Roundtable probes deep and tangled roots of Rohingya crisis

Rohingya flee Myanmar in boat
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee their villages by the Myanmar military. Most have sought refuge in Bangladesh. The UN labeled the military operations "ethnic cleansing." Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images. 

By Nicole M. Ang

In the November 7 Einaudi Center roundtable, “The Roots of the Rohingya Crisis: The Eradication of a Myanmar Ethnic Group,” historian Michael W. Charney traced the attacks by Myanmar’s military on Muslims in western Myanmar to centuries-old conflicts over who belongs in the territory and who does not.

He then brought the discussion squarely into the present, saying that the long-anticipated transition to democracy will not be complete until the people of Myanmar revisit and revise their ingrained perspectives on race, ethnicity, and nationality.

In his keynote address, Charney, a professor of Asian and military history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, took the audience through the intricate history of race and ethnic relations in Myanmar, tracking the concurrent influences of Buddhism and Islam in Burma, and the bifurcation of the people in the Rhakine State based on their exposure to the peoples of the north or south. He identified multiple contrasting narratives about this history, and discussed how European and military narratives came to dominate public knowledge.

Since the expulsion of the British in 1948, he said, the core argument against the Rohingya has been a nativist one: northerners in Rakhine state are seen as Bengali and thus a remnant of colonialism that must be stamped out if Myanmar is to achieve full independence.

This argument was codified in a 1982 citizenship law that excludes the Rohingya people from a list of recognized 135 national races, and has been legitimized through official educational and government materials.

Since the early 2000s, with the rise of ISIS and the “War on Terror,” Burmese nationalists have also come to brand the Rohingya Muslims as a safety threat, Charney noted.

Today, as Myanmar transitions from decades of military rule, the debate continues in zero-sum, polarized terms, Charney argued, where one must choose between the Rohingya on the one hand and democracy as represented by Aung San Su Kyi and the National League for Democracy on the other.

Eaint Thiri Thi and Anne Blackburn
Human rights researcher Eaint Thiri Thi (left) with South Asia Program director Anne M. Blackburn.

Charney’s lecture was followed by brief remarks by Eaint Thiri Thi, a human rights researcher and graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Thi provided her perspective, as a Myanmar native, on why anti-Rohingya and anti-international sentiments persist in Myanmar.

A large part of the problem, she said, is the reluctance of journalists to do field reporting in Rakhine. She said ethnic relations are oversimplified by both local and international media outlets; Burmese publications still refer to the Rohingya as Bengali, and the situation continues to be described in false dichotomies of “good and bad” and “victims and perpetrators.”

Thi described three kinds of attitudes among the people of Myanmar. One is nationalism, which she said is fed by Islamophobia, and a sense that Muslims are trying to defeat Buddhism. Attacks carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) reinforce this association between Islam and danger.

A second attitude is defensiveness against international criticism of the administration of Aung Sang Su Kyi. This is in part because they have been misled by news and other media to believe that the administration is completely divorced from the military, making them believe that they can support the former without supporting the latter. People who feel this way also tend to harbor negative sentiment toward the Rohingya.

Finally, Thi said, there are those who remain silent. Some are afraid to speak because of the lack of legal protection and the threat of social and physical harassment, because the administration is seen as the embodiment of democracy, and anyone who speaks out against it is considered a traitor. Others, especially non-Muslim and non-Buddhist minorities,. do not feel that their opinions are valued, particularly beyond Myanmar.

The event was moderated by Anne M. Blackburn, professor of Asian Studies and director of the South Asia Program.

Nicole M. Ang is a student at Cornell Law School and a graduate student administrative assistant at the Einaudi Center.