Following decades of oppression and nearly a year of ethnic cleansing, the story of the Rohingya will soon be the greatest tragedy never told. If the name, “Rohingya,” doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry; that’s probably by design.
Before October 2016, the Rohingya people were an ethnic group of majority-Muslim men, women, and children dispersed around a number of Southeast Asian countries, with the largest concentration of Rohingya—just over one million—located in Rakhine, Myanmar. Today, however, more than half of Myanmar’s dwindling Rohingya population have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from the reign of terror instigated by the Myanmar Army.
The Rohingya’s cataclysmic rise from a relatively benign footnote on the geopolitical narrative to the world’s “most persecuted minority” can be chartered through a deep history of imperialist ignorance and global neglect. Like so many of the developing world’s contemporary problems, the crisis of the Rohingya largely took shape in 1948 as the end of colonialism saw Southeast Asian nations, divided by culture and history, unite as autonomous states under European-drawn borders. After the inception of Burma (as Myanmar was then known) as a sovereign state, the Muslims of Rakhine, citing existing tensions between themselves and Burma’s Buddhist population, lobbied for annexation by Muslim-majority Pakistan, whose boundaries, at the time, encompassed modern Bangladesh. It remains unclear whether the Pakistani or Burmese government ultimately refused the annexation plea; regardless, Rakhine remained under Burmese rule, while the Rohingya were not integrated into the Burmese citizenry.
Amidst the complex body of legal work comprising the systematic marginalization of the Rohingya people, three acts pertaining to citizenship, in particular, gradually stripped the Rohingya of their civil rights and social leverage. The first of these acts, the Union Citizenship Act of 1948, began the tradition of denying the Rohingya political recognition as an ethnic group. Then, in 1962, Burma instituted a system whereby its mostly-Buddhist, legally acknowledged ethnic groups received national identity cards signifying full citizenship, while all other ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, were relegated to non-citizenship with foreign identity cards. These restrictions served to segregate the masses by funneling prime educational and occupational advantages to Buddhist Burmese citizens and by continually deteriorating the conditions of the Rohingya until, in 1982, the Burmese Parliament enacted yet another revision to existing citizenship statutes by creating tiers of citizenship fully exclusive of the Rohingya people. Through a decades-long campaign to strip the Rohingya of political and social agency, the Burmese parliament “effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless,” and, as a result, the Buddhist monopolization of Myanmar’s parliament has become so tangible that, as of 2015, no Muslims serve as Myanmar parliamentary members.
Although the Rohingya people have been historically disenfranchised and disadvantaged, their struggles have only captured the attention of the international community in 2016, as large-scale ethnic cleansing finally supplanted the more institutionalized, bureaucratic ethnic annihilation. After a Rohingya militant group killed nine Burmese soldiers in October 2016, the Burmese military descended upon Rakhine and began a brutal campaign designed to wreak havoc upon and ultimately destroy the Rohingya population. Yet, it is not only the Burmese military exacerbatinghe tragedy; rather, the Burmese population, at large, is complicit, if not instrumental in the ongoing genocide, with callous attitudes towards the Rohingya typified by such incendiary remarks as one Burmese citizen’s suggestion that “we should just kill them all as if they are just dogs.”
With each passing day, new accounts detailing mass murder, rape, arson, and more horrors arise. Thousands have died in Rakhine, while hundreds of thousands have fled the state. Even in their desperate attempts to escape near certain death, the Rohingya people endanger their lives by traversing treacherous waters in ill-equipped boats prone to capsizing. Though Myanmar’s restriction of journalists and aid workers to the Rakhine State has severely masked the extent of the damage inflicted on the region, the situation has clearly escalated into what the United Nations has now called, “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” with even the United States breaking its silence and condemning the genocide. Without any serious threat of economic or physical intervention from the international community, however, it is unlikely the conflict will be resolved without a completely displaced or decimated Rohingya population.
The plight of the Rohingya people boasts all the trappings of a sensational human interest story–religious persecution, ample photo evidence of distressed children, and mass instances of rape and murder, all at the hands of a Southeast Asian regime, leaving little room for the burden of white guilt, granted you’re willing to overlook colonialism’s defining role in the creation of historically incongruous borders, blind to ethnic strife. Yet, where are the large-scale protests, the calls for action or sanctions, or even an “I am Rohingya” Facebook filter? No singular justification can be given for this general lack of concern among Westerners, but an undeniable component of the West’s relationship to the Rohingya genocide is the paradigm-destabilizing nature of this issue.
Given that 41 percent of Americans believe that “Islam encourages violence more than other faiths,” the Rohingya crisis seems to defy logic as it perceives peaceful Muslims (or, at the very least, Muslims who are not the antagonists) being slaughtered by Buddhist Monks–the West’s stereotypical “good guys of religion”–in a country run by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The concept seems oxymoronic, so much so that Western media coverage regarding the Rohingya focuses on the deconstruction of Buddhism’s sanitized image as a strict religion of “naturalness, peace, and harmony.”
The events in Myanmar have triggered a reevaluation of Buddhist stereotypes, though not a reevaluation of monolithic religious narratives as a whole, as evidenced by the reality that only the Buddhist half of the paradigm seems to ever be addressed. The fact that Muslims are the victims in this conflict is seen as incidental rather than radical, while the Burmese problem is not pitched as a “clash of civilizations,” but as a good, old-fashioned majority-minority religious dispute. It is easier to vilify Buddhists than apologize to Muslims; unfortunately, this is the approach many will take instead of simply acknowledging the hard truth that, because of the subjective, interpretational nature of doctrine, a religion and its adherents cannot be typified by any acts of history or even by their own texts. Thus, the genocide of Muslims by Buddhists does not defy logic—it defies narrative, and narrative is hardly ever logical.