The other day I was watching a YouTube video of a CNN interview with Reza Aslan on the topic of religion.
Said Aslan, “If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are Buddhist — marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful.”
The statement about the Buddhist monks immediately set me back. How could I have never heard of this?
In fact, what I (and the majority of Americans) have never heard of was, according to the United Nations, “the world’s most persecuted minority”.
The setting is the Rakhine State in northwestern Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh.
Myanmar as a country puts an enormous emphasis on Buddhism. 89% of the Burmese people are part of the Theravada branch, the strictest and most demanding branch of Buddhism. Of all the world’s Buddhist countries, Myanmar has the highest percentage of monks, and spends the most of their GDP on religion.
The people living in the Rakhine State, however, are of an ethnic minority, and are Muslims. They are the indigenous people of the region; as proof, in 1799, geographer Francis Buchanan-Hamilton wrote that they “call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan” while exploring the Rakhine State area.
The Burmese government’s Citizenship Law of 1982 states that any indigenous group that has lived within the current country borders since 1823 or earlier will be granted full citizenship. So that includes the Rohingyas, who’ve been in the area since before 1799, right?
Wrong. According to the Burmese government, the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not the indigenous people. Despite this being entirely factually incorrect, it makes over one million people stateless.
And it’s not just statelessness – their existence as a unique culture is denied. The term “Rohingya” is not allowed on any official documents.
The removal of a people group from history is the sixth stage of genocide.
The persecution of the people began in 1978, when Operation Nagamin took away all official Rohingya documentation of citizenship, and subsequently, 200,000 Rohingya fled. In 1989, under a military dictatorship, NaSaKa was implemented, which, according to equalrightstrust.org, caused “restrictions on marriages and on having children within Rohingya communities, and arbitrary taxation and forced labour”.
Says rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana, “the pattern of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Rakhine State may constitute crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court…extrajudicial killing, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment in detention, denial of due process and fair trial rights, and the forcible transfer and severe deprivation of liberty of populations has taken place on a large scale and has been directed against the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State…The deprivation of healthcare is deliberately targeting the Rohingya population, and…the increasingly permanent segregation of this population is taking place.”
The Rohingyas are legally denied access to higher education, ability to vote, and the right of free movement. Buddhists often rampage through villages, killing hundreds. Systemic and violent oppression includes “malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of access to labour markets and healthcare, vulnerability to arbitrary arrest, [and] violence and abuse.”
In 2012, a wave of violence destroyed a large handful of Rakhine State homes. It left over 140,000 homeless.
Over one hundred thousand Rohingyas have decided (or have been forced) to flee on boats to Southeast Asia in slave-like conditions. They are often left without food or water, resulting in starvation and diarrhea. Since 2012, two thousand Rohingyas have been proclaimed to be lost at sea.
Currently, one million Rohingya live outside of Myanmar – mostly in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia (as well as India and Southeast Asia).
Malaysia has been unwelcoming to the migrants, with it’s weak legal framework for discrimination. Typical protocol is that “once arrested and an investigation file opened, the individual will be taken to a police lock-up or transferred directly to one of the country’s immigration detention depots.”
Bangladesh, facing a human-trafficking crisis, has approximately 32,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar alone. A recent controversial decision will relocate these refugees to southern Bangladesh’s Hatia Island. For a community already living in extreme poverty, this is not good news.
Reads a report by Kyoto University on the effects of climate change on Hatiya Island, the residents “had to shift their dwelling houses due to severe river erosion, abnormal flooding, tidal surge and regular cyclonic storms that affected the island community.”
This is a story of large numbers: over a million people. It involves oppression in the forms of denied human rights, economic hardship, broken families, and a slave-like migration route.
But this story means nothing without empathy. We have to step in the shoes of these oppressed people, feel their pains.
Take the story of Hasinah Izhar. Living in extreme poverty and persecution, she fled Myanmar. She left her son behind. “I had to leave without telling my son. I didn’t say anything to him. If only I could have told him…” (the son is currently an orphan, working for $9 a month for a stranger in Myanmar).
In regards to the boat journey, says Izhar, “you can’t imagine how painful it was.”
By thinking empathetically, perhaps some light will be shed on the sadness and importance of this issue. We have to inform our world, and save the Rohingya people!