The crisis of the Rohingya minority of Myanmar is not simply a humanitarian one of huge dimension and one that has revealed the fragility of Aung San Suu Kyi’s status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is a multi-layered issue which, unless handled with much greater care than seen to date, will long reverberate through Southeast Asia.
The first layer is the most obvious. These are Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, in which Buddhist monks have had a nationalist political role dating back to British rule, if not before. If viewed as an exclusively Muslim issue, it has the potential to enlarge the cracks already apparent in the edifice of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It is noteworthy both that Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, currently pursued by allegations of billions of dollars of fraud, attempted to burnish his Islamic credentials by sharply criticizing Myanmar. Indonesia typically tried to calm troubled waters by sending its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, to Naypiydaw. Soothing words but little action followed.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar has a long history, though the Rohingya issue is different in origin and character from those against Muslims, many of them small traders, in the cities
So far both the Muslim Indonesians and the Buddhist Thais have kept their cool. But there is no guarantee that Indonesia’s approach can last if atrocities continue. The Buddhist Thais may have little sympathy for their Burmese neighbors given a long history of rivalry. Nonetheless with their own Muslim minority problems in southern Thailand, and lack of interest in the issues of Chinese maritime expansion which trouble Indonesia, make ASEAN solidarity increasingly difficult.
The next two layers are related. First, the Rohingya are Bengali speakers and thus readily identified not only with Bangladesh but with a Bengali world – which at 250 million, including Indian West Bengal, is much more populous than Myanmar’s 60 million, let alone its Burmese core. This demographic issue lies behind the Myanmar obsession with Rohingya immigration into Rakhine state and the government’ s refusal to grant citizenship to them, however long their families have resided there.
The third and related one is that these people are mostly dark-skinned people with features common to the Indian subcontinent. Myanmar officials of course do not admit to blatant racism based on skin color and facial characteristics. But in 2009 the Myanmar consul-general in Hong Kong was unwise enough to speak his mind, one which is probably silently shared by a significant proportion of his countrymen.
Addressing his fellow diplomats on the Rohingya issue soon after it came to foreign attention as boatloads of refugees arrived on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia, Ye Mint Aung said the Rohingya were not actually Myanmese and were not accepted as one of the ethnic groups of his country, or indeed as citizens.
“You will see in the photos that their complexion is 'dark brown'" in contrast to the complexion of Myanmar people, he wote, which was "fair and soft, good looking as well."
He claimed that his own complexion was typical of a Myanmar gentleman and fellow diplomats could contrast their "handsome colleague" with the "ugly as ogres" Rohingya whose pictures were in the newspapers.
The fourth layer may be least obvious but perhaps most dangerous. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, let alone the monks and generals, see the Rohingya as immigrants into Rakhine state. They are mostly descendants of people who arrived there under British rule, when Burma was administered as part of India. This lasted 114 years until it ended with the Japanese occupation 75 years ago. If Asian nations are now to get into the business of reversing population movements which occurred in colonial times, be prepared for bloodbaths on a horrendous scale.
One of the great achievements of independent Asia so far is to have accepted almost all colonial-era boundaries and demographic changes, however illogical or disadvantageous they may have been to this or that ethnic or religious group. There is hell to pay if reversing history is the silent goal of the Myanmar government. The short term will be agony for the Rohingya, the long term possibly a calamity for Burmese in the face of Bengali numbers. Horrendous bloodshed would also be in store – especially for communities of Chinese origin – should the notion of post-colonial ethnic cleansing take hold elsewhere in Asia.
Asian neighbors in particular need to wake up to the Rohingya crisis being more than a “little local difficulty.” This is not Marawi in the Philippines nor Patani in Thailand, where small insurgencies have been ongoing for decades. The ethnic collision in Rakhine is a threat of altogether different proportions, as well as an ongoing tragedy.
Philip Bowring is one of the founders of Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared originally in The Globalist.