In 2009, Myanmar’s then consul-general in Hong Kong sent a letter to local newspapers and fellow diplomats posted in the Chinese territory. It was addressing concerns over the treatment of refugees from Myanmar’s Rohingya population, a Bengali-speaking Muslim minority long marginalised in the country. Incidents of shipwrecked boats bearing half-starved, desperate Rohingya from Myanmar had won wider attention in the region.

Ye Myint Aung, Myanmar’s envoy in Hong Kong, hoped to dissuade others from feeling sympathy for the Rohingya. His method for doing this was by revealing his shocking racism. The Rohingya, he said, “are as ugly as ogres,” and do not share the “fair and soft” skin of other Myanmarese ethnic groups.

Therefore, Myanmar’s consul-general concluded, “Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” as he trotted out his government’s long-standing contention that the Rohingya are interlopers in Myanmar and don’t deserve citizenship rights.

More than half a decade has passed since then and the situation in Myanmar has changed for the better. The country has opened up. The secretive, dictatorial military junta that once held sway has allowed the advent of a fledgling, albeit heavily curtailed democracy. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from decades of house arrest and is now a main leader of the opposition. But the miserable condition of the Rohingya, a forgotten, stateless people, persists. The UN deems them “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”

There are some 1.3 million Rohingya, the majority of whom live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, on the western border with Bangladesh and India, and struggle to access basic state services. About 140,000 Rohingya eke out a squalid existence in ramshackle camps, displaced by ethnic and sectarian strife in 2013 and neglected by the Myanmar government.

Recent UN calls on the Myanmar government to grant the Rohingya full citizenship rights, including a General Assembly resolution passed in December, have been received with hostility. Angry anti-Rohingya marches this week persuaded the government to scrap tentative plans to give Rohingya carrying temporary documents the right to vote in an upcoming referendum.

Hard-core nationalists

Much of the ire is fanned by a hard-core of nationalist Buddhist monks. Certain groups play an outsize role in fanning sentiment against the Rohingya, whom they like to characterise as ‘Bengali’ illegal immigrants rather than a distinct Myanmarese ethnic group. (Never mind that many generations of Rohingya have lived on what’s Myanmarese soil.)

Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist cleric notorious for his xenophobic rhetoric, even earned a spot on the cover of Time magazine’s International edition, with the cover line: ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’. The saffron-clad Wirathu dubs himself Myanmar’s ‘Bin Laden,” and indulges in frenzied, un-monk-like speeches calling for tough action on Muslims. He raises the fear of forced conversions and terrorism. Last year, he addressed a gathering of nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, another nation with a Buddhist majority, warning of “a jihad against Buddhist monks.”

But critics say Wirathu and his ilk, more often than not, are the ones inciting mob violence against Myanmar’s Muslims, including non-Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds have died in recent years amid riots and tit-for-tat attacks.

It’s a worrying development in a diverse nation that’s just emerging from the straight-jacket of authoritarian rule. Perhaps the most depressing indication of the Rohingya’s plight is the relative silence of Suu Kyi, a global icon for democracy and human rights. The Nobel laureate, in keeping with the Mynmar government’s policy, refuses to even say the word ‘Rohingya’ — which in Myanmar’s polarised context would be an act of recognising the community’s rights, let alone its very existence.

— Washington Post


Credit: Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at Time, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.