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The Real Significance of the Rohingya Issue

Asian nations must worry that Myanmar’s moves against the Rohingyas won’t start untangling all colonial-era boundaries, however illogical in terms of ethnic or religious issues those may have been.

Credit: TonelloPhotography


  • The Rohingyas are Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
  • There is hell to pay if reversing history is the silent goal of the Myanmar government.
  • Anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar has a long history.
  • Myanmar officials, of course, do not admit to blatant racism based on skin color and facial characteristics.

The real significance of the crisis of the Rohingya minority of Myanmar extends far beyond the two issues currently at the center of global attention.

Yes, it is a humanitarian crisis of huge dimension, and true as well that it has revealed the fragility of Aung San Suu Kyi’s status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

But what is not properly appreciated yet is that, unless handled with much greater care than seen to date, this issue will long reverberate through all of Southeast Asia, far beyond Bangladesh.

Most people are aware that the Rohingyas are Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. In that nation, Buddhist monks have had a nationalist political role dating back to British rule, if not before.

The explosive dimension

If viewed as an exclusively Muslim issue, this has the potential to enlarge the cracks already apparent in the edifice of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

One of the great achievements of independent Asia so far is to have accepted almost all colonial-era boundaries and demographic changes, however illogical or disadvantageous they may have been to this or that ethnic or religious group.

The Rohingyas are mostly descendants of people who arrived in what today is Myanmar under British rule, at a time when Burma was administered as part of India. This lasted 150 years and effectively ended with the Japanese occupation 75 years ago.

There is hell to pay if reversing history is the silent goal of the Myanmar government. The short term will be agony for the Rohingyas, the long term possibly a calamity for Burmese in the face of Bengali numbers.

Horrendous bloodshed would also be in store – especially for communities of Chinese origin – should the notion of post-colonial ethnic cleansing take hold elsewhere in Asia.

More complications

In this combustible, post-colonial context, it is far from helpful that Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, currently pursued by allegations of a billion dollar fraud, attempted to burnish his Islamic credentials by sharply criticising Myanmar.

Next, Indonesia’s effort to try to calm troubled waters by sending its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw didn’t yield anything really useful. Soothing words were spoken, but little action followed.

So far both the Muslim Indonesians and the Buddhist Thais have kept their cool. But there is no guarantee that Indonesia’s approach can last if atrocities continue.

The Buddhist Thais may have little sympathy for their Burmese neighbors, given a long history of rivalry. Nonetheless their own Muslim minority problems in the southern Thailand, and Bangkok’s lack of interest in the issues of Chinese maritime expansion which trouble Indonesia, make ASEAN solidarity increasingly difficult.

Untangling the in-country issue

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar has a long history, though the Rohingya issue is different in origin and character from those against Muslims, many of them small traders, in the cities.

The Rohingyas are Bengali speakers and thus readily identified not only with Bangladesh, but with the Bengali world. At 250 million people, including Indian West Bengal, it is much more populous than Myanmar with its 60 million, let alone its Burmese core (which may only total 40 million).

This demographic issue lies behind the Myanmar obsession with Rohingya immigration into Rakhine state which borders Bangladesh and where most Rohingyas live. It is also for that reason that the government has refused to grant citizenship to Rohingyas — however long their families may have resided there.

Racism at bay

The Rohingyas are mostly dark skinned people with features common to the Indian subcontinent. Myanmar officials, of course, do not admit to blatant racism based on skin colour and facial characteristics.

But it is revealing that, in 2009, Myanmar’s then consul-general in Hong Kong was unwise enough to speak his mind. He put forth a view that is probably silently shared by a significant proportion of his countrymen.

Addressing his fellow diplomats on the Rohingya issue soon after it came to foreign attention at the time as boatloads of refugees arrived on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia, Ye Mint Aung said that the Rohingyas were not actually Myanmese and were not accepted as one of the ethnic groups of his country, or indeed as citizens.

He wrote: “You will see in the photos that their complexion is dark brown” in contrast to the complexion of Myanmar people which was “fair and soft, good-looking as well.”

He claimed that his own complexion was typical of a Myanmar gentleman and fellow diplomats could contrast their “handsome colleague” with the “ugly as ogres” Rohingyas whose pictures were in the newspapers.

Never mind that Aung San Suu Kyi, let alone the monks and generals, see the Rohingyas as immigrants into Rakhine state.

The colonial-era powder keg

But all of these considerations, ominous as they already are, pale in comparison to the possibility that the de facto goal of the Myanmar government may be to unwind colonial-era population movements with its stance on the Rohingyas.

However illogical or disadvantageous those boundaries and migrations may have been to this or that ethnic or religious group, any attempt to reverse history opens up the proverbial Pandora’s box.

If Asian nations, which since independence have largely steered clear of reversing the past, are now to get into the business of rejecting some population movements which occurred in colonial times, be prepared for bloodbaths on a horrendous scale.

That is why all Asian neighbors need to wake up to the Rohingya crisis. It is far more than a “”little local difficulty.”’ To be sure, this is not like the Marawi in the Philippines or the Patani in Thailand where small insurgencies have been ongoing for decades.

The ethnic collision in Rakhine is a threat of altogether different proportions, as well as an ongoing tragedy.

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About Philip Bowring

Philip Bowring is an Asia-based journalist, formerly the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

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