Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are engulfed by series of violence. Meanwhile, everyone — the Burmese military, Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government, CSOs, and, most sadly, grassroots activists — are united against the group whom they call ‘illegal aliens”. It is not a newfound knowledge that the Rohingya are the epicenter of Buddhist fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism in Burma, a country once well known for its enduring spirit for democracy and freedom. The Rohingya issue has been fueling the anti-Muslim sentiments in a Buddhist majority country since 2012.
Two narratives, two groups
There are generally two types of anti-Rohingya narratives being circulated on social media and in independent local media. The two narratives are propagated by two groups, the nationalists and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The nationalist rhetoric
The ultra nationalists and Buddhist fundamentalists believed that Rohingya are instrumental in carrying out ‘the Islamic conspiracy’ to occupy Burma, a Buddhist majority country, by marrying Buddhist women and ‘outbreeding’ than the Buddhist population. Their argument also raises a concern that Rohingya Muslims (who are considered by the government and local media as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) are planning to seize the land from Burma and Thailand, the two Buddhist countries, to connect to Muslims in Malaysia.
Apart from being motivated by anti-Muslim hatred, this theory lacks proper reasoning. The analysis of demographic data shows that the Muslim population in Burma is reduced from 3.9% of the entire population in 1983 to 2.3% in 2014 (Rohingya population in Rakhine was excluded from the 2014 census). In addition to the decline of Muslim population in the entire country, Rakhine State doesn’t have free lands for new immigrants to take. According to the 2010 Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey, 31.5% of the current residents of the Rakhine State own no lands. The rate is one of the highest in the nation.
The narrative of immigration issue
This narrative is favored by supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and most CSOs in Burma: Rohingya issue is only an immigration issue. They deny Rohingya are persecuted for their religion, Islam, and argue that as the Bangladesh population of 163 million is three times bigger than Burma’s population of 52 million, the citizens of Bangladesh poured over Rakhine State to find better job opportunities. The noteworthy characteristic of this group is that they try to distance themselves from Buddhist nationalist groups like Mabatha who are against Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, NLD. They want to show that they are patriots by encouraging other ethnic minorities including Muslims to support the government and Rakhine ethnic people who are citizens as opposed to Rohingya.
The immigration, if not for exceptional reasons like war, is always related to economy. People move from one area to another to find better job opportunities so that they can create better future for themselves and their children. This theory, while sounding smart, obviously overlooked the economic aspects of Bangladesh and Burma in general and Rakhine and Chittagong in particular. As of 2016, the GDP per capita of Bangladesh is 1,358 USD while Burma’s is 1,275 USD. The Rakhine State is the poorest in Burma with 78 % poverty rate compared to the national rate of 37.5% according to the 2014 World Bank Report. On the contrary, the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh which lies next to Rakhine State of Burma boosts a growing economy and is among lowest incidence of poverty in Bangladesh with 26.2% according to the 2010 poverty maps of the World Bank. It is illogical to think that hundreds of thousands of people have migrated from a richer region to a poorer region where they face restrictions in their movement and access to education and health care.
The way ahead
The above narratives make it almost impossible for the peaceful coexistence of Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma. The Rohingya crisis will exist for many decades to come partly due to the fact that the image of the Rohingya is demonized in the eyes of most Burmese people. Aung San Suu Kyi, with the enormous support she received from the public, seems to have no plan to challenge the anti-Rohingya sentiments that have gained momentum with the anti-Rohingya public rallies and speeches popping up in big cities. Until Burma have critical thinkers and intellectuals who dare to debate on this sensitive issue, the majority of the population will continue to harbor hatred against persecuted Rohingya who are, when seen through the lens of Buddhist nationalism, the real aggressors.