In recent years, Myanmar has begun to open up and embark on a laudable path towards democracy. Despite this trajectory, however, another disturbing narrative exists which is increasingly coming to the world’s attention. The plight of the Muslim minority Rohingya people is one of systematic repression teetering on genocide. In 1982 a law was passed denying citizenship to the Rohingya people, who now live in camps or cordoned off villages. Widespread hostility towards the Rohingya and government repression of the group threatens to escalate to systematic violence if relations deteriorate.
Widespread prejudices persist against the Rohingya, who are seen as foreigners by the Buddhist majority. Many believe the Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh who followed British troops into Myanmar in the 1800s. This notion legitimizes those continuing to deny the Rohingya people citizenship and equal rights. The Rohingya are a small minority group, yet are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 134 ethnic groups. The danger for these people is that continuing anti-Rohingya sentiments in the population could lead to a genocide. There have already been instances of anti-Rohingya violence which have resulted in dozens of deaths.
Myanmar, with its Buddhist majority, comprised part of British India bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh. People moved fluidly within the common imperial political structure, but the establishment of modern borders caused many groups to be isolated from one another. Today, the danger for the Rohingya is that their perceived status as outsiders and parasites on Burmese society leads to similar rhetoric found in areas ravished by genocide.
For instance, in Rwanda, Tutsis were often labelled foreigners in the country, brought in by imperial powers and lacking legitimate historical or social ties to Rwanda. Such rhetoric facilitated the Rwandan genocide as Tutsis were easily portrayed as sub-human outsiders. Similarly the mass slaughter of Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica in 1995 was facilitated by views of Muslims as foreign, relics of Ottoman imperial control over the Balkans, and therefore legitimate targets.
The situation in Myanmar is more akin to Bosnia than Rwanda due to the fact that identities are constructed around ethno-religious ties. However, the Rohingya’s plight is also unique because, despite the ethnic pluralism in the country, the Rohingya remain non-citizens due to Buddhists’ fears about Muslim influence on Burmese culture and society. In this case, religious strife – already a dangerous factor – has been linked to ethnic identities, as most Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya. Whereas religious identity is fluid, ethnic identity is permanent, and herein lies the greatest threat to the Rohingya.
By conflating the two identities Burmese Buddhists come to view the Rohingya as not only different in degree, but also in kind. Their otherness is in turn fundamentally tied to their very existence as people, which denies the possibility of change or compromise, for how can one compromise elements at the very defining core of one’s being? Historically when large segments of society reach this conclusion about a minority, the potential for ethnic cleansing and genocide drastically increases. The international community is beholden to ensure such actions do not transpire in Myanmar.