Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Plain Speaking

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2
The Irrawaddy News

The Irrawaddy’s correspondent asked Rohingya and Rakhine residents of Maungdaw, in Arakan State, and a Burmese computer expert in Rangoon for their views on the Rohingya issue. All three interview subjects are 27 years old, and while they clearly don’t represent Rohingya, Rakhine and Burmese populations as a whole, their comments offer some idea of popular thinking in Burma

A young Rohingya man who helps out in his parents’ business was asked to describe his life in Arakan State.

I feel we’re confined in a box. I feel we’re treated as sub-human. I feel we suffer the worst human rights violations compared with our brethren [Burmese citizens] in other parts of the country who are experiencing the policies of this government. We all bear the brunt of this dictatorship. But I don’t know why other ethnic groups do not sympathize with us. This is the saddest thing.

Q: Why do you think this government does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group?

A: I don’t know exactly why. But we do know that this government uses a divide-and-rule system in our state so they can rule easily. I also think the government fears our work potential and expansion strategy. As you know, we Rohingya are very hardworking, and our population could swell in a short time. I guess that in order to prevent our expansion and influence, the junta denies us our human rights, and removed our citizenship. Our fellow ethnic Rakhine people also think we’re hostile and aggressive. It may be true, sometimes. But it would be because of their discrimination and restrictions.

Q: What keeps you here?

A: Hope! Hope that one day we will get citizenship. I hope that at least in the near future, some restrictions will be lifted, easing our daily life, and improving our livelihoods.

Q: What do you expect from the 2010 election?

A: Democracy that guarantees our human rights. But only real democracy could make our dreams come true. If the government doesn’t want to give us citizenship, we will automatically understand that the democracy it restores is just half-baked democracy. The other half needs to be baked by ourselves. I don’t know, at least for now, how to bake that half. Taking arms or taking to the streets? Or what else?

A Rakhine employee of a Maungdaw engineering company was asked to define the Rohingya.

A: We don’t consider them as one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar [Burma]. They sometimes create problems against our Rakhine people without realizing that they’re living on our land. They’re also trying to occupy our lands, and also threatening our religion. We can’t allow them to do that. I personally see them as destructive to our state. They would certainly threaten all Burma. But we’re human. We have sympathy with anyone as long as they don’t harm our self-regard.

Q: How would you describe your “fear factor” in living alongside Rohingyas if they regain citizenship?

A: Don’t say our fear factor. We don’t fear them. What we worry about is the safety and security of our people in such Muslim populated townships as Buthidaung and Maungdaw. We have to take their safety into account. Our people there are only a minority and are vulnerable. If Muslims have citizenship and there is no law enforcement in our state, who will guarantee the safety and security of our ethnic group? If the Rohingya get citizenship, they will not stop there—believe me. They will demand a “special region.” We can’t give them Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships as a special region. Should the Rakhine be allowed to establish special regions where they live? Who would allow that? Tens of thousands of Burmese migrants are working in Thailand, but do you think the Thai government would grant them a “special region?”

Q: What do you think about stationing the Burmese army in Arakan State?

A: I think it’s good for us. It is thought that the army is here to guard us against hostile and aggressive actions by the Bengali immigrants. But don’t think we gladly accept soldiers on our land. I sometimes think about what my grandfather once said to us: our Rakhine [Arakan] State was once very peaceful before the army staged its coup [in 1962]. There were not many soldiers in those times. But, after the coup, more and more soldiers were stationed here, and many problems arose between Muslims and Rakhines. My grandfather blamed the army. He said the government drove a wedge between us in order to rule more easily over us. I don’t know whether that’s correct or not. But, what I see with my own eyes is that our Rakhine State is not as developed as other states of Myanmar. We have very poor transportation and communication infrastructure. But, for the present, we have to have a military presence on our land, however inconvenient.

Q: What do you expect from the 2010 election?

A: A government that will protect us from any invasion or expansion of illegal, hostile migrants. It’s very important to us. We’re worried that the next government will give citizenship to the Muslim people, without trying to keep law and order in our area. But, I’m one of those who support any government that undertakes humanitarian tasks that have to be tackled immediately.

A Burmese computer expert living in Rangoon was asked to comment on the Rohingya issue.

We cannot see this issue only from the humanitarian angle. I think it’s based on politics. Only after the military took power in the [1962] coup were there tensions and riots involving these two ethnic groups [Rakhine and Rohingya]. I think there were motives behind the government’s claim that the Rohingya are not an ethnic group. The government withdrew citizenship for the Rohingya in order to create problems within the state, which would help to shift the attention of fanatic Rakhine nationalists to concentrate on the Rohingya. As you know, the Rakhine people are famous for their nationalism. They love their ethnicity, their land, their culture so much more strongly than we love our own. The junta seems to abuse that. As a Burmese, one of the victims suffering under the iron heel of the military junta, I like to say we should be united. Our common enemy should not be Rohingya, nor any other ethnic group. Our one common enemy is the military government.

Q: What can be done to reconcile Rakhine and Rohingya?

A: I think the 2007 September protests helped to some extent to achieve reconciliation between Rakhine and Rohingya. I was in Sittwe at the time. The hair on my arms stood up when I saw four or five Muslims walking ahead of the monks. Their presence meant they would guard the monks who were marching for the sake of all people living in the country. That sent a message to me that when it comes to national interests and national causes, Rakhine and Rohingya are friends. We should not forget the momentum of the September protests. At the same time, we should be fully aware of the junta’s divide-and-rule policy.

Q: Do you think it’s worrisome if the Rohingya people acquire citizenship?

A: No, absolutely not. I believe they would be good citizens. They would work very hard to develop their area and catch up with developed townships in other parts of the country. We should wait and see how the government solves this issue. If it sorts it out wisely, there will be no problem. The government should not pass the issue as it is into the hands of the next civilian government. This problem has been created by the present government, so it must solve it. The problem should not be a legacy for future generations.

Q: Do you believe a post-2010 government will respect the human rights of all ethnic groups?

A: I dare not hope so, because I don’t know how honest and humane the next government will be. This Rohingya issue would be the best example, I think, to understand how the next government will behave in other cases.

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