Rohingyas are this region’s current humanitarian crisis, but this latest ethnic minority disaster is bogged down in rhetoric that prevents rather than facilitates action. The situation, I believe, is that an ethnic sub-group of Muslim people have been effectively disowned by Burma where they reside. Some of them were there due to arbitrary borders designated at the dissolution of the British Empire after World War II. Burma fancies itself a union, although sections of the population have a strong desire for independence since the Burman military government persists in ignoring their voices and suppresses them, sometimes ruthlessly. After 50 years of near civil war nothing has been resolved, although the will to keep fighting has dwindled, and the struggle has evolved into the sort of political situation often found in a repressive police state in the aftermath of horrendous civil conflict.
That brings us to the Rohingyas, and the matter of rhetoric.
This week past, the United Nations confronted the Burmese government. Burma’s most recognized person, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been roundly criticized for persistently refusing to speak out on the situation. The Thai government is engaged in a man-hunt for the “mastermind” behind scores of murders (or deaths from some causes) of Rohingya refugees in the process of being trafficked into slavery. Boat loads of Rohingya people are adrift in the Andaman Sea and late reports are that a floating slave market has been set up in international waters. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks are fanning ethnic riots against Rohingya people who remain in Burma, and people who call this “religious extremism” are being imprisoned in Burma.
Somebody should do something. But who? And what?
As I understand it, the Burmese government and most of the people in Burma reject the idea that the Rohingya Muslim ethnic people are an identifiable political entity. They are like Cajun people in Louisiana or Hispanic people in Chicago. They cannot BE refugees. That, precisely, is the reason for the Burmese government, Aung San Suu Kyi, Christian Churches in Burma, and ASEAN not wanting to participate in talks where the term Rohingya is equivalent to a separate political entity. A lot of blood has been spilled in Burma over this “stubbornness” to keep identifying political entities that do not exist … at least they are not recognized by the government of Burma. The simple fact is that as far as the government of Burma is concerned, ethnicity does not count politically.
Yes, I know how absurd that sounds when clearly being ethnic Burman counts a lot in Burma. We’ll come back to ethnic privilege and cleansing a little later.
What is to be done with those boatloads of people? And what about the abuse, mayhem and persecution being inflicted on those same ethnic people who remain in Burma? That, of course, is the issue that has caught the world’s attention and spurred the UN to action (insofar as calling a meeting is action). These human beings need help.
For a while the help provided when a boatload came close to somebody’s shore was to give them food and fuel and send them on. Or just sent them away. It is alleged that some boatloads were victimized, however, by being enslaved or robbed. Very recently, we hear, Indonesia and Malaysia have begun to take these people ashore. The Philippines will, too, if they can get there. In Thailand there is reluctance to do that until it becomes clear that someone will pay the bills, as the UN has been doing for decades with other refugees encamped in Thailand.
People in Burma believe the Rohingya people have not always been in Burma. They migrated there to get better living conditions than in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Therefore, they should go back, Burmese radicals say. They are a threat to Burmese culture. Bangladesh wants nothing to do with another million people in a nation already impoverished.
The reason the Rohingya have begun to move, some to marginal land in the south of Burma and some onto boats to get still farther away, is that they have been targeted for attacks. Small incidents and rumors and sometimes sermons by radical Buddhist monks set incendiary mobs in motion. Now, this is strange for a country under military rule where even peaceful gatherings can be suppressed. Some say the explanation as to why the military has not put an end to these attacks is that the military is behind the violence. The junta wants the Rohingya gone, or maybe they want the Rohingya to be vilified – turned into an enemy to distract from unhappiness with the junta. Perhaps it is not coincidental that until this convenient merger of religion and patriotism it was Buddhist monks whom the junta treated as the greatest threat.
Whatever the truth is, it is unlikely that a solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis will come from within the vicinity. Where then should the Rohingya and their advocates look for help?
One way to consider this Rohingya crisis is to view it as another incident of ethnic cleansing. The legacy of colonialism is “mis-matched ethnic components in post-colonial countries”. It is hard to count the number of incidents in which a former big country split and left ethnic fragments in danger from ethnic majorities who wanted them gone one way or another. A second generation of splintering has sometimes done that again. There are variations on the theme, as in the case of Palestinians in Israel and Christians in Iraq. There are exceptions, as in the case of South Africa. If the Rohingya matter is like other ethnic expulsion crises, then what should be done is what worked in those cases.
Alas, the record is not promising. It seems that in virtually every case response was mobilized too late to provide much help. Sending in military forces to stop the atrocities and resettle the minorities back where they were leaving takes time and stupendous will power. Can anyone imagine a UN “peacekeeping” force deployed in Burma?
Incentives are another possibility. What would it take to bribe the Burmese government to settle the crisis? What does the Burmese government want that it does not have that the “world community” could provide. On the whole, that course seems the more salubrious and the way less often tried.
Meanwhile, the murder and trafficking has to be stopped.
For a brief historical overview of the plight of the Rohingya, see this article published in the June 2015 edition of The Economist.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.