Myanmar’s Most Persecuted Minority Isn’t Fighting Back
Armed groups are common here — so why are the Rohingya an exception?
I checked the straps on my boots. The water on the flooded dirt road reached my ankles, so the boots would help little.
Several Rohingya drove by on motorbikes and walked by with cattle, looking at me as though they doubted that I were real. Dozens of journalists had come to Thet Key Pyin Camp. But I was a mustached 19-year-old boy and a university researcher. To the Rohingya, I was new.
For decades, the Rohingya have been among the most-persecuted ethnoreligious minorities in Myanmar and the world.
They are Muslims in a country dominated by Buddhist Bamar, who compose Myanmar’s largest ethnicity, and they have distinguished themselves from oppressed peoples in similar circumstances by what the Rohingya lack — an armed resistance movement in a country filled with them.
The Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Kachin Independence Organization, the Karen National Union, the Shan State Army–North and the Shan State Army–South have fought nationalist governments in the east and north of Myanmar in some cases since the country became independent 67 years ago.
The DKBA and the KNU, like the SSA–N and the SSA–S, have competed to represent their ethnicity, while the Rohingya for most of their history have had no such paramilitaries to defend them from the Myanmar Armed Forces, known here as the Tatmadaw.
Even the Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnicity most of whose members — like the Rohingya — live in Rakhine state, have the Arakan Army. In Myanmar’s history of civil war, ethnic conflict and religious intolerance, the Rohingya are outliers.
I had traveled to Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state, to understand why the Rohingya had failed to follow the examples of Myanmar’s more militant minorities.
Dozens of concentration, internment and refugee camps ring Sittwe. These camps resulted from intercommunal violence three years ago, when Rakhine and Rohingya rioters torched one another’s homes and forced thousands to flee.
Wooden houses, some raised above the road to combat flooding and others collapsing into the road, lined Thet Key Pyin. The paddy fields have become the scene of what some have called genocide and a crime against humanity.
The Rohingya live there, and their culture and history might die there.
The Myanmarese government and most Rakhine insist that the Rohingya — termed “Bengalis” because official policy has labeled them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and farther west — are to blame for the violence.
“Some of the Bengalis even burned their own houses,” Kyawmyo Topwin, a Rakhine student from Sittwe University, said. “I know it sounds unbelievable and doesn’t make sense, but I assure you it happened.”
Other Rakhine had less difficulty explaining to me why they accused the Rohingya.
“I think the violence happened in 2012 because the Bengalis wanted to create a strong Rohingya identity,” said Thu Rein Da, a Buddhist monk helping refugees at a Rakhine camp. “Many people think that the violence is between the Bamar and the Bengalis, but this is not the case. The Bamar want to govern Rakhine state, and the Bengalis want their own country, so the Rakhine are caught in the middle.”
According to the Myanmarese government, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization is leading Rohingya efforts to secede. Depending on whom you ask, the RSO wants the state to become a sovereign country or join Bangladesh.
But activists for the Rohingya and terrorism analysts argue that the RSO has long been defunct — if it was ever a functional organization in the first place. The Myanmarese government has ignored these arguments, trying to unite its policy toward the Rohingya with international counter-terrorism efforts.
“I don’t think the RSO has arrived in Rakhine state, but I have heard news that the Taliban is giving military training on the border,” Thu Rein said.
An official from the state government, Joe Aung Htun, detailed a policy with less nuance.
“In some areas, such as the market, security was weak. This problem would not have happened if the security were strong,” said Aung Htun. “The Bengalis have a very low standard of living, but they started the violence — through their Islamic leaders’ plans — because they wanted their own state, especially in [the cities] Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe. Fortunately, they did not succeed. The RSO and extremist leaders started the violence.”
The logical implication of this argument? Restricting the Rohingya to camps would prevent these extremists from attacking again.
But residents of Thet Key Pyin, one of several military and police-patrolled camps where the Myanmarese government forced Rohingya to relocate after the violence, denied the allegations of militant activity.
“The RSO does not exist, nor, as far as we know, has it ever existed except as a government fabrication,” Abdurrahim, a Rohingya from the Camp Management Committee, said. “Every several months, policemen will come to confiscate our utensils and tools, arresting men the government accuses of membership in the RSO. How can we fight the government when we do not even have what we need to eat our food and cut our firewood?”
Other members of the Camp Management Committee added that the international community supported the Rohingya and that, if they armed themselves, this support would disappear.
“We want peacekeepers and humanitarian intervention,” Abdurrahim continued. “We want a no-fly zone as Kosovo and Iraqi Kurdistan had. We will only take up arms with the international community’s blessing. Otherwise, there would be no benefit to us.”
Saeed Arkany, a Rohingya activist in the camp, agreed with Abdurrahim’s explanation. “If we were armed, the United Nations and the United States would refuse to help us. They would consider us like they do Al Qaeda and ISIS. This is already how the Myanmarese government thinks of us. We will use resistance to get our rights, but we will only use nonviolent resistance.”
James Hla Kyaw, an 18-year-old Rohingya former student, presented a different explanation. “When I was younger, the RSO existed on the Bangladeshi–Myanmarese border, but Myanmar forced Bangladesh to disarm it so that nothing could stop Myanmar from persecuting us. Now, we would have no way to resist from inside these camps even if we wanted to.”
To be sure, the RSO was a paper organization at one point, according to Tayub Uddin, a Rohingya politician based in Yangon.
Muhammad Zafar, graduate of Rangoon Arts and Sciences University and translator at the Egyptian embassy, formed the Rohingya Patriotic Front in Bangladesh 1975 with about 100 members. Later joined by doctor Muhammad Yunus and lawyer Nurul Islam, the RPF developed as a political movement but failed to secure military support.
