YANGON, Myanmar — Numbering around 1 million people living in western Myanmar, along with several hundred thousand refugees and migrants in neighboring countries, there are few peoples in the world as marooned as the Muslim Rohingya.
Most are stateless, denied citizenship by Myanmar due to a 1982 law dictated while the country, then known as Burma, was run by the army. But the end of dictatorship in 2011 and the rise to power of an elected government last year — headed by one of the world’s best-known former political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi — has done little to help the Rohingya.
“They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,” said Pope Francis in his latest weekly audience Feb. 8.
Over the decades, several hundred thousand have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they stay in squalid border camps. Tens of thousands more made it to Malaysia and Thailand in recent years, where many are refugees and cannot officially work. And those roughly 1 million Rohingya left inside Myanmar have faced several bouts of violence at the hands of Buddhist mobs since 2012, resulting in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from towns in Rakhine state in the west of the country.
Accounts given by refugees in Bangladesh fleeing a recent “clearance operation” by the Myanmar army suggested that around half the women had been sexually assaulted, some after seeing male family members executed.
In a report released Feb. 3, the United Nations contends that it is “very likely” that crimes against humanity have been taking place in Myanmar since October, when the Myanmar army retaliated against the killing of nine border police by militants claiming to be fighting back after decades of oppression.
The U.N. report makes for grim reading. One account cites “an 11-year-old girl from Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son” who said: “After entering our house, the army apprehended us. They pushed my mother on the ground. They removed her clothes, and four officers raped her. They also slaughtered my father, a prayer leader, just before raping my mother. After a few minutes, they burnt the house with a rocket, with my mother inside. All this happened before my eyes.”
Regarded as Foreigners
Most of Myanmar’s population is hostile to the Rohingya, inasmuch as can be gauged in a country that lacks opinion surveys but where social-media commentary is something of a yardstick — including, it seems, many in Myanmar’s small Christian population.
Aye Maung, leader of the biggest party in Rakhine, the western region where most of the Rohingya live, said in an interview, “Myanmar people do not accept the term Rohingya” — effectively denying the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group. The mostly Buddhist politicians in Myanmar call the Rohingya “Bengali,” implying they are interlopers from Bangladesh, which in turn does not want the Rohingya, not only confining refugees to camps, but demanding that Myanmar take them back and suggesting that more recent refugee arrivals would be taken to an island vulnerable to flooding at high tide.
One notable exception in Myanmar has been Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who has consistently spoken up for the Rohingya when few others in Myanmar public life would do so. On Feb. 6, two days before the Pope’s comments, Cardinal Bo described the latest accounts of army brutality as “heartbreaking and very profoundly disturbing” and called for “an end to the military offensive against civilians in Rakhine state.”
Cardinal Bo is Myanmar’s first cardinal, receiving his red hat from Francis in 2015, and leads the country’s roughly 800,000 Catholics — out of a total population of 51 million.
And while Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of government, does not control the army, she refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya’s plight, and ministries under her control have been pumping out propaganda questioning refugee accounts of army brutality and telling outsiders not to interfere.
Before Suu Kyi took office, bureaucrats in the religious affairs ministry asked Cardinal Bo not to use the term “Rohingya” in his correspondence with Pope Francis. It appears the attempt at censorship did not work. In his latest weekly address, the Pope urged prayers “for our Rohingya brothers and sisters who are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them.”
The History of the Rohingya
The Rohingya can trace their presence in Myanmar to “more than a century ago,” Cardinal Bo said, when this correspondent asked him in 2013 and again in 2015 whether or not he thought the Rohingya should be recognized in Myanmar. Myanmar was part of the British Indian Empire from the 19th century until just after World War II, and during that time, millions of Hindus and Muslims migrated from what are now Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to what is now Myanmar; but there are traces of a Muslim presence in Rohingya-populated parts of Myanmar going back to the 14th century, while a Scottish doctor traveling the region in the late 18th century noted the presence of a people he called the “Rooinga.”
“Nobody can deny us to call ourselves by our name. That is our right,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K.
Last week’s remarks were not the Holy Father’s first comments on the Rohingya, but they were his most pointed. In August 2015, after thousands of Rohingya were found adrift at sea on rickety boats and rafts, hoping to get ashore in neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand — all of which were reluctant to assist — the Pope spoke up.
“They were chased from one country and from another and from another,” Francis said of the situation. “When they arrived at a port or a beach, they gave them a bit of water or a bit to eat and were there chased out to the sea.”
Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia and the Middle East for several publications.
He’s on Twitter @simonroughneen, and his articles can be seen at SimonRoughneen.com.