Penny Green

Abu Tahay is a small passionate man who has something important to say. He has said it to David Cameron, to William Hague, to Hugo Swire and now here in the single air-conditioned room of a small local grass roots organisation (optimistically named ‘Smile’) in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township inYangon, he is saying it to me. It is a desperate story and he is well-versed in it.

It is the story of the Rohingya: rendered stateless at the hands of the military junta, brutalised by armed Buddhist nationalists, abused, dehumanised and displaced by the currentMyanmarstate and now fleeing the country which refuses to recognise them.

Bare life in Arakan

The Rohingya are an ethnic group with ancient traditions inMyanmarand a continuous physical presence there for at least past two centuries. But they are defined by theMyanmarstate as Bangladeshi nationals with no right to the privileges ofMyanmarcitizenship.

Abu Tahay, chair of the Union National Development Party, shows me the historical evidence which positions the Rohingya ethnic minority inMyanmarbefore the military's pre-colonial citizenship cut-off date of 1823. He shows me research from theAustralianNationalUniversitywhich identifies 8th century Rohingya stone monuments, in theMyanmarstate of Arakan (also known as Rakhine). It is compelling evidence and he leaves nothing out.

On its basis, the Rohingya are surely entitled to Myanmar citizenship and ethnic minority recognition. Instead, theirs is a "bare life" in which every aspect of social and political life is restricted and diminished.

State crime and Islamophobia

During the second wave of violence, however, it was not only the Rohingya, but also Kaman Muslims from coastal fishing villages in southern Arakan were forced to flee as their communities were attacked. Although the Kaman are a recognised ethnic group with full citizenship rights, those rights did not protect them from racist state-sponsored violence that destroyed homes and livelihoods.

Nor has citizenship protected those thousands of Muslims currently subjected to a vicious wave of anti- Muslim violence across Myanmar - in Meiktila, Yamethin and in the Pegu townships of Zigon and Nattalin. These attacks, which left many dead and thousands displaced, demonstrate that citizenship is no protection against the communal violence and Islamophobia corroding Myanmar's reformist agenda. 

The targets of these attacks were not the Arakan Rohingya as much as Muslim citizens, their mosques, businesses and homes. State-sponsored violence against Muslim communities has been orchestrated by Myanmar's security forces - specifically the NaSaKa border force and assisted by Arakan nationalists, paramilitaries and extremist Buddhist monks. They have been able to act with impunity.

Back at the "Smile" office, as our interview draws to a close, Abu Tahay shows me the statistical data he has painstakingly gathered and meticulously compiled on the current abuses suffered by his people. The arrest figures, deaths in custody, deaths in detention camps and rape statistics - all derived from Arakan court records and information drawn from victims' families - are further evidence of his people's anguish.

He believes it is this kind of proof that will persuade the international community to challenge the Myanmar government on the question of its citizenship laws. This evidence is every bit as - indeed probably more credible than anything produced by the Myanmar authorities and clearly demonstrates that the Rohingya are victims of systematic and enduring state crimes.

But Abu Tahay's struggle for recognition is dictated by and predicated upon the terms of the former racist Junta. If the Rohingya can prove and in turn convince the authorities of their ancient right to citizenship and win their place at the Myanmar minority table they will win something - but they will not win a victory against Myanmar racism or protection from the violence preached by hate-filled Buddhist monks like Wirathu. Unless racism is defeated, the violence we have witnessed against the Rohingya, the wider Muslim community and other minorities will be sure to continue. Inside Myanmar, the lack of discussion surrounding the Rohingya Muslims reveals how deeply ingrained and institutionalised Myanmar Buddhist nationalism is. Why are many of the most courageous Myanmar human rights activists, many of them former political prisoners, so unwilling to engage in support of the Rohingya?

One such activist from 88 Generation told me, "The Rohingya is not our ethnic group. Bengalis use the label 'Burmese Rohingya' as a passport for asylum… we need to examine who should be a citizen… but it will be difficult to support citizenship. If, however, the Rohingya ask for their human rights, we are ready to support."

Aware of the paradox, but unwilling to elaborate further, he pushed our conversation on to other topics. In my time in Myanmar, this was a common and unsettling experience.

Racist fault-lines

Racism is Myanmar's political fault-line and while the epicentre might reasonably be understood as the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Rohingya community in Arakan, the central fracture itself must be understood as institutionalised Islamophobia, deeply embedded and historically informed.

There is little dispute that the Rohingya Muslims have suffered the most pervasive and brutal of recent state-sponsored crimes, but to focus only on the Rohingya is to fragment the racist violence experienced by the whole Myanmar Muslim community and to be drawn into arcane legal debates around the rights and wrongs of immigration and citizenship policy which pertain most specifically to the Rohingya.

History forces us to move beyond the immediacy of the Rohingya in order to challenge the more pervasive violence corrupting Myanmar's transition from dictatorship.  Abu Tahay's faith in the British political elite is touching. "They were very supportive," he tells me about the meeting with David Cameron and other UK government representatives in April 2012. I am sure they were. In the comfortable surrounds of the British Ambassador's Residence in Yangon, it would have been impolite to be anything less.

But Cameron, Hague and Swire have done nothing at all to help the Rohingya, nor are they likely to. Their signatures were glaringly absent from the December 11, 2012, and April 4, 2013, House of Commons Early Day Motions, condemning the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.                   –Aljazeera