Who are the Rohingyas, these pariahs of Asia that even the "Burmese heroine of democracy" Aung San Suu Kyi hesitated to defend during her European trip? Since the beginning of June, the riots that broke out in the western Burmese state of Arakan - called Rakhine by the government - between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority officially killed 80 people and wounded 54 others. The U.N. World Food Program provided emergency aid to 60,000 people and said 90,000 displaced people needed assistance.
NGOs believe that there are many more casualties. Some sources suspect that the Burmese security forces helped the Buddhists during anti-Muslim pogroms.
The very origin of the name Rohingya is controversial. Burmese historians claim that no one had ever heard of them before the 1950s, thus supporting the Myanmar government's stance that denies them any rights or citizenship and considers them as illegal migrants.
The Rohingya are physically similar to Bangladeshis and speak a language close to the Bengali in Chittagong, southern Bangladesh. Their origins are probably quite diverse, spanning Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Moors or other Persians who descended upon South East Asia throughout the centuries.
According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are "the most persecuted minority in the world." There are 800,000 of them in Arakan State, especially near the border with Bangladesh, where over the years they have massively fled the Burmese junta's repression, most notably in 1978 and 1991-1992. Several hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas still live in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Many of them live in absolute poverty.
The Gypsies of Asia
No one wants the Rohingyas. They are the Gypsies of the Far East, long oppressed by the Burmese regime that calls them "Bengalis" or worse, "black monsters." They are even turned back by Bangladeshi border guards. Bangladesh, whose past "Islamic" solidarity no longer prevails, doesn't want to add to its own problems.
In Rangoon, the hatred can be felt online, where the Rohingyas are compared to "dogs, thieves, terrorists." One web user, commenting on a picture of a Rohingya corpse during the last riots, wrote this sentence: "Death is still too small a punishment for them!"
Even former imprisoned dissidents think they should leave the country and go "back home," though they don't have one. Implanted on the Burmese territory at least as far back as the beginning of the British rule, they have nowhere else to go. The Burmese government has denied them citizenship.
In 1982, a law made them officially stateless. The Rohingyas aren't recognized as an ethnic minority in a country where there are over 130 identified ethnicities. They have trouble marrying or sending their children to school, and they're not allowed to go to university. They were the first targets the former junta's exactions during the former junta: extortion, land confiscation, forced labor.
The partial end of censorship and the pursuit of democratization by the current government have enabled free speech, the downside of which being that it has awakened and liberated the old demons of racism and religious or ethnic discrimination.
Ethnic tensions on the rise
It all started in June, after the rape and murder of a young Burmese Buddhist, 28-year-old Ma Thidar Htwe. After rumors of Rohingya involvement spread, a mob of Buddhists attacked a bus full of Muslims, lynching 10 of them to death.
A cycle of retaliation started when the Rohingyas looted an Arkanese Buddhist village before they were themselves attacked and driven out of their lands. Burmese president Thein Sein imposed the State of Emergency and established a curfew in the troubled areas. Censorship, which the government said would be abolished on June 1st, was reestablished - or not lifted - on any information about the inter-religious riots.
On June 19, an Arakan court sentenced two men to death for the rape and murder. They had previously been identified by the Burmese press as "Bangladeshi Muslims," a term used to designate the Rohingyas, even though in Burma there are Indian Muslims or Bangladeshis that aren't of Rohingya ethnicity.
With this outbreak of violence looms the worrying possibility of tensions between Muslims and Buddhists spreading to other regions of the country, since many disciples of the original Rohingya prophet emigrated to Burma during British colonization. In a country torn by multiple ethnic wars since its independence, there is reason to be alarmed.
Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to openly support the Rohingyas, probably worried about the political backlash of defending people that her sympathizers simply don't consider human.
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Photo - UNHCR/G.M.B.Akash