8 Steps to Understanding Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue: An Interview with Nyunt Win

About Nyunt Win

Journalist and researcher Nyunt Win was born in Myanmar in 1981 during the rule of General Ne Win. He pursued a career in journalism before receiving an Open Society Institute scholarship to read for an MA in International Studies in the Philippines (2008–2010). We met while I was teaching a graduate course in International Migration and Development at Miriam College (Quezon City, Philippines). Nyunt Win currently resides in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, working as a part-time editor for a local news agency. He also doubles as a freelance translator/interpreter and a researcher.

Editorial Introduction: Why is understanding this issue important?

1. The Rohingya question is among the top migration crises to be covered by global media, Hollywood celebrities, Western NGOs and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN. Recent reports from the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar have significant implications in an era of Responsibility to Protect.

2. Myanmar is a geo-strategic crossroads, with immense importance for major global players, including China. The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, for example, is central to China’s energy security calculations.

3. Ethnic conflicts intentionally driven by the British in colonial Burma have links to current internal ethnic issues in modern Myanmar, including the Rohingya question. This has significant value for all postcolonial societies dealing with inter-ethnic and migration issues simultaneously.

4. The treatment of religious and migrant groups in postcolonial states is quickly being conflated with neo-fascist xenophobia in the West. Historical context is important, as proven by the recent Freedom House report on religious freedom in China in which systematic rights abuses by religious colonists in China goes unmentioned.

Nyunt Win provides much needed historical and on-the-ground perspective on the Rohingya issue, one that combines crises of postcolonial citizenship, ethnic and religious politics, gender and human rights. The interview itself was an online exchange over some three weeks and was released on my closed knowledge blog, Understanding Migration, earlier this year. We benefit from Nyunt Win’s insights on the Rohingya populations themselves as well as on the history behind the discourses and counter-discourses that are make the Rohingya issue extremely dynamic. In an environment where an increasingly discredited and complicit Western media often casts doubt on the independence of local sources, we also touch on the issue of censorship.

Part 1: Press Freedom & Myanmar’s Foreign Relations

Myanmar’s press seems to have had a complex relationship with government over the years. How effective, in your view, can journalism be in an environment of state censorship and mass surveillance?

First, there is no longer state media censorship and mass surveillance in Myanmar. It was officially abolished as of 2013. There, though, are two government-run newspapers that are largely serving as the government mouthpiece (1). At the same time, there has been a thriving independent media coming out of the political opening. The media can report technically anything without censorship, but [that] doesn’t mean there is no self-censorship.

Another perspective on the ‘issue’ from Sean Gleeson (Frontier Myanmar)

The main issue at heart, for now, is not how journalism in Myanmar is controlled by the State, but how the independent media runs synonymous reports and op-eds regarding this ‘issue’, dismissing virtually all the facts presented by mostly Western media. The independent media itself views the issue from nearly the same angle as what the military and the government both take.

In an era in which ‘fake news’ and rapid news cycles seemingly predominate, how do you see your role as a journalist? What is your approach to developing stories and informing public conversations as a journalist?

The role of a journalist in such an era is to counter those ‘fake’ and rapid news cycles by presenting to the public more credible, accurate and less-biased pieces of information. First of all, I look at an issue [to see] whether it is of public interest. Then I see if it is true, or most likely to be true, and if the impact would be great.

We often look at migration trends in terms of push and pull factors. With rapid economic growth in the forecast, but mainly in highly volatile tourism, financial and extractive sectors, and a young, growing population, what are the implications for urbanization and migration in Myanmar?

As in many other developing countries, urbanization and rural-urban migration in Myanmar have been the most significant trend over the past few decades. However, urbanization is not evenly spread and most of the industries and economic activities are concentrated around no more than two or three major cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyaing (Moulmein). Yangon, the biggest city and the country’s economic hub, hosts about 10 per cent of the total population, according to the 2014 census (5.2 out of 52 million people live there), and its population is expected to rise to 10 million by 2030.

The government’s relatively bigger focus on development projects for Yangon, along with other facts such as under-investment in agriculture (which 70% of the population rely on for livelihood, and about two-third of the population reside in rural areas), underdevelopment in rural areas, and a high vulnerability in the face of natural disasters, have also contributed to pushing more rural workers to the cities.

At the multilateral level, is it fair to say that shifting relations between China and Russia will have a significant political impact on Myanmar? Similarly, how will China’s unstable relationship with the US affect Myanmar?

Myanmar has had a good relationship with Russia since the Soviet era, from which Myanmar mainly received military training and equipment; and [the relationship] with neighbouring China has been improving as well since the latter officially stopped backing the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the government’s most formidable rebel group, in the 1980s.

