Unclenching the despotic fist in Burma


Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama behind podiumFor the Burmese, the most unpopular part of Barack Obama's recent speech to the University of Yangon was his reference to the Rohingya who, as he so eloquently stated, 'hold within them the same dignity as you and I do'. Bengali-speaking and Muslim, they are descended from seventh century Arab traders who settled in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine) State but are regarded as 'interlopers' from Bangladesh by the majority of Burmese.

Under the U Nu government in the 1950s, they had Burmese citizenship until General Ne Win, the man credited with plunging Burma into poverty, introduced the 1983 Citizenship Act of Burma which recognised 135 'national races' but not the Rohingya who remain stateless to this day.

Statelessness means they are robbed of all the rights we have as citizens. They even have to ask permission of the local authorities to get married (after payment of the usual bribe) and are allowed only two children per marriage. Unauthorised marriages can result in ten years' imprisonment, and having more than two children means they are unregistered and denied healthcare and education and are often subject to forced labour.

The current conflict between the Rohingya and their Buddhist Arakanese neighbours was sparked by the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by a Muslim. Since then, at least 200 people have been killed and 115,000 driven from their homes, the vast majority of them Rohingyas. The deep-seated cause of the furore is access to scarce land.

Even a politician of the moral stature of Aung San Suu Kyi could only timidly say that both communities had suffered and both had breached human rights laws. One commentator compared this to saying that whites as well as blacks violated human rights in apartheid South Africa.

The deeply ingrained hatred of the Rohingyas in Burma generally has resulted in NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières being denied access to the injured and to their not being treated in hospitals.

Prior to the Obama speech, President Thein Sein of Burma had indicated to the UN he would address the Rohingya situation and look at everything from 'resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship'. It is likely that offers of citizenship will only be made, if at all, to 'third generation Rohingya' — which excludes hundreds of thousands of people who either could not prove that status or had migrated from Bangladesh later.

Obama's speech, while admitting that 'every nation struggles to define citizenship', still maintained that the American experience was based on universal principles about 'the right of people to live without the threat that their families may be harmed or their homes burned simply because of who they are or where they come from'.

On current form, there is little hope that the Rohingya will benefit from Obama's visit, designed to show America's friendship, if, in Obama's words, the fist of despotic regimes is unclenched. That applies not just to Burma itself but the region where the Rohingyas' boats of desperation are regularly turned back into the sea.

The recent ASEAN meeting in Cambodia resulted in the ten member states adopting an 'ASEAN Human Rights Declaration' which has been widely criticised for allowing that rights can be restricted if they endanger public security, public morals or public order, and that rights must be weighed against public duty. In other words, you can have your rights so long as you agree with the regime of the day.

It will be interesting to see in 2014, when Burma (or Myanmar, to give it the generals' name) chairs ASEAN, has treated its most despised minority.

I would have urged the Australian Government, with its renewed Asian enthusiasm, to intervene on the Rohingyas' behalf but, given the recent inhumane ideas from both Government and Opposition about the treatment of asylum seekers, it has lost all right to the moral legitimacy required to speak up for the oppressed.

Duncan MacLaren headshotDuncan MacLaren lectures in international development studies at Australian Catholic University and coordinates its Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border offering tertiary education to Burmese refugees and migrants. 

Topic tags: Duncan MacLaren, Burma, Rohingya



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Existing comments

Rohingya or refugee as they call themselves come from neighboring country. Sort of Burmese refugees in Thailand, India, Malaysia etc. The difference is Burmese refugees in these countries don't ask for land of their own. Rakhine people actually have lost majority status in that particular area. Burmese governments neglected the situation for a long time and now this has happened. It's not about denying them citizenship or religious tension, or racial discrimination as some people and media have portrayed it. What do you think a people to lose their homeland to invaders and lose their rights? Should we stand for them till too late or should we prevent this from happening? I would like people to make a research on Rohingya properly. Burmese people only have denied this group of people, no other ethnics have ever been denied their rights. But all ethnics have been Burmanized by the central government - by denying them from cultural activities such as literacy. I'm a Mon from the east and I stand by the Rakhine people who live in the west. I don't hate Rohingyas but I want justice for all.
AZURE | 27 November 2012

Pretending the Generals are now 'democratic' might sit well for the profit levels of global businesses but that's about all. It was only a few years ago that God Warrior Tony Blair was busy forgiving Gadaffi, while European businesses were forcing their greedy way back into that country until, suddenly, oops! he was no longer our chum and we were all busy saying how good the rebels were and how good it was Gadaffi was being assaulted. There are no good moral overtones to the changes in the West's attitude to Burma, there's just a chance to make a buck and get-in-quick to turn yet another nation into a Macdonalds and a Best Western paradise. Oh yes, do they still have oil hidden in the ground somewhere?
janice wallace | 27 November 2012

it's cute that Duncan McLaren imgines that he owns a direct telegrah line to the godhead of Correct Thinking, and therefor has his colonial-master authority to lecture the Bamar people about who is and who is not a part of their ethnic identity. McLaren ==ought== to be busy thinking about returning the land stolen from the indigenii of Australia, and planning his journey back to where his ethnic-group ==is== indigenous..... PS: I have zero ties of blood, affection, or commerce with either the Bengalis or the Bamar.
Karl | 27 November 2012


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