Rudyard Kipling remarked in From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any other land you will know about.” The country indeed has a unique history that has shaped its British colonial and current military-dominated governments. Political posturing has created strong ethnic paranoia among the Burmese establishment that has recently culminated in the brutal repression of Muslims and women.
Rakhine’s inhabitants have been traced back to the 9th century AD. It became increasingly Islamic starting in the 1400s, but was nonetheless very tolerant towards Hindus & Buddhists. Rakhine straddles the Bay of Bengal on its western border, so many Arabs, Afghans and other Muslims would migrate to Rakhine over the centuries as sailors, mercenaries or merchants, but most Muslims were native converts or converts from Bengal with whom they shared a porous border. Currently, Muslims comprise 29% of Rakhine State. However, they comprise as much as 95% in Taung Pyo Tat Wal District, or 92% in Maung Daw, the third most populous of Rakhine’s districts. It’s important to understand the history of Rohingya citizenship in what is now Burma to grasp the government’s current stance on the Muslim population in Rakhine.
The Rakhine kingdom became completely autonomous from Bengal and its other neighbors by 1531, taking advantage of Mughal India’s invasion of Bengal. Rakhine enjoyed business and diplomatic relations with Portugal, Afghanistan and the Arab Middle East for centuries.
However, they always had a tepid relationship with the Bamar kingdom. The Bamar under King Bodawpaya invaded and conquered Rakhine in 1784. It was a bloody conquest; the Bamar killed a sizable percentage of the population and many of the survivors became refugees in neighboring Bengal.
Among those who remained, Bodawpaya enslaved over 20,000. By default, Britain then assumed control of Rakhine after claiming victory in the First Burmese War in 1826. They encouraged countless starving and war-displaced Rohingyas to establish roots in Rakhine. Buddhist Burma came to deeply resent the Muslims as abettors of their colonial subjugation. This animosity was amplified during World War II when British loyalist Rohingyas were caught spying on the liberating Japanese for Britain. The WWII schism created further distrust between the Rohingyas and the Burmese government.
This colonial history has largely shaped the current ethnic conflicts that plague the country today. After Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the new political entity sought to rally around the Buddhist majority. Burmese culture was officially promoted over those of minorities and Buddhism was declared the state religion in 1961. The Burmese government has been at war with various minority groups ever since. Burma’s junta fights them not just for power, but for their huge reservoirs of gold, jade and timber, as well as the commercial routes linking China to the Bay of Bengal.
Monolithic China has replaced the British Empire as the main external actor in the economy of Burma, but countless other nations play a part in the current era of globalized markets, increasingly including the US. From 2012 to 2013, the US rewarded the junta for undertaking “democratic reforms” (establishing a nominally civilian government) by opening up imports to Burma and increasing the purchase of exports: in the span of this one year, US to imports went from literally nothing to $29.9 million and exports increased by $80 million. During that same span of time, tourism to Burma literally doubled, from about 1 million to 2 million. Inter-Asian and international dollars directly fuel the conflict.
The Rohingya Plight
Rohingyas are official targets for oppression. Burma doesn’t recognize them as citizens, despite their documented presence in Rakhine going back to at least the 9th century AD. Even President-Elect and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the validity of the Rohingyas’ citizenship. The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 deliberately made it almost impossible for most Rohingyas to obtain citizenship. Section 4 of this draconian law unilaterally gives the Council of State the authority to decide if any given ethnic group is considered to a national group or not, while Section 8 (b) also gives the Council of State the power to revoke citizenship for anyone who isn’t a “citizen by birth.”
Simply being born in Burma doesn’t automatically qualify a person for citizenship; Burmese law thus effectively leaves every Rohingya child born stateless, a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Section 3 states that anyone whose ancestors have lived in the country since 1823 are considered citizens of Burma.
It’s been proven by a long line of independent historians, anthropologists and archaeologists that the Rohingya people have been in modern-day Burma since well before this imposed 1823 minimum. In spite of the facts, the official Burmese government narrative continues to state that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; U Shwe Mg of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party declared to al-Jazeera that, “The so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while.”
President Thein Sein commissioned the Rakhine Investigative Council, ostensibly to study the strife; they released their findings in the Rakhine State Action Plan, which referred to the Rohingyas both pejoratively and inaccurately as “Bengalis” and demanded that the Rohingyas refer to themselves likewise. One Sittwe woman declared that she would rather, “be a beggar than signing those documents the government is pressing onto us to allow our resettlement, because in those papers they state that we are Bengali.”
Ahead of a May 29, 2015 conference in Thailand on the issue of the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Burmese delegation stated their refusal to attend if the term “Rohingya” was used. Lieutenant General Ko Ko summed up the goals of the government’s plans for Rohingya situation as being the, “tightening the regulations in order to handle travelling, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, constructing of new religious buildings, repairing and land ownership and right to construct buildings of Bengalis under the law.”
