Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rohingyas are not foreigners!

Over the past few weeks, news services have been abuzz with reports covering the violence in Rakhine state, Burma/Myanmar. The violence has gotten so bad that the United Nations is pulling personnel out of the area. According to the reports, the violence has an ethno-religious character with perpetrators being from the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine community and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community.

But that’s not the beginning of the story. This latest violence is a product of centuries of cleansing by the government in Burma/Myanmar. It started in the late 18th century with the Empire of Burma annexed the Kingdom of Arakan as the British Empire consolidated power elsewhere in the Subcontinent. The Kingdom of Arakan was populated primarily by people claiming to be Muslims and speakers of a dialect similar to Bengali. Like the Bengalis, the first local Muslims were converted from Hinduism or Buddhism centuries earlier when Arab traders plied the Indian Ocean. Upon conquering Arakan, Burma took as plunder Buddhist relics held, presumably, by the Rakhine community in the Muslim state. Note, I’m going from memory here, it is entirely plausible, even likely, that the ruling elite of Arakan were Buddhist while the people were predominantly Muslim. The issue of removing religious relics following conflict is a popular motif in Southeast Asian history. One of the northern Thai kingdoms “stole” a Lan Xang (now part of the state of Laos) Buddhist relic and eventually moved it to Bangkok. With Burma now in control of Arakan, the British passed the area to Burma open departing India in 1947; this would ostensibly restore the area to its pre-colonization status. Except that Arakan was not a target for colonization.

According to scores of Rohingya refugees, the government of Burma/Myanmar has actively sought to change the demographics of former Arakan. Using such tactics as forced relocation, mass rapes, threats of violence, and other coercive measures, the government of Burma/Myanmar has sought over the last several decades to remove the Muslim population from Arakan province (now renamed Rakhine province) in favor of the Buddhist community. In addition, the government has also sought to disavow and remove Muslims and Rohingya from the historical mosaic of Burma. This is manifested in near constant assertions by the government that Rohingyas are foreigners from Bangladesh and thus, illegal in Burma.

Obviously, this is patently false but serves to further the government’s goal of fabricating a Buddhist state. The onus should be on Bangladesh to provide for refugees but the UN and international community should be pressuring the government in Burma/Myanmar to treat all citizens equally.

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