The [National League for Democracy or NLD]-led government, which came into power in April last year (2016), has also expressed its policy of maintaining good relationships with China, which plays a key role in Myanmar’s attempt to make peace with myriad ethnic rebel groups based along the Sino-Myanmar border. I don’t think there will be an extraordinary impact upon Myanmar because of the relations between China and Russia, Myanmar’s long-time supporters.

Political Map of Myanmar. Finding an updated, royalty-free map of Myanmar with postcolonial place names was extremely difficult (Moulmein = Mawlamyaing). The map above is presented with apologies.

ASEAN has recently been reconsidering its approach to free movement. What is your perspective on the possibilities for deeper integration within Southeast Asia, and particularly for Myanmar?

ASEAN has been dreaming to establish an EU-style regional family, a single market with free trade, and possibly a single currency in the future. Now, many countries have been lifting visa requirements who visit fellow ASEAN member states. But politically and economically the members have substantial differences — from communist states to monarchies to constitutional monarchies to relatively liberal democracies. There are first world countries like Singapore to Third World countries like Myanmar, Laos, [and] Cambodia. Free flow of labour and goods may benefit already advanced states rather than poorer ones.

Part 2: Rohingya and Identity Politics in Myanmar

You have worked on this issue of the Rohingya refugee situation. Recent developments have seen complications that involve religious and ethnic identity politics as well as local and interstate political considerations. Can you give us some insight into the current state of the issue and possible avenues for resolution?

The main issue…is not whether the Rohingya deserve citizenship status. Many in Myanmar say that as long as they meet the criteria of becoming citizens as per the 1982 Citizenship Law, they won’t find it a problem. The 1982 Citizenship Law stipulates that only the grandchildren of those non-native settlers [mainly Indians and Chinese] who came to Burma/Myanmar after the British occupied the country can be citizens. But many hate the international community’s pressure to take them all as the citizens.

A general belief among the population is that a certain proportion of those people were not born here but may have come across the porous Bangladesh-Myanmar border (which is only demarcated by a small river called “Naaf”) to Northern Rakhine State (NRS) from highly populated Bangladesh (it is the 12th most populous country by population density with 964 people per sq. km, while Myanmar ranks 130th with 74 people per sq. km. On the other hand, Myanmar is five times bigger than its neighbour [in terms of] total area with 678,000 sq. km to 144,000 sq. km respectively).

There are Rakhine historians and scholars who argue — citing the colonial-era statistics and census data — that the current Rohingya population in NRS would not have reached that number without the help of “illegal migration”. Ordinary Rakhine people and nationalists fear that their land could be taken over by [those] who they view as foreigners in the future. That fear is reinforced by general Islamophobia in which Muslims all over the world are thought to have a grand strategy to take over the world and convert everyone to Islam…. Because the Rohingya are Muslims, and as their population increases, the fear is heightened. So whenever a global figure or powerful organization make statements referring to the Rohingya as Rakhine natives and Myanmar citizens, many feel outraged, translating it as outright bullying from the international community without taking into consideration the local sentiments. The more the international media or figures speak out what sounds like a pro- Rohingya statement, the more the local people feel bullied.

A cartoon on the Rohingya situation by Bangkok-based, French political cartoonist Stephane Peray (Stephff)

When I joined a low-profile American government delegation to one of the camps near Rakhine State capital Sittwe last year as their interpreter, I noticed discrepancies between Rohingya men and women. Very few of our female Rohingya respondents were able to read and write, or speak Burmese. The majority of them were…housewives, having borne at least 7 or 8 children, with very little or no family planning knowledge and practices. The motivation may be their religious belief or simply lack of awareness. (There have been rumors that imams prohibit the use of contraception, which I could not independently verify during the trip). The fact that Rohingya women are reproducing at a more rapid rate (2) has been used by many Rakhine people as a proof of their accusation that those “Bengali” Muslims (illegal settlers) are deliberately trying to outnumber them so as to occupy the land non-violently, with Islam as a new identity maker for the region. [In terms of issues of gender, fertility and conflict, see here for analysis of a comparable situation in Israel/Palestine.]

On the other hand, many Rohingya men could communicate with us in Burmese, interpreting between us and female respondents in their community. Males were relatively educated and seemed to be more connected with the outside world. I saw boys in school uniform just arrive back from school and communicate with us, while one of them, a young man at the local clinic, even talking to foreigners in my group in English. The signs of highly conservative and patriarchal societies were found among Rohingya communities.

Rohingya or Bengali?

There is no concrete historical evidence of the use of “Rohingya” until mid-1950s when a group of educated men from NRS started to use a new name, purportedly to differentiate themselves from those from Bangladesh (at that time East Pakistan). Census data gathered during the British times only categorized their ethnicity as “Indians or Chittagonians or simply “Muhammadans”.

