Why We Need to Be Paying Attention to the Rohingya in Myanmar

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Interethnic quarrels, nativist populism, and xenophobia have been no stranger to South Asian countries. Their unique histories, marked by migration and British occupation, have caused endless contention between cultural, ethnic, and religious groups.

Perhaps under the shadow of other conflicts in the region, the crisis of the Rohingya people is deserving of our attention. The Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, are an ethnic group in Myanmar (Burma), a majority Buddhist country. Migration between English-occupied regions in South Asia was common, and the Rohingya enjoyed rights and privileges similar to those of native people shortly after Burmese independence.

However, the Burmese government soon turned on the Rohingya people. Ethnocentric laws regarding citizenship greatly restricted the rights and privileges of the Rohingya people. According to Al Jazeera, “their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services have been and continue to be restricted”.

To this day, arbitrary crackdowns on Rohingya, who are seen as illegal immigrants who belong in Bangladesh, have afflicted the Rakhine region where the Rohingya live. The Burmese military’s extrajudicial actions in Rakhine signify the malicious nationalism that plagues much of Myanmar.

Populist Sentiment

While many Burmese people share the government’s view that Rohingya deserve to be stateless, many government officials have ventured to call the Rohingya terrorists. By claiming that the Rohingya are “extremists” who are trying to build a stronghold in the Rakhine state, the Burmese government is seeking to justify their cruel use of force.

Exacerbating the conflict is Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to denounce the violence. Ironically, Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her championing of democracy and human rights, has allowed Myanmar to descend into a coup-like police state, wreaking havoc on what many claim to be the most persecuted minority in the world.

Suu Kyi blamed the strife on “both sides” in 2013, ascribing Islamophobia to the fear of Islam’s influence in the world while denying that Muslims in Myanmar are subject to any more persecution than Buddhists. Fear may be the root of the violence, but failing to recognize this fear as unwarranted and racially-charged has permitted the military state to continue to violate human rights with impunity. In this ordeal, Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed her true identity as an unprincipled, opportunistic political operator.

Parallels with the United States

It is easy to attribute the conflict in Myanmar as a distant issue, a relic of an imperial past. But the tactics employed by the Burmese government, the xenophobic sentiment integral to this conflict, and the refusal to condemn gratuitous violence parallels some of the happenings in the United States right now.

Donald Trump and his cronies have promulgated rhetoric that bears a disturbing resemblance to that of Burmese general Min Aung Hlaing. The latter, who has advanced the Rohingya “enemy of the state” narrative, is also a proponent of the systematic persecution of the Rohingya. Donald Trump, through both dog-whistles and overtly racist remarks, has singled out undocumented immigrants as the culprit for America’s problems.

This summer, we have seen the beginning of the revocation of DACA, the program that granted protections for children of undocumented immigrants. Before that was the Trump-supported legislation sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that aimed to reduce legal immigration by prioritizing high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants, which would greatly reduce the amount of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries.

Removing protections for people who did not even break the law and trying to decrease the amount of non-English speakers entering the country legally resembles, to a lesser degree, the systematic oppression of the Rohingya, which greatly limited their opportunities in Myanmar. Whereas the Burmese government’s persecution of the Rohingya is flagrant xenophobia, Trump’s immigration agenda is milquetoast ethnic cleansing.

If you are still not convinced that Trump is a racist, think about the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Held accountable for profiling Latinos and suspected of much more, Sheriff Joe resemles the virulent ethno-nationalism that has fueled much of the conflict in Myanmar.

Rather than condemning the reprehensible actions of Sheriff Joe, President Trump lauded him in front of a large crowd at a campaign style rally. Likewise, Trump has supported, both directly and indirectly, a more violent, forceful approach to policing. And as bigotry and xenophobia can often manifest themselves through violence, Donald Trump’s support of more forceful policing will awaken latent racism within ICE agents, border patrollers, and police officers.

While the Rohingya crisis, both in magnitude and casualties, is more severe than the xenophobia endangering immigrants in the United States, how Donald Trump has dealt with the issue is worse than how Suu Kyi has dealt with her issue. Suu Kyi, although reluctant to condemn the Buddhist nationalists, has not praised them. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has extolled those who have sought to expand America’s police state.

To equate the mass persecution of the Rohingya with the marginalization of immigrants in the United States would diminish the struggle of the more than one million Rohingya people. But when interethnic strife in another country occurs, to espouse an American “holier-than-thou” perspective would be inaccurate and hypocritical because xenophobia and discrimination are alive and well in the United States.

Featured Image: https://www.amnesty.org.au/who-are-the-rohingya-refugees/

About the author

Matt Walsh is a V Form day student from Southborough, Massachusetts. He is a member of the Model U.N. club, edits for LEO, leads Openly Secular, plays trumpet, and works on the Lion Term Leadership Committee. Matt is a hot sauce connoisseur, and he loves Tabasco. In his free time, he enjoys sailing, skiing, and playing with his dog, Portia. He plays baseball and runs cross country, and his academic interests include chemistry, biology, Spanish, and government.

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