A recent pilot project being carried out in Myanmar is giving hope to many Rohingya, said by the UN to be “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” Displaced for many years, the Rohingya continue to live in camps in Burma, where their movement is controlled by authorities.
The Rohingya’s story is one that centers on ethnicity, religion, and nationalism. The article, “Ray of Hope for the Rohingya,” by Nirmal Ghosh, provides a compelling background to the Rohingya’s current state today. The Rohingya, who primarily practice Islam, were accepted by the newly democratic government that was established once Myanmar became independent in 1948 from the British. However, this regime was soon replaced by an authoritarian government, which left the Rohingya out of the “Myanmar national idea.” Ghosh points out that this action “ironically, drove them to cling even more tightly to their Rohingya identity.” From approximately 1960 until today, there has been a strong influence of Burmese and right-wing Buddhist nationalism which sees “Islam as a threat.”
Given the political and religious persecution and racism that the Rohingya has faced over the last 50 years, it is not surprising that this new pilot project comes as a glimmer of hope for these people. It offers them a chance to become citizens of a country that they have inhabited for all their lives, that even their ancestors may have inhabited, and with it, the associated freedoms that citizenship offers. However, this comes at a price. The Rohingya must register for citizenship not as “Rohingya” but as “Bengali” (those that inhabit the neighbouring state). They must, essentially, deny who they are as a people. The choice is not an easy one.
If you can prove that you were born in Myanmar before 1982, and if you can prove you had ancestors who lived in the region, then you will receive a pink card, indicating full citizenship and the right to travel freely throughout the region. A green card indicates “naturalized” status and comes with restricted political rights and can be revoked at any time – although the right to travel freely throughout the region is permitted.
So, it comes down to a choice: freedom or asserting your identity. For some, it has not been an easy choice. For others, it does not seem as if there is really a choice. For those with children, for instance, providing a better life outside of a camp is paramount.
It is difficult, as a Canadian, to imagine life for the Rohingya. My freedom is not limited by my identity as a Canadian, my religion, or my ethnicity. Canadian nationalism is not underpinned by religion and does not (always) drive Canadian politics. In Burma, if you are not a practicing Buddhist, it is very difficult to gain employment in government or to join the army and these are the main ways to earn a successful living. This is not the case in Canada. It is difficult to say what actions I would take if I were living in a region such as Burma, in a position like the Rohingya. Coming from a position in the West, I might be inclined to fight for my rights, to stand fast and assert my identity. But this is easier said than done.
It is clear that the Rohingya’s identity is very important to them, as it should be. They should not have to deny their identity to gain access to what is considered by many to be fundamental human rights (i.e., they continue to experience severe restriction of movement; forced labor; various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage, according to Amnesty International). Unfortunately, for the Rohingya, the government has advised that “it will not budge on its position.”