To be Burmese is to be Buddhist

The Rohingya Refugee
Crisis in Myanmar has most recently been titled as the biggest human rights
violation in the world. In fact, it may be titled as one of the world’s largest
government-enforced genocides. The ongoing persecutions and violence directed
at the Rohingya group has caused them to flee to neighbouring countries as
refugees.  Islamophobic notions and
anti-Muslim movements have caused widespread oppression directed at the group,
and towards various others within the area. The oppression and abuse of human
rights has been a spiralling effect of the nationalistic ideals that have been
harbouring in Myanmar’s Buddhist population for centuries.  The treatment they receive from the Myanmar
government and military is an unquestionable threat to human rights laws.  The contribution of the Myanmar Government
enforces deliberate exclusionary policies on the group. Policies as such have
ultimately systematically marginalized and persecuted the group population. (Ullah).
 From country to country, the Rohingya
group struggles to obtain official identity and recognition. They have most
recently been recognised in the media as the “people with no nation”.  The group population has continuously failed
to obtain any form of citizenship, especially within Myanmar. The Rohingyas
account for one eighth of the world’s stateless population. (Mahmood).  While not only have the laws and legislation
in Myanmar allowed for the evident marginalization of the group, but that the
military treatment has swayed and influenced the larger society of Myanmar on
their actions and behaviours towards the group.

The Rohingya tribe is
famously labeled as “the world’s most persecuted minorities.” (Al Jazeera).
The
group consists of roughly 1.5 to 2 million people, living across Southeast
Asia. However, a large concentration of the group is found in Rakhine state. This
state is located on the western coast of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh.   The
word “Rohingya” derives from the historical word for “Arakanese” Muslims living
in the area who were referred to as “Rohaing” before the state was established
as “Arakan”, which is currently called “Rakhine” state. (Ullah).  The Rakhine state is one of the most
impoverished states in Myanmar. Many villages in the area are classified as
“ghettoized” with frequent referencing to slums. (Mahmood). The Rohingya group
largely identifies as Muslim, with a small fraction of a Buddhist population.  Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation in the
Southeastern region of the world.  For
centuries, Buddhism has been a prevailing religion practiced throughout
Myanmar’s history.

In 1044, Buddhism was
titled as the official religion of the nation. (Harvard).  However, Islam has been present in Myanmar as
early as the 8th century CE, which had arrived through the context
of trade. (Harvard).  The earliest
presumed date of the Rohingya group’s existence as a community in Myanmar may
be traced back to the 7th century – before the arrival of Islam. (ARNO).  Between the 16th and 18th
century, historical documents suggest that Muslims had been serving alongside
with the Myanmar Buddhist in the country’s army. Intermarriage between the
Muslims and Buddhist had also been noted throughout the pre-colonial period in
Myanmar. (Harvard).  However, beginning
in 1824, British colonizers embarked on their mission to colonize Myanmar. By
1886, their quest had been completed – which then occupied Myanmar as a
province of British India. (King). This occupation of the British gave rise the
social incompatibility between the Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar. (Harvard).
In this period, the Muslims of the then-Arakan state sided and aligned with the
British colonizers during the emergence of World War II.  Distrust and conflict from that point enabled
much of the later struggles between the groups. (King).

