Bangladesh,  Burma

The Rohingya: Asia’s Roma?

Although the recent visit to Britain by Aung San Suu Kyi seems a symptom of some improvement in conditions in Burma, there are still many causes for concern in that country, one of them the plight of the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas, compared here to the Roma by David Camroux, are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.  They are essentially stateless, being disowned both in Burma, where they have lived for generations, and in Bangladesh, where, according to many in Burma, they should ‘return’.  A 1982 law excludes the Rohingya from the list of recognized minorities, depriving them of Burmese citizenship. In recent weeks, on top of the discrimination they routinely face – restrictions on their right to marry and have children for example – Rohingya in Rakhine province in Burma have suffered violent attacks.  Their homes have been destroyed, thousands have had to flee, and many have died in the violence. Boat loads of terrified refugees have been turned back from Bangladesh.

The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi paper, suggests that the international community may be deliberately turning a blind eye to this issue.

[T]he fundamental issue of statelessness of the Muslim minority in the Rakhaine state of Myanmar remains intact. Persecution and ethnic cleansing of varying intensity follow from this non-existent status of not even second class citizens.

In a sense, the international community is also playing kid glove with Myanmar authorities. The West is supersensitive to the cause of consolidating the pro-democracy and open economy gains and advancing the freedom and leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi to complete the process of Myanmar’s opening to the world. So, why rock the boat?

Reading the Wikipedia page on the Rohingya reflects a clash of narratives or theories about their origins, which I have seen played out elsewhere on the blogosphere. Their champions emphasise the idea that their roots in Burma may go back centuries, whereas their detractors claim the opposite in order to delegitimise their presence. But if, as Aung San Suu Kyi suggested when challenged about their status, many ‘Burmese’ Rohingya are indeed very recent arrivals, the fact that they seem to have freely chosen to go to a country which explicitly discriminates against them seems itself to be a damning indictment of their treatment by the region as a whole not just Burma.

Update: Hanoi Paris Hilton links to an alternative perspective in the comments.