Amid democratic reform, ethnic cleansing
January 1, 2013 7:29 PM   Subscribe

The Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, as a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. The government does not recognize them as citizens. Burmese Buddhists have referred to them as "illegal Bengalis", "viruses", and terrorists. In 2012, over 100,000 Rohingya were forced out of their homes during a violent conflict with Buddhists of the Rakhine ethnic group. The displaced Rohingya now live in refugee camps that they're not allowed to leave. With insufficient food provided, refugees resort to scavenging for grass and plants to survive.

The Rohingya have faced discrimination in Burma for many years. As reported by the BBC in 2009, Rohingya men are forced to work one day a week on government projects. Rohingya must obtain a permit to travel to the next town. Rohingya couples must obtain permission from the Border Security Force to marry, and may not have more than two children. These restrictions do not apply to Buddhists.

Over 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 1978, escaping a Burmese military operation that targeted Rohingya civilians, involving widespread murder and rape. More Rohingya refugees arrived in Bangladesh in 1991-92; a third wave arrived as a result of the 2012 conflict. Bangladesh has refused to accept responsibility the refugees, and has ordered three charities to stop providing aid.

Rohingya tweeter @Aungaungsittwe has reported that Rohingya refugees are being pushed "to the sea daily", and that World Food Programme aid is being blocked by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. 74 Rohingya men, women, and children arrived by boat today in Thailand, where they will not be permitted to stay. 450 refugees have recently arrived in Malaysia.

On his recent trip to Burma, Barack Obama praised Burma's "remarkable journey" towards reform, but also criticized violence against the Rohingya. Democracy activist and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has offered to help with reconciliation if asked. She has said that the problem is one of illegal immigration, and that she does not know if the Rohingya should be considered Burmese. Her stance has prompted some criticism.

As a potential solution to the crisis, Burmese President Thein Sein proposed deporting all 800,000 Rohingya from Burma - a plan endorsed by hundreds of Buddhist monks. The All-Arakanese Monks' Solidarity Conference has called for Buddhist "sympathizers" of the Rohingya to be exposed as "national traitors" - leading to public humiliation of alleged sympathizers.

International Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have urged Burmese Buddhists to practice "the most fundamental Buddhist principles of non-harming, mutual respect and compassion."
posted by problemspace (37 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Previously on Metafilter.

I found @Aungaungsittwe through @GeorgieBC on Twitter. Activist @JamilaHanan also tweets and blogs extensively about the Rohingya. I don't know them personally, but I started following them in the past few days.
posted by problemspace at 7:30 PM on January 1, 2013

Apparently the Thai government likes towing barges full of Royhinga refugees out to open ocean, where they set them adrift without fuel or supplies. I wish I was kidding.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:03 PM on January 1, 2013

Seriously? How can Buddhist monks be marching to demand ethnic cleansing without bursting into flame from sheer hypocrisy?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:05 PM on January 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

Had a spot of trouble one time finding a translator for a patient in a busy hospital in Atlanta one day not too long ago.

After a very irate argument with the aggrieved telephone service translator, I learned during a pretty broken conversation with the patient's religious leader that Myanmar or whatever the cool kids are calling it now was some kind of southeast asian mesopotamia back in the day, and there were hundreds of distinct languages evolving separately there, most of which have survived.

Moreover, due to the low level of literacy, intense ethnic demarcations and such, it's entirely possible to grow up in your rural civil-war-torn agrarian village, and not speak a language that is in any way identifiable to someone who grew up less than 20 miles away from you.

Long story short, if you're from Myanmar or Burma these days and you come to the hospital in downtown Atlanta, the sign on the door that you probably can't read says to bring your own translator.... because our Burmese phone translation service dropped us.

Also they apparently have the worst healthcare system in the world, according to the WHO, so maybe despite the pervasive inability to talk to any of the medical staff, the patient's stay in that hospital in downtown Atlanta wasn't that bad.

Or so I tell myself at night.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:09 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

How can Buddhist monks....

Twenty percent or so of Bhutan was kicked out of their country to preserve their Tibetan Buddhist ways. Professing any religious belief or even no belief doesn't seem to make you immune to being human and as such, occasionally incredibly shitty.
posted by Houstonian at 9:28 PM on January 1, 2013 [14 favorites]

I have always held Buddhists in the highest regard.

Today that regard has slipped quite a bit.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:03 PM on January 1, 2013

Partners in Relief seems to be the only charity currently getting aid through to the Rohingya.
posted by problemspace at 10:04 PM on January 1, 2013

I have always held Buddhists in the highest regard.

Today that regard has slipped quite a bit.

