Rohingya Odyssey: a silent cultural genocide?

I have discussed and provided some information about the quite unknown tragedy of Rohingya Muslims elsewhere in this blog. Normally, Rohingya Muslims make news only when there is a dearth of other stories. Today, more people know who the Rohingya are because of shocking reports in which some tourists in Thailand have  witnessed and documented the severe mistreatment of refugees by the Thai army on Thai beaches. The UN has asked access to the refugees, some of whom have been expelled, and an investigation into the alleged mistreatment.  Rohingya Muslims are virtually stateless, and to define them as ‘economic migrants’, as the new Thai government has attempted to, is unrealistic no less than the full probe they have promised, which however is to be conducted by the same Thai army involved in the international scandal.

It would be easy to present Rohingya Muslims as the victims of ‘evil’ Buddhists, but the reality is very different:  Rohingya Muslims are  victims of their lack of strategic value, both for their native Southeast Asia and the wider international community. Similarly to the tragic reality of Black Muslims in Darfur, their lives have no economic, or political, value for the rest of our cynical world. In a certain sense, since Rohingya Muslims are also unable and unwilling to start a conflict in the region, this also diminishes the chance that their tragic odyssey from place to place will be terminated soon.

Muslim countries such as Bangladesh are no less responsible for Rohingya Muslims’ suffering than the other states in the region. Indeed, about a half-million Rohingya escaped during military crackdowns in 1978 and 1991 and continue to try to escape the persecution they face from the Burmese military dictatorship;  the majority of them tried, and continue to try, to reach Bangladesh, while many others are in exile in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Malaysia.

Since 2006, Bangladesh has made it harder to get passports, so the Rohingya began making the dangerous journey by boat to Thailand, and then overland to Malaysia, in order to better their life or avoid starvation.  Bangladesh is a Muslim country with a majority of Muslims, but it is clear that the Islamic concept of ummah has little value when compared to political interests. Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, as in other Muslim countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia , are no more welcomed than in Thailand. Rohingya Muslims have protested, even recently, and tried to make more and more people aware, especially other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, of their intolerable condition. Yet who is really listening to them?

Nearly nothing, beyond the humanitarian aspects and refugee studies, has been written about Rohingya Muslims; there is, as far as I know, no anthropological monograph or extended article which focuses on their life, culture, traditions and so forth. I would be extremely interested to know more about the traditions and culture of this Muslim group which risks being silenced forever. Indeed, we should recognize that, distant from the eyes of most, and ignored by the economic and political interests in the Southeast Asian region, the Rohingya Muslims are not just enduring their longterm diaspora looking for new homes and embarking upon dangerous odysseys in the pacific, but also facing a slow, silent cultural genocide.

Can I expect to see Muslims around the world campaigning together to ask that the Rohingya have the right to a home, their own home, and that the international community takes serious steps to protect, so guaranteeing a decent peaceful life to the Rohingya community? Of course, I know very well that this will not be the case. Maybe we may find some, mainly non-Muslim, organizations trying to make the Rohingya Muslim tragedy known and to organize humanitarian support.  However, the majority of Muslims, even those so ready to violently scream and shamefully misbehave in the name of a free Palestine, will not whisper even a single word to help these ‘brothers’.  How many Muslims have heard an imam mention the name Rohingya during his supplication (Du’a) for Afghanis, Palestinians, Iraqis and even perhaps the Chechen muhajedeen?

It would be too long to explain here the reasons for this widespread disinterest among the majority of Muslims about the destiny of Rohingya Muslims. Let me only say that many of the reasons are political: many Muslim governments have their hands dirty with Rohingya Muslims’ blood, but still play the ‘Muslim ummah’ card, as in the case of the Danish Cartoons,  when it is needed for their political games – but never when ordinary Muslims, like the Rohingya, without political value to barter with, find themselves oppressed.

Yet we cannot be surprised that the camps in Bangladesh can become a very easy recruiting ground patronized  by  the “talent scout”  of extreme violent groups which can offer a pay, a jihad to believe in, and the way to express accumulate frustrations, especially those of young people. It is not too late to try to improve the lives of these people; and if governments do not wish resolve the Rohingya issue for humanitarian reason and the right of international justice, at least they should  for their and global security. 

I hope that more anthropologists, despite the difficulties and inevitably the danger they may face, can show more interest in writing ethnographies and accounts of the lives of Rohingya Muslims and also document the suffering that they endure, before one day we may discover that it is too late.

12 thoughts on “Rohingya Odyssey: a silent cultural genocide?

Add yours

  1. We Rohingya have our own langauge and culture different from any other ethnic groups of Burma and people of any near by country. We have our own writing system known as Rohingyalish

    Our language and writing system has been recognized by ISO (International Organization for Standardization) on 18 July 2007. We have Quran completely translated into Rohingya langauge.

    One of the main problems of Rohingyas are we have very less litracy rate because of the brutal treatment of Military rulers since 1962. Wherever we are we need education as the first priority of international help.

