In Myanmar, attacking the Rohingya is good politics

Plight of thousands of boat people draws international criticism, but locally, persecution works at the polls

Protesters shout slogans against Rohingya boat migrants from Myanmar, who are largely seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to as 'Bengali,' during a demonstration in Yangon on May 27, 2015.
Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty Images

YANGON — Hundreds of protesters, including a small group of crimson-robed Buddhist monks, gathered on a dusty soccer field Wednesday afternoon and began marching through the traffic-clogged streets of Myanmar’s former capital. But while other recent demonstrations here have ended in arrests or violence, the local authorities made things easy for this group. A cluster of police officers sat in plastic chairs sipping tea in a nearby tea shop, barely watching.

That’s because the marchers weren’t protesting education policies or military land grabs; they were targeting the hugely unpopular Rohingya. The stateless minority Muslims are concentrated in western Rakhine state, viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied basic health and education services by the quasi-civilian government that took over from the military junta in 2011. The plight of the Rohingya has made global headlines in recent months as thousands have taken to the seas in rickety boats, creating a regional migrant crisis. Myanmar officials maintain that the root cause of the boat crisis is not their government's treatment of the Rohingya, but rather the corrupt traffickers in the region who have lured them onto boats with promises of jobs abroad.

Protesting what they see as United Nations-led “bullying” of Myanmar, the marchers wore T-shirts emblazoned on the backs with the words “Boat people are not Myanmar — Myanmar should not take the blame for boat people problem.”

The event illustrated an awkward reality as foreign governments and local critics search for a solution to the Southeast Asian migrant crisis. As Myanmar continues its 4-year-old experiment with a more democratic system, attacking the Rohingya — and, by extension, the broader Muslim population, which has long been integrated into Myanmar society — is good politics. And that’s unlikely to change in the run-up to the landmark national elections scheduled for early November.

Moreover, the march was far from spontaneous. It was organized by a group of Buddhist nationalist organizations, including a hard-line subset of Myanmar’s revered order of Buddhist monks, which has spread anti-Muslim sentiment well beyond Rakhine state. Top officials in the country’s ruling party have tolerated and at times encouraged this inflammatory rhetoric.

Government officials “never take action against the extremist nationalist movement,” says Aung Naing Win, a 32-year-old Muslim who coordinates an interfaith religious group in Yangon.

Monks and protesters shout during a march to denounce foreign criticism of the country's treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims, in Yangon, Myanmar, May 27, 2015.
Aubrey Belford / Reuters

Some say that certain members of the government and the military want to use anti-Muslim sentiment as a wedge issue in the national election to position themselves as the protector of Buddhism and limit what could be a landslide win by the opposition National League for Democracy. Many attributed anti-Muslim riots in 2013 to “dark forces” in the former regime collaborating with religious radicals to set back reforms. Others say the government is reacting to pressure from influential monks intent on protecting their longstanding influence as this formerly isolated country opens to a wave of foreign investors and culture. NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has remained largely silent on the issue.

Regardless, nationalists draw on a common bias against Muslims, particularly outside of the more cosmopolitan urban centers, that dates back to colonial times, when many Indian Muslims came to Burma along with the British. The Rohingya, whose national origins are disputed and whom the former military dictatorship actually stripped of citizenship in 1982, bear the worst of it.

The hard-line Buddhists, like firebrand monk Wirathu, have “very extreme views, but they’re not marginal views — these are very mainstream extreme views. It means that all political players have to be very cautious here,” says Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Yangon and former International Labor Organization official. The Ma Ba Tha, a group of nationalist monks, is “tilting the entire political playing field to the Buddhist nationalist right.”

The Rohingya, whom the government calls “Bengalis” amid a long-running nomenclature dispute, have long been a pawn in broader power struggles.

A piece of the group’s handiwork became the law of the land on May 23, when Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, signed into law new “population control” legislation that allows the government to direct women to wait 36 months between having children — a measure widely assumed to be targeting Rohingya, whom many Burmese criticize for their high birth rate. The bill was slammed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Myanmar last week.

