By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
There has been a lot of debate and fury lately over Myanmar’s inhumane expulsion of one of its indigenous communities, the Rohingya of that country’s Rakhine, one of the former Burma’s poorest states.
But for all the justifiable coverage the suffering of these ethnic Indo-Aryan people have received, little has been written as to their origins.
And who they are and where they come from are issues that are at the crux of the current emergency.
Until the Rakhine crisis – which began in 2016 after the Myanmar Army and police launched a massive military crackdown on the predominately Muslim Rohingya following attacks on Burmese border posts by Rohingya insurgents – the majority of the million-or-so Rohingyas lived in Rakhine, along Myanmar’s western coast.
But in the last few months, nearly half of the Rohingya population has fled primarily Buddhist Myanmar, mostly across the border to Bangladesh.
Although the Rohingya have faced brutal violence and discrimination in their native Myanmar for decades, the new government’s systematic torture and extrajudicial killing of their people has escalated in the last 12 months.
Under Myanmar law, they are forbidden to vote and denied citizenship.
They also have scarce access to basic human needs such as healthcare, clean drinking water, utilities and education.
The reason the Aung San Suu Kyi administration gives for this persecution is that the Rohingya are migrants who have invaded their country and are looking for a handout from a government that is already struggling to stay afloat and feed its own people.
But despite Suu Kyi’s propaganda machine claims, the Rohingya – who practice a form of Sunni Islam – have lived in Rakhine for generations.
For the most part, they have kept to themselves (nearly 150,000 of them have been kept in government-run segregated camps – supposedly for “their own security” – for the last five years).
They have their own language and cultural practices.
Some Rohingyas trace their ancestry in Rakhine back to the 15th century, when they maintain that their forefathers came to Myanmar from the eastern Hindu kingdom of Bengali.
The Suu Kyi government disputes their claim, saying that the Rohingya people in fact migrated to what is now Myanmar from Bangladesh as recently as the late 1900s.
Indeed, the Rohingya language is similar to that spoken in Bangladesh, since both are rooted in Indo-Aryan Sanskrit.
But the group’s name is derived from the word Arakan, the former name of Rakhine (in the Rohingya dialect, and ga or gya means from).
For the Myanmar government, the Rohingyas are a cultural annoyance that poses a financial and social burden on its already strapped economy.
Rather than trying to assimilate these native people and provide from them, the government has opted to marginalize and persecute them, hoping that with enough abuse, they will either die out or move somewhere else.
And now that is happening.
The Rohingya are seeking asylum wherever they can find it.
Bangladesh is currently housing half a million Rohingya, but has made it clear that this humanitarian support is only a temporary measure that will be sustained until they can be relocated back in Myanmar.
The abusive and brutal stance of the Myanmar military junta, with the silent approval of the country’s de facto political leader, Nobel Peace Laurate Suu Kyi, has transformed the Rohingya into one of the largest stateless people in the world, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
There are those who defend Su Kyi, saying she has no legal power over what the military in Myanmar does.
That may be true, given that the military still runs major aspects of the Myanmar government and the fact that most Buddhist Myanmarese have a longstanding hatred for the Rohingya minority.
But Suu Kyi’s political campaign promises of “the restoration of human rights in Myanmar” and that Nobel Laureate title she garnered in 1991 give her a solid moral obligation to do what she can to stop the vicious persecution of some of her fellow countrymen.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.