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Citizenship

All Lives Matter: Even in Myanmar, Even the Rohingya

Credit: Steve Gumaer, Flickr

When I say #AllLivesMatter, I mean that all lives matter to me, and they should matter to everyone. In reality, I, and my fellow global citizens, still share a planet with people who believe that only certain races and religions are worthy of life, respect and dignity. 

Some of the darkest periods of human history have taught us the dangers of systematic bigotry, especially in times of war. Myanmar (or Burma, depending on who you ask) has been in a civil war for 67 years. this ongoing conflict has complex roots in its colonial past, politics, natural resources and most of all, diversity. There are 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country, many of whom were in conflict with the Burmese military government that was in power for most of this conflict.

Since achieving independence in 1947, the military government displaced, punished, and killed civilians from a number of Myanmar’s minority groups. Military rule ended in 2011, when President Thein Sein became the first elected president - a Western meter of progress that bore little impact for many marginalized groups. Of these groups, the Rohingya people are considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world.

A series of riots in 2012 between Muslims and Buddhists in northern Myanmar displaced an estimated 140,000 Rohingya. Many of these people went to live in refugee camps. Camps without medical care. Camps where Rohingya describe being beaten by Burmese security forces. Camps where the UN's Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, describes a state of human suffering that she has “personally never seen before." Camps that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others, describes as 21st century concentration camps

Nicholas Kristof asked a government official, U Win Myaing, about the horrid state of affairs at these camps. His response was:

“Don’t use the word ‘Rohingya’. There’s no such thing as the Rohingya ethnicity in our country.” 

Denying Rohingya peoples of their identity is standard practice for government officials in Burma. Last week, President Sein gave Rohingya people the right to vote, a landmark moment of recognition - only to revoke this literally a few hours later due to protests. For Rohingya people to even attempt to become citizens, they need to formally renounce their Rohingya identity and are forced to identify as Bengali - marking them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, no matter how long they lived in Myanmar.

“I have been Rohingya for 66 years,” Albella told the Washington Post. “It’s more than a betrayal,” she said. “I no longer trust my own identity.”

In addition to the identity-robbing term “Bengalis”, offensive slurs and nicknames (such as “kalars”, a term that has been used by the state media) are not unusual in Burmese society, where many individuals in the government and spiritual leaders play significant roles in perpetuating hatred. Ashin Wirathu is a Buddhist monk who calls himself the “Burmese Bin Laden” (I wish I was making this up). He leads the 969 Movement, which strongly opposes Islam’s place in Burmese society; he also called a UN envoy “a whore” for promoting the rights of Rohingya. President Sein describes Wirathu as a noble man and son of Buddha.

That is not to say that everyone in Myanmar thinks this way. There are individuals who are striving for change, both in and out of government. One of these individuals is Nay Phone Latt, an activist who launched a campaign last year to end hate speech. He calls the movement “Panzagar” which literally means “flower speech”.

Nay Phone Latt, journalist, released from prison as part of mass amnesty. (AFP/Soe Than Win)  

“If people hate each other, a place will not be safe to live. I worry about that most for our society,” Latt told The Irrawaddy. “In some places, although they are not fighting, hate exists within their heart because they have poured poison into their heart for a long time [through hate speech]. It can explode in anytime.”

Global citizens have to fight the hate speech with “flower speech”. We should keep pushing for a world where #AllLivesMatter, in both how we speak and in how we live. Even in Myanmar, even the Rohingya.

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Farah Momen