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

Posted on July 9, 2015 in GlobeScope, Politics, Staff Picks

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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