Recourse for the Rohingya

As she visits India, Suu Kyi should speak up on the Rakhine violence

Communal violence continues to erupt in bursts of bitterness and revenge in Western Myanmar. Since June, when a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Muslim men, over 180 people have been killed and more than 1,00,000 people displaced. In the last spate of attacks, in which Rohingya Muslims suffered the brunt of the violence, whole neighbourhoods were razed. While the security forces have made efforts to get the situation under control, a return to normalcy appears far away.

The violence was not completely unexpected. It emerged as a result of previous governments' discriminatory policies, deep poverty, and the recent loosening of restrictions. The population of Rakhine state includes Rakhine Buddhists, who are ethnically linked to Burmans, and various Muslim communities. One of these is the Rohingya, who speak a dialect of Bengali and trace their residence in Myanmar to the colonial period and earlier. Numbering approximately 8,00,000 and concentrated along the Bangladesh border, the Rohingya have long been viewed by Rakhine Buddhists as a threat.

For years, Myanmar's authoritarian leaders have fostered animosity towards the Rohingya in particular and unease about the intentions of Muslims in general. While the majority of the population was dissatisfied with military rule, they were receptive to claims that without the government's efforts, the country could be overrun by such "outsiders". The country's majority Buddhists have held on to their religious identity as a source of strength and pride, and Buddhist monks and lay people alike were easily agitated by rumours of Muslims raping Buddhist women or purported plans to spread Islam.

Previous governments have attempted to uproot the Rohingya population through various means. The 1982 citizenship law did not recognise the Rohingya as an indigenous race and twice the military carried out operations to expel them. Hundreds of thousands fled but a large number were involuntarily repatriated, because the Bangladesh government did not want to accept them. The Rohingya must get approval from the authorities to marry, which can take more than two years and the payment of an exorbitant bribe. They have been subjected to routine forced labour, had their land confiscated, and are frequently denied permission to travel to schools, jobs or hospitals outside their villages.

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