When Zafar died in Chittagong 1985, Yunus and Islam debated whether the RPF should remain secular — as Yunus wanted — or become Islamic — as Islam wanted. Islam formed the RSO while the RPF became the Arakan Rohingya National Organization under Yunus’ leadership.
Neither organization succeeded, and the RSO collapsed when it tried attacking Maungdaw, a city in northern Rakhine state, during the rainy season of 1994. The Tatmadaw captured all 100 attackers, later hacking them to death.
Yunus moved to London when the Bangladeshi government pressured him and ARNO to leave. Islam moved between Bangladesh, Dubai, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, gaining wealth as donors continue to send him money for the RSO.
“In practice, the RSO never existed except on paper, the same to ARNO,” Tayub said. “The RSO is a creation of the Burmese [Myanmarese] government just to label the Rohingya ‘terrorists.'”
Now 60 years old, Tayub Uddin has campaigned for Rohingya human rights since 1974, when he was a second-year student of economics at Rangoon University. “I never heard a fight take place in Arakan [Rakhine state] between Rohingya freedom fighters and the Burmese government or military,” he said.
“In Burma, all ethnic groups have armed struggles — except the Rohingya.”
Mohammed S. Anwar, editor of the pro-Rohingya online newspaper Rohingya Vision, echoed Uddin’s account.
“Today, no functional Rohingya armed groups exist in Bangladesh,” Mohammed messaged me. “Of course, the RSO has nine-twelve members in the country, but they are being used to collect funds from the Middle East and Arab countries on the pretext of resistance. There are many factions of the RSO, all existing only on paper.”
Without a resistance movement or allies in Myanmar, the Rohingya await humanitarian intervention from the international community.
“We don’t even need military intervention,” said Kyaw Min, a former Rohingya political prisoner who is now a politician in Yangon. “We need sanctions. We need the International Criminal Court. We need the United Nations. The Rohingya have never attacked the Rakhine, and, even as the Myanmarese government claims that we did and persecutes us, we wait while the outside world does nothing.”
Wai Wai Nu, Kyaw Min’s daughter and, like her father, a former political prisoner, focused on what the Rohingya have lost without a resistance movement.
“I am an activist for nonviolent resistance, yet there can be no doubt that arms achieve respect,” Wai Wai Nu said.
“In the 1940s, we had a resistance movement — the mujahideen — and we were respected as citizens of Burma. In the 1970s, we had a resistance movement, and we were still respected. Now, we have no resistance movement, and even the other minorities and their armed groups say that we are foreigners.”
As the Myanmarese government arranges and negotiates ceasefires with most of the resistance movements fighting it, the Rohingya remain excluded from the peace process.
When I met Col. Khun Okkar, a leader in the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization, at the Panda Hotel in Yangon while he participated in negotiations, he criticized the Myanmarese government for excluding several minorities but refrained from including the Rohingya, whom he called “Bengalis.”
“The Bamar, who live at the center of the country and control the government, have marginalized all the peoples at the periphery — the Kachin, the Shan, the Wa, the Rakhine and so on — as Chinese, Bengalis and other illegal immigrants claiming citizenship continue to stream across our borders,” Okkar said. “So you can say that we have a problem from the inside and a problem from the outside.”
Most of Myanmar’s Buddhist minorities have likewise shunned the Rohingya. Only the Kachin, a fellow ethnoreligious minority, have given some sympathy.
However, the Myanmarese government has used this sympathy to discredit the Kachin Independence Army, the KIO’s paramilitary wing.
“It becomes very complicated when you mention the Rohingya, but our general, Gun Maw, made an announcement about them,” KIA officer Col. Victor Aung said. “Last year, there was gossip from the media influenced by the Burmese government that we were supporting terrorists — the RSO. There was one piece of truth to this matter. Maung Kyaw, the president of a Rohingya organization, asked our leader to give a place in Kachin land for preparing a Rohingya army, but we couldn’t provide it.”
Unlike other resistance movements in Myanmar, the KIA continues to fight the government.
The lack of a resistance movement has frustrated some Rohingya, such as Shamsho Anwar from Maungdaw. “The only solution to get back our rights is to fight against the Burmese regime like other ethnic groups in Myanmar, who save each penny of their own incomes to fund their revolutions,” he argued. “Our leaders are cowards. They don’t want to fight.”
Instead of fighting the Myanmarese government, however, Anwar plans to move to another country as an asylum seeker, as many of his people have.
“We are a weaponless, forceless people,” complained Mobarak Hossain, a Rohingya teacher who left Maungdaw for Kuala Lumpur, where he teaches other refugees. “We have nothing but peaceful demands. We just want to survive in peace, but Burma doesn’t.”
However much Al Qaeda, Islamic State and the Taliban mention the Rohingya in propaganda, they have received little support from the outside world — and that includes both states and non-state groups.
“The Rohingya are well aware that any sort of armed resistance would amount to collective suicide, because they are extremely vulnerable,” Yangon-based freelance journalist Alex Bookbinder said.
“Moreover, despite how the Rohingya cause is championed across the Muslim world, it’s unlikely that foreigners would strike inside Myanmar itself — because Rohingya have no interest in violent resistance, and because nobody wants to champion the cause of poor fishermen and farmers.”
“Would-be jihadists go to places where Muslims are fighting, not where they are persecuted.”
Unless the RSO becomes as much a presence as the Myanmarese government claims, the Rohingya will remain at the periphery of the Muslim world and the war on terrorism.
With a resistance movement, the Rohingya would face the full wrath of the Tatmadaw. But without one, they have nothing that might inspire the support that other persecuted Muslims have received — an irony that could decide the result of their predicament.
“For now,” Arkany told me during my last day in his camp, “we are simply waiting — for the Americans, for the humanitarian organizations, for anyone.”