14th General Election (GE14)
A Rohingya boy running with a kite at the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Saturday. Human rights watchdogs warn that much of the evidence of the Rohingya’s history in Myanmar is in danger of being eradicated. AFP PIC

HE was a member of the Rohingya student union in college, taught at a public high school and even won a parliamentary seat in Myanmar’s thwarted election in 1990. But, according to the Myanmar government, Kyaw Min’s fellow Rohingya do not exist.

A long-persecuted Muslim minority concentrated in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, the Rohingya have been deemed dangerous interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh. Today, they are mostly stateless, their very identity denied by the Buddhist-majority Myanmar state.

“There is no such thing as Rohingya,” said Kyaw San Hla, an officer in Rakhine’s state security ministry. “It is fake news.”

Such denials bewilder Kyaw Min. He has lived in Myanmar all of his 72 years, and the history of the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group in Myanmar stretches back for generations before.

Now, human rights watchdogs warn that much of the evidence of the Rohingya’s history in Myanmar is in danger of being eradicated by a military campaign the United States has declared as ethnic cleansing.

Since late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya, about two-thirds of the population that lived in Myanmar last year, have fled to Bangladesh, driven out by the military’s systematic campaign of massacre, rape and arson in Rakhine.

In a report released in October, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Myanmar’s security forces had worked to “effectively erase all signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognisable terrain”.

“The Rohingya are finished in our country,” said Kyaw Min, who lives in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. “Soon, we will all be dead or gone.”

The UN report also said the crackdown in Rakhine had “targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge”.

“We are people with our own history and traditions,” said Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer and former political prisoner, whose father served as a court clerk in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. “How can they pretend we are nothing?”

Myanmar’s sudden amnesia about the Rohingya is as bold as it is systematic. Five years ago, Sittwe, nestled in an estuary in the Bay of Bengal, was a mixed city, divided between an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Walking through Sittwe’s crowded bazaar in 2009, I saw Rohingya fishermen selling seafood to Rakhine women. Rohingya professionals practi sed law and medicine. The main street in town was dominated by the Jama mosque, an Arabesque confection built in the mid-19th century. The imam spoke proudly of Sittwe’s multicultural heritage.

But, since sectarian riots in 2012, which resulted in a disproportionate number of Rohingya casualties, the city has been mostly cleared of Muslims. Across central Rakhine, about 120,000 Rohingya, even those who had citizenship, have been interned in camps, stripped of their livelihoods and prevented from accessing proper schools or healthcare.

The Jama mosque now stands disused and moldering, behind barbed wire. Its 89-year-old imam is interned.

“We have no rights as human beings,” the imam said, asking not to use his name because of safety concerns. “This is state-run ethnic cleansing and nothing else.”

Sittwe’s psyche has adapted to the new circumstances. In the bazaar recently, every Rakhine resident I talked to claimed, falsely, that no Muslims had ever owned shops there.

Sittwe University, which used to enrol hundreds of Muslim students, now teaches only around 30 Rohingya, all of whom are in a distance-learning programme.

“We don’t have restrictions on any religion,” said Shwe Khaing Kyaw, the university’s registrar. “But they just don’t come.”

Rohingya Muslims have lived in Rakhine for generations. Their Bengali dialect and South Asian features often distinguishing them from Rakhine Buddhists.

During the colonial era, the British encouraged South Asian rice farmers, merchants and civil servants to migrate to what was then known as Burma.

Some of these new arrivals mixed with the Rohingya, then known more commonly as Arakanese Indians or Arakanese Muslims. Others spread out across Burma. By the 1930s, South Asians, both Muslim and Hindu, comprised the largest population in Yangon.

The demographic shift left some Buddhists feeling besieged. During the xenophobic leadership of General Ne Win, who ushered in nearly half a century of military rule, hundreds of thousands of South Asians fled Burma for India.

Today, far more Rohingya live outside Myanmar — mostly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia — than remain where they consider their homeland.

Yet, in the early decades of Burma’s independence, a Rohingya elite thrived. Rangoon University, the country’s top institution, had enough Rohingya students to form a union. One of the cabinets of Nu, the country’s first post-independence leader, included a health minister who identified as Arakanese Muslim.

Even under General Ne Win, Burmese national radio aired broadcasts in the Rohingya language. The Rohingya, women among them, were represented in Parliament.

Shwe Maung, a Rohingya from Buthidaung township in northern Rakhine, served in Parliament between 2011 and 2015, as a member of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. In the 2015 elections, however, he was barred from running.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were disenfranchised in those polls.

Shwe Maung’s electoral district, which had been 90 per cent Rohingya, is now represented by a Rakhine Buddhist. NYT

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