Whether the use of the new name was politically motivated or simply an attempt to cut their historical root with their ancestral homeland of East Bengal State of India, later East Pakistan, is not known. The parliamentary government at that time accepted their self- identification as Rohingya but after Gen. Ne Win came to power, he rejected the term and officially said that those who called themselves Rohingya were actually Bengalis who came to settle in NRS after Burma was incorporated into British India after 1885.

Ne Win had all references to Rohingya removed from school textbooks and other official documents, and later generations, including mine, grew up without any knowledge or clue of “Rohingya”. The denial by many Burmese people of the name “Rohingya” may have been contributed by a lack of knowledge about the fact that was wiped out from official usage by Ne Win and his successor junta who completely controlled the education.

The antagonism towards the Rohingya felt in Burma may be, in my opinion, traced back to general Islamophobia [,…] a belief that many of them do not belong to NRS historically but just “guests” who happened to stay, and a view that Rohingya people refuse to integrate into local culture unlike other non-indigenous ethnic groups such as Chinese Burmese, and feelings that they are “breeding like rabbits” with an ulterior motive to sack NRS as a separate Muslim state in future (it is true that some Muslim leaders from NRS tried to incorporate their area into then East Pakistan on the eve of Burma independence, followed by a Mujahideen (3) rebellion which was not successful, but there has not been any such attempt since then).

The view that they are not true native people of Rakhine in the eye of the State and other citizens; and the fear that they are strategically trying to take over the land piece by piece, have shaped successive government policies that would amount to gross human rights violations against the Rohingya by international standards. Against this [background of] prejudice, recent bouts of intercommunal conflict has exacerbated the existing anti- Rohingya sentiments, in which they are seen as problem makers who do not want to live peacefully with their “hosts”, which in turn made young Rohingya men to resort to violent and militant methods towards the State, such as the [October 9, 2016] deadly attacks on several police outposts. The attacks again furthered prejudice against them among the general population. So it has become a vicious cycle.

How can it be resolved?

Honestly, I do not have any concrete idea about finding a solution to end the NRS crisis. All four stakeholders — Government, Myanmar citizens, Rohingyas and the international community — must strive to achieve a common ground through dialogue. At the moment, putting pressure on the Government and/or the people cannot settle it, and it can only further inflame anti-Rohingya and anti-“pro-Rohingya” sentiments among the general population. At the same time, a verification process should be expedited to find out whether the discourse about their origin and migration stories is true or false.

On the other hand, the political transition must also be steered [towards] the right track, meaning helping Myanmar become a full-fledged democracy, since as long as the 2008 constitution is in use, the civilian government cannot hold the military accountable for their alleged human rights abuses against civilians.

There also has been a widespread belief among the democratic forces that the former military junta and its successor government deliberately used the Rohingya card, the weak point of many Burmese people, so as to derail the NLD’s attempt to win an upper hand in the mainstream politics. Pro-military and pro-USDP [Union Soliarity and Development Party] elements are rumoured to have sparked the 2012 communal conflict in NRS, but it cannot be independently verified.

Whether the Rohingya crisis can be ended depends much on the success of Myanmar’s democratic and economic reform. Once the military is under full civilian oversight, cases of alleged human rights violations will no longer become a topic. It is also important that the country prospers and the fruits of economic development are fairly spread to the populations of Rakhine State, which is currently the second poorest in Myanmar.

Last but not least, the two communities must be brought together [to foster] future peaceful coexistence. The government and international community must find means to transform the conservative, impoverished and patriarchal Rohingya community. Voluntary family planning should be encouraged among them, while plans to integrate them into the society should be thought about.

Further reading suggestions from Nyunt Win

The Lady and the Rohingya by David Scott Mathieson

How Social Media Spurred Myanmar’s Latest Violence by Alan Davis

A Better Political Economy of the Rohingya Crisis by Lee Jones

Cheesman, N & Htoo Kyaw Win, eds, 2015, Communal Violence in Myanmar, Myanmar Knowledge Society, Yangon. [In Burmese and English] (See Nick Cheesman’s profile: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/cheesman-nw)


(1) Jonah Fisher of the BBC rather dramatically describes propaganda in state-run media, specifically with regards to the Rohingya Muslim situation, as “eerily reminiscent of the dark Burmese days of censorship and military rule”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38756601

(2) According to the CIA World Factbook, the estimated 2016 fertility rate in Myanmar is 2.15 children/woman.

(3) Mujahideen indicates persons engaged in Jihad or war in defence of the Islamic faith.

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