Myanmar’s independence amidst Rohingya exodus

  • Who in the country celebrated its independence?

After an exodus of more than 650,000 Rohingyas, thousands killed and many women raped, Myanmar’s military has admitted that its soldiers murdered 10 captured Rohingya who it claims were ‘terrorists’ during insurgent attacks at the beginning of September last year. The admission, probably a first, comes days after Myanmar’s 70 years of independence from British rule. While this historic event must surely have been a reason to rejoice for the nation, I wonder what else did it have to celebrate. For Myanmar is now better known for its ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state. This itself raises another question: who in the country celebrated its independence? Those, who despite tracing back their earlier generations to what they still call their homeland, are now struggling to justify their existence in another land? Or those, who are responsible for displacing those very former citizens now facing an identity crisis? The reasons questioning jubilations are many.

Somewhere in Rakhine, 24-year old Setara dreams of walking hand in hand with her husband through the streets of the seaside town they grew up in. But in a country where interfaith harmony is a rarity, her marriage complicates the situation. For Setara’s husband, Muhammad is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim, a group despised by the Burmese Buddhists; Setara was born a Buddhist. To be immune from the surrounding hatred and violence would mean more to Setara than a national feat of independence achieved seven decades ago.

Myanmar, a country rich in jade and gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, bordered by India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China. It’s former capital is Yangon or Rangoon, the burial place of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar – his tomb a source of dispute and almost forgotten, until its recent discovery and subsequent building of mausoleum. Myanmar became a British colony in the nineteenth century but was granted independence in 1948 as a democratic nation. It is the institution of democracy, however, which is yet to be independent in the country.

Myanmar, a country rich in jade and gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, bordered by India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is now embroiled in violence and has engaged the entire world with it. The reasons are: systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced migration of Muslim residents of its Rakhine state by the stronger and majority Buddhist residents. Brutal murders, rape, arson – all means of torture are being used to convince the Rohingyas that they do not belong to Myanmar. Convinced they are, as they flee in thousands everyday from the country. The aftermath is unknown, since world wide condemnation, condolences, aid and moral support is arriving, but they do not answer the questions about Rohingyas’ uncertain future. Even those who have been living in neighbouring countries of Malaysia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan remain without any citizenship, or more appropriately, without any identity, hence without any basic rights. The plight worsens as the Bangladeshi government has recently prepared a list of 100,000 Rohingya refugees for repatriation to Myanmar in the first phase.

The Rohingyas trace their origin in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan state and many others during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today Myanmar has a population of around 51 million people. The Burman ethnic group constitutes about two thirds of this figure and controls the country’s military and the political government. But the Muslim Rohingya is not recognised as one of the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar – it is considered as a group of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. So most Rohingyas have been stripped of their citizenship and face serious violation of human rights, which include ‘restriction of freedom of movement, marriage restriction, exclusion from education and health care, enforced birth control, arbitrary taxation and forced labour.’

The root cause of discrimination against Rohingyas mainly lies in a false fear of Muslim power generated by Buddhist nationalists. It has been reported that most Buddhist preachers in Burma never flinch from identifying Islam as their biggest enemy, its alleged crime of having exterminated Buddhism from India and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamya. Political and economic factors contribute even further. ‘The military in Myanmar has an outsized role in the politics, the economy and the social life of the country by virtue of the Constitution which guarantees it 25 percent and a veto proof standing changing the Constitution.’ An offshore gas field has been built with oil and gas pipelines transporting Myanmar’s reserves to China, while another mega development project and economic zone is under development in Rakhine – and all these developments are creating resentment among people as they are not reaping benefits in the form of additional jobs or increased economic growth. A report by Global Witness – an international NGO – suggests that natural resource exploitation, especially the country’s billion dollar jade business, may also be playing a part in the country’s religious and ethnic tensions. Myanmar’s jade industry was worth half of Myanmar’s GDP in 2014, claims Global Witness. But instead of the money reaching to ordinary people, the sector is allegedly controlled by the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s State Councillor, is herself a controversial figure, as despite receiving various accolades including the Nobel peace prize for her years long non violent protest against Myanmar’s autocratic government, Suu Kyi has not done much to bring respite to the ethnic violence ravaging the country, let alone resolve a path.

The solution does not lie in just stopping genocide or sustenance of life – that is the obvious which needs to be done, but only a short term goal. The permanent solution lies in providing a legal status to the Rohingyas and giving them citizenship in the country where they belong. The solution lies in granting them first the right to live, then the right to identity, on the basis of which they could then claim the right to survive, through healthcare, education, employment among others. The solution lies in giving them an opportunity to live with their heads held high.

Like all Rohingyas in the state, Muhammad – Setara’s husband — is not allowed to travel. Setara, although now converted to Islam, still uses her national identification card stating her as a Buddhist, to travel to nearby towns for medicines and groceries. To be able to convince the patrolling policemen, she smears a pale cosmetic paste on her cheeks called thanaka, which is commonly used by Buddhists in Myanmar, takes off her veil and puts on a blouse. In her old neighbourhood, she would be called a Kalar’s wife, with Kalar being a derogatory word for Muslims frequently used in Myanmar.

‘The future for the Rohingya is bad,’ Setara confides to Arab News, with the startling contrast between her old neighbourhood and the new residence fuelling her fears. The Rohingya side is dry and dusty, devoid of trees and filled with despair, with little to do. The Buddhist side is lush, with schools and a university, paved roads, a karaoke bar and restaurants.

‘But I will never leave … it is my destiny to be here, to be with my husband,’ says Setara. Dependence on her destiny is surely more important for her than the independence of her nation.