I am a Burmese exile taking a near-permanent refuge in New York and Sydney. Here are my essays about Burma and anything else I feel like writing about. And posting the articles I like from selected sites. Bridging Burma to the world this Blog is more of a Politically-Oriented Literary Blog than a Plain News Blog or a Sophisticated Thoughts Blog.
Checking of Citizenship Status in Maungdaw (Nov 2012).
For three weeks now
police and government officials in Rakhine state have been checking the
citizenship status of ethnic Rohingya. These are a Moslem people originally
from neighboring (majority Moslem) Bangladesh.
The ethnic Burmese not
only look different but are Buddhist, a religion Moslems have never gotten along
with. The government believes that documenting the citizen status of
Rohingyas will make it easier to deport them. But no countries want the
Rohingya, no matter what the Burmese government thinks their citizenship status
In the last six months
violence in Rakhine state has caused over a thousandcasualties (and over 200 dead), most
of them Moslem, and left thousands of buildings destroyed. This has displaced
over 110,000 people (about 75 percent Moslem). The Moslems and Buddhistshave never gotten along inRakhine Stateand there's always been some tension.
Until recently the
military government suppressed violence and any open talk of these problems.
But since the elections last year, there's been more freedom of the press and
that has included more public discussion by Buddhists about how much they
dislike the Moslem Rohingyas.
Burma is about 70
percent ethnic Burmese (Burman) and 90 percent Buddhist. Only four percent of
the 60 million Burmese are Moslem, and a little over half of the 2.4 million
Moslems are Rohingyas. Burma and neighboring Thailand and parts of Vietnam are
an island of Buddhism surrounded by Moslems who are seen as aggressive and
That fear goes back for
centuries, even though most of the Moslem converts to the south and east were
obtained by persuasion, not conquest. India, to the west, was a different
story, where the Moslems there have been fighting for nearly a thousand years
to force Hindus (and any other non-Moslems) to convert.
The current wave of
Islamic terrorism is seen as another chapter in that sad story of intolerance
and violence. While Burmese Buddhists are divided by politics and attitudes
towards the northern tribes, they are nearly unanimous in wanting the Rohingyas
Most of the current
Burmese ethnic and religious violence is in Rakhine State, which has a
population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostlyRohingyas. These are Bengalis, or
people from Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began migrating to Burma during the 19thcentury.
At that time the
British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma and allowed this movement,
even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too
late, and the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its
South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45).
Bangladesh has refused
to take these Moslems back as Bangladeshis, partly because the country is very
overcrowded and partly because they now consider the Rohingya to be foreigners.
Burma never let the Rohingya become citizens, which helped stoke tensions
between the Moslems and Buddhists.
Bangladesh has long had
too many people, and illegal migration to neighboring areas (mainly India) has
been a growing problem. But Bangladeshis try to sneak into Burma as well, and
this is now well received by the Burmese Buddhists.
In the 1990s, an
outbreak of violence led to over a quarter million Rohingya fleeing to
Bangladesh. Some 28,000 are in refugee camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000
live outside the camps in Bangladesh and some are in Thailand, where they are
considered economic migrants and thus illegal.
The Rohingya have the
support (for being allowed to stay in Burma) of the worldwide Moslem community.
This makes the Burmese more determined to defeat this "Moslem
invasion" and the more militant Buddhists are demanding that the Rohingya
be expelled from Burma.
That won't work because
no one will take them. Moslem countries don't believe in that kind of retreat
and that scares the Burmese Buddhists even more. Despite the stand-off,
thousands of Rohingya are fleeing, mostly to Bangladesh, which does not want
them. The Burmese are forcing Rohingya in the northwest to move to all-Rohingya
communities and encouraging Rohingya to stay away from non-Moslems.
There is similar fear
of the non-Burmese (and often non-Buddhist) tribes in the north. In this case
it's the Burmese who are invading the thinly populated tribal territories and
the tribes don't like it. The tribal areas were not part of Burma until Britain
made it so, when their Burmese colony was granted independence after World War
II. That bit of post-colonial nation building has never worked out.
Wealthier Rohingyas are
fleeing to Malaysia, and about 24,000 Rohingyas are now living there. Smugglers
will take Rohingyas down the coast by boat for over $1,000 per person. Over a
third don’t make it (because of bad weather or problems with the overcrowded
boat). Malaysia is Moslem and a better economic destination than Bangladesh
(where you often get locked up in a refugee camp). About ten percent of the
Rohingya who fled Burma are in Malaysia, the rest (over 200,000) are in
In general, the Moslem
world has reacted to the Rohingya situation not by offering sanctuary for
Rohingya but by accusing Burma and other non-Moslem states of persecuting
Moslems and driving innocent Moslems to use terrorism to defend themselves.
While this plays well in the Moslem world, it gets hardly any attention in the
West. In Burma and India, however, it’s big news and makes the idea of
expelling the Rohingya even more popular.
November 26, 2012: An
Indian military delegation arrived to negotiate more military aid for Burma and
still more military ties (training of Burmese troops in India, intelligence
sharing, and so on). This is all meant to counteract the growing Chinese
influence in Burma. China has become more of an economic power in Burma than
India and, in the end, this is more likely to get the attention of the Burmese
leadership than military ties with India. But the Chinese presence is much more
unpopular, despite the economic benefits.
(James F. Dunnigan, born 8 August 1943, is an author, military-political
analyst, consultant to the Defense Department and State Department, and wargame
designer currently living in New York City. He is famous for his matter-of-fact
approach to military analysis.