Wednesday, July 26, 2017

An open letter to President Obama

Muslim residents of Rakhine State at a mosque following an outbreak of violence in October. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)Muslim residents of Rakhine State at a mosque following an outbreak of violence in October. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Ever since we learnt of your planned visit to our country, we were waiting for that historic occasion with great enthusiasm and expectation. There were several reasons: you were the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar; we hoped that your visit would push forward the process of democratic reform; we could expect more foreign investment and development assistance from your country after the visit; and it signifies a dramatic improvement in foreign relations between the two countries. These hopes of mine are, I believe, shared by the majority of the people.

We have seen, after your forceful speech at Yangon University, that our hopes were not just wishful thinking. Thank you, sir, for all the promises and suggestions you made at the campus for the good of our country. That is, all except one – a very great one, to us.

That great one is a very grave mistake of yours. Your reference to the Bengalis of Rakhine State as Rohingya is, if not an innocent mistake – which is unlikely as you are the very intelligent leader of a prestigious nation, the most powerful in the world – an indication of neglect to the voice of ethnic Rakhine people. To be lenient.

The ethnic people of Rakhine State include the Maramagyi, Kaman, Mro, Thet, Chin and Rakhine – not those Bengalis whom you refer to as Rohingya. Rakhine people never think of those Bengalis as their ethnic brethren and neither does the Myanmar government. You must have known that President U Thein Sein has, soon after the conflict began in Rakhine State between the Bengalis and Rakhine, declared that there are no Rohingya in our country. And you must know, Mr President, that Rakhine are not the same as the Bamar (Burmese), who live in Myanmar proper. Rakhine are a different ethnic minority who live in Rakhine State. The mentality, history and culture of the Rakhine people is different from the Bamar.

Rakhine attitudes towards Bengalis who live in Rakhine State are also not the same: they have close but not friendly contact with them, and sometimes enmity, as we saw recently. Rakhine consider those Bengalis as encroachers on their land, a conspicuous reality that no one can deny and a fact that the British know very well because Rakhine is the land they annexed first before they occupied the whole of Myanmar.

The British invited those Bengalis from the then state of Bengal (now Bangladesh) in India to work as farm labourers in Rakhine State. The majority of the Bengalis now in Rakhine State are considered illegal immigrants. If you are considerate and sympathetic enough, you can understand our situation very well as you also have a problem with immigrants from Mexico. Can you accept all those illegal immigrants from Mexico (and from other places) as your citizens on humanitarian grounds alone?

I do not mean that those Bengalis should not have human rights. Like Mexican illegal immigrants, the Bengalis of Rakhine State should also have human rights – they are human, after all. But there is rule of law in your country and in our country as well. We cannot ignore this. We have a citizenship law and whether people are citizens or not should be decided according to this law.

We Rakhine have never maltreated those Bengalis living in Rakhine State and there never was and never is discrimination against them on any grounds, be it religion or colour or race or something else. Their mosques are everywhere in Rakhine State; there are more than 300 mosques in the small township of Maungdaw alone. There are also many mosques and Muslims all over Myanmar. We have Muslim teachers and friends whom we love and respect.

Religion is not the main problem of the conflict. It is evident by the fact that Rakhine people have tolerated the presence of Muslims in our land for years.

Encroachment on their land by the Bengalis through force of numbers is the issue that worries Rakhine people most. Rakhine are losing their land to the Bengalis who come from Bangladesh, where the population is more than 100 million. The population of Rakhine in Rakhine State is less than two million. Mr President, the Rakhine are just a minority ethnic group, simple and poor. We are in danger of drowning under the huge wave of Bengali intruders.

According to the British census of 1891 there were only 58,255 Muslims in Rakhine State. That may even include ethnic Kaman Muslims. But now there are 1.5 million Muslims, mostly Bengalis. The population cannot increase that much in such a short amount of time naturally; it is a sure sign of illegal immigration. More than 200 Rakhine villages in the border areas have now disappeared because of this immigration.

The origin of the Bengalis in Rakhine State is Bangladesh. It is an undeniable fact confirmed by their features, language, complexion, dress, culture and religion. Rohingya is the name given to them not long ago by some unscrupulous Bengalis on the advice of some extremists and terrorists with the aim of claiming undeserved rights. They even claim an autonomous state of Rohingya. What if the illegal immigrants of Mexico asked for citizenship and a federal state? Now they claim an “autonomous” state. How about in 40 or 50 years? They could even call for an independent state. Who can guarantee they won’t do that?

Anyway, let’s face the reality. Bengalis are living in Rakhine State. There are also ethnic Rakhine. They are now agitated and finding it hard to live together. Rakhine people don’t want to live together with them now.

Rakhine are the host. Bengalis are the guest, albeit uninvited. Please don’t forget this fact, Mr President. Guests must respect their host. This is universally accepted. How did this conflict start? Because of the breach of this custom by the guest, Mr President: a very ugly and cruel act committed by Bengalis against an innocent Rakhine girl.

The ensuing conflict has caused great losses in terms of both lives and properties on both sides. It cannot be settled just by saying, let’s let bygones be bygones. As long as they live together a new conflict can arise any day, a fact you alluded to in your speech at the university. Showing love and magnanimity after such a savage conflict is difficult for all people involved.

When a guest cannot live on good terms with the host he must leave. Where do they have to go? No place to go? No. There are many places for them to go. There are many Muslim countries that show their concern about them and there are many other countries and people that sympathise with them and support them and their “cause”. They should stop giving lip service to the “cause” of the Bengalis of Rakhine State and give them places in their homeland. If they share, the number they will each have to accept won’t be much.

All those who criticise the government on this matter in favour of those Bengalis must also share the burden. Britain must also share as she is the country most responsible for this problem.

Excuse me, Mr President, if my words are a little stinging. I would like to take your mistake as bona fide, but at the same time remind you of the saying: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

The author is a Rakhine national living in Yangon.