Burma’s minorities and controversy surrounding Rohingya refugees

Published on March 18, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Standard – March 18, 2009

Antonio Guterres, chief of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), wrapped up his assessment of the plight of one of the world’s most suppressed and controversial Rohingya refugees. The survey mission, which began on March 7 and ended on 12, included a visit to Naypyidaw and Sittwe.

“On the basis of his observations and the discussions held, the High Commissioner came to the conclusion that UNHCR’s current level of activities in northern Rakhine state does not correspond to the actual needs and a decision was taken to upgrade the program with immediate effect,” said the agency statement issued on the last day of Guterres’s visit.

Sadly or fortunately, the international community has come to understand better the reality of the socio-political problems inside Burma since the 2007 uprising, which many called it “saffron revolution.” Since then, developments in Burma have periodically appeared in the headlines of many leading cable news and newspapers around the world.

The latest story is on the ill-treatment meted out to the Rohingya boatpeople by Thailand. This incident happened at a time when the new Thai government, which emerged in the midst of weeks of protests and a court ruling, was in the process of building trust and stability in the country.

The Union of Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia, and has the longest armed revolutionary groups in the entire region. Comparatively, the total land size of Burma is a little smaller than the state of Texas in the United States.

The military junta identifies “135 national races” of which the major ones are: Arakan/Rakhine (7 sub-groups), Burman/Bamar (9 sub-groups), Chin (53 sub-groups), Kachin (12 sub-groups), Karen/Kayin (11 sub-groups), Karenni/Kayah (9 sub-groups), Mon (1 group), and Shan (33 sub-groups). This classification is primarily based on dialectical variations.

The much discussed “Rohingya people” are not refused only by countries like Thailand and Indonesia, but by Burma itself. The suffering of the Rohingyas is exacerbated by the fact that they are not given full citizen-rights in Burma.

U.N. refugee chief traveled to Sittwe, capital of Arakan/Rakhine state near the Bangladeshborder, where most Rohingyas settle. According to Burma’s State Peace and Development Council, there are 7 sub-ethnic groups in Arakan state: Rakhine, Kamein, Kwe Myi, Daingnet, Maramagyi, Mro, Thet; the Rohingyas are not listed as an ethnic group.

The controversy surrounding whether or not the Rohingyas are indigenous people of Burma has been a long standing problem. The existence of this controversy was evidenced by the statement of Burmese consul general Ye Myint Aung in Hong Kong on 9th February when he said, “In reality, Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group….they are ugly as ogres.”

Even within the state of Arakan, there have been an unending claims and counter claims on the question of the origin of Rohingya people. In early February this year, one senior Arakan leader and member of Committee for Representing People’s Parliament said, “How could they claim that they came from Burma when in fact they come from Bangladesh?”

While the Rohingyas are called Bengalis or illegal immigrants by the Burmese military junta and some Arakan leaders, the Bangladesh people treated them as Burmese migrants.

The fact is that the Rohingyas have lived in Burma before the establishment of the present day Union of Burma in 1947. However, until today, they are considered or treated as stateless people.

One positive outcome of the Rohingyas’ boatpeople episode is that the very question of their existence on earth as a people is now widely discussed. Leaders of Thailand and Burma have discussed bilaterally, and it was also inconclusively discussed at the 14th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

Now that the U.N. refugee agency has come forward to increase its focus on the areas of Rohingya settlements in Burma, and the ASEAN foreign ministers’ plan to discuss the Rohingyas’ refugee issue at the upcoming ‘Bali Process’ in Indonesia next month (April 14-15) is a positive sign to addressing the suffering of these people.

The problems arising out of the boatpeople should not end in discussing the fate of these refugees only, but must be a process of finding long-term solution for the Rohingya people as a whole. Ignorance to this pressing issue could bring a greater burden for Burma and the international community.

As of July 2003 estimate, Burma’s population according to the military is 52.4 million; last official census which occurred in 1983 reported just over 35 million (35,442,972). Religious affiliation in percent is estimated to be: Buddhism (89.2%), Christianity (5.0%), Islam (3.8%), Hinduism (0.5%), Spiritualism (1.2%) and others (0.2%).

Under the military junta, the mistreatment and suffering of ethnic minorities is not uncommon. This is one basic reason why ethnic minorities demand for a federal system of government.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He is also the author of several analytical articles on the politics of Asia published in different leading international newspapers.