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Good reason to tread carefully on Rohingya crisis

Layers of hatred and distrust in Myanmar need to be picked apart with care - and gradually

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak broke with the spirit of Asean camaraderie by joining a recent march protesting against Myanmar's treatment of its beleaguered Rohingya, a Muslim minority group within the predominantly Buddhist country. "We want to tell Aung San Suu Kyi enough is enough!" he told the leader of the fellow Asean member, in reference to alleged atrocities some have condemned as "genocide".

In contrast, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, tasked by Ms Suu Kyi with heading an advisory commission on the situation in Rakhine state where the Rohingya live, urged caution in using the word "genocide". Visiting Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, meanwhile, offered humanitarian assistance without a public rebuke.

There are good reasons to tread carefully with regard to the Rohingya crisis. Despite disturbing allegations of rape, arson and other atrocities since the Myanmar military launched operations in northern Rakhine state to flush out alleged Muslim militants who attacked border posts in October, public demands for intervention may only harden the polarised positions on the issue.

The Rohingya, who number about one million in Myanmar, are often called the world's most persecuted minority, viewed by the state and the majority as Bengali migrants imported by British imperialists, and forced to live in increasingly desperate conditions with their mobility restricted.

What often goes unsaid is that Rakhine is also likely the poorest state in Myanmar, according to a UN Development Programme report last year. Ethnic Rakhines, who are Buddhist, form about 60 per cent of its population while Muslims - including a group called the Kaman - form 30 to 35 per cent.

There is a resentment within the state that the global aid poured into the region since the outbreak of communal violence in 2012 has been concentrated on the Rohingya. A report by the Massachusetts-based non-profit CDA Collaborative Learning Projects in May said the Rakhines had "high expectations" that "international agencies' resources and expertise would contribute to evident improvements in development standards for the state as a whole".


Myanmar Rohingya at a refugee camp in Bangladesh last month. The Rohingya in Myanmar are often called the world's most persecuted minority but the backstory is far more complicated and multi-layered. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"The realisation that the majority of international programming would support displaced persons exclusively - a population largely comprised of Muslim groups - constituted a significant disappointment."

This grouse sits atop generations of historical grievances and is fanned by Buddhist nationalist rhetoric. As such, many Rakhines, who tend to get blamed for the plight of the Rohingya, refuse to recognise the "Rohingya" label.

"This is a very dangerous term," Rakhine lawmaker Oo Hla Saw told this reporter last week, wary of legitimising the Rohingya claim to being native to Myanmar. Local Rakhine resistance to the Rohingya identity is tied to their own concerns for survival, given their history of marginalisation by British colonial powers and the central government.

"Rakhines are sandwiched between the Muslims and the Burmese regime," said Mr Oo Hla Saw.

Burma is the former name of Myanmar. The word "Burmese" is also used to refer to the ethnic Bamar who form more than two-thirds of the country's population and dominate its government and armed forces.

Myanmar's numerous ethnic minorities, including the Rakhines, have long been wary of Bamar domination, a factor which has kept tensions alive between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups. But the Rakhines are also wary of eventually becoming a minority in their own state.

Ms Suu Kyi tried to broach the subject during an interview in Singapore, saying the Rakhines "are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise".

Yet the complexity of the situation often gets lost amid the alarming headlines, and is muddied by competing versions of Rohingya history used by both sides to support their agendas.

 The Rohingya speak a language similar to what is used in southern Bangladesh, a fact often used to discredit their claim of being native to Myanmar.

Luxembourg historian Jacques Leider, in a 2014 article, noted how not using the term "Rohingya" these days "has become tantamount to a lack of political correctness coming close to denying them basic rights". But the Rohingya identity is "historically opaque", he wrote.

This much we know: A word very similar to "Rohingya" was found in a 1799 article about languages spoken in present-day Myanmar by Scottish doctor Francis Buchanan. Muslims had lived in the Rakhine area even before it was conquered by Bamar king Bodawpaya in 1784. After the area was subsumed under British colonial rule in 1826, there was a large influx of migrants from then Bengal, sowing the seeds of communal tension.

World War II created a bloody faultline in Rakhine, pitting the Rohingya - who were armed by the retreating British - against the ethnic Rakhines, who had generally aligned themselves with the Japanese and nationalists. Tens of thousands of people from both sides were massacred.

Just how long the Rohingya identity had been gestating is a subject of intense and divisive debate. Dr Leider writes that members of the "educated Muslim class" of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine "started to claim a separate 'Rohingya' identity as they engaged in their fight for political autonomy" after World war II.

"This recognisable political struggle was shouldered by an ideological process that may have been in the making since the late 1930s and came to full fruition in the late 1950s."

Identity is a function of history, socialisation and political expediency. That much was experienced by the people in this region caught up in the post-colonial nation-building rush after World War II. But in Myanmar, the process was complicated by a 1962 military coup, and a disputed list of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups enacted in 1982.

In the lead-up to elections in 2010 after some 50 years of military rule, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) courted the Rohingya vote to try to get an edge over the local Rakhine political party. To the ire of the Rakhines, "white cards" granting holders voting rights were issued to Rohingya. The USDP-led government last year revoked these white cards, asking their holders to surrender them in exchange for new documents - a move greeted with suspicion by the Rohingya.

What we have now are layers of antipathy and distrust that need to be gradually picked apart. Given the Myanmar military's constitutionally guaranteed powers, Ms Suu Kyi's options may be limited even if more diplomatic pressure is heaped on her to act on the unfolding events in Rakhine. In fact, too much external pressure may even erode the authority of her nascent government vis a vis the military.

There are urgent humanitarian issues and longer-term political questions that can still be addressed - through a less strident approach.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2016, with the headline 'Good reason to tread carefully on Rohingya crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe