The Rohingyas are fall guys in Burma's race to harness chauvinism

 

Share
Related Topics

Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state, is little more than a sleepy, dusty, overgrown village. Time appears to have stopped not long after the British left in 1948. Opposite the town’s golden zeydi, its Buddhist stupa, are the green-painted ruins of a mosque, but today there are few other obvious signs of last year’s violence. The great bulk of the town’s Muslim population has been banished to the outskirts: fishermen’s shacks and a sprawling camp where 7,000 men, women and children live under canvas.

As in other border areas, there is long-standing resentment at the dominant position of Burma’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans. The Arakanese nationalists who now control the state parliament look back nostalgically to the years before 1824 when the Burmans conquered the state, and dream of independence. During the half-century of military rule, the generals knew they were hated, and deliberately kept Arakan in a primitive state of development. Meanwhile the population of impoverished Rohingyas, many of whom came in during British rule, grew rapidly, threatening the numerical superiority of Buddhists.   

This was the local variant of the game the junta played on other borders, keeping estranged local populations poor, anxious and paranoid about the future and the military’s intentions. Elsewhere the result was bitter civil war; here it was the twin fears, as one local nationalist put it to me, of Burmanisation and Islamisation, which resulted in frequent attacks on the Rohingyas over the years. In 1977, 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh; repulsed there, 12,000 of them starved to death.

Last year’s violence was particularly atrocious because Arakan state is at a very challenging moment. The elections in 2010 put 45 Arakanese nationalists in the state parliament, and the lifting of censorship allows them to publish any propaganda they choose, whipping up the chauvinistic feelings of a badly educated majority population which is just as poor as it was under military rule. With 2015’s general elections in view, the local nationalists and the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are in a race to harness local chauvinistic emotion. The Rohingyas are the fall guys.

The West needs to maintain pressure on Thein Sein to seek an inclusive solution. But his vice-president Sai Mauk Kham probably hit the nail on the head when he said: “Only when the socio-economic life of both sides [has] improved can the two societies stay together.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dom Joly owns a pig. That thinks it's a dog.  

I'll bow out. Let Wilbur, the pig that thinks it's a dog, bring home the bacon

Dom Joly
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'