I, for one, am appalled that the International Buddhist Secretariat has thus far refused to deploy the Buddhaforce to Burma to discipline the monks in question.

posted by threeants at 10:19 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well, about the only regular coverage the Rohingya get is Al Jazeera and BBC. BBC is widely available on expanded cable, but Al Jazeera is not available many place. The situation has been apalling got a long time.
Burma/Myanmar has been a closed society for a very long time. Closed societies are awful for minorities.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:27 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the byproducts of being so isolated for so long is that you don't even know that you should be embarrassed by blatantly xenophobic sentiments. It's ironic, to me, that she is now picking up the same kinds of racist nationality laws which once would've been used to deny Suu Kyi's children citizenship (she married a foreigner). I want her to know better, but I am no longer her target audience, her own people are. And if the people follow worthless clergy then so will she.

I am reminded of Seraphim, who I believe is the Orthodox bishop of Athens, recently saying that Muslims should go back to where they came from. He also said that the calls for multiculturalism and tolerance, which include demands that the 300,000 Muslims in Athens be allowed to build one mosque, are the product of a Zionist plot. Which proves, I guess, that sometimes a clergyperson is just as dumb as his gettup.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:20 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I spend about 50% to 75% of my time in Yangon nowadays. In my time here I've seen the monks lead protest marches against government aid to the Rohingyas, and I've heard Burmese and Arakanese friends and colleagues speak of the Rohingyas as nothing more than dirty terrorists. It's a little depressing, but I haven't dared to engage anyone in discussion. Due to the nature of my work and the conditions of my visa, I can't be involved in any political activity or express any strong political sentiment. My own country just refused a boatful of Rohingya refugees (they've now been picked up by Malaysia, thankfully) so I have little moral high ground to assert anyway.

Besides, issues of Myanmar's ethnic and religious diversity go way back into history, and it's really difficult to talk about what's happening now without understanding how the various groups have co-existed and fought over generations. Andrew Selth sets out some reading material in his recent bibliography on Myanmar[pdf].

For more current affairs reporting on the crisis, Al Jazeera has had some good programming so far. Most recently, the government actually made a public statement opposing one of Al Jazeera's documentaries.
posted by hellopanda at 11:29 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Muslims building a mosque in Athens = Zionist plot? Stuffing a rag in my mouth so my insane laughter does not wake Mr. Roquette... Too late....

That is ridiculous.

Seriously, if it weren't for Al Jazeera, I would not know much about the Rohingya people.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:21 AM on January 2, 2013

From the illegal immigrant link: An open letter to President Obama "The British invited those Bengalis from the then state of Bengal (now Bangladesh) in India to work as farm labourers in Rakhine State. The majority of the Bengalis now in Rakhine State are considered illegal immigrants. If you are considerate and sympathetic enough, you can understand our situation very well as you also have a problem with immigrants from Mexico. Can you accept all those illegal immigrants from Mexico (and from other places) as your citizens on humanitarian grounds alone?

I do not mean that those Bengalis should not have human rights. Like Mexican illegal immigrants, the Bengalis of Rakhine State should also have human rights – they are human, after all. But there is rule of law in your country and in our country as well. We cannot ignore this. We have a citizenship law and whether people are citizens or not should be decided according to this law."

The charge of "ethnic cleansing" in a country that recognizes more than 135 different ethnic groups would seem to be somewhat unfair, but it sure is simple to brand those monks as racists so you can stop listening to anything else they might have to say.
posted by three blind mice at 2:30 AM on January 2, 2013

The British "invited" them to Rakhine state more than a century ago. These are citizens by birth we're discussing, not border jumpers...the claims that they're immigrants are laughable and a smoke-screen for ethnic cleansing. The US doesn't deport the grandchildren of Mexican immigrants, never mind starve them to death in concentration camps, the analogy is flawed and weak.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:52 AM on January 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

You know, I'm arriving at the opinion that if you want to see how a religion should not be practiced, go and observe people who were born into that religion in a country where that religion dominates.

I'm struck by how much those horrible supposed Buddhists resemble the horrible supposed Christians we have here. That's just so alien to the Buddhism I saw practiced in California. And now I'm wondering if the minority Christians in Islamic countries are people that I would like just as much, driven to be loving and kind from their minority status.

