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An Invisible Race – The Rohingyas, Part I

By on Jul 3, 2014 in Viewpoints | 4 comments

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Note: In Burma/Myanmar some names have changed. In this post I will use the term Myanmar instead of Burma, Rakhine as a state name instead of Arakan, and Rohingya instead of Bengali for the Muslim minority living in Rakhine state.

I lived in Myanmar, formerly Burma, from 1969 to 1972 and I follow what is happening there. An article in the Irrawaddy Newspaper caught my eye and I’ve been following the resulting horror ever since, trying to understand. On May 28, 2012 a young ethnic Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by four Rohingya Muslim men. This is the age of cell phones and if it hadn’t have been for photos taken at the scene, the resulting massacre of Muslims may not have occurred. But it did. The photos went viral on the internet and for those without access, pamplets detailing the rape were passed around. Hla Oo, who blogs on all things Burmese, reported that the crime was far more horrible than described in the media. He wrote:

“The news-release was clearly sanitized as the horrific details of the crime committed were not included.According to the police forensic evidence and also the eyewitnesses to the body of 25 year old Thida Htwe the victim was raped multiple times by three Bengali men and her throat slashed from ear to ear and her chest stabbed multiple times and her woman organ was stabbed and mutilated with knives. Even her both earlobes were cutoff by the attackers to take off her gold earrings.” You can see the photo of her body on his website.1 The gruesome nature of the photo was enough to spark a massacre.

On June 3rd, 2012, a large group of Rakhine Buddhists, reportedly as many as 300, stopped a bus of vacationers traveling from the beach to Yangon. Ten men with skin darker than the others were separated out, identified as Muslim Rohingyas and brutally murdered. Photos of their bodies can also be seen on Hla Oos blog site.

On June 8, 2012, five days after the killing of the ten Muslim bus riders, Maungdaw, a town near the Bangladesh border, errupted in violence. Thousands of Muslim Rohinghas rioted after Friday prayers, killed an unknown number of Buddhist Rakhines and burned villages and homes. The violence spread to Sittwe, a town farther south down the Rakhine coast and the state capital. Rohinghas and Rakhines attacked and killed one another.

On June 10th, 2012, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the area and sent in federal troops but the soldiers stood by while Muslim Rohingha villages and schools were burned. Many died on both sides but the Muslim Rohinghas got the worst of it. Over 100,000 Rohinghas were displaced and relief organizations hurried to supply their needs. Numbers of those dead and injured are unknown. Thein Sein then announced that the “only solution” to the chaos was to send the Rohingyas to other countries or to refugee camps overseen by the UNHCR, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugee agency.

Enraged Rakhine Buddhists unleashed an anger seldom seen anywhere in the world. They seemed bent on eliminating the Muslim Rohinghas from the face of the earth. International news agencies filmed the violence. The Buddhist Rakhines burned schools, homes, shops and places of worship. They took up whatever was available: bricks, clubs, sharpened bamboo poles and slingshots forging them into weapons. Burmese soldiers stood idly by and did nothing. They appeared to be in agreement.

About 1.3 million Muslim Rohingya lived in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, a country of 60 million, mostly in Rakhine state.2 There’s a problem with the numbers. No one, not even themselves, know how many Rohinghas there are or how many are missing and dead. During the massacres husbands were separated from wives and children from their mothers. There are refugee camps in Rakhine state but they are more like concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire fences and guarded by police and military. They were not afforded protection. No one is permitted to leave the camps. There are no schools, no medical facilities and no sanitation. No one goes in or out. Muslim Rohingya villages are the same, fortresses of barbed wire. For a while, outside aid agencies were allowed in but they were attacked by the local populace for helping the Rohingyas. The government told them to get out.

The UNHCR estimates that one to two hundred thousand Muslim Rohingha have left in boats since the trouble began. There are estimates that there are 100 thousand in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Muslim Rohingha men have been leaving Burma for foreign lands for generations but the problem was exacerbated when Burma as a country began to open up to the outside world and the military loosened its grip. Buddhists were able to express themselves and what they wanted to express was bottled up hatred, hatred for Muslim Rohingyas. For generations the movement of Muslim Rohingyas was restricted and they were required to attain permission to marry from the NaSaKa3, the Myanmar border force. The dreaded NaSaKa, an interagency force in effect from 1992 until 2013 was made up of immigration, police and custom officials and tasked with controlling the border between Bangladesh and Rakhine state. In addition it monitored the Muslim Rohingya population who are mostly gathered near the border. In a culture where corruption and abuse of power is accepted as normal this particular agency exerted a cruel discrimination and control of the native Muslim populace. Failure to report a marriage resulted in arrest. Considered to be foreigners, Muslim Rohingyas were denied the right to work, the right to education and the freedom to practice their cultural customs and religion.4

How many Rohinghas are there? I’ve tried hard to pin that down but no census figures are available. Since the massacres there has been a mass exodus. There are Muslim Rohinghas in refugee camps in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and every other country possible to reach by land or boat. Estimates range from one hundred thousand to one million. A new documentary by the New York Times is an eye opener. You can see it at I highly recommend it.

The United Nations has designated the Muslim Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Here are a few of the epitaphs that have been thrown at them by Burmese Buddhists.

“They breed like rabbits.”

“They are dangerous and should be killed.”

wirathu_nazi_by_muhammadibnabdullah-d646n2rThen there is senior monk, Ashin Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement, who says in his speeches around the country.

“Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.”

“When you leave a seed, from a tree, to grow in a pagoda, it seems so small at first. But you know you must cut it out, before it grows and destroys the building.”

In one interview he said that Rohingyas breed rapidly like African Catfish. They eat their own kind. They are violent. He says that Buddhists are not violent. We cannot just lie down, he pleads. Buddhists may disappear.

I hardly think so. There are sixty million of them in Myanmar and at most probably less than 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas left.

As you may have guessed, there’s background here, a background of hate and intolerance on one side and a background of longing on the other, a longing to belong. And there are questions. Why are the gentle Buddhists killing Muslims? Is there any truth in the Buddhist’s allegations? Are the Rohinga native to Myanmar? Is there historical proof? Is it true that they came from Bangladesh? Are all Burmese against them or just some? Where is Aung San Su Chi on the matter? Why is she silent? It looks like there will be another post on this.


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  1. Vickey Monrean

    July 3, 2014

    Post a Reply

    It reminds me of Rwanda. I think that all these Kumbaya college students at Warren Wilson should read of these Buddhist actions. For some reason, ignorance I assume, there is a view of Buddhist=peace. Some do not even understand that there are a number of sects of Buddhism and Islam.

    • hannahpowers

      July 3, 2014

      Post a Reply

      That’s an intriguing comment. I have to admit ignorance on the Kumbaya college students. There is right on both sides and wrong on both sides of the many Buddhist/Muslim wars that exist today. But you’re right. Being Buddhist doesn’t mean you have to be peaceful. We associate pacifism with Buddhism but it’s not necessarily true. When I read the history of Burma I was struck by how warrior like they can be. Any time one group stops seeing the humanity in the other person or group there will be trouble. That’s when they kill one another. Thanks for reading. Hannah

    • hannahpowers

      July 4, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Thank you for reading. It’s something I’ve been watching for a couple years without understanding. It’s a deep rooted hate. We tend to think of Buddhists as extremely gentle so it’s surprising. Hannah

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