Global Thoughts: The Reluctant Rohingyas

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

by Gwynne Dyer


The Rohingyas are around a million Bengali-speaking people who lived in Rakhine state in Burma until late last year. Then the Burmese army attacked them, claiming they were illegal immigrants. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands were raped, their villages were burned – and at least 700,000 of them are now in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has described these Burmese actions as ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide,’ but the Burmese army denies any wrongdoing. So does its civilian political partner, ‘State Counsellor’ Aung San Suu Kyi. (Remember her? She used to be a secular saint).

Bangladesh doesn’t want these refugees, whose ancestors have lived in Burma for generations, so last month it made a deal with Burma to send them back. But if Burma really wanted them back, it wouldn’t have bothered to drive them out in the first place.

The United Nations has no part in this ‘repatriation’ scheme. It was a private deal between Bangladesh and Burma, and the Burmese army knew perfectly well that the refugees would be too terrified to go back. Agreeing to take them back just made the generals who planned the atrocity look a little less vile.

The Bangladeshi authorities fell for it, and chose 2,200 Rohingya refugees to go back in the first contingent. The Rohingyas weren’t fooled, and most of the chosen immediately went into hiding, changing camps or fleeing into the woods.

The Rohingya won’t go back because they are afraid for their lives. It wasn’t just the army but their own non-Muslim neighbours who turned on them and took part in the slaughter. If you are recalling images of the massacres and expulsions of Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, you are absolutely right. It’s happening again, and again nobody is doing anything effective to stop it.

How did it come to this? Bamars (ethnic ‘Burmese’) account for two-thirds of Burma’s population, but there are eight other recognised ethnic groups, most with their own language or languages. The Rohingya should be the ninth, but they were stripped of their citizenship by Burma’s military dictatorship in 1982.

Why them? They were only 2 percent of Burma’s population, they were a minority even in Rakhine state where they almost all lived, and they never did any harm to the majority. They are, however, Muslims, and the Buddhist majority in Burma is paranoid about Muslims.

Buddhism once dominated Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Indonesia, but it has been in retreat for a long time. The only Buddhist-majority countries left today are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. So Burmese Buddhists see even one million Muslims as a threat – and rabble-rousing Buddhist monks advance their careers by preaching fear and hatred.

It’s irrational and reprehensible. The Rohingya are just as Burmese as any of the recognised minorities. The first Bengali-speaking Muslims arrived in Rakhine state in the 15th century. The last significant wave of immigration was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s now the 21st century, and there is no excuse for what the Burmese army has done: to understand all is NOT to forgive all. Neither is there any excuse for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, she was trying to preserve a hard-won democratic opening that might close if she openly criticised the army. Moreover, the average Burmese heartily approves of what the army has done. But she is condoning and covering up a genocide. Shame on her.

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