A Muslim minority in Burma’s Arakan state is facing pogroms that have killed at least 90 people and displaced more than 100,000.
Although racial and religious tension is not new in Arakan, this current outbreak of violence against the Rohingya people is the worst the state has seen in over a decade.
The Rohingyas are acknowledged by the UN as among the most persecuted people in the world. Burma is a patchwork of different ethnicities and religions, regulated by a citizenship law passed in 1982. This law recognises 135 groups as Burmese—but the Rohingyas are not among them.
The law effectively renders them a stateless people. Since 1982, the Rohingyas have been unable to travel freely and must seek permission from the state to marry or have more than two children.
All Muslim groups in Burma are victimised to a certain extent, as are most ethnic minorities. But the Rohingyas find themselves oppressed on both counts, being both Muslim and excluded by the 1982 law.
The latest pogroms started in early June, when ten Muslim pilgrims were killed by a mob of hundreds of Buddhists. They were seeking revenge for a Buddhist woman who had been raped and murdered in Arakan a few days earlier, allegedly by Rohingyas.
Displaced Rohingyas have tried to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Some have died in the effort and those that survived the journey have found they are unwelcome.
Dipu Moni, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, said on 13 June, “We’re already burdened with thousands of Rohingya refugees staying in Bangladesh and we don’t want any more.”
Support for the Muslim minority is rare inside Burma itself. Opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been evasive on the issue. She has said she does not know whether the Rohingyas should be classed as Burmese, or whether they should be treated as immigrants from Bangladesh.
The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has condemned the pogroms and appealed to the United Nations. The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has also offered humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas.
But Burma’s military dictatorship is bent on continuing the persecution, and the country’s opposition movement for the most part either colludes with this or refuses to challenge it.
These problems have their roots in the days when Burma was a British colony. The country’s independence movement, which won in 1948, was heavily influenced by a nationalist politics that promoted the Burmese ethnicity and Buddhism over all others.
The 1982 act consolidated this nationalism by codifying what was legitimately “Burmese” and what was “other”. And until that nationalism is challenged, the plight of the Rohingya people looks set to continue.