Many people have reached out with questions about the conflict with the Rohingya and what is has been like living in Myanmar during such a heightened conflict. I am writing about my experiences and perceptions of the issue. That being said, I am in no way an expert and much of what I write about is anecdotal, and thus not true of everyone.
Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi
For some context on the issue, Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s de facto leader after replacing decades of military rule. The constitution, however, was designed by the military and still grants the military veto power over legislation and ultimate control over the government. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate, has been criticized by international organizations and media for not acting to stop what the UN has defined as a “textbook ethnic cleansing.” In speeches addressed to an international audience, Aung San Suu Kyi has not denounced the atrocities perpetuated by the military and has implicitly sided with the military.
Cause of Recent Violence
The recent flare in the decades long conflict between the Rohingya, Arakanese Buddhists, and the military was sparked by an attack on military posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (“ARSA”), which killed 12 military men. The military responded, falsely claiming to only target ARSA members, by burning down villages and killing civilians. There are accounts of rape, and thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.
Buddhist Majority’s Anti-Mulsim Response
The international media has been highlighting the horrendous treatment of the Rohingya and interviewing refugees living in dire conditions. This international attention has angered many Burmese because the coverage has painted the Rohingya as victims and does not elaborate on the decades of conflict behind the situation. That being said, there is a lot of anti-muslim sentiment in Myanmar amongst many ethnic groups. Fake news circled on Facebook that the Rohingya were burning their own villages and trying to blame it on the military. The news was clearly fake and consisted of images of people with fake head garments making fires, but people believed it-maybe because they wanted it to be true. There’s fear that the Muslim population is growing and will eventually destroy the dominant Buddhist nature of Myanmar. I had a student in class tell me that people in Indonesia and Malaysia had converted to Islam because Muslims had used violence. This is very false; there are almost no records about why people converted to Islam, but what is available does not indicate violence was used. Other people have told me, as well, that Muslims in general use force to convert people to Islam.
Rohingya-Not an Ethnic Group
When discussing the Rohingya, it’s important to note that Rohingya is technically not an ethnic group, and the term Rohingya was coined by an Englishman in the 18th century. The military government created an amendment to the Constitution in 1982 to prohibit the Rohingya from being citizens by stating that only people from ethnic groups that entered the country prior to 1823. The Rohingya have traced origins to Myanmar for centuries, but many came to Myanmar during the British rule between 1824 and 1948. The government now, including Aung San Suu Kyi, will not address the Rohingya as Rohingya, but rather calls them Bengalis because calling them Rohingya will give some validation that they are an ethnic group of Myanmar that should be given citizenship.
Conditions of Rohingya in Rakhine State
The Rohingya in Rakhine State live in abysmal conditions. They cannot leave the country without approval from the government, and the government restricts access to basic necessities and communication via cell service. Because they are not citizens, there are restrictions on their ability to study, work, marry, and practice their religion, and these restrictions continue to be tightened by the government.
Complexity of Issue and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Response
Many experts have sympathized with Aung San Suu Kyi because of the complexity of the issue. Firstly, the newly formed “democracy” in Myanmar is in its very nascent stages and is fragile. Aung San Suu Kyi is essentially the mother of the democracy, and the only stability with the democracy resides in her presence. If Aung San Suu Kyi were to outright speak against the acts of the military, this could directly threaten the new democracy that she has worked her entire life to build. The military could imprison her, which would cause great instability, or they could even overthrow the government all together. These are huge risks for the country. Secondly, a lot of the Bamar majority doesn’t like the Rohingya, and if Aung San Suu Kyi were to support the Rohingya, she could potentially lose support amongst her base. Thirdly, she also doesn’t want to get on the military’s bad side because the military still holds veto power, and this could destroy any hopes she has of making progress in the future.
Bond Between Buddhists and Christians
Additionally, it appears that Buddhists and Christians have banned together in some sense; both groups are anti-Rohingya. I have also heard Burmese Buddhists describe Christians as being good and likable. However, it’s interesting that Christians are in support of the government in regards to this conflict because they are also a minority in the country, and the Burmese government has not historically been kind to minority groups. As far as the current, positive view of Christians by Buddhists, I wonder if some of this stems from colonization. The Buddhists were colonized by British, Christians and so in a way, they were forced to accept Christianity. Also, Christians are viewed as having a presence in the West and with white people; whereas, Muslims have origins in the Middle East and India, have darker skin, and are associated with terrorism. This could have an impact especially in a country where a lot of beauty is placed on lighter skin tones.
Aung San Suu Kyi -Recently Stated- May Help With Aid
On October 13th, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that she plans to instate a civilian-led agency to help provide relief and help resettle Rohingya in the Rakhine State. She also invited aid organizations and business leaders to join the initiative. Not much detail has been provided on the plan. We will remain hopeful.