The Guardian view on the Rohingya refugee crisis: cruel and stupid
May 15, 2015
It is a sad paradox that the partial liberalisation of Burma has also unleashed an anti-Muslim chauvinism within its Buddhist majority. Yangon must face this down
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya refugees drifting without succour in the Andaman sea is appalling, and must be alleviated. The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments should be put under pressure to do their humanitarian duty toward these unfortunate people. But those governments are also right to say both that they cannot be expected to bear the burden alone, and that the problem is bound to get worse unless the root causes, which are the contested status of the Rohingya in Burma and the existence of a ruthless people-trafficking industry in the region, are not tackled in a determined way.
The Rakhine area from which the Rohingya come is one where Muslims and Buddhists have co-existed very uneasily for many decades, coming periodically to blows. The two sides have narratives of this vexed relationship that are close to irreconcilable.
In one, the Rohingya are virtually all immigrants from Bangladesh or what later became Bangladesh, and grew from a small minority into a majority in some parts of the state, reinforced by constant, illegal new arrivals from Bangladesh. They only started calling themselves Rohingya, which is an invented identity, recently, and never had, in this view, a wholehearted loyalty to Burma, wanting at the time of independence in 1947 to be part of Pakistan, or to have a state of their own, and thereafter seeking maximum autonomy. Therefore, a “resettlement” plannow being put into practice by the Yangon government is fair, because it will allow Rohingya who can prove that their families have lived in Burma for 60 years or more to become naturalised citizens, while those who cannot will face deportation.
In the Rohingya version, they are the descendants of Muslims who came to this part of Burma long ago, perhaps of Persian and Arab traders, and are not Bengalis, in spite of the fact that they mainly speak that language, and they have been denied both full Burmese citizenship and, most recently, the right to vote. The resettlement plan is manifestly impractical, unfair and, above all, cruel, and has already led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands both inside the countryand outside it, mainly to Bangladesh.
There are some elements of truth in the first version of events, and some elements of special pleading in the second. But any impartial assessment must come down firmly on the side of the Rohingya. The Burmese government’s draconian formula for dealing with this problem from history is both ludicrous and vicious. It is a recipe for the kind of tragedy we are just witnessing on the high seas, with many more disasters to come. It also provides an opportunity for the criminal rings that profit from the desperation of families trapped in camps where there is no work and no hope.
It is a sad paradox that the partial liberalisation of Burma in recent years has released both genuinely democratic forces and a popular chauvinism, particularly an anti-Muslim chauvinism, within the Buddhist majority which undermines those forces. Burma’s government must face down that chauvinism and change its policies.