Continuing the legal maneuvers set by the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 against the Rohingya people are Sections 42-44. Since the Rohingyas don’t meet the “1823” qualification for citizenship according to the bureaucracy in Naypyidaw, they would have to seek “naturalized citizenship” instead. Under the tenets of Section 43, you can only apply for naturalized citizenship if at least one of your parents is already registered as one of the forms of citizen. Thus, all children born to a pair of undocumented Rohingya parents are summarily denied citizenship.
According to Section 42, it’s also possible to achieve naturalized citizenship, provided that you are able to procure “conclusive evidence.” This is simply impossible for Rohingyas by and large, due to the fact there were scant few family registry records recorded in pre-industrial colonial Burma. There is also a third tier of citizenship, “associate citizenship,” but the deadline to apply for that was October 15, 1982.
After independence from Britain, the non-citizen Rohingyas were paradoxically barred from seceding. Their movements within Burma have been highly restricted by the government since the institution of Act VII of Registration of Foreigners Act, 1940. A displaced Rohingya living in a camp outside the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, Muhammad Uslan, summarized the current situation, “We are caged like animals here. We cannot work or go to the town to buy things. Our young people grow up knowing they will never be able to go to university.”
Rohingyas are, like other minorities, subject to “portering,” aka slave labor. Not only are they not considered citizens, they are also forced to work for the state that doesn’t accept them as such. Rape is an endemic form of violence that is likewise used to subjugate the Rohingya people. In one northern Maungdaw village alone, human rights activists recorded 13 different rapes on the night of February 20, 2013. Mass rape has been documented as a weapon used against the Rohingya people since at least 1992, a time when the government was undertaking an anti-Rohingya campaign.
Prominent Buddhist monks, like Wirathu, preach Islamaphobia that has incited massive pogroms. Wirathu told Time Magazine that Muslims, “are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them.” To top off this official oppression is a 2-child policy for Rohingya families, enforced by fines and imprisonment. This eugenic policy is meant to gradually reduce the Muslim population; in 3rd World countries, the population replacement fertility rate can be as high as 3.4. To use a frame of reference, the fertility replacement rate in East Africa is 2.94; lowering the birth rate to 2 would lead to an eventual generational population decrease of about 1/3.
Hundreds of Muslims have been killed since the junta fell in Islamaphobic riots that are increasingly being considered by outside observers to be genocide. 140,000 were internally displaced in 2012 alone due to the violence, while another 86,000 fled the country. Human Rights Watch has concluded that the Burmese government and security forces were not only complicit in the anti-Rohingya violence of 2012, but were active participants. About 1500 Rohingya refugees have been imprisoned by human traffickers in Thailand, awaiting “deportation.” Thai newspapers report that 40,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have been trafficked last year in Thailand, often with the help of the Thai authorities, who want the refugees out of the country. Many of the women and children are specifically funneled into Thailand’s lucrative sex industry. The wave of refugees continues as the Burmese government turns a blind eye- and sometimes participates in- to the Islamaphobic pogroms in Rakhine.
The Burmese government and their multinational corporate partners are interested in tapping Rakhine’s massive oil and gas reserves. Rakhine’s strategic location by the Bay of Bengal also creates a demand for Burmese commercial access to the area. State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is funding $2.5 billion on the Kyaukpyu (a Rakhine port city) Shwe Gas Pipeline, which will shuttle oil in between China and the Bay of Bengal. Locals have staged protests against it, complaining that all the proceeds from the endeavor will go to either Chinese businessmen or Burmese politicians. Thus, the recent opening-up of Burma’s economy to the outside world must be viewed with a critical eye, rather than just with blind praise.
British colonial rule paved the way for the strict authoritarianism that Burma is now at least attempting to move away from with “civilian rule.” For too long, the Burmese government has, like imperial Britain, used oppression as an official tool to stay in power, using draconian and deliberate laws and wide-scale violence against primarily women and children. Bamar ultra-nationalism has led to the systemic disenfranchisement of minority groups, to the extent that the Rohingyas aren’t even considered citizens.
Local Burmese intellectuals joke that George Orwell wrote not only one book about Burma, but a trilogy: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. The government and domineering military will have to immediately suspend its persecution of minorities and then negotiate for the extraction and sharing of indigenous commodities. Burma’s President-Elect must also act to stop the hate-mongering invoked by prominent monks and intervene in any future pogroms; he can no longer look the other way when it comes to anti-Muslim rioting. Full suffrage should be granted to the Rohingya, in order to fully facilitate Burma’s transition from junta to democracy. All of Burma’s ethnicities must ultimately play a part in the reconciliation and redemption of the country and should have an equal role in shaping its democratic future.
This article was originally posted in Eurasia Review.