It was not until nearly
one century later, in 1942 that Japan had invaded the then-province of British
India. This escalated and resulted in the breaking of the British colonial rule.
The invasion also resulted in the fleeing of many minority group such as the
Rohingyas, to temporarily reside in various East-Asian countries. (Ullah)  By 1947, Myanmar was established as an
independent nation. The newfound nationalism of Myanmar developed ideas influencing
many to desire dominance over various ethnic groups settled throughout the
nation. This independence allowed Buddhism to be reckoned as the dominating
religion, and further, as a “dominant” identity. The effects of this had
heightened the conflict between nationalists and many minority groups – with
emphasis on the Rohingya group. (Burke, 262). After the establishment of
independence, some of the Rohingya people received national registration cards
– but by the early 1960’s the dubious civil relationship between the groups
excelled in its erosion. (Mahmood).  By
the late 1960’s, the government started to call the group “Bengalis” to impose
an immigration status on the population. (Ullah).  Even so, the Arakan Rohingya National
Organisation claims that ancestors of the group have lived there “from time immemorial.”(ARNO).  However, the Myanmar government fails to
recognise them as one of their “official ethnic groups”. In 1982, the Myanmar
Citizenship Law was divided into three categories – citizens, associate
citizens, and naturalised citizens. (Ullah) From this categorisation of
citizenship, the Rohingya group was categorized as “resident foreigners”,
denying them of citizenship. Following the three categories of citizenship, was
a ranking of Myanmar’s “official ethnic groups”.  Any group that had been placed from 1st
to 135th were to be recognised as an official ethnic group within
Myanmar. The Rohingyas were ranked as number 136th on the chart,
rejecting the population as a recognised ethnic group.  The Myanmar government claims the reason their
citizenship was dismissed is that they were not able to provide sufficient
evidence on the settlement of their ancestors before the year 1823. (Mahmood). The
bleak struggle of acceptance to the Rohingyas status has grown to a point of
not just passive disregard and dislike – but has now escalated to the point of
many committing acts of physical violence and terror on the group.

The State Counsellor of
Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of Aung San, a major General during 1940’s
to 1950’s – assumed a position as a Member of Parliament in 2012 and is the
leader of the National League for Democracy in 2012. (Lee). Suu Kyi has casted
a profound influence over the majority group in Myanmar, however, she has
turned a blind eye on the ongoing human rights violations taking place in her
nation. She has been an active political figure since 1988, and was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her “personification of democratic ideals”.
(Lee). Various scholars suggest that some of the various factors shaping Suu
Kyi’s attitudes and actions towards the group may be in relation to her sense
of obligation towards her father’s political legacy. (Lee).  Her father, Aung San, who was the
first president of Myanmar, stated that “to be Burman is to be Buddhist”.  This notion was amplified and insisted by
many successors of the position. Aung San’s successor, U Nu, promised to
constitute Buddhism as the national religion – successful in his act, supreme Buddhist
nationalism was born. (Van Klinken). An additional factor towards Suu Kyi’s
behaviours may be a result of the unsettled historical relationship between the
Muslims and Buddhist Nationalists in Myanmar. The concept of “Buddhist
Nationalism” in the context of Myanmar proposes a strong sense of an anti-Muslim
outlook. Nationalism and strong distaste for the “Others” can often be a side
effect of fear – fear of losing traditional dominance and power to the
unfamiliar “others”. Alternatively, perhaps, the behaviour she omits is an
effect of her own internalized ethical views and personal biases towards
certain ethnic groups such as the Rohingyas. (Green). Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’s
blatant silence towards the abuse towards the minority group has generated
dismay throughout the global community and beyond human rights organizations.
The current, yet-to-be-passed legislation package in was proposed in Myanmar to
actively exclude various religious groups from practicing, getting involved in
politics, and to some extent, reproduction. 
This package is proposed to protect concerns of “racial purity”.  Within this legislation package lies four
main bills: the Population Control Health Care law, the Religious Conversion
Bill, the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, and the Monogamy
Bill. Throughout each part of this legislation package, elements are found to
restrict and constrain many aspects in the lives of those specifically who
identify as Muslim, even more so, as Rohingya. (Green). In 2015, 180 Myanmar
civil society organisations made a joint statement proposing against the
legislation. Together, the organisations proclaimed that likelihood of the
bills would “destroy stability and incite conflict and tensions” within the
wider society of Myanmar. (Green). However, this statement was certain not to
stop the re-elected president, Thein Sein, to pass the first bill, being the
Population Control Health Care law.  This
enforces “birthing spaces” and allows the Myanmar government to regulate
population growth in communities where “population growth leads to imbalanced
resources”. (Green). Currently, the government exercises strict laws and
policies specifically towards Rakhine state. For example, people of Rakhine
state are not issued citizenship, given proof of identification, or admitted birth
certificates. Further, they are prohibited from engaging in elections and participating
as members of political parties. Moreover, no one living in Rakhine state is
entitled to leave without government permission. (Van Klinken).  Ironically, the large majority have been
forced to leave the state from 2012, following into 2017.

