The Rohingyas are a community whom no country wants. Myanmar, which they consider their home, calls them Bengalis, denies them citizenship rights, looks away as they become targets of ethnic violence, packs them in squalid camps, but refuses to let them leave the country. The Rohingyas pay human smugglers and make their way to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are repulsed. Sick and starving, the people crowd rickety boats and float adrift for weeks in the Indian Ocean waiting for the tension to abate. This has been the fate of the Rohingyas for decades. In the latest round of violence against them, the community has been targeted after Islamist militants attacked Myanmarese security forces, killing a dozen law enforcers early this month. In retaliation, the security forces trained their guns on the Rohingyas, who are Muslims. Neighbouring Bangladesh has again refused them entry; Dhaka has asked Yangon to take them back.
Myanmar is a multicultural society with 135 communities. But the country’s citizenship act does not recognise the Rohingyas as one of the “national races”. The 1.1 million people from the community lack documentation to satisfy the constitutional requirement that their ancestors settled in the country before 1823. Despite Myanmar’s transition towards democracy in the past five years, the country’s government refuses to address the issue. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has, disappointingly, chosen the path of political expediency in the face of strong anti-Muslim sentiment in her Buddhist majority country.
Ashin Wirathu, the Mandalay-based Buddhist monk who spearheads the anti-Rohingya campaign, warns of Myamar being threatened by an influx of “Muslim hordes”. The refusal of Suu Kyi and the Myanmarese leadership to condemn him — and the international community’s apathy to the Rohingya problem — is a glaring failure in view of the region’s fragile ethno-religous balance. Myanmar, Bangladesh and India are part of a geographical continuum; persecution of a community in one part has ripple effects in the rest of the region. Hindu and Buddhist minorities in Bangladesh have become targets of Islamist militants in the past four years. Northeast India, parts of which share borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, has its own share of ethnic conflicts. Rabble rousers in India speak the same disturbing language as Wirathu. It is time leadership in the region recognises that protecting the rights of the minorities holds the key to political stability.