Rohingya stranded off the coast of Thailand in May. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP.

Rohingya stranded off the coast of Thailand in May. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP.

How religious based ethno-nationalism is being used to oppress the minority group in Myanmar.

The mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar and their subsequent plight on the open ocean occupied the world’s attention for much of May.

Unfortunately, public and media attention was short lived and it is now back to business as usual.

While the media highlighted the dire situation of the Rohingya, it failed to identify the root cause of their persecution – religious based ethno- nationalism. It has made the Rohingya the most persecuted people in the world.

It is also the root cause of discrimination and the vulnerability of Myanmar’s Muslims and poses a serious challenge to the country’s democratic reforms.

Religious based ethno-nationalism is a mind-set instilled by successive dictators in Myanmar. It has been used to maintain power by gaining the trust and support of the majority at the expense of minorities.

It is a useful tool for the divide and rule strategy so popular with dictators. Thein Sein’s government has utilised it to foster anti-Muslim sentiment and institutionalise the persecution of Muslims, something which distracts from criticism of and anger at his government’s performance.

This mind-set has resulted in and been strengthened by inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric. For example, a popular claim in Myanmar is that Buddhism is threatened by a densely populated Muslim Bangladesh whose population wish to flood into Myanmar.

However, facts show that no threat really exists. Unfortunately the portrayal of Rohingya as intruders from Bangladesh has successfully inflamed hatred against Muslims.

Religious ethno-nationalism has also seen a move to remove the physical, legal and historical existence of the Rohingya from Myanmar. Systematic and institutionalised persecution has been used to achieve this. This by definition is genocide.

The annihilation of physical existence has been practiced through anti-Muslim pogroms, establishing discriminatory citizenship laws, creating dire living conditions, persecution, and targeting by security forces; tactics that are all deliberately designed to force individuals from their ancestral land.

Rohingya in Northern Arakan are living in an open prison, particularly in Aung Mingalar Ghetto in Sittwe (the capital city of Rakhine State). Their basic human rights are violated on a daily basis. For example, travel is restricted and permission is needed from the authorities to marry. Failure to comply, results in a long jail terms. Dire living conditions are a strong push factor for migrating Rohingya.

Health care services in Northern Arakan are appalling. According to a 2012 report from Action Contre La Faim, child morbidity is shockingly high.

The report also emphasised that there are only 42 nurses available for the whole of Northern Arakan meaning an average of one nurse per 18,400 people. Maungdaw Township has only one nurse for 58,000 people.

In contrast, the national average is one nurse for 304 people. Overall 21 Rural Health Centres are available and each centre covers a population of 38,000 people.

Rohingya also suffer direct persecution in the form of arbitrary arrest, torture, kidnapping and extrajudicial killing. In many cases, victim’s relatives are extorted and have to pay a ransom to have their loved ones released. Under such circumstances, the perilous sea journey offers a higher chance of survival.

The UNHCR reported that in 2014 some 150,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring countries with a further 25,000 escaping in the first quarter of 2015. Although 8,000 Rohingya refugees have been saved by Indonesia and Malaysia, where should the other 1.2 million Rohingya go and reside?

The persecution of this minority group has a long and dark history in Myanmar. In the past, lawmakers and historians collaborated to destroy the legal status and historical evidence of Rohingya people. This historical elimination is ongoing.

Rohingya and other ethnic Muslims were recognised as natives of Myanmar in the 1973 census, which recognised 143 ethnic groups in the country. Later the 1982 citizenship law delisted Muslims from ethnic groups with the exception of the Kaman.

The controversial 1982 citizenship law defined citizens as being Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and other ethnic groups that settled within the borders of Myanmar before 1823.

At the same time, Rakhine historians claim that Rohingya were slaves settled in Myanmar after the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824 and are thus foreigners. The citizenship law and the assertion of historians is nothing more than institutionalised persecution with its origin in religious based ethno-nationalism (or Burmanisation).

Although solving the Rohingya crisis is complex and has various elements, addressing anti-Muslim sentiment is vital. The solution for the Rohingya crisis is unfeasible without addressing religious based ethno-nationalist bigotry in Myanmar.

Although interfaith events are being carried out in many places across the country, the idea of coexistence has not reached the grass-roots population. On the other hand, inflammatory hate speech, discrimination and violence are persistent with government support.

The international community needs to use anti- Muslim sentiment as a benchmark to measure the reforms and put pressure on Myanmar’s rulers – including the threat of sanctions.

They must also stress that Myanmar’s leaders are not exempt from their obligations of upholding fundamental human rights under customary international law and are liable to face consequences in the future.

Kyaw Win is Director of Burma Human Rights Network and Secretary of the Burmese Muslim Association.