Around 400,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar have now fled to Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government was reluctant to admit them, but has been less hard-faced than Britain or the EU generally towards refugees from Syria and Eritrea. Or at least it has calculated that it lacks the means to be as hard-faced.
Many of the refugees are huddled round Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh. The Bangladesh police say that they “cannot travel from one place to another by roads, railways or waterways”, and that camps will be built to accommodate them.
The Economist magazine in 2015 called the Rohingya “the most persecuted people on Earth”. A February 2017 UN report confirmed that their situation has got worse since then. Now it has culminated in mass flight across the border to Bangladesh.
The province of Rakhine, where the Rohingya live, stretches far along the coastline of Myanmar, but is separated from the rest of the country by a mountain range. For centuries it was an autonomous kingdom.
It was conquered by a Burmese Buddhist king in the 18th century, and then incorporated into the British colony of Burma.
Under British rule many of the middling social and economic positions in mostly-Buddhist Burma were held by Hindu or Muslim migrants from what is now India and Pakistan.
During World War Two, the Rohingya were mostly pro-British, and the Buddhists of Rakhine were mostly pro-Japanese.
Further communal clashes erupted after World War Two. Some Rohingya leaders campaigned for the northern part of Rakhine, where there were more Muslims, to be annexed to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), or at least made an autonomous area.
The coup in Burma/ Myanmar by nationalist army officers in 1962 suppressed open conflict but laid bases for exacerbating it.
This was a coup which established a more-or-less complete Stalinist structure by top-down military action.
Private capitalists were forced out, not so much because they were capitalists as because they were almost all Indian or Pakistani.
The army chiefs’ Revolutionary Council declared illegal all political opposition, took over the direct management of most educational and cultural organisations, and nationalised all external and internal trade and large sectors of manufacturing”.
Quantitative physical planning, from the top down, was made the basic mechanism of economic control. Enterprises were run by military officers, as military operations. Prices were set by the government. It was of no concern to the government whether individual enterprises showed a profit or a loss.
Agriculture remained in private hands, but the state became the sole buyer of agricultural produce. There was strict government control and regulation over even small businesses, and the public sector accounted for virtually 100% of investment.
Some on the left, such as the Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, took this to mean that Burma/ Myanmar was on the road of progress as a “deformed workers’ state”.
“The army leaders tired of the incapacity of the landowners and capitalists to solve the problems of Burma. Basing themselves on the support of the workers and peasants, they organised a coup, expropriated the landowners and capitalists and established Burma as a ‘Burmese Buddhist Socialist State’... On the old relations there is no way out. In Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Burma, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin, Ethiopia and as models, Cuba and China... there has been a transformation of social relations”, wrote their theoretician Ted Grant. In fact the military regime perpetuated poverty and intensified chauvinism against minorities within Burma/ Myanmar.
The Rohingya were mostly denied Burmese citizenship and made stateless.
In conflicts in 1991-2, about 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, though most eventually returned to Burma/ Myanmar. The frequent movements of people across the border with Bangladesh have been used by the Burma/ Myanmar government to claim that most Rohingya are in fact illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In 2010, Burma/ Myanmar finally got civilian government. The army, however, retains huge power.
Also, many in Rakhine’s Buddhist majority, who are an ethnic minority relative to dominant Buddhist communities in Myanmar, and poorer than the average in Myanmar, fear and resent the Rohingya.
Many of the Rohingya, and even of a distinct Muslim minority in Rakhine, the Kaman, who are recognised by the government of Myanmar as indigenous citizens, were confined to displaced people’s camps even before the latest flare-up. A “verification” process by the government of Rohingya people’s citizenship status has offered them only the possibility of acquiring naturalised citizenship (which in Burma/ Myanmar brings fewer rights than indigenous citizenship, and is more easily revoked) on condition of agreeing to be designated as “Bengali”. The Myanmar government has made much of the activities of Islamist armed groups based among the Rohingya, though those have only minority support.
The persecuted Rohingya deserve our solidarity.