They have been called ogres and animals, terrorists and much worse – when their existence is even acknowledged.
Asia’s more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims are considered by rights groups to be among the most persecuted people on Earth. Most live in an anachronistic purgatory without passports, unable to travel freely or call any place home.
In Myanmar, shaken this week by a bloody spasm of violence involving Rohingyas in which dozens of civilians died, they are almost universally despised. The military junta whose half-century of rule ended only last year treated them as foreigners – fuelling a profound resentment now reflected in waves of vitriol being posted online.
“People feel it very acceptable to say that ‘We will work on wiping out all the Rohingyas,’” said Debbie Stothard, an activist with the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, referring to hyperbolic Internet comments she called “disturbing.”
The Myanmar government regards Rohingyas mostly as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations. Bangladesh rejects them just as stridently.
“This is the tragedy of being stateless,” said Chris Lewa, who runs a non-governmental organisation called the Arakan Project that advocates for the Rohingya cause worldwide.
“In Burma they’re told they’re illegals who should go back to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, they’re told they’re Burmese who should go back home,” Lewa said. “Unfortunately, they’re just caught in the middle. They have been persecuted for decades, and it’s only getting worse.”
That was made painfully clear this week as Bangladeshi coast guard units turned back boatload after boatload of terrified Rohingya refugees trying to escape the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The clashes between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have taken a roughly equal toll on both communities, though each blames the other for the violence.
The boats were filled with women and children, and Bangladesh defied international calls to accept them, saying the impoverished country’s resources are already too strained.
A few have slipped through, including a month-old baby abandoned Wednesday in a boat after its occupants fled border guards. Three other Rohingyas have been treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital in the Bangladeshi town of Chittagong, including one who died.
The unrest, which has seen more than 2,500 homes charred and 30,000 people displaced internally, erupted after a mob lynched 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation for the rape and murder last month of a 27-year-old Buddhist woman, allegedly by Muslims.
On Thursday, Rakhine state was reportedly calm. But Rohingyas living there “very much feel like they’re trapped in a box,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “They’re surrounded by enemies, and there is an extremely high level of frustration.”
The grudges go back far. Bitterness against the Rohingya in Myanmar has roots in a complex web of issues: the fear that Muslims are encroaching illegally on scarce land in a predominantly Buddhist country; the fact that the Rohingya look different than other Burmese; an effort by the former junta to portray them as foreigners.
Across the border in Bangladesh, civilians – not the government – are more tolerant. But even there, Rohingyas are largely unwanted because their presence in the overpopulated country only adds to competition for scarce resources and jobs.
Myanmar’s government has the largest Rohingya population in the world: 800,000, according to the United Nations. Another 250,000 are in Bangladesh, and hundreds of thousands more are scattered around the world, primarily the Middle East.
Human Rights Watch and other independent advocacy groups say Rohingyas face discriminated routinely. In Myanmar, they are subjected to forced labour by the army, a humiliation not usually applied to ethnic Rakhine in the same area, Lewa said.
Rohingyas must get government permission to travel outside their own villages and to marry. Apparently concerned about population growth, authorities have barred Rohingyas from having more than two children.
In 1978, Myanmar’s army drove more than 200,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh, according to rights groups and the US Campaign for Burma. Some 10,000 died in squalid conditions, and the rest returned to Myanmar. The campaign was repeated in 1991-1992, and again a majority returned.
In 2009, five boatloads of haggard Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar were intercepted by Thai authorities. Rights groups allege they were detained and beaten, then forced back to sea, emaciated and bloodied, in vessels with no engines and little food or water. Hundreds are believed to have drowned.
The same year, Myanmar’s consul general in Hong Kong – now a UN ambassador – described the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres” in an open letter to diplomats in which he compared their “dark brown” skin to that of the “fair and soft” ethnic Burmese majority.
The latest unrest has focused fresh attention on the Rohingyas’ plight, but it has also galvanised a virulent new strain of resentment. Many Burmese have taken to the Internet to denounce the Rohingya as foreign invaders, with some comparing them to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
While vitriol has come from both sides, what makes the latest unrest unique is that virtually “the entire population is openly and completely against” them, said Sai Latt, a writer and Myanmar analyst studying at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.
“We have heard of scholars, journalists, writers, celebrities, even the so-called democracy fighters openly making comments against Rohingyas,” Sai Latt said.
One Burmese actress posted “I hate them 100 percent” on her Facebook wall on Monday as the fires burned. By Thursday, her comment had nearly 250 “likes.”
Prominent Burmese language journals have reported “only the Rakhine side,” Sai Latt said. And many people have lashed out at foreign media, accusing them of getting the story wrong.
Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent former political prisoner released in January, has said Rohingyas should not be mistreated but added they “are not an ethnic group in Myanmar at all.” He blamed the recent violence on illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
The longtime leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has shied away from the blame game, saying the problem should be tackled by fair application of the law.
Speaking in Geneva on a five-nation European tour, she said that “without rule of law, such communal strife will only continue.
“The present situation will need to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity,” she told reporters.
The tide of nationalistic sentiment against the Rohingya puts Suu Kyi in a difficult position. Her conciliatory message risks alienating large blocs of supporters at a time when she and her National League for Democracy are trying to consolidate political gains attained after they entered Parliament for the first time in April.
The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect similar to one spoken by residents of southern Bangladesh. And physically, they are almost indistinguishable from their Bangladeshi counterparts, said Lewa, of the Arakan Project.
But their history – specifically the amount of time they’ve lived in Myanmar, and who among them qualifies as a legitimate resident – is bitterly disputed.
Some say the Rohingya are descended from Arab settlers in the 7th century, and that their state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. Later waves arrived from British-run colonial India in the 1800s, but like the colonists themselves, they were regarded as foreigners.
That view persisted through half a century of military rule. Myanmar’s post-junta government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 135 indigenous ethnic groups. And many people stridently believe they are not even a real ethnic group – rather, they are only illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
President Thein Sein has warned that any escalation could jeopardise the nation’s fragile democratic reforms.
The International Crisis Group said that ironically, the nation’s newfound freedoms may have helped contribute to the unrest.
“The loosening of authoritarian constraints may well have enabled this current crisis to take on a virulent intensity,” the group said. “It is not uncommon that when an authoritarian state loosens its grip, old angers flare up and spread fast.”