “borderland” ethnic peoples (such as the Kachin, the Chin and the Karen) are transnational and predate the post-World War II emergence of new modern nation-states.

But uniquely, the Rohingya have been subjected to a government-organized, systematic campaign of mass killing, terror, torture, attempts to prevent births, forced labor, severe restrictions on physical movement, large-scale internal displacement of an estimated 140,000 people, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, summary execution, land-grabbing and community destruction. Three decades of such policies have produced appalling life conditions for the Rohingya. The doctor-patient ratio is 1:80,000 (the national average is about 1:400), the infant mortality rate is three times the country’s average, and 90 percent of Rohingya are deliberately left illiterate in a country with one of the highest adult literacy rates in all of Asia. Consequently, there have been an unknown number of deaths and large scale exoduses over land and sea to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Australia and Canada.

The first Myanmar government-organized campaign against the Rohingya was launched as early as 1978, in the guise of an illegal immigration crack-down. Consequently, an estimated 200,000 Rohingya were forced to relocate to newly independent Bangladesh, where they have been equally unwelcome. Even then the Far Eastern Economic Review termed the plight of the Rohingya “Burma’s Apartheid.” Nearly four decades on, during his visit to Rangoon, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner in his homeland, used the same word, apartheid, to characterize the Rohingya oppression.

It isn’t even as if the Rohingya were never recognized by the central government as a distinct people. Within a decade of independence from Britain in 1948, the government of the Union of Burma officially recognized the group as “Rohingya,” the group’s collective self-referential historical identity. They were granted full citizenship rights and allowed to take part in numerous acts of citizenship, such as serving in parliament. They were able to broadcast three times a week in their own mother tongue, Rohingya, on Myanmar’s then sole national broadcasting service (Burma Broadcasting Service or BBS) and held positions in the country’s security forces and other ministries. Rohingya were permitted to form their own communal, professional and student associations bearing the name “Rohingya,” and above all, granted a special administrative region for the two large pockets in western Burma made up of 70 percent Rohingya Muslims.

The evidence of Myanmar engaging in a systematic persecution of the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic people supports charges of crimes of genocide against the group. So far, the world’s human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Irish Centre for Human Rights have fallen short of calling the 35-years of Myanmar’s genocidal persecution of the Muslim Rohingya a genocide. They have stuck wth “crimes against humanity” and “ethnic cleansing” as their preferred charges against Myanmar government.

This spring, the University of Washington Law School’s academic publication, the Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, however, is scheduled to publish a three-year study of Myanmar’s atrocities against the group. The article, which I co-authored with a colleague from the London-based Equal Rights Trust’s Statelessness and Nationality Project, is entitled “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya.” Our research has persuaded the journal’s editors and anonymous peer-reviewers that since 1978, successive Myanmar governments and local Buddhists have been committing four out of five acts of genocide spelled out in the United Nations' Genocide Convention of 1948. Our study finds Myanmar to be guilty of the first four acts, such as “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”.

Still, misleadingly, international media and foreign governments have characterized the Rohingya persecution as simply “sectarian” or “communal.” Not only does this ignore the instrumental role Myanmar’s successive governments have played in the death and destruction of the Rohingya, but it also overlooks the fact that the Rohingya have no rights or means by which to defend themselves.

The 1.33 million Rohingya Muslims may be “too many to kill,” but that has not stopped the state security forces or the local ultra-nationalist Rakhine from carrying out waves of pogroms against the Rohingya. The state's racist draconian policies make life so unbearable that the Rohingya would rather risk their lives on voyages across the high seas than wait like sitting ducks to be slaughtered in their ghettos or “open-air prisons,” as the BBC put it.

In my view, despite growing evidence, the international community has avoided calling this “genocide” because none of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council have the appetite to forego their commercial and strategic interests in Myanmar to address the slow-burning Rohingya genocide. There’s the domestic political factor for those states, too: no world’s leader would want his or her photo taken shaking the blood-stained hands of the Burmese generals and ex-generals with an unfolding genocide in their backyard. Indeed Myanmar’s genocidal military leaders have re-fashioned themselves ‘Free Market reformists’, opening up the resource-rich country for commercial engagement. On the persecution of the Rohingya, the outside world has taken at face value Myanmar’s narrative of the Rohingya persecution as simply ‘communal’ or ‘sectarian’ conflicts between them and the local Buddhist Rakhines who make up 2/3 of the local population of Rakhine state. Human Rights Watch proved prophetic when the authors of its 2009 report “Perilous Plight: Burma’s Rohingya Take to the Sea” wrote: “Because they [the Rohingya] have no constituency in the West and come from a strategic backwater, no one wants them [and no one is prepared to help end their decades of persecution] even though the world is well aware of their predicament.”

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved