Behind the Rohingya Diaspora
a Story that Began 200 Years Ago
Emanuele Giordana 19 September 2017

The village of Yandabo is situated in central Myanmar on the shores of the Ayeyarwady River and is nowadays famous for its terracotta pots. On the 24th of February 1826, however, it was the setting for a treaty signed between the Burmese and the British, marking the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War.

In a sense it was in Yandabo, almost two hundred years ago, that the tragic experience of the Rohingya began (the Bengali-speaking Muslim minority that, in recent weeks, has been the subject of persecution, resulting in the deportation of 380,000 people from Myanmar to Bangladesh). At the time, what has since become the state of Rakhine (where the now increasingly reduced Rohingya community resides) was still under the influence of Burmese monarchs, which controlled the independent kingdoms in this area of the Gulf of Bengal. The Burmese and the East India Company which, from Calcutta, had administered the Eastern expansion of the London-based trading empire, suffered a conflict of interests much to the detriment of the Rakhine and other Burmese-dominated regions. Following the war and the Treaty of Yandabo, the Burmese were deprived of lands that, before the invasions from the East, extended all the way to today’s Chittagong, the second largest city in what is now Bangladesh.

Just like other Arakanese minority and their territories, the Rohingya frequently changed hands.

Having once been part of an independent kingdom and later fallen under Burmese control, they were finally  incorporated into the administration of British Bengal.

As part of the British Indian Empire, the Rakhine (which the British called Arakan) was thus destined to become Burmese once again, under British dominion. Then, following a brief Japanese interval, it became part of the Union of Burma which became independent in 1948, a few years after the end of World War II. In all of this, the Rohingya and other minorities had at times changed masters without even being aware of it. These were changes that, as always, did not pay much attention to the rifts that moving borders creates in communities which, from one day to the next, find themselves coexisting alongside new people under a new master.

The history of borders – ancient, modern, colonial and so on – along with the tragedies of those straddling them, is nothing new. Every time there is a change of flag, the integration processes are further complicated, often resulting in unresolved identity issues, discontent, legals claims and conflicts. The case of the Rohingya has been particularly tragic. Newly independent Burma has always been intolerant of them and ended up not acknowledging them as citizens. In an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, in which the Muslim minority amounts to only 5% of its current 50 million inhabitants (although being host to hundreds of different communities, languages and traditions, many of whose integration processes have never been completed), efforts made to provide status for the various entities have never accommodated the Rohingya.

To this day, the law regulating the status of Burmese minorities totally excludes this community, which is described as consisting of ‘Bengali immigrants’ and therefore perceived as extraneous, almost as if it were they who had moved and not the borders! Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burmese government recently entrusted the ad hoc analysis of the situation to former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan (the first serious attempt on behalf of a Nobel prize winner to address the issue) who blamed the 1982 citizenship law, requesting for it to be revised. Not only does this law state that belonging to the country depends on one’s ethnicity but that citizenship status is to be classified as either full, associated or naturalised. Within this system – which applies to ordinary Burmese (the Bamar), Kachin, Shan, Kharen and dozens of other minority groups – the Rohingya are not to be found. Eligibility for full citizenship is based on belonging to the ‘national races’ which are only considered as such if they were present in Myanmar before the British occupation. In spite of having lived there for centuries, the Rohingya have not been considered as autochthonous and therefore forbidden from having full citizenship.

The Rohingya issue dates back to well before 1982. Pogroms and various pressures imposed onto this unrepresented community, which can neither vote nor present political candidates, have forced it to embark on a creeping exodus, resulting in it becoming one of the world’s greatest diasporas. It’s possible for us to state that Rakhine now hosts over a million Rohingya (of which 140,00 are in camps for the internally displaced) but in reality there is no reliable census. If there were, it may surprise us. According to a reenactment by the Qatari network Al Jazeera, the slow departure from Rakhine has resulted in a diaspora more widespread than any ever before seen in Muslim countries: with 200,000 Rohingya thought to be living in Saudi Arabia, 10,000 in the United Arab Emirates, 350,000 in Pakistan, 40,000 in India (risking deportation), 5,000 in Thailand, 150,000 in Malaysia and a thousand in Indonesia. Bangladesh alone is said to now host almost a million.

The recent deportation to Bangladesh, which started due to the incidents of August 25th, 2017 (when a Islamic-inspired secessionist group attacked thirty police stations), has resulted so far in about 380,000 refugees, many of which are trapped in the no man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh and further obstacled by the risk posed by Burmese minefields should they try and return. To these, one must add the approximate 80,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh starting in October, when a first armed attack by secessionists belonging to ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) experienced the first indiscriminate reaction on behalf of the army and a consequent migratory wave. However, in 2016 there were already thought to be almost 500,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh. It is necessary to use the conditional because, once again, the census is rather unreliable. Although it is a ‘friendly country’, Bangladesh has problems of its own and would like to send the Rohingya back home, no longer allowing for them to become citizens. This may be because illegal Rohingya easily escape all border control thanks to the ethnic-linguistic similarities with Bangladeshis.

Numbers aside, the problem is a political one. Is crossing the border a voluntary decision or is deportation the cause? Is it a temporary event or does this cycle warrant the suspicion  of ‘ethnic cleansing’, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested? Is it islamophobia or racism?

It seems evident that there is a problem linked to religion. It is so evident that the Dalai Lama, in spite of expressing solidarity for the Muslim victims, has not accused the government in Naypyidaw, but only expressed compassion for the refugees. It is equally true that with the exception of Pope Francis (whose words resulted in reactions and concern in the Catholic Church in Myanmar), Western countries and their leaders have been rather soft on the Burmese government, leaving condemnation above all to countries belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Conference such as Pakistan, Turkey or Malaysia. But there is more. A number of researchers believe that the deportation of this minority is not only linked to religious phobias and the revival of the Buddhist identity, but also to an economic project to take possession of those lands. Since the Nineties, the then government of generals (replaced in 2015 by the first civilian government in decades) inaugurated a policy involving the requisition of land considered to be underused. The idea, shared by many other countries, is that private companies with large amounts of capital can make better use of underdeveloped areas promoting a wealthier future. Since 2012, a law has provided even greater support to the large national and international corporations capable of managing thousands of hectares. Acquisitions are to the disadvantage of uncultivated areas, the forests, but also small or very small plots owned by farmers that the law itself has decidedly neglected, abolishing a previous law that protected them. The area inhabited by the Rohingya is part of these plans, and since then over 1.2 million hectares have changed hands. It is hard for those without citizenship to have ownership papers and impossible for those whose homes have been burned down and who have fled, to return and claim their possessions.

The future remains very uncertain. International diplomacy moves slowly and UN agencies can do little if the Security Council remains silent, a council where China, a great investor in Myanmar and a great patron of stability in the country, slows matters down with support from Moscow (so much so that all that has been requested so far are “immediate steps to put an end to the violence”). The same can be said for India, another important neighbour and one that, as far as the Rohingya are concerned, has assumed a very harsh position, threatening to deport them from the Union. Then there are civil society’s associations, whose influence is important but insufficient, although they can at least try and guarantee access for humanitarian aid, as in the cases of Amnesty, Nobels for Peace and MSF. Following the opening hearing on state crimes committed against the Rohingya, Kachin and other communities in Myanmar, The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), held in London on March 6th and 7th, 2017, summoned a final public hearing that will be held from September 18th to the 22nd, 2017, in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. Witnesses and experts will present the results of investigations carried out on the basis of elements contained in the preliminary charges that accuse the Burmese government of “serious crimes”. Finally there is the Pope’s visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, planned for the end of November, which compensates for Suu Kyi’s decision to not wish to attend the next session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In the meantime, time moves on like sand in an hourglass, slowly revealing the unfolding tragedy and suffering with no solution in sight.

Translated by Francesca Simmons