Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Row over the Rohingya

Rohingya migrants sit in a provincial immigration detention center in southwestern Thailand fter being transported from Ranong prison in January. Thailand promised a transparent investigation into allegations of army abuse of Rohingya boat people. (Photo: Reuters)

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2

Irrawaddy readers weigh in on a contentious issue

IN February, The Irrawaddy launched a new online feature, enabling users of our Web site to post comments on stories of particular interest to them. One subject has attracted far more attention than any other: the status of the Rohingya in Burma. Every news item and commentary on this topic elicited numerous responses; taken together, they give a sense of the range of opinions on this issue.

Some readers based their arguments on historical evidence, while others emphasized human rights considerations. But judging from the bulk of the comments we received, it was clear that race, religion and ethnicity were the major factors animating the debate over whether the Rohingya “belong” in Burma.

Few readers stooped to the blatant racism of the Burmese consul in Hong Kong, who infamously described the Rohingya as ugly, dark-skinned “ogres.” Some, however, evidently viewed the matter chiefly through the lens of race.

“A thorough DNA testing would reveal that these [people] belong to Bangladesh rather than Burma,” wrote one such reader, San Oo Aung.

For many other readers, the Islamic faith of the Rohingya was more of an issue than their genetic makeup. Although some, like Tin Win, recalled “ancient days when Muslims and Buddhists stayed together side by side in harmony,” many others painted a much darker picture of relations between followers of the two religions.

“For once, the regime is right,” wrote Pasquale. “The Rohingya are not Burmese. They are the fifth column for the Islamization of the land of Dhamma.”

“Be careful, Shwedagon Pagoda will disappear very soon,” echoed Mr True, who also accused The Irrawaddy and other exiled media of being “worse that the SPDC” for their supposed bias in favor of the Rohingya.

Just as controversial as the subject of race and religion was the issue of ethnicity. Many readers followed the junta’s practice of labeling the Rohingya “Bengalis.” Indeed, many voiced strong support for the regime’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group.

“I dislike the junta, but I support it for [its position on the] Rohingya,” wrote Maung Myanmar, in response to a report on our Burmese-language Web site.

Such views (which were also common on the English version of The Irrawaddy) provoked a number of international readers to express concern about the attitudes of some Burmese who profess to espouse democratic principles.

“Aren’t we fighting so that human rights will be protected for everyone?” asked Pokpong Lawansiri, who identified himself as “a Thai advocate working for a Burmese cause.”

Hong Kong-based Luzhou similarly asked: “Do we not believe in justice, equality, non-discrimination? Do we not observe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

“Even when the democracy struggle has come to a victory, and democratic government is established, without the right attitude, there will be no answer to the problem,” he added.

Several Burmese readers expressed sympathy for the Rohingya as fellow victims of military rule, but in some cases added that too much emphasis had been placed on their plight because of their religion and ethnicity. “Please do not forget the fact that the military government kills even Buddhist monks,” wrote Than Aung.

“Rohingyas deserve humanitarian aid as much as any other refugees. Focus should be on that and not on which ethnicity they belong to,” wrote Khin, who cautioned against “carelessly” accepting the claims of the Rohingya “out of sympathy.”

The most hotly disputed claims were those relating to the historical presence of the Rohingya in Arakan State. Historian Aye Chan was representative of those who strongly denied that the Rohingya have long had a place in the history of the once-independent kingdom of Arakan.

“It is obvious that the term ‘Rohingya’ was created in the 1950s by the educated Chittagonian descendants from the Mayu Frontier area (present day Buthidaung and Maungdaw Districts) and that it cannot be found in any historical source materials in any language till then,” he wrote.

As some readers pointed out, however, not all historians agree with this view.

“Dr Than Tun wrote that the Muslim title used [by] Arakan kings mentioned in the stone pillar of 1422 might be Rohingyas from the Mayu valley of the eastern Naf river and the western Kaladan river who have claimed their existence there for over 1,000 years,” wrote Maungmaung, referring to the findings of a well-known Burmese historian.

Notwithstanding the role of The Irrawaddy’s online comments section and other Internet-based forums, some readers complained that the real problem dogging this issue is the lack of open discussion.

Ahmedur Rahman Farooq wrote that “the Burmese pro-democracy government-in-exile was formally approached by the Rohingyas to arrange a debate over the issue under the supervision of international historians, but they have no guts to arrange such a debate because they know very well that such an initiative will permanently close all the doors for anti-Rohingya camps inside the pro-democracy movement.”

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too