 “The recent violence in Myanmar builds on the
past… on the legacy of colonialism.” (Burke, 262)  Between 2012 and 2013, over 1,000 Rohingya
people were found dead from repetitive violent attacks and cases of harassment,
and had additionally displaced over 125,000. (Burke, 261). Throughout this
series of events, participants in the attacks followed with the gang rape of
women, burning of homes, and murder of men and children. (Van Klinken). This
had commenced the organized violence and attacks on the Rohingya groups in
Myanmar. However, the events that took place between 2012 and 2013 were only a
continuation of decades of lurking oppression and dissent. The crimes had
heightened and promoted Myanmar’s broad society’s hatred towards ethnic groups,
more frequently towards religious groups, such as the Rohingyas.  Military and police forces were often
hesitant to intervene the violence, taking place in early 2012, yet over time,
the military junta increasing took part and enforced the merciless violence.  The treatment imposed on the Rohingyas and
similar groups in Southeast Asia is an apparent and frank infringement on human
right’s laws. As stated in the United Nations Core International Human Rights
Treaties:

“Having
regard to article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 7
of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which
provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment.” (UN)

Yet, this subjection of
cruel, inhumane, and widely degrading treatment occurs – and occurs through government
supported military raids. These hate crimes imposed against Rohingya Muslims
has altered into crimes of violence and terror attacks on many other religious
minority groups’ situation across Southeast Asia. Anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu
riots have been occurring in the country as early as the 1930’s. In 1993, large
numbers of protests occurred with military enforcers tolerating the riots and
“standing by”. (Van Klinken).  Inhumane treatment
and mass pillaging has been persistent within the state for several years. In
September of 2017, a reported interview from Wall Street Journal writes on an
interview with a now-orphaned young girl. The article states:  

“…she
had just finished taking the cows to pasture that morning when soldiers in
olive-green uniform stormed her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. She said
her absence saved her life… she described how troops dragged her mother and
several other women into a hut. She heard screams from inside. Then the
soldiers came out and set the hut ablaze.” (Al-Mahmood).

Since the international
recognition of events as such in the media, the Myanmar military has closed all
entrances into Rakhine state from humanitarian assistance. This accounts for UN
investigative groups, to human rights groups, to the media. (Breyer). The only
footage and proof of the tragedies and destruction occurring in the state is
provided from helicopters overhead, and satellite images. Additionally, reports
of military-assembled landmines had been situated around the villages in
attempt to “seize” fleeing residents. Multiple accounts state that the Myanmar
military insist that the Rohingya people are burning their own homes and
terrorizing their own villages. They claim their military enforcement to be
acts of “anti-terrorism”. (Breyer).

The Rohingya people of
Rakhine state have been historically marginalised and oppressed by the
overwhelmingly Buddhist majority group in Myanmar. Categorized as “resident
foreigners”, the group fails to be accepted as citizens of the nation of
Myanmar. Additionally, many other minority groups who are not Rohingya face
military oppression and persecution – most of which are Muslim groups.
(Breyer). Factors of religion, “race”, and the concept of national identity
place high importance in the views of the Buddhist majority group, as well as
the government of Myanmar and their attitudes conveyed towards the Rohingya
population. Ideologies and concepts of nationalism prevail and govern fear of
the religious – and the racial – “other”.  Those who view themselves as Myanmar “nationalists”
embody a false sense of identity – yet, this identity is authentic in that it
exists, and exists among many. “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist”.  Religion acts as both a detrimental aspect of
Myanmar’s society and an aspect of internalized identity. In Myanmar, religion
has been engulfed into a sense of nationality, and desire for “racial purity”.
In the context of Myanmar, religion is conceptualized into the understanding of
“race”. These concepts, throughout time, have escalated into visions on what
religions – and cultures – are and are not suitable to be represented and
sanctioned in the social sphere of Myanmar.  Religion does not condone acts of hate and
other crimes, but it is how individuals internalize and suppress dissent that
may lead to widespread moral panic among those who share corresponding views.  Currently, the majority of Rohingyas are
seeking refuge in nearby villages in Bangladesh, many others have escaped to
India, Pakistan, and Thailand. With the global community watching with a keen
eye, humanitarian groups and the United Nations are continuously working
towards a better resolution to, with hope, ease the situation.