Most of Burmese emigrants today can be found living in Malaysia and Thailand, said the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in its report earlier this year.
(An ’emigrant’ is defined as out-migrant who has moved away while an ‘immigrant’ is one who has moved in.)
Malaysia is hosting currently many Burmese − be they legal workers, PATI (pendatang tanpa izin) and additionally, the Rohingya refugees.
It is estimated that 4.25 million people who were born in Myanmar are presently residing outside their country of birth, said UNFPA. How many Rohingya have melted into Malaysia’s shadowlands of undocumented migrants, one wonders?
150,000 Rohingya in Malaysia — Aljazeera
Burmese official narrative: Rohingya are Bengali
Myanmar has a total population of about 51.5 million. Some 3.2 million are living in Rakhine state.
The Rohingya are estimated to be around one third of Rakhine’s population going by the most recent Myanmar population and housing census taken in 2014.
“An estimated 1,090,000 people who wished to self-identify as Rohingya were not enumerated in the census,” the UNFPA clarified however. They are a people living in the shadows in Myanmar too.
⇓ Rohingya cousins dwell in Chittagong, Bangladesh
There are 135 ‘ethnic races’ officially listed by the authorities in Myanmar. The Rohingya are not categorized among these 135.
Rohingya are on the contrary viewed by the mainstream communities as Bengali outsiders, i.e. Indian Muslim immigrants who moved into Rakhine from the neighbouring area of what is today Bangladesh. Hundreds of years ago, Bengal was ruled by sultanates.
[Note: The borders of modern Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal in August 1947. Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan beginning 1947 after independence from the British, and called by its present country name since 1971 following Bangladesh’s subsequent independence from Pakistan.]
In Myanmar, ‘citizenship by birth’ is granted to members of “national ethnic races”, for example the dominant ethnic group Bamar, and also the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Shan and Rakhine, etc. These ethnics are deemed to have been permanently settled in the areas of what is now Myanmar since before 1823.
The year 1823 is selected as the cut-off line because war broke out between Britain and Burma in March 1824, following border clashes in Arakan state (the previous name for Rakhine state). The British won the war and in 1826, the Burmese had sign a peace treaty and cede Arakan – among other territories – to the colonial empire.
Unlike Burma’s 135 official ‘ethnic races’, Rohingya need to apply to become naturalized citizens. Nonetheless, their prospects of citizenship are “significantly narrowed” due to the country’s restrictive Citizenship Law.
Rohingya are de facto stateless people
Why is it that Rohingya have been pointedly excluded from citizenship by law even though their families have been living in Myanmar for many generations?
According to the Kofi Annan report:
“While there has been a Muslim community in Rakhine since before the Burmese invasion, its size increased rapidly during colonial times. British colonial policies to expand rice cultivation in Rakhine required significant labour, a need which was largely filled by Muslim workers from Bengal. While many came on a seasonal basis, some settled down permanently – altering the ethnic and religious mix of the area. From the 1880s to the 1930s, the size of the Muslim community (as part of the total population of the state) seems to have doubled, increasing from about 13 to 25 percent.”
The demographic data above was sourced from Report on the Census of British Burma, Part I: The Enumeration and Compilation of Results, 1881; Census of India 1931, Vol XI: Burma, Part I: Report, 1933.
The ‘Kofi Annan report’ – a year in the making – collates the final recommendations by the advisory commission chaired by the respected former UN sec-gen.
Some months into his investigations, Kofi Annan rejected claims that the mass killings in Rakhine amounted to genocide.
Myanmar violence not genocide, Kofi Annan tells the BBC https://t.co/15h76yBMDA
— BBC Asia (@BBCNewsAsia) December 6, 2016
Descendents of unwelcomed immigrants remain unwanted
Findings by the commission was presented last month (Aug 23) to Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar president U Htin Kyaw.
Ethnicity has a “direct impact on the determination of [Myanmar] citizenship”, the Kofi Annan report acknowledged.
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law disenfranchised the Rohingya who are considered as “Muslim workers from Bengal”. Through the implementation of this law, Rohingya became ‘white card’ holders only granted temporary residency.
Since they are not regarded by the Burmese government as indigenous to the land, Rohingya are required to prove that they or their ancestors entered the country prior to 1948.
[Note: Burma won its independence from the British in January 1948. The newly independent republic, however, declined to become a member of the Commonwealth.]
Because the Rohingya are viewed as illegal aliens and interlopers, this Muslim minority group is effectively made stateless by the Burmese ruling clique by design.
Long history of mutual distrust
Rakhine has been wracked by perpetual cycles of violence.
As early as 1948, there was a mujahideen rebellion in Arakan (Rakhine) shortly after Myanmar’s independence when the Rohingya demanded an autonomous Muslim region in the north of the state.
Inter-communal conflict is a recurring theme amid the province’s periodic social tensions. In 1978 and 1991, the hostile Burmese military junta pushed more than 200,000 Rohingya to trek as refugees into Bangladesh.
Ethnic conflict between armed combatants took a toll of at least 192 lives (134 Muslims, 58 Rakhine) in June and October 2012. Rohingya separatists are accused of harbouring ambitions to secede.
The most recent waves of violence occurred in October 2016, sparked by attacks on Burmese security forces by the Harakat al-Yaqin insurgents, also known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
More killings erupted late last month on the back of the release of Kofi Annan’s report.
“What is seen by many internationally as a human rights issue is viewed in Myanmar as one of national sovereignty, and there is widespread support for military operations in northern Rakhine,” reported the BBC in its Sept 6 article.
The British broadcaster also said, “Most Burmese view international media coverage as one-sided, putting too much emphasis on the Rohingya, and failing to adequately cover the plight of others in Rakhine who have fled violence in their villages”.
Foreign media are quoting a figure of more than a quarter million when referring the number of Rohinga who have fled across the border to to Bangladesh over the past couple of weeks.
Nevertheless, it is not Rohinga alone who have been displaced by the sectarian violence. Some 27,000 ethnic Rakhine – Buddhists as well as Hindus – comprise ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP) that have also had to be evacuated from their homes.
⇓ James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for southeast Asia and Pacific voices how a common language is vital for integration
Multiculturalism, diversity tore apart Rakhine
The Rohingya have a different language, culture and religion from the majority Burmese and the majority Rakhine. They live in a parallel society, in fact.
In their madrasahs, Rohingya children are not educated in Myanmar language.
It is untenable that the Rohingya – or for that matter, any minority so very different in language, culture and religion – should still fail to integrate with the majority population.
— CNN (@CNN) September 11, 2017
Although the Burmese government has downplayed the massacres in Rakhine as merely a security response to Muslim “terrorists”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – see story tweeted above – views the grave situation with alarm as ethnic cleansing.
UN special rapporteur on the status of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee is similarly concerned, suggesting on Friday (Sept 8) that more than 1,000 people, mostly Rohingya, may already have been killed.
What is undeniable is the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar. With Rohingya villages being razed to the ground, their flight of fear is tantamount to a forced expulsion.
In the worst case scenario, minorities can be expelled even from the land of their birth. If anything, Rakhine proves that too much diversity is dangerous. There is nothing at all to hold such a diverse, fractured society together.