With roots in the British colonial period, the ongoing violence and oppression faced by Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population is a catastrophe centuries in the making — one that is only now beginning to reach English language headlines. While the origins and layers of the continuously escalating situation are a bit too complicated to cover here, the core of the issue is that the Rohingya have found themselves rejected from their homes and are unwelcome virtually everywhere.
A stateless population living mostly in Myanmar’s Arakan (Rakhine) state, the Rohingya’s roots in the area extend back to the 8th century. But the local Myanmar government, as well as much of its population, perceive them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This idea has been heavily reinforced in the decades since independence from colonial rule and compounded by a drive to “Myanmarize” the country and create a sense of national unity across a diverse and divided ethnic base, which is nonetheless, majority Buddhist. Thus, at the expense of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s government seeks to overcome its divisions, intentionally leaving the group off of the list of 135 officially recognized ethnicities, making access to state services difficult to come by.
In addition to the daily difficulties facing those who have lived in Arakan State for generations, resurgent tension and violence at the community level have led thousands to flee. The country’s president, Thein Sein, earned mild international scorn for statements suggesting that the only solution to the humanitarian crisis facing this Muslim population would be mass deportation — tantamount to openly calling for ethnic cleansing. Yet, the international response has been intensely deficient in light of the severity of the unfolding regional humanitarian crisis.
In the international arena, neoliberalism, not rights or democracy, is king
It seems as soon as Myanmar took its first step towards opening itself up to the rest of world following decades of strict rule — at the hands of a dictatorial military junta, nonetheless, the United States was signaling its interest in developing an economic relationship with the nation, whose previously underdeveloped oil resources have become the talk of the energy sector.
Indeed, it appears that the prospect of continued oil and gas wealth seems sufficient incentive for foreign governments to ignore policies of entrenched discrimination against the Rohingya. Even when members of this group have found a way to register themselves with the government, they often face mobility restrictions that require special permits before leaving their home district, special marriage licenses, and even restrictions on the number of births allowed per family. Yet, oil-hungry economies seem to fear that criticizing the regime’s policies will jeopardize their cut of the oil pie.
In addition to the financial incentives ensuring the inaction of the United States and Europe, for situations of humanitarian crisis involving populations without sufficient economic or cultural links — ranging from the decades-long war raging in the Congo to the famine-plagued Niger Delta to the killing fields of Cambodia — the track record of the international community is historically poor. No matter what democracy promotion and human-rights doctrines that leaders such as President Obama are tirelessly preaching in official speeches, the systematic “otherization” of Muslims within these same political circles makes it easy for politicians to ignore the Rohingya question to the benefit of economic elites in their respective countries.
Where is the Ummah?
What is perhaps more surprising about the plight of the Rohingya, is that Bangladesh — a country with a Muslim majority — has also refused to regularize most of the Rohingya living within its borders, and even refused a $33 million aid package from the United Nations that would have helped alleviate the economic toll of housing for more than 200,000 people — as well as spur economic development in the Bangladeshi communities where the Rohingya already have an established, but precarious presence. As it stands, Bangladesh has closed its border with Myanmar, and the Rohingya are now making their way to the far more distant Malaysia by boat — an estimated 13,000 Rohingya fled by sea in 2012.
What’s more, the Muslim majority countries of the Gulf, which hold significant power in the United States, European, and Chinese diplomatic circles (that, in turn, hold influence in Myanmar), have been slow to voice their concerns. While the tide might be slowly turning, time is not on the Rohingya’s side and the need for humanitarian assistance as well as international pressure is acute. But given the weak effort of Muslim majority countries, as well as the ambivalence of Western countries, it is unclear where either will come from.
As Muslims, we should be concerned about the well being of all our fellow inhabitants of this planet, but if we remain silent on issues that are directly affecting our Muslim brothers and sisters, then we are truly drifting away from the concept of the Ummah that is meant to unite us in our faith, regardless of origin.