An article from the Economist once called the Rohingya people ‘the most persecuted people on Earth.’ I, a refugee from Afghanistan now settled in the Netherlands with my family, arguably agree.
The first time I heard about the Rohingya was while reading a Dutch article in March 2014. It reported that Australian and American pilots sent in to find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 – the infamous airplane that disappeared while on route to Beijing – had spotted a large boat filled with starving and dehydrated refugees. They also spotted floating corpses but upon realising they too were refugees, they flew the plane past them, not bothering to call for a rescue team.
I could barely believe what I had just read. I read it a second time, appalled. I understood the importance of finding the remains of the MH370 passengers, but could these pilots not have paused just briefly to call a rescue team to these starving, dehydrated people probably in dire need of medical attention?. After reading the article for the third time I stumbled across the word “Rohingya.” The refugees had been Rohingya people.
Not knowing who they were, I decided to look it up. Just who were these Rohingya that the MH370 search planes had so easily ignored?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine (also known as Arakan) a states in Myanmar. They make up around forty per cent of the population. The majority sixty per cent of the population in Rakhine are mainly Buddhists. ‘The differences between the Rohingya miniority within the Buddhist majority are currently dividing Rakhine with accute ethno-religious tensions.
The government of Myanmar and hard-line Buddhists claim that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. According to state rhetoric, the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar during British rule between 1824 till 1942. The Rohingya are not accepted as citizens but instead classified as “resident foreigners”.
The Myanmar government even refuses to refer to these Muslims as “Rohingya,” instead titling them as “Bengali” in order to support their theory of the Rohingya being foreigners rather than from Myanmar.
The Rohingya refuse to accept this title and claim that their ancestors arrived in Rakhine before British rule. Rohingya theory states that during the 1404 war that reinstated Min Saw Mon as King of the Launggyet Dynasty after being overthrown by rival Ava Kingdom, a small group of Muslim Bengalis migrated into the territory now called Rakhine. They came with Min Saw Mon when he returned to Myanmar after fleeing to Bengal to seek help from the Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah to regain his throne. The Rohingya claim this historical legacy as their legitimate link to Myanmar.
Fast forward to 2016 and I’m having a discussion with a young woman from Myanmar about a Quartz article criticising Aung San Suu Kyi for not protecting the Rohingya. I agreed with this critique. Aung San Suu Kyi is revered as the leader of Myanmar who promises to end military rule and bring democracy and freedom to all the people of Myanmar. This should include the Rohingya.
The young woman thought differently.
She claimed that these Muslims were “terrorists” who’d raped and looted. Her comments shocked me. She soon ended our discussion as she felt I didn’t understand her. I on the other hand, was infuriated. The Rohingya are lynched on a daily basis. How could she claim they were the aggressors? I felt curious. I wanted know why she thought this way. I decided to visit her Facebook page and what I saw shocked me – she was a normal student just like me. I saw pictures of her on holiday, with friends and family and with a sign demanding equal rights for women. My anger turned in to confusion. How could this young bright woman who demands equal rights for women not demand these rights for the Rohingya people?
You see I was a refugee too. In 1997, my family and I fled from the Taliban when they took over Afghanistan. We came to The Netherlands and were received with open arms by the majority of the people. The Dutch gave my parents the opportunity to start a new life. My sisters, brothers and I were granted the opportunity to go to school and study. They gave us a new home but most importantly, they accepted us. We didn’t look like them, talk like them, ate different things, and prayed to a different god, but they didn’t let these differences scare them. Their acceptance is the reason why this small country is known for its tolerance, and why I hold it as such an important country to take example from
I thought about destiny and how fearful a life we might’ve had if we’d fled to Myanmar instead of The Netherlands. I thought about the possibility of my family and I sitting in an improvised pontoon, fleeing from possible persecution, hungry and thirsty under the hot sun. Suddenly we would hear the engine of a plane approaching. The plane would fly past us and our hopes would disappear with it. The idea frightens me but the Rohingya are used to it. They are used to being ignored, be it by the Myanmar government, foreign search planes or the rest of the world.
That is their bleak destiny.