Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rohingyas - ethnicity issues

Still thinking about empathy and suffering, albeit closer to home than Darfur...

I have been troubled by all those reports about the Rohingya boat people, escaping from Myanmar. I can't say I knew very much about who they were and their political plight so I started Googling them out over the weekend.
Here's what I found out.
Myanmar is a large diamond shaped country locked in by the Ayeyerwadi delta and a significant coastline. It shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Geographically the country is divided by large mountain ranges (Rakhine Yoma, Bako Yoma and the Shan plateau) oriented in a North-South direction which essentially separates the country into the three rivers valleys of the Ayeyerwadi, Thanlwin and Sitang.This orientation effectively meant that people movement tended to be in a southerly direction. As a result, most of the population tended to be of Sino-Tibetan origins. Over the millenia, various Asiatic/Sino-Tibetan groups moved into the region giving rise to various ethnic groups. Most became assimilated into each other giving rise to a major ethnic group loosely called Bamars (~70% of the population). Isolated hill tribes that managed to retain a stronger sense of their original culture are recognizable as distinct ethnic minorities.

The major ethnicity problem arise primarily in the western coastal state of Rakhine. This coastal state is separated from main Myanmar by the formidable Rakhine Yoma range. The indigenous people there were originally of negrito origins, perhaps similar to the Andamanese. Over time they became replaced by population groups from Bangladesh who are of Indo-European orgins and speaking Bengali dialects. These became the Rohingyas. Another group in this state were drawn from invading Mongoloid races which are now identifiable as the Rakhine. These are more similar to mainstream Bamar people and speak a similar language. The Rohingyas are Muslim, whereas the rest of Myanmar (incuding the Rakhines) are mostly Theravada Buddhists.

The difficulty in this region is that the Rohingyas who are so distinctly different ethnically, linguistically and culturally different from the rest of Myanmar, are also physically isolated from mainstream Myanmarese life because of the almost impassable Rakhine Yoma range. This makes it easy for mainstream Myanmar to consider them not "Myanmarese". The recent reference by Consul General Ye Mying Aung to the Rohingyas as being 'ugly as ogres' is as racist as anyone can get and clearly to be condemned. But the reference to ogres really comes from the supposed etymology of the term Rohingya/Rakhine from the sanskrit Rakshasa, refering to the negrito origins of the people west of the mountain range.

Here you have a classical situation of a marginalized people who are so isolated from mainstream Myanmar not just in ethnicity terms (language, culture, religion and race), but effectively prevented by geography in meaningfully integrating and participating in Myanmar life.

Sadly they remain marginalized, stateless and unwanted. Is there any wonder they try to escape this persecution? Not at all...But will they find life more bearable escaping to Thailand, Malaysia or even Indonesia. I doubt it, as these other countries having their own ethnicity issues to contend with, have no real desire to absorb them into their societies.

Meanwhile the world watches helplessly.

Is there any hope that this may be resolved anytime soon. Unlikely. Not as long as people divide people according to skin colour, language and the gods they worship. Not until those uncivilized and ignorant generals leave the scene. And this is not going to go away anytime soon.


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