Buddhists have a reputation for being gentle. I conjure up an image of a meditating monk being harrassed by a fly. It lands on his nose but he maintains his peaceful composure. That’s how we think of Buddhists.They wouldn’t swat a fly. I’ve been looking at videos of the massacre. Houses are burning and people are running about trying to get away. There are photos of bodies lying on a beach and horrible living conditions for the homeless Muslim Rohingyas. This isn’t how I think of Buddhists. What’s wrong? Why do these Buddhists hate these Muslims? Why do the Rakhines hate the Rohingyas? There must be a good reason. What is behind it?
I’ve decided that a lot of the hate part of the equation can be laid firmly on the back of colonialism, a period when the Burmans1 were forced into an attitude of subsurvience not only to the conquering British but to the Indians they imported as administrators. And it wasn’t only in the Rakhine state. It was all over the country. While the British were in power, Indians pretty much ran the country. And they profited from it because the British didn’t only bring in administrators. They brought in businessmen and money lenders. Indians under the British all but ran the police and were a heavy presence in the army. A sense of shame smoldered in the Burmese spirit. This was, I think, why Burma remained insular for so long. It all stems from WWII. In a very real and palpable sense the Burmese suffer from national paranoia but as often is the case with paranoia, there were real and actual events that created it. So is it actually paranoia or is it experience, a bad experience that lasted over a hundred and twenty-four years, the period the British dominated Burma?
I think one of the reasons the British were so successful in managing their extensive empire was the fact that they often used the native cultural values and the existing system of government to administrate the populace. In India, there was the caste system with Brahmins at the top. The British educated the Brahmins and placed them in charge. After the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, they created a new class of warriors known for their loyalty and obedience to the British. The Gurkhas are a classic example of this. For the British it was simply easier to think of Burma as an extension of India and to use Indians to administrate it. For the Burmese it was a humiliating hell.
Burma isn’t India and the religion is Buddhism not Hinduism. The people stem from a different racial group. Indians are Aryan and the Burmese seem to be more closely identified at least in language to the Chinese. In a sense the Buddhist Burmese are democratic, democratic with a small d. They have no caste system and there is more of a sense of equality. They didn’t see the British as better than them and putting Indians in a position of dominance over them was intolerable.
It was a prolonged kidnapping, a kidnapping that lasted well over a hundred years. After such a long time, the victim, in this case the Burmese, struggles under a severe psychological strain and there is a fear that it will happen again. The Indians that were still in Burma when I lived there from 1969 to 1972 were nostalgic for the British. There were reasons for this. Under the British, they had positions of authority; after they left, they had none. The Indians suffered from something resembling Stockholm Syndrome. They identified with their captor. The Burmese never identified with the British, not the way the Indians I knew did, and that is lucky. Because the Burmese weren’t nurtured in the same way the Indians were; they never lost their perspective. I may be getting a little over my head here but this may have saved the Burmese their sense of self, their sense of being Burmese.
In the Rakhine it was similar but not the same. The Burmese perception is that the British imported the Rohingya and there is much to be said for that viewpoint. When the British conquered the area in northern Rakhine state they decimated the people that were then living there causing it to be sparsely populated. But it was good agricultural land so they encouraged the people of what is now Bangladesh to farm the land. The newcomers were given plots of land and the population of Rohingyas in the area grew exponentially. According to British colonial figures the Muslim population of Rakhine grew from 58,000 in 1871 to 179,000 in 1911.2 That’s tripling the population.
It’s also important to remember that during the British era there was no political border between Rakhine and Bengal and the population flowed freely. What and where is Bengal? Historically, it was a province of India. The western part of what once was Bengal is now in India and the eastern part is Bangladesh. Bengalis can be either Hindus or Muslims. In India Bengalis are mostly Hindu and in Bangladesh they are mostly Muslims. There is a perception on the part of the Burmese that the Rohinghas are dark skinned. They use the perjorative word, kalar, Sanscrit for black, to describe them.
The Burmese feel that the present population of Rohingyas came from that era. They recognize as citizens only those people who can verify their ancestry prior to the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824. There was no political state of Rakhine so there are no population figures from that time and the Rohingha cannot prove their ethnicity.
The Burmese also feel that the Rohinghas do not control births. Since there isn’t a census and the Burmese refuse to take a census of the Rohinghas it is impossible to determine whether or not this perception is valid. Poligamy is legal in Burma and Rohingha men have more than one wife if they are able.
There is also a perception that the Rohinghas send their boys off to fight foreign wars. I found this in Wikpedia that seems to verify this belief:
Among the more than 60 videotapes obtained by CNN from Al-Qaeda’s archives in Afghanistan in August 2002, one video showed that Muslim allies from “Burma” got training in Afghanistan. Some videotapes were shot in RSO3 camps in Bangladesh. These videos which show the linkage between Al-Qaeda and Rohingya insurgents were shot in the 1990s. Besides, RSO recruited many Rohingya guerrillas. According to Asian intelligence sources, Rohingya recruits were paid 30,000 Bangladeshi taka ($525) on joining and then 10,000 taka ($175) per month. The families of recruits killed in action were offered 100,000 taka ($1,750). Rohingya recruits, believed to be quite substantial in numbers, were taken to Pakistan, where they were trained and sent on further to military camps in Afghanistan. They were given the most dangerous tasks in the battlefield.4
Whether this is incidental or rampant is unknown but the perception is that the Rohingyas are rich because of it. They are also thought to be drug runners. If this is true then one reason for it may be that the Rohingyas have no other option. As foreigners in their own land, they cannot work, cannot go to school, and cannot avail themselves of medical services. If the Rohingyas have become a breeding ground for insurgents and guerillas it may be because they have no other option.
