It was in 1982 that the Muslim Rohingya were stripped of their Burmese citizenship and became the stateless, persecuted minority they are today. Their misery has intensified in recent months as mobs of Buddhists, incited to violence by local politicians and even monks, have attacked Rohingya villages in the western state of Rakhine. In incidents apparently sparked by the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in May, at least 170 Rohingya have been killed and 100,000 driven from their homes into camps.
The violence comes at a time of unprecedented — and mostly justified — optimism in Myanmar. In the past 18 months, the country has undergone an astounding transformation, from a reviled dictatorship to a fragile democracy worthy of an official visit by US President Barack Obama. The new sense of freedom may have, ironically, allowed previously suppressed communal hatreds to bubble horribly to the surface.
A Muslim group of Bengali origin, many of the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine have lived there for generations, although some may be relatively recent arrivals. There are claims by some Rohingya that Muslim kings ruled the region for more than 100 years from as early as the 15th century. That is not how most of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who live in the state see it.
To them, the people who call themselves Rohingya are simply Bengali interlopers — recent Muslim arrivals trying to take their land. According to this version — shared by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority population — Rohingya arrived in the past two centuries, brought by the British from the Chittagong region of Bengal to work in the paddy fields. Many Buddhists reject even the term Rohingya, regarding it as a modern-day invention.
Many Myanmarese who thought Obama’s speech at Yangon University this week was inspirational said they disliked his reference to the Rohingya issue. In a powerful section of his address, the US president conceded that “every nation struggles to define citizenship”. There was no excuse, however, for violence against innocent people, he said, and universal principles applied to everyone, no matter what religion they practised, where they came from or what they looked like.
Contrast that with the message of U Ye Myint Aung, former Myanmar consul-general in Hong Kong, who in 2009 contrasted the Rohingya “dark brown” complexion with the “fair and soft” skin of the Myanmarese. “In reality, Rohingya are neither ‘Myanmar people’ nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” he said, adding that they were “as ugly as ogres”.
The Myanmar of 2009, an isolated and despised junta, is a world away from the country today. Myanmar is opening and liberalising at a pace rarely seen in modern history. The government, led by President Thein Sein, now has the chance to show to the world just how far it has come. The Rohingya problem, which has the makings of a human catastrophe on a truly horrible scale, presents the government with the opportunity to prove that it cannot only meet the aspirations of its people but also lead from the front.
In June, the government declared a state of emergency and sent thousands of troops to the state to protect the Rohingya. This is an extraordinary development. The army, which for years led the assault against ethnic minorities, now finds itself protecting one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, has not covered herself with glory over the issue. She has called for the establishment of law and order but has stuck to the formula that “both communities have suffered human rights violations and both have also violated human rights”.
That is true. But it is rather like saying that whites as well as blacks violated human rights in apartheid South Africa. The comparison is not far-fetched. Since the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship they have been classified as temporary residents, required to buy registration cards and to seek permission to travel between villages, to marry and even to have more than two children. Those Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh have been ruthlessly turned back to Myanmar or herded into stinking internment camps.
In recent days, Sein has begun to move in the right direction. In a letter to the UN, he said the government would consider all solutions “ranging from resettlement to granting of citizenship”. Rakhine state would also be fully open to humanitarian aid, he said, after complaints from relief agencies that they cannot reach many of the affected people.
Myanmar’s biggest challenge — greater even than the move to democracy — is to settle the ethnic minority issue by establishing a federal union and ending permanently some of the longest-running insurgencies in the world. War with the Kachin in the north of the country still rages. But unlike other minorities in Myanmar, including the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin and Shan, the Rohingya are not regarded as a legitimate ethnic group. That makes the stakes all the higher. The government should grant the Rohingya citizenship. On that basis it could defend their rights as citizens. It would not be popular. But it would be the right thing to do.