Rohingyas: not solely a political problem

Burma (i.e. Myanmar) has had its first “democratic” elections in twenty years, although few, other than the ruling military junta, would have considered them free and fair. Yet some political moves, aimed to reduce the economic and political isolation of the military junta, have marked the past few months, such as the release of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from from her long detention.However, about 2,200 remain prisoners of conscience in the oppressed country.

Notwithstanding the fact that some Rohingyas were allowed to vote for the first time as they were provided with temporary ID cards, the conditions and reality of these people are marked by suffering and social injustice. Indeed, at the same time as the election, more Rohingyas were deported while many others were forced to leave their country to avoid persecution, rape and forced labour.

It is not a surprise that the Rohingyas, who historically and politically have a right to be seen as full citizens of Burma, try to find refuge and a means of survival throughout Southeast Asia – a region not sympathetic to the plea of refugees, who are often identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ and subjected to inhuman treatment, as recently a report from Malaysia shows.

The Rohingya issue does not receive, for several reasons, the mass media attention that other troubled Muslim populations receive, such as the Palestinians. Indeed, few in the Muslim world even know who the Rohingya are, and others, such as in Bangladesh, see them in a similar light to how the Europeans view, for example, gypsy populations. The Rohingyas remain a regional issue which, as the Prime Minister of Singapore emphasized, should be addressed.

Unfortunately, Asean appears unable to provide a direction, and instead has ended up treating the Rohingya problem as an immigration and ‘human trafficking’ related issued by passing on the ‘Bali Process for People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime’. In other words, Rohingyas were not seen as people whom legitimately seek the right to their own state and citizenship status, but again as part of illegal migrations or as victims of the migrant labour trade.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi has excited the Rohingyas’ hopes, particularly for those in the refugee camps and the exiled, that something may change and  that finally they may be recognized as Burmese. Certainly Asean has now a new opportunity to try to resolve politically and diplomatically this dreadful situation – if not for the sake of human welfare, then at least for the sake of regional security, as I have argued in an earlier post.

However, to reduce the Rohingya issue to a political one and to think that a political solution may end their suffering means not to consider the social cultural reality. The opposition to the Rohingya in Myanmar, and in particular within the state of Arakan, is not just an expression of the military junta and rulers.

Quite the opposite, the generals represent the Rohingya as a substantial part of the Buddhist population stereotypes them: dark skinned, inferior, barbaric, less-than-human, disgusting, untouchable, repulsive and ignorant foreigners. They are considered to be less than human and so, like beasts, are perceived as good for forced labour. These stereotypes are widespread and often presented and made ‘reputable‘  by pseudo-academics’ works (strikingly similar to those produced in the 1930s by Nazi scholars about Jews).

The Rohingya issue is not a ‘political’ problem, but a social one through which many from a ‘fair’, soft skinned population wish to refuse the complexity of their own society and history and instead look for new pseudo-Buddhist myths of supremacism. Even if the regime changes, even if Aung San Suu Kyi may become a leader and acknowledges the Rohingyas as rightful citizens of the state, the Rohingyas would still continue to face discrimination and racism since the problem is rooted in the mentality of millions of people who denigrate the Rohingyas in order to feel like the ‘real’ Myanmarese.

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