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No Country For The Rohingyas: Why Myanmar, Bangladesh And India Don’t Want Them

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By Bikash Bhattacharya:

Myanmar’s national polls, constitutionally required to be held by early November this year, could have wider regional political ramifications, analysts say. Given the charged political landscape with decades-long ethnic discontent, rising Bamar Buddhist nationalism spreading anti-muslim sentiment, the role of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) and endless criss-cossing lines of conflict, it is highly unlikely for the country to evade electoral violence.

Image Credit: European Commission DG ECHO
Image Credit: European Commission DG ECHO

The Rakhine state, where the situation is already tense after the episodic ethnic clashes between the Rohingya mulsims and the indigenous Buddhists in the last three years, may be particularly vulnerable to electoral violence, a Peace Research Institute Oslo report states. On being asked about the possibility of electoral violence in 2015 elections, Win Htein, a lawmaker for the NLD, who was a vocal opponent of the persecution of the minority muslims in 2013 Meiktila violence, says, “For parties contesting the election, likely to be held in November, race and religion are both central and incendiary. Hence, it is not unlikely to occur electoral violence in some parts of the Rakhine state.”

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group too anticipating electoral violence in Rakhine, a state in northwestern Myanmar bordering Bangladesh and India, states that the violent combustion of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment could happen again in the politically charged context of an election, forcing the minority Rohingya Mulsims to flee to India and Bangladesh and other countries like Malaysia, as had happened during the previous clashes.

The Rohingyas : Overlapping identities and “lack of identity“:

Ethnicity and religion are intertwined, and hence often inseparable. Religious identity, being one of the markers of difference, adds in defining ethnicity. The perilous thing about religion in defining ethnicity is that it heightens ethnic nationalism by rendering the “other” not only as culturally different but heretical.

The Rohingyas are Muslims and said to have migrated from Bengal to erstwhile Arakan (the Islamic name for which was “Rohang“), now renamed as Rakhine, during the reign of King Narameikhla (1430-1434), and miscegenated with local indigenous women, over time. During the British era the migration from Bengal to Arakan continued unabated. Though the Rohingyas consider themselves as an ethnic minority of Burma, they are not enlisted among the 135 indigenous ethnic minorities of the country and the Burmese Nationality Law, 1982 forbids them from Burmese citizenship.

Mikael Gravers wrote,”Religion remains an important medium in the formulation of political identities and strategies in Burma.” Considering that the Rohingyas are doubly different, both ethnically (tribe) and religiously (truth/worldview) from other Burmese, the Burmese policymakers have discriminated against the Rohingyas from the pre-colonial times. For the Burmese nationalist the Rohingya is a “Muslim” (hence heretic) and a “Bengali” (hence outsider) who will never be accepted in Burma. Thein Sein, the president of the country said last year, “It is impossible to accept those Rohingya who are not our ethnic nationals.” The Rohingya’s assertion of identity that he
is a “Rohingya“, an ethnic Burmese, is negated. The Myanmar governmentt policies exhibit this trend. Of late, the Rohingyas have been forced to identify themselves as “Bengalis” and they have been asked to prove that their ancestors did not arrive later than 1823 if they are to be considered as Burmese citizens and those Rohingya who fail to acquire citizenship are to be marginalised, according to the Rakhine Action Plan, by forcing them into isolated and restrictive settlement zones.

On the other hand Bangladesh has denied to accept them as “Bengalis“, though the country has been sheltering thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled Rakhine prior to the 2012 violence. Therefore the different politicised “identities” framed about the Rohingyas by others overlap and their very fundamental “identity” that they are human beings is negated, saddeningly.

India’s worry: Rohingyas likely to seek refuge in NE

It has been long clear that neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh has any desire to absorb the Rohingya population, with both claiming that the other must shoulder the burden“, Nicholas Farrelly, The Myanmar Times.

Myanmar’s nationalist discourse often raises the spectre of creeping silent Islamicisation of the country, exhibiting Islamophobia. The Buddhist nationalists want the Rohingyas to be expelled out of the country not merely because they are ‘outsiders‘ but they are perceived as the bearers of an expansionist religion, Islam which is a threat to Buddhist culture of the country. Given the popularity and prominence of the Ma Ba Tha and Ashin Wirathu, the monk who lead the anti-muslim 969 movement among the majority Bamars, the socio-political space of the Rohingyas seems to be narrowing in Myanmar.

Meanwhile after Bangladesh’s refusal to accept any more Rohingya refugees in the wake of 2012 ethnic violence in Rakhine, many of the asylum-seekers had turned towards India’s northeast. In The Asia Times Online, Subir Bhaumik reported at that time quoting police authorities that more than 1400 Rohingya refugees were intercepted while entering into Indian territory, half of them trying to enter directly to India using the Manipur and Mizoram borders, while the rest had tried to enter through Tripura from Bangladesh under considerable pressure from the Bangladeshi authorities to go back to their native Rakhine state in Myanmar.

The Hindu, last year, reported that more than one thousand Rohingya refugees were detained while entering into West Bengal. The report quoted an official to have said that the influx on the one hand was becoming a “security risk” with consequent political ramifications and, on the other hand, it was snowballing into a major humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, these reports clearly suggest that a silent new wave of migration into India’s Northeast is taking place.

A few weeks ago this scribe, on the condition of anonymity, interviewed three Rohingya youths from Marringdaw working in a road construction site near Indo-Bhutan border in Assam. They said that they had entered India two years ago with the help of a Kumilla man who provided them fake papers and helped them cross the border through Tripura against heavy fees. One of them, who seems to be in his early 20s says, “It’s hopeless to stay in Rakhine, there we had to stay under constant threat. Our people are moving to other places.” On being asked why they chose this place to move into, he said, “Here, atleast we can breathe freely. We are poor and we didn’t have enough money to move to places like Dubai.”

Now, with the anticipation that ethic tension may escalate in northwestern Myanmar during the upcoming elections in November, more Rohingya refugees could be entering to India, especially into the northeastern states. India’s already volatile northeast, if faces a new wave of migration, will surely breed graver consequences adding to the worries of the country’s internal security. India has to be cautious, keeping tight vigil on its borders as Myanmar heads for its national elections in November, 2015.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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