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Rohingya Muslim Persecution in Myanmar

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By Syed Kamran Ali

While Muslims have settled in the Rakhine State of Myanmar for centuries, encouraged by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims came to light after the 2012 Rakhine State riots between Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines.

Things became worse for the Rohingya Muslims after Thein Sein captured power as the president of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 2011. Despite being a moderate and one who led Myanmar’s transition to democracy, he openly denied them access to basic medical and food rights with the covert motive of forcing them to flee. The detailed studies conducted by various international NGOs and the United Nations concluded that the Rohingya Muslims are “the most persecuted people” in the world. Their persecution is a combined genocidal effort by the Buddhist monks and a state that is only too eager to deny them their citizenship rights. In an effort to sabotage their claim to indigeneity, the Myanmar state refers to them as ‘Bengali Muslims’, who had illegally migrated from Bangladesh.

Despite attention of the international community and media, in the immediate aftermath of the riots, Thein Sein had called on the UN to take responsibility for 800,000 Rohingya Muslims and settle them in a third country, making it a case of ethnic cleansing.  In effect, the state was speaking the same language that of the extremist Buddhist monks. In September, 2012, around 5000 Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Mandalay in support of the president’s claim to deport Rohingya Muslims from Burma. The slogan of the street march read: “Let the world know that the Rohingya are not part of the ethnic groups that make up Burma.”

Although there are more than a million Rohingya Muslims living in Burma, including around 140,000 internally displaced in camps, the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law denied Rohingyas citizenship despite being born in the country. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) explains that the “1982 Burma Citizenship Law, promulgated not long after the mass return of Rohingya who fled in 1978, distinguishes between three categories of citizenship: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. A person is issued a color-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Card consistent with his or her citizenship status – pink, blue, and green respectively.” The Rohingyas are automatically excluded from citizenship as they would have to prove that their ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of the Arakan State (the erstwhile name of the Rakhine State).

In November, 2013, the United Nations passed a resolution in which it urged the Burmese government to grant citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims. However, the government spokesperson, Ye Htut, has been resolute in refusing to entertain the demands of the UN, “Citizenship will not be granted to those who are not entitled to it under this law no matter whoever applies pressure on us. It is our sovereign right.” Further, in December, 2014, the resolution was approved by the UN General Assembly, which asked the Myanmar government to grant “full citizenship” to Rohingya Muslims and end discrimination against minorities. Along with the Rohingyas, other minority groups such as the Chin community are also targets of human rights abuse by the Buddhist extremists. And their plight doesn’t even make headlines.

The Rohingyas’ claim to citizenship and rights in Burma has been further weakened by the silence of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the noted peace and democracy activist and politician. Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, wrote that during her UK visit in 2013, Suu Kyi had failed to unequivocally condemn the treatment of Rohingyas and violence against them, despite many of the disapora Rohingyas supporting Suu Kyi’s campaign for democracy. Corroborating some of the commonly uttered generalities in the West about Muslims, Suu Kyi emphasized that Muslims must integrate in Burma. Tun Khin rightly points out that apart from Rohingya Muslims, there are other ‘indigenous’ Burmese Muslims, who are as Burmese as any other ethnic community. To ask them to integrate would border on xenophobia.

As we continue to see the desperate Rohingya Muslims continue fleeing Burma on ramshackle boats, one cannot but evoke the original Buddhist message of peace and coexistence. Historically, Buddhism has been known to build peace and spread the message of humanity. However, the plights of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and those of the Sri Lankan Tamils have shown the inherent violence that seeps into the core of religion when it becomes politicized. One also wishes that the international community would step in and put more pressure on the Myanmar government. The UN has been consistently vocal in addressing the abuses of the Rohingya community.

India’s own role in accommodating some of the Rohingya refugees remains unsatisfactory. The recent operation against militants from the North East into the Myanmar territory proves India’s cordial relation with the country. India could directly address the Rohingya Muslim question and urge the Myanmar government to mitigate human rights abuse and to grant the Rohingya Muslims citizenship rights.

On the other hand, India could take in some of the refugees into its own territory. While there are some Rohingya already living in cities like Hyderabad, more needs to be done considering the severity of the situation. If countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand could accommodate thousands of fleeing Rohingyas, India ought to show more empathy if it wants to be taken seriously as a regional superpower and assert its moral right to be called so.

However, if the latest reports are to be believed, Indian government has adopted an antagonistic stance toward the Rohingya Muslims by dissociating itself from a UNHRC resolution on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims. India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Ajit Kumar, said, “we have serious concerns on the draft resolution which focuses on issues that are sectarian in nature…With respect to Rakhine State, we have noted that the Government of Myanmar has taken steps towards restoration of law and order and has expressed readiness to cooperate with UN and other humanitarian agencies regarding rehabilitation of those affected by violence.”


Syed Kamran Ali is a commerce graduate from Rampur (UP), who writes on the marginalized sections of society. Currently, he is a Writer Intern with Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Email:

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