  2. I am an American Muslim and today on NPR was the first time I have ever even heard of the Rohingya. My heart was crushed by their story because I am a human, not because I am Muslim. Do all Christians know about the suffering of every Christian group on this earth and are they required by their acceptance of the trinity to go out and stop the injustice? The journalist spoke to a high ranking official in Burma who said, “The Rohingya are not our people because they don’t look like us, we are beautiful, they are ugly. Muslims don’t come from Burma so they have to go somewhere else.” With statements like these and the contstant rape, murder and torture of these people, why can’t we blame the people who are committing these crimes against humanity? Why do we have to search for more people to carry the blame? Are Muslims burning their homes and crops? No. Are Muslims raping their wives and daughters? No. PEOPLE of all races and religions should be appauled by this treatment and should reach out to their governments for action to be taken. Why should anyone have to “take them in”? They have lived there since the 7th century and they should be able to stay there.

  3. I have been away from Arakan, Burma since 27 years ago and I wish I could go back and stay there peacefully. From the day I left Arakan, I can only watch the situation of Rohingyas has been deteriorating day by day. I am so worried that our people will be soon varnished from the surface of earth if the current situation of military severe brutality do not make U-turn sooner than later. Desperate international help is needed to save our souls.

    Central military ruler’s master-minded plan to completely eradicate Rohingyas from their own motherland Arakan is the key to our destuctions at least since 1962. We ethnic Rohingyas have enjoyed full democratic rights like other ethnic minorities from 1948, the year of independent, up to 1962 the year of military coup. All Rohingyas were issued National Identity cards at the same time when issued for other minorities. We enjoyed Government State Radio Bradcasting news & entertainment programs in Rohingya Language and we had our story printed in multi-volumed Burmese Encyclopedia Book controlled by the government. We had full rights to study Medical and Engineering in State owned Universities and Institutes.

    However, all facilities were lost today and all Rohingyas are now in danger of their lives let alone facilities, rights, happiness and future. It is as if all Rohingyas are in dead bed waiting for their final departure from worldy life.

  4. Interesting article. But why do some people insist on bringing their petty biases to the table? Most Muslims around the world are just like most Westerners: they can only make judgments based on the information they have. If their governments and media tell them the suffering of Muslims in Palestine is important they’ll believe it because that’s the information they have. If their governments and media tell them the Rohingya are illegal immigrants who are bad Muslims, they’ll believe it too because most don’t have other information. Just as Westerners are led by their governments to believe that Palestinians get attacked by Israel because they’re the aggressors (because, you know, having your land stolen doesn’t count as an act of aggression, neither does blowing out whole buildings to kill one person) whilst they feel immensely sorry for the Darfurians not taking into account how the environmental crisis may be the cause of the Darfur war in the first place.

    The one thing I find strange about this whole thing is why Muslims are given a higher standard than the rest of the world. Nobody would accuse white people of being hypocritical if they didn’t help a white person. But it seems that whenever Muslims don’t give a damn about another Muslim it’s used to make Muslims hypocritical. But Muslims are humans just like us: they have identities other than their religious one, they have different understandings of what’s most important in their life, etc…

    And the most important thing in life for poor people (which makes up the vast majority of Muslims) is simply to get by and have food to eat every day, not to sit there discovering which are the latest Muslims to be suffering and organise protests to defend their rights. It is only in our privileged Western world that such a high proportion of us can sit for hours feeling sorry for people in far off places whom we don’t know and who we would never allow into our country anyway.

  5. Paul if it was about that then why did the good prof say “It would be easy to present Rohingya Muslims as the victims of ‘evil’ Buddhists, “?

    My question is, isn’t this a bit of a catch 22? If say the Malays accept them all as refugees but they eventually assimilate into Malay culture or the alternative in the refugee camps but keep their culture?

  6. ‘Can I expect to see Muslims around the world campaigning together to ask that the Rohingya have the right to a home, their own home,’ Sounds like the Jews in 1948 who under UN Mandate established Israel.

    Changing subject here Prof, but there will be no outcry amongst Muslims for these people, no call for Jihad to ‘liberate’ them or street protests. Muslims only ever complain about suffering when they perceive it is the fault of non-Muslims. Situations like this where Muslims are largely responsible are ignored, it is the same story in Darfur, western Morocco etc etc.

  7. For Rohingya Muslims, I do have as much sympathy as I felt to have for Palestinian Muslims and many others like them in elsewhere. And being a Bangladeshi though I know our resources are immensely scarce, knowing we are already too many for our government to provide with, I will keep petition to the Bangladeshi authority to accommodate as many Rohingya people as they can. But I cannot or I should not put blame on Bangladeshi authority if procedures to get Bangladeshi passport go harder than before. I cannot accuse them of being cruel. Kindness and cruelty definitely are relative to how much able something is to provide itself. When it comes to the point of providing somebody else, you must take one’s financial abilities into consideration. The nations you mentioned other than Bangladesh, all of them are more affluent than we are. And the irony is Bangladesh is the one to accommodate the highest number of Rohingya refugees than the others you mentioned are used to do. I have said I am to sympathize the Rohingya Muslims no less than any others and still I like to see Bangladesh authority to accommodate as much of them as possible, even with the tight resources. But I will keep silence when I come to accuse them of not being more friendly. The issue of Rohingya Muslims is not something to carry on “blame-game” on anybody other than Myanmar or their guardians.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: