Pope Francis will visit Myanmar in November amid mounting concern “about the persecution of the religious minority of our Rohingya brothers,” mostly Muslim, as the Pope himself decried. And yet the Conference Bishop of Myanmar advised him not to use the word Rohingya, raising a question: are Rohingya victims or troublemakers?
On 25 August 2017, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) killed Myanmar border guards, policemen, and civilians. The violence marked a dramatic escalation of an old conflict. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government sent thousands of troops into a Rakhine (previously Arakan state) village. The backlash resulted in around 1,000 people killed, 147 villages left empty and nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims - this includes 230,000 children - fleeing to nearby Bangladesh. The images of children and women fleeing through dangerous paths increased the solidarity all over the world, a UN official and the Bangladesh foreign minister called out a genocide, Caritas Bangladesh mobilized to assist, US asked for Suspending Arms Sales to Myanmar. And yet nearly 30,000 Buddhists and a number of Hindus were also displaced increasing the concern that humanitarian feeling was overlapping the political dimension of the crisis.
Let’s be clear about it, every act of human suffering should prompt a humanitarian response from the world society. But the international solidarity should go beyond, look what's behind the slaughter of Rohingya, analyzing the causes, and thus avoiding to be mislead in the search of a possible solution.
Rohingyas are a few million minority, spread out all over and yet citizens of nowhere, a stateless people, without a home, without a name, without a country. In Myanmar there were one million (of them 120,000 in camps, and recently 470,000 fled to Bangladesh); in Bangladesh 750,000 of them and in India 40,000; 350,000 are found in Pakistan, 10,000 in UAE and 200,000 in Saudi Arabia. Their presence in Arakan state can be traced back to the 8th century, arriving from nowhere and Myanmar law does not recognize them as one of the eight minority "national races". In 1982 the military junta stated that only those born before British occupation of Burma would be recognized as citizens - that was around 1823 - closing any way to citizenship for today Rohingyas.
Stateless, Rohingya are also without an accepted name and at national level the consensus is total: There is No Rohingya in Burma, but "Bengalis", i.e. illegal people from nearby Bangladesh brought in by the British colony! "Names" matter the most, there. The country has still not settled the question of its own name: Burma or Myanmar? Accepted by the military junta, the name Myanmar was refused by democrat activists including Aung San Suu Kyi till 2010. The government requested international and diplomatic community, and the Churches, NOT to use the term Rohingya. Furthermore, after the ARSA's attack the name became synonymous with “Bengali terrorists” for the Government, for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, for the army, for the people mostly Buddhist, for student groups supporting democracy and human rights, and even for Ethnic Armed Group in conflict with the government. The term Rohingya is without doubt a political term likely to incite trouble.
Coming from Rooganga (a Bengali word), it was first used in the 18th century for the Rakhine state's people’s dialect. At that time, Muslims shared life with Buddhists and a Muslim ruler was spreading his influence from Bengal into Burma, since people crossed the open borders freely. Then, with the Second World War, the Rakhine people were divided: the Muslims fought with the British while the Buddhists fought with the Japanese. After Independence violent Muslim jihad groups wanted an autonomous state or merge with Muslim East Pakistan (the present Bangladesh), which Pakistan refused. And since then the refusal of the Rakhine community to accept the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, has created a deadlock.
Making the situation worse, other Muslim groups try to congregate under the umbrella name “Rohingya”. Legalizing the Myanmar Rohingyas' status would bring in many self-defined Rohingyas from other country thus changing the demography in Rakhine state: the already demographic explosion of Rohingyas - there were 230,000 children among the fleeing 400,000 - is seen as a deliberate attempt to impose Muslims as a majority.
The Burmese government see also as a threat in a transnational insurgent group of Rohingyas self-named Hadaka al-Yawing. Led by a committee of Saudi Arabia's Rohingya, presumably Wahhabis, they had international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics, benefits from international support and enjoy sympathetic backing from Rakhine State's Muslims. Kashmiri militant groups and Al Qaeda Muslims also support Rohingya.
Last but not least, the Rakhine Buddhists in the Northern part of the state, see themselves as a long-oppressed minority enduring discrimination, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalization, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression. They had their own ethnic armed groups but after 2012, with the Rohingya uprising, the Rakhine Buddhists had become inclined to extremist nationalistic discourse.
While Rohingya stateless reality pushes its roots farther in the past, in the last two decades the global issues entangled it all the more: islamophobia from the west, treatment of minorities by the Muslim countries, ethno-demographic grievances and foreigner greed for resources worsen the situation. "China needs Myanmar resources" so do corporations from dozens of countries – U.S., France, Canada, Japan, and India and so on. "When corporations and countries build oil wells, offshore rigs, sea ports, railways, highways and fancy hotels for the foreign workers, the native poor people have to be evacuated." (Card. Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon). And there is where Rohingya Muslims are primarily concentrated.
The world’s most deprived and forgotten people, stateless since long ago, the roots of Rohingyas' problem have never been addressed. It is high time to do so, but how? A starting solution for Myanmar/Burma and other States where Rohingyas live should be to draw a road map to normalize their status. Would, however, Buddhist clergy, Buddhist nuns and Buddhist people agree with this? Their Association for the Protection of Race and Religion ( MaBaTha) preaches that the Rohingya people must be eliminated because they are the spearhead of a global "followers of Allah's" threat against Buddhism – the Taliban, Islamic State, and the whole world's Muslims show it. Even more, would Rohingya people accept to become citizens of the various states where they are living? ARSA had already given a negative answer with its attacks and the aim of its fight.
In the midst of this conflict, what will the Pope’s visit in November bring? On one side, the Burmese government and military, most of the people and leaders of human rights groups, welcome the Pope’s visit as a blessing for “peace and harmony”, as an important step towards “genuine peace, reconciliation and justice.” On the other side Rohingyas' supporters expect the Pope to bolster their claim, and a New York Times article (August 22, 2017) suggests that the Pope’s visit "Risks Stoking Religious Tension": any word on Rohingyas would infuriate nationalists claiming that Rohingyas are Bangladeshis with no right to live in the country. Ashin Wirathu, the monk leader of the hard movement MaBaTha, stated it clearly, “The pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false.” (The Guardian 29 August 2017).
The intervention of the United Nations (UN) is likely to worsen the situation. As Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, the UN General Assembly, stated in a briefing on October 6th, 2017, the UN has many and strong tools to address war refugees, but none for migrants and less for stateless people. And so far India has already refused to welcome 40,000 Rohingya pretesting no one and nothing can bind it to do so. The Pope would have just to repeat what Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas est: caritas is binding for believers, justice for States, and what Pope Francis him-self proclaimed: "Nonviolence as a style of politics for peace. When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking. In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms." Message for the 50 World Day of Peace, 1st January 2017, n° 1