Opposition silent on the Rohingya

Arifa
By August 20, 2015 10:58

Opposition silent on the Rohingya

This November Myanmar (formerly Burma) will go to the polls in elections which will see the participation of the main opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD). This is despite the current military-dominated government’s ruling that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains ineligible due to her children holding British citizenship.

Suu Kyi has developed an ambivalent role in Myanmar politics since her release from house arrest in 2010. Earlier this year, she made a highly public visit to China — a move unthinkable without government approval — and she has been a guest of honour at official events to commemorate the centenary of her father, independence hero Aung San.

However, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been criticized for her continuing silence on the crisis of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, thousands of whom have been killed in clashes or lost at sea and hundreds of thousands forced into exile during the past decade.

Behind this humanitarian catastrophe lurk the familiar ghosts of colonialism as well as domestic agendas.

Precise estimates of the Rohingya population inside the country are impossible as the Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya ethnicity.

A national census was conducted in 2014 but respondents were only able to choose their ethnicity from one of 135 officially recognized groups categorized in 1982.

Most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers.

Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10 per cent each, while Akha, Chin, Chinese, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples each constitute 5 per cent or less of the population.

Myanmar presidential spokesman Ye Htut said of the census procedure: “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not accept it. If they say Bengali or any other ethnicity it’s fine, but if they say Rohingya we will not register it.

Government data from 2010 put Arakan’s population at about 3.34 million people, of which the Muslim population accounted for 29 per cent. While not all of Arakan’s Muslims are Rohingyas, the figure chimes with most independent estimates that there are more than a million Rohingyas within Myanmar and perhaps another 250,000 outside, principally in neighbouring Bangladesh and Thailand.

However, this approach not only undermines the very idea of a Myanmar nation based on civic equality but effectively cleaves a country of 135 officially recognized national and ethnic groups into two neat and very unequal components.

Buddhists account for nearly 90 per cent of the country’s inhabitants but that hasn’t stopped the country’s military from conducting ethnically based pogroms against minority nationalities.

For several decades, successive military regimes have discriminated against non-Bamar minorities regardless of their religion.

These minorities are generally Buddhist but also comprise large numbers of Christians, especially among the Chin, Karen and Kachin communities. Islam was not a factor in the army’s onslaughts against these peoples.

One key historical factor fueling the crisis stems from Britain’s colonial legacy in the region.

Burma’s value to British imperialism was in its forests, especially teak and oil. Burmah Oil dominated the latter industry for more than eight decades until nationalization in 1962. Energy resources continue to draw international attention although today gas production far outstrips oil.

Arakan was an independent state until 1785 when it fell to the Burmese. Britain subsequently annexed Arakan in 1824 in the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars that pushed the frontiers of the empire eastward from India. The third war in 1885 ended Burmese statehood and its remaining territories became part of British India. Burma only became a separately governed colony in 1937.

Britain’s colonial rule is generally overlooked as a factor in exacerbating ethnic tensions. This is remarkable given the track record of British imperialism. As in almost every other case, British domination over subject peoples was based on the maxim of divide and rule to undermine the majority Burmese or Bamar people.

Until 1937, majority ethnic Bamar (Burmans) were prevented from serving in the British colonial forces in substantial numbers. Instead recruitment was centred on three of the country’s largest minority groups, Kachin, Karen and Chins.

When conflict between the British empire and Japan broke out in 1941, this ethnic division was deepened. During WWII against Japan, Rohingyas also served in British forces in some numbers.

Great hopes have therefore rested on Aung San Suu Kyi’s capacity for national reconciliation and renewal after decades of internal conflict.

There is little doubt that in fair and free elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would win. However, her failure to stand up and speak for all Myanmar citizens regardless of language or faith is a worrying sign that, on this issue at least, little will change after November’s results.

Note: Changes have been made, Morning Post is not responsible for these.

Source: Morning Post.

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Arifa
By August 20, 2015 10:58

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