Over and over, it seems like if a religion becomes dominant in a society, it turns evil. You can see it everywhere... the Buddhists in Burma, the Islamists in Pakistan and Egypt, the Israeli government, the fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Everywhere that religion dominates, it's horrible, but when it's in the minority, the adherents are typically wonderful.
posted by Malor at 3:05 AM on January 2, 2013 [15 favorites]

I suspect this is more to do with culture than religion.
posted by zoo at 3:39 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's also a history of Buddhist monks being supportive of violence in Sri Lanka. Humans are human.
posted by vasi at 3:50 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy - They are native born, but are not "citizens by birth". Under Myanmar's Citizenship Law, the Rohingyas are not citizens of Myanmar, regardless where they are born. Hence they are, by law, illegal and undocumented aliens. It is this statelessness that limits their access to healthcare, education, housing and jobs, and is being used to justify the way they are treated. Which is why many believe the first step to addressing the issue would be to confer citizenship on the Rohingya.
posted by hellopanda at 4:05 AM on January 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

The charge of "ethnic cleansing" in a country that recognizes more than 135 different ethnic groups would seem to be somewhat unfair.

According to your own link, those groups are determined primarily by the region they live in, not by any linguistic or ethnic affiliation. And there are numerous ethnic groups that make up a significant proportion of the country that aren't recognized.

The charge may be unfair, but the link that you provided doesn't make that case at all.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:07 AM on January 2, 2013

A citizen who isn't recognized by the country of their birth is still a citizen, just an oppressed and disenfranchised one. One of the few things the US manages to get right when it comes to ethnic minorities.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:32 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Funny how much can eventually be traced back to the British.
posted by infini at 4:51 AM on January 2, 2013

Funny how much can eventually be traced back to the British.

Not really. The whole "largest empire in history, occurring during the last two centuries" thing kinda makes it fairly predictable.
posted by howfar at 5:10 AM on January 2, 2013

A citizen who isn't recognized by the country of their birth is still a citizen, just an oppressed and disenfranchised one.

I'm not sure if I get you. Country of birth = citizenship is the principle applied in the US, but it is not a universal concept. See: jus soli vs jus sanguinis. Citizenship (whether automatic or upon application) is a status conferred by operation of law, so here the Rohingya are not citizens because the law does not recognise them to be so. Whether the law is valid, just and legitimate is, of course, a separate issue.
posted by hellopanda at 5:11 AM on January 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am generally content to assume that most adherents to a majority religion aren't super serious about their belief. It is difficult to hold a belief strongly and think it all the way through. Most people who actually try will fail; most people who make a show of trying, in a social context where this is rewarded, won't try very hard at all.

I'll still call these asshats "Buddhist," I guess, in the same way that I'd call Fred Phelps a "Christian" and Joseph Stalin a "rationalist"--hardly a good description of what they believe, but they have gotten these words to stick, and that branding causes people to align themselves for or against them according to the brands that the person in question subscribes to. Teams are important, "us" vs. "them" is important, and it would be at my peril that I ignore information that determines how those lines are drawn.

I figure issues of branding and line-drawing account for the pervasiveness of religion much better than issues of faith do.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:28 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

A citizen who isn't recognized by the country of their birth is still a citizen, just an oppressed and disenfranchised one. One of the few things the US manages to get right when it comes to ethnic minorities.

As hellopanda explained above, it doesn't work this way. The only way this makes any sense is if you want to call anyone resident in a country a 'citizen', which, while arguably a correct usage of the word, isn't how it's being used here.
posted by hoyland at 6:12 AM on January 2, 2013

International Law: Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

In this instance, the Rohingya are stateless because they are a persecuted minority, not because they are not entitled to citizenship. As an ethnicity, they've been in the region since before Burma was a single political entity (early 1400's), and they experienced population growth through immigration in the late 19th century and very early 20th, well before Burma was an independent nation (1948). They were in the country before there was a country: Denying they are citizens is legally and morally incorrect, despite what the ethnic majority claims.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:44 AM on January 2, 2013

(oops, link didn't take:
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:05 AM on January 2, 2013

There are roughly 12 million people who can tell you that a right to citizenship doesn't make you not stateless. You can insist they're citizens of whatever country you want if you feel like it, but they're still going to be stateless--it's often a nontrivial problem.
posted by hoyland at 7:42 AM on January 2, 2013

In this case, they've been declared stateless illegally... so they're still citizens, legally and morally, just illegally deprived of their rights as such. I have no idea why you're trying to run cover for the regime (and, sadly, the opposition) here by using an unacceptably narrow definition of citizen.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:12 AM on January 2, 2013

If Article 15 of the UDHR automatically made everyone a citizen of someplace, then there would be no need for the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons to define the problem, or the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness to address it.

From the UNHCR's Summary Conclusions from the Expert Meeting on The Concept of Stateless Persons under International Law (this is for the 1954 Convention)
The ordinary meaning of Article 1(1) requires that a “stateless person” is a person who is not considered a national by a State regardless of the background to this situation. Thus, where a deprivation of nationality may be contrary to rules of international law, this illegality is not relevant in determining whether the person is a national for the purposes of Article 1(1) – rather, it is the position under domestic law that is relevant. The alternative approach would lead to outcomes contrary to the ordinary meaning of the terms of Article 1(1) interpreted in light of the Convention’s object and purpose. This does not, however, prejudice any obligation that States may have not to recognize such situations as legal where the illegality relates to a violation of jus cogens norms.
posted by hellopanda at 8:19 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you are both right. Morally and under international law, the Rohingya are citizens. Under Burma's unjust law, they are non-citizens, and are de facto stateless.

I don't think anyone is trying to run cover for the regime - just pointing out that citizenship under the UN declaration provides no practical benefit to the people if the country ignores its moral and legal obligations.
posted by problemspace at 8:25 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

These monks don't represent Buddhism as a whole any more than al-Qaeda represents Islam as a whole. My respect for Buddhism hasn't decreased - I just realize that it has an extremist minority, like all other religions I know of.
posted by problemspace at 8:33 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Funny how much can eventually be traced back to the British."
posted by infini

Utter Rubbish. How are we responsible for what the buddhist are doing today? I suppose it is also our fault that a girl was gang-raped on a bus, and the incidence of rape in Dehli too.

From wiki:

"The impact of immigration was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration into the Rakhine state. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.

"The Mujahid party was founded by Rohingya elders who supported Jihad movement in northern Arakan in 1947.[39] The aim of the Mujahid party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d'état by General Ne Win. Ne Win carried out some military operations targeting them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was "Operation King Dragon" which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingya have also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan (see Rohingya people in Pakistan).[7] Nevertheless, the Burmese mujahideen (Islamic militants) are still active within the remote areas of Arakan.[40] The associations of Burmese mujahideen with Bangladeshi mujahideen were significant, but they have extended their networks to the international level and countries, during the recent years. They collect donations, and receive religious military training outside of Burma."

Also, to be the devils advocate: if you were the Burmese leaders, and you looked at Pakistan and its fundamentalist Muslims and how they behave, well, you can see why they don't want any of that in their country.
posted by marienbad at 10:28 AM on January 2, 2013

*kow tows to the mighty British overlords, purveyors of peace and well defined national borders throughout the globe*
posted by infini at 10:51 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

looked at Pakistan and its fundamentalist Muslims and how they behave, well, you can see why they don't want any of that in their country.

Respectfully, but I think this is exactly how you get fundamentalist extremists. Let's say you know nothing about the Rohingya and you just do a Google Image search to figure out what it's all about. You probably see a little different results than I do, but basically are the first few pages people starving, people roped off into camps, Buddhists praying for the people to just go away, some dead people, some starving people, and some military/police people guarding starving/dead people? Basically my first 15 pages of results show that.

I won't Godwin the thread, but... seriously? Would not be too hard to draw some rough parallels.

The first country to show them some common decency will win their loyalty forever. If that's Pakistan, then so be it. If the US were smart, we'd divide the number of Rohingya (about 800,000) by the number of states, and figure out that it would just add a very small town to each state if we opened our arms and borders to them all. It's not as simple as that, of course, but it sure would be cheaper (not to mention more humane, right?) than fighting them later after Pakistan does the same with frankly much fewer resources.

Starving, stateless, beaten down people aren't bringing anything -- good or bad -- to a country. It's up to the rest of us to decide what kind of opportunity we will afford them. In their little camps, shot up and their children starving, they certainly aren't hurting anyone so much as they are just fighting for the right to survive.
posted by Houstonian at 5:48 PM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Suu Kyi has been a hero of mine since middle school, and it kinda bummed me out when I saw her speak a couple months ago and she totally reamed out some poor college kid who had the temerity to use the term "ethnic cleansing" when asking her an otherwise innocuous question about the Rohingya situation.
posted by naoko at 9:48 PM on January 2, 2013

Indonesia Pledges $1 Million Assistance for Myanmar's Rakhine

The Indonesian government plans to pledge $1 million in humanitarian aid to the state of Rakhine in Myanmar to help alleviate the sufferings of the Rohingnya ethnic group there.

"In this difficult situation, we are informing that Indonesia has made a commitment to donate $1 million to alleviate the sufferings in Rakhine state," Foreign Ministyer Marty Natalegawa said after reading out the annual year-end statement in Jakarta on Friday.

Marty is scheduled to visit Rakhine on Jan. 7 at the invitation of the Myanmarese government.

"The aim of my visit is to directly observe what the situation is in the Rakhine state, while also dissecting the existing problems and challenges there," Marty said.

He added that the government continued to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar and will encourage the legal settlement of the Rohingnya citizenship issue.

"We are saddened every time there is unrest and violence is used. This is a process and we are share the lessons learned. Indonesia in the past, also experienced similar situations," the minister said.

posted by infini at 6:24 PM on January 5, 2013

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