A group of Rohingya refugees. Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office
On October 24th, fires raged through a neighbourhood in the coastal town of Kyaukpyu, Burma. Over 800 homes and houseboats were destroyed, 14 hectares of land were obliterated and thousands were left homeless, purely because the area is home to the Rohingya, a Muslim group that the UN have labelled as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
For seemingly no other reason than the fact they aren't "ethnically pure", the Burmese systematically attack and marginalise the Rohingya people, so far displacing 32,000 members of the group to refugee camps in Bangladesh and areas along the Thai-Myanmar border. Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, but religion apparently isn't the issue here, meaning the whole thing is basically like the kind of unfounded, racist bullying you'd see a six-year-old lodge against a Pakistani kid in the playground, only the violence involves petrol bombs rather than nasty words and the Burmese government appear completely unwilling to address the situation in any way whatsoever.
The Burmese government announced yesterday that they're considering granting citizenship to the Rohingyas, but considering how ingrained the hatred is towards the group, that's only likely to spur more conflict. I spoke to Nadia Malik from Burma Muslims – an organisation dedicated to raising awareness and pressuring the Burmese government into change – to find out more about the recent rise in violence against the Rohingyas.
VICE: What are the main causes behind this recent surge in violence? Or is it just business as usual?
Nadia Malik: It doesn’t seem like there's anything specific that instigated the most recent incident, but the violence against the Rohingyas has been going on for decades now. So, I mean, I think it just illustrates how the Burmese will use any opportunity to flare up violence again and, unfortunately, that's what happened last weekend.
So do you think it's got to the point where the prejudice is just so ingrained that people don't need any real reason to justify the violence?
Yeah, exactly. What I've heard from a lot of people who live there is that if you're not "ethnically Burmese", then you're frowned upon. It's an issue for every minority group in Burma, not just the Rohingya, but they're definitely the most drastically marginalised group. There's a worrying push for "Burmanisation" going on at the moment, where they want to make the country purely ethnic Burmese and erase all other cultural heritages from the country. That's not to say the Rohingya aren't Burmese, though. A common misconception is that the Rohingya have a Bangladeshi background, but that simply isn't true – their roots are in Burma, so the refusal to give them citizenship and rights is just ridiculous.
I read that Thein Sein – the Burmese president – has allowed foreign aid to be distributed to the Rohingya, but it was apparently more to just appease other nations. Is it right that the Organisation of Islamic Co-Operation wasn’t allowed to distribute aid?
It does seem that the resentment is present even in the upper eschelons of Burmese society. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is hesistant to talk about the Rohingya or take any stand on the issue, which I think is because she understands that it’s such a massive part of the culture. Anyone who talks in favour of the Rohingya or shows support is leaving themselves open to attack by the general community in Burma.
Obviously raising awareness of the issue is important, but how can you hope to impact something that’s been going on for so long?
Well, one avenue that's very promising is Burma’s ambition to become part of the international community. That means that they have to abide by international standards, so the Burmese have to prove that they are "worth" having relations with and prove that their human rights record is something we would want to associate ourselves with. So, in an international sense, we should encourage anyone in any country to push their own government to implement what is to be expected of Burma as a country.
Is there not a risk that they could make some token gestures to make it look like they're changing, but not actually do much to change?
That’s true, but we've seen cases like this in other countries and that hasn’t really been a problem. Take South Africa post-apartheid – they had to deal with re-teaching the populous how not to hate and there’s definitely been progress. I think the first step is to make sure the genocide stops. It’s obviously going to be a long process and involves the rehabilitation of a whole culture, but we have examples of other countries that have had to rebuild their own system to go by.
It seems like the whole issue hasn’t really got as much media attention as it perhaps warrants. Why do you think that is?
It’s one of those things that’s been going on for so long that it’s difficult to represent it. There’s definitely more prominence at the moment, but there's so much other stuff going on across the globe – be it Hurricane Sandy, Syria or any other major story – that I think people just stop caring because there are other things closer to home.
There’s definitely an issue with Islamophobia in Western media, do you think the fact that the Rohingyas are Muslim might affect how they're represented?
I guess that could be a small part of it, but I’m not sure it's that big a factor. Having said that, the way the Burmese government portray the Rohingya has been taken as fact by some other nations. But, as I say, I think it's more to do with other news articles being more relevant to Westerners.
What do you recommend to people who want to make a difference?
We're really pushing for members of the public to make phone calls to any ambassadors, put up posters, really anything to raise awareness. It’s just something that a lot of people haven’t really heard about and that needs to change. We need to curb this before it escalates any more out of control.
Do you think the violence is actively intensifying?
Definitely. I think the Burmese government has realised that no one with any sort of power is saying anything to them about it, so until we call them out about it – as it were – they've got free reign to do what they want.
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