Myanmar’s Rohingyas: No Help, Please, We’re Buddhists

ASIA--PACIFIC, 22 Oct 2012

The Economist – TRANSCEND Media Service

When Offending the Muslim World Seems a Small Price to Pay

IT IS as if a veil had been lifted to reveal a hideous blemish. Terrible ethnic and religious violence in June in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine pitted Buddhists against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. The aftermath risks marring the coming-out celebrations of Myanmar’s hugely welcome rejection of tyrannous isolation. Thein Sein, a former general who has become the country’s reforming president, is thought by some unlucky to have lost this year’s Nobel peace prize (to the EU). But on October 15th he reneged on an agreement to let the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) open an office in Myanmar’s commercial hub, Yangon.

The OIC, which groups 57 countries with large Muslim populations, wanted to help the Rohingyas. They make up most of the 75,000 people displaced by the violence into camps around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. Aid workers say their conditions are dire, with many suffering malnutrition. Sanitation is woeful.

Myanmar has 135 recognised ethnic groups. A belief that nearly unites them is that the Rohingyas are not Burmese, but illegal “Bengali” settlers, who should be in Bangladesh or elsewhere. Mr Thein Sein himself has suggested the solution to Myanmar’s Rohingya problem is to deport them all. No other country, however, accepts them. And so they are stateless.

Many Muslim countries wanted to channel aid to Rohingyas through the OIC (such as most of the $50m pledged by Saudi Arabia). But, the president said, opening an OIC office would not be “in accordance with the people’s desires”. This was a response to demonstrations, often led by Buddhist monks, against the proposed office. They took place in a number of cities, including Yangon, Mandalay and, especially, Sittwe.

There are competing analyses of the president’s decision. The most optimistic is that, in the new Myanmar, it is impossible to suppress protests violently, especially if they are led by monks. A more cynical view is that the government tolerated or even instigated the protests to give it a pretext. Many of the demonstrations were without the approvals required under Burmese law, yet nobody has been punished.

The government’s motive was simple, Rohingya politicians say. It wants to keep foreign eyes out as it makes life in Myanmar so intolerable for Rohingyas that those still in the country join the diaspora, who, at an estimated 1.5m or more, already outnumber them.

The only thing that might sway Burmese opinion in favour of the Rohingyas, some say, would be the staunch support of Myanmar’s most famous and revered politician, the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But she has been largely silent on their plight. Perhaps the only thing that might dent the popularity she and her party enjoy would be for her to take up the cudgels on behalf of this benighted minority.

From the print edition | Asia

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