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.