By WWII half the population of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Burma’s capital city at the time, was Indian and Indians represented 16% of the total population. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, half a million Indians fled from Burma overland into India mostly on foot. When Ne Win took over in 1962, the government nationalized Indian businesses and disenfranchised the Indians. This led to another exodus of about 300,000 Indians. Those who stayed cannot be citizens and are barred from owning businesses, working in the civil service or serving in the military.5 I was there during this time and witnessed the distress of the Indian population first hand.
There are a great number of indigenous minorities in Burma, a detail most of us know little about. In fact there are 135 distinct ethnic groups as first defined by General Ne Win’s government in 1962, a list still used today. The major ethnic populations in Burma are: Bamar, 68%; Shan, 9%; Kayin, 7%; Rakhine, 3.5%; Chinese, 2.5%; Mon, 2%; Kachin, 1.5%; and Indians, 1.25%. The percentage of the balance of the 135 minorities is too small to mention here. The unrecognized ethnic groups are Anglo-Burmese, Burmese Chinese, Panthay, Burmese Indians, Gurkhas, Pakistanis and lastly, the Rohingyas.6 There are no census figures for unrecognized groups. They are simply in the country illegally.
For a hundred and twenty-four years the British were masters. They called themselves Thakins and demanded that the Burmese refer to them thus. Thakin is a term of respect for elders. The Burmese chaffed under this. During Independence, Aung San Su Chi’s father and his band of thirteen used the term to refer to themselves. It was a rebellion against the hated British. The British weren’t Thakins; the Burmese were.
During the years leading up to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Rohingyas fought in the Mujahid Insurgency. They wanted the northern part of Rakhine, where Muslims were concentrated, to be annexed to Bangladesh. A Mujahid is one who struggles for Allah or Islam. Literally it is an inner struggle. The Burmese resented this disloyalty.
The big question is whether the Rogingyas existed prior to the first Anglo Burmese War in 1923 and there is historical evidence that the area in nothern Rakhine state was home to Arabs as early as the 7th century. Again in the 15th century there is evidence that the Buddhist Kings modeled themselves after Mughal emporers even to the point of using Arabic court titles. Arabic and Mughal influence were strong until the Buddhist Burmese invaded and conquered Rakhine in 1785.
In 1785, Buddhist Burmese from the south of the country conquered Arakan. They drove out or executed all of the Muslim Rohingya men they could find; some 35,000 of Arakan’s people likely fled into Bengal, then part of the British Raj in India.7
No one wants them, not Bangladesh. Bangladesh is too poor. Not Thailand or Malaysia, India or Australia. Not the Arab countries. These people represent a terrible financial burden and no one is coming forward to help them. The UN calls them one of the most persecuted minorities on earth and with good reason.
It’s an ethnic cleansing. There is no other word for it. The Rohingyas are invisible to the Burmese. They aren’t citizens. They are foreigners and they want them gone. A new census was started in March 2014 but the Rohingyas weren’t counted. The first question census takers asked was, “What is your ethnicity?” If the answer was Rohingya, they moved on. They want the Rohingyas to answer “Bengali” which would make them foreigners. It’s a simple way to ignore over a million people and Burma is doing it. The estimated census cost is around $60 million much of which is being financed by the United Nations, Great Britain and the United States. Will the international community be willing to finance a bogus count, one that denies the existence of the Rohingya? I wonder.
One last thought. What happens on a personal level when the authorities in charge are biased and unfair? What happens when they can’t be trusted? This is where the Burmese people are right now. They haven’t been able to trust the government. The government lies. The British government lied to them. Ne Win’s government lied to them. And in all probability, Thein Sein’s government lies to them. The government has recently opened up but there are signs that it is going back to its old ways. Recently four Burmese journalists and their magazine’s CEO were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Their crime? They reported on an alleged weapon’s factory. So where is the truth? It is more likely to be in rumor, in what your neighbor says is true and when the official “facts” differ from your neighbor’s rumor, rumor is believed. When the girl was raped. Remember. That’s what started this. A young woman was raped in May of 2012. When she was raped and murdered, no one thought the authorities would do the right thing. No one trusted them. They felt it was up to the people so they rioted. In a country where the legal system is fair, the authorities take care of things. In a country where the authorities are arbitrary in their enforcement of the law, there is chaos. The greater the mistrust, the greater the chaos, the sadder the outcome will be. Rumor rides on the heels of modern technology. The cell phone can go where large cameras cannot and rumor quickly blazes into a wildfire. I can only pray for the Rohingyas. Where will they go? Who will accept them? Where are they now?
- The Bamar or Burmans are the dominant ethnic group of Burma (Myanmar), constituting approximately two-thirds of the population. [↩]
- “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/31/government-could-have-stopped [↩]
- RSO – Rohingya Solidarity Organization, the main and most militant faction of Rohingya organizations at the Myanmar/Bangladesh border. [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rohingya_rebellion_in_Western_Burma [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_Indians [↩]
- http://www.restlessbeings.org/projects/rohingya [↩]
- http://asianhistory.about.com/od/Asian_History_Terms_N_Q/g/Who-Are-The-Rohingya.htm [↩]