Disturbing images and reports of decrepit vessels crammed with Rohingya people from Myanmar adrift in the Andaman Sea have featured prominently in Western newspapers and media websites of late. In April, a Thai government crackdown on human trafficking prompted smugglers to abandon their human cargoes at sea, leaving dozens of boats packed with migrants drifting aimlessly for weeks. Almost without missing a beat, media and rights groups condemned Myanmar for creating this humanitarian crisis – in the process reviving the old narrative of the pariah state.
The perpetual refrain about desperate attempts by Rohingya (or “Bengalis,” as they are widely called in Myanmar) to flee persecution by powerful Buddhists does not give the full picture – in fact, this narrative of one-sided victimhood will help neither readers who wish to understand the roots of the crisis nor the Rohingya themselves.
The people who call themselves Rohingya are a Muslim minority originally from Bangladesh but with a longstanding presence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Some Muslim families can trace their history in Rakhine to the 16th century. When Mughals invaded Bengal in 1575, many Muslim Bengalis sought refuge in neighboring territory, where ethnic Rakhine people had been living and reigning independently for more than three thousand years.
The second wave of Muslim settlers began in 1826, when British colonial rulers imported large numbers of laborers from the subcontinent to jumpstart agriculture and commerce in the region. The last major wave of Muslim immigrants occurred after the war in East Pakistan in 1971, when tens of thousands of refugees crossed the border into Myanmar in search of stability and security.
Relations between Muslim settlers and the overwhelmingly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people have veered from generally peaceful coexistence to acute and ingrained animosity. Several reasons account for this shift: one is the legacy of colonial rule, which pitted most majority and minority communities against one another – particularly given the tendency of British colonialists to promote Indian and other “imports” in the bureaucracy over local people. A second reason is the widespread sense among the ethnic Rakhine that they have suffered discrimination and deprivation under Burmese rule since independence. This feeling of exclusion has driven them to seek strength and unity within their own ethnicity. A related phenomenon has been the nationwide rise in Buddhist chauvinism – similar to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka – that has played into successive Myanmar governments’ survivalist narrative of imminent threats to the country’s sovereignty and culture.
This toxic mix of insecurities and prejudices simmered for decades, culminating in explosive communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in mid-2012, a year after the start of democratic reforms in Myanmar. The outbreak of violence and subsequent reverberations in 2013 and 2014 left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced.
Presented with evidence of aggression on both Buddhist and Muslim sides, the Myanmar government decided to separate the two communities, essentially by placing 140,000 Muslims – mainly self-identified as Rohingya – in internment camps and denying them the right to leave. Despite the presence of humanitarian aid organizations, Human Rights Watch has described the living conditions inside some of the camps as “extremely dire.” Many thousands of Rohingya have attempted to escape such conditions, only to find themselves trapped in vicious human trafficking networks.
However, the current boat people crisis is not a Myanmar problem alone. To put things in perspective, United Nations officials have estimated that up to 60 percent of the people stranded at sea are economic migrants from Bangladesh, with the remainder assumed to be Rohingya. In recent weeks, the Myanmar government has actively, though somewhat reluctantly, conducted its own rescue operations in response to international pressure, bringing to shore nearly 1,000 refugees by early June.
Facing mounting pressure at home from its majority Buddhist and vocally anti-Muslim constituency, the Myanmar government has promised to complete a systematic verification process to determine the origins of the rescued migrants and ensure their swift return. The government is loath to take back asylum seekers, given the sectarian tensions that threaten the country’s fragile transition to democracy.
The international community is rightly concerned about the plight of the Rohingya, especially their lack of citizenship, which has left them without access to basic civic rights and social welfare. However, contrary to claims by most Western commentators, the Myanmar government is not denying Rohingya citizenship – it is denying them citizenship as Rohingya.
In Myanmar, not all citizens are considered indigenous nationals (Taing-Yin-Tha). In fact, the country’s laws distinguish between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens, and confer different rights accordingly. For example, only populations considered indigenous have the constitutional right to request a self-administrative area if their population forms a sizeable minority.
In a push for greater rights, Rohingya have increasingly insisted on being recognized as an indigenous ethnicity, directly implied by the term “Rohingya.” However, the vast majority of Myanmar people and government leaders refuse to recognize “Rohingya” ethnicity amid fears they could then use their indigenous status to demand an autonomous region in Rakhine state, as they did in the 1950s under the “mujahidin” rebel movement.
Therein lies the heart of the impasse, and the beginning of a plausible solution. Going forward, the international community needs to be mindful of ethnic Rakhines’ sensibilities and fears. It also needs to understand the Myanmar government’s dilemma in trying to manage a volatile population while dealing with many other complex problems. Instead of demanding the domestically unviable and alienating a nascent democracy through high-handed criticism, the international community should encourage Myanmar’s attempts to reintegrate itself into the community of nations through fact-based and measured rhetoric.
The Myanmar government, meanwhile, should consider revising its exclusionary citizenship laws dating from 1982 that make it virtually impossible for non-indigenous residents to become full citizens. It should also look into abolishing ethnic and religious classifications in ID cards, which perpetuate nationalist obsessions among the Myanmar populace.
Finally, governments in Southeast Asia should uphold zero tolerance toward human trafficking and commit to bringing smugglers who prey on human suffering to justice. Such concerted action is the world’s best bet to save the Rohingya – and in the process, settle one of the region’s most fraught issues – once and for all.
Mariana Olaizola Rosenblat is a writer and consultant based in Yangon who has led numerous research projects on communal and ethnic conflicts in Myanmar.