It’s one of four laws proposed by the Ma Ba Tha, which is associated with the 969 movement — essentially an economic boycott of Muslim businesses. The government is considering the other three bills, which include a measure to restrict marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men; legislation requiring state approval for religious conversions; and a so-called monogamy requirement. While the more controversial parts of each bill have been watered down, their collective intent is clear.

Many civil-society groups have sought to stymie the bills’ progress, appealing to the public’s sense of tolerance in a country where, despite ethnic tensions, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians have long lived together and intermarried. But those groups have often been rewarded with threats, says Aung Myo Min, a longtime dissident who runs Equality Myanmar, a local group. And some organizations are reluctant to oppose the laws, seeing the issue as too politically sensitive.

The Rohingya, whom the government calls “Bengalis” amid a long-running nomenclature dispute, have long been a pawn in broader power struggles. The Buddhists in Rakhine state are an ethnic minority in their own right, with their own economic problems and a troubled relationship with the national government. Just five years ago, the junta in power at the time allowed Rohingya to vote in the national elections that preceded the end of military rule, but were still viewed as flawed by foreign observers. The junta backed a handful of Rohingya candidates for Parliament in a bid to defeat candidates from the local ethnic Rakhine political party.

Times have changed, particularly since Buddhist-Muslim riots in Rakhine that led to scores of deaths in 2012. While the Rohingya legislators elected in 2010 are still in Parliament, most of their constituents have been stripped of their voting rights. That’s because earlier this year, when the central government said it would allow Rohingya holding government-issued identity cards to vote in a planned constitutional referendum, local Buddhists revolted — and the central government backtracked and demanded that Rohingya turn in their cards.

We are under attack by terrorist so called boat people.

Sign at anti-Rohingya protest

Many in Myanmar’s wider Buddhist population sympathize with the Rakhine Buddhists, who claim to fear a Muslim takeover of their region. Indeed, the message at the Wednesday march had a strong nationalist bent to it, putting the blame on the international community. “We are under attack by terrorist so called boat people,” read one sign.

The goal of the Wednesday march was “to stop U.N. bullying on Myanmar,” says May Thande Aye, a protester who works in Singapore but got caught up in the anti-Rohingya fervor while home for a visit. “Bengali is Bengali. Different culture, different nature, different food.” She rejects the idea that many members of the stateless minority, who are not accepted in Bangladesh either, have been living in Myanmar for generations. “Those stories are lies,” she says, spread by “exile media, fake news.”

Sentiments like that mean that despite the headlines created by the recent migration crisis, the government is unlikely to change the way Rohingya are treated in the short term.

Many of the recent boat people are Bangladeshi citizens — not Rohingya — who left seeking better economic opportunities, and they will be returned to that country. But Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to provide shelter to the latest Rohingya migrants for a year if other countries step in to resettle them. The U.S. State Department said last week that it would consider resettling some of the Rohingya. The United States has steadily ramped up its annual admission of Rohingya refugees over the past five years, from just 54 in fiscal 2010 to 1,129 thus far in fiscal 2015, for a five-year total of 2,613, according to data from the Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Many will likely remain in camps for years. The Rohingya “will not be able to return in the short term and will need some form of temporary stay arrangement until longer-term solutions can be found,” says Vivian Tan, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ spokeswoman in Bangkok.

For the rest of Myanmar’s Muslims, things are also touchy, though there hasn’t been any recent violence on the scale of the riots in central Myanmar in early 2013. Just last week, the government forced the cancellation of a conference by Muslim leaders outside Yangon after some monks objected and after a local Buddhist official took to Facebook and threatened to beat attendees with sticks and serve pork curry.

Aung Naing Win, the interfaith coordinator, says he frequently gets threats, by phone and text message, from Buddhists and was beaten by a mob when he visited Rakhine two years ago. But he also gets flak from Muslims annoyed at his efforts to find common ground with Buddhists. Trained as an imam, he notes that his ethnic roots are largely the same as the majority Bamar population and that his great-grandfather came to Burma from Lucknow, India.

These days, though, “There are lots of [Muslim] people who really want to leave because of the political scenario,” he says. “Even me, I feel not secure.”

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