Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads. Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.
Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:
Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya. This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.
But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:
In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.
But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:
A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:
The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured. 650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.
The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.
The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.
Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.
Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.
Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.
So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy. That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.
By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok
The nineteenth century notion of the ‘sovereign state’ brought by Europeans found fertile ground in Asia as it sought a way to liberate itself from the yoke of colonialism. While nowadays Europe is inclined towards more inclusive and porous notions of sovereignty, many Asian countries (China, India and ASEAN) resist this trend by advancing procedures to demarcate and strengthen their borders, thereby posing challenges to inter-regional integration and global politics. In the context of maritime enclosures and global competition over resources, the modern Asian states not only seek to make lands recognizable through mapping but also to incorporate the sea into their geo-bodies.
One of example is the South China Sea, where the interplay between nationalistic and regional tendencies produces a new balance as China’s maritime law dominates as opposed to international law. China’s assertion of exclusive sovereignty involved the conquest or occupation of island, the enforcement of a fishing ban, the confiscation of Vietnamese and Filipino fishing vessels and detention of their crews, and the sabotaging of Vietnamese and Filipino oil explorations. Part of Vietnam’s tactic is to emphasize the status of international waters and the history of free navigation in the South China Sea, which courts the support of major players like the US, India and ASEAN. While most analysts assume that the various claims to the – mostly uninhabited – Paracels and Spratlys and the surrounding SCS are motivated by the presence of submarine mineral resources like oil and gas, the conflicts evoke strong nationalist feelings in various countries, fueled by narratives regarding the historical presence of fisheries.
Downplaying internal differences and contestations, the South China Sea dispute drags the various ASEAN members into an argument against the strongest regional claimant, China. At the same time, the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over maritime sovereignty in parts of the Gulf of Thailand shows that in the absence of a strong outside claimant like China, territorial contestations and national sentiments come to the fore in a heated debate among the ASEAN members. Perhaps at this point, it is worth mentioning another revealing example of such territorial disputes and sentiments of a new-found patriotism: the Bay of Bengal. Here India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma enforced a fishing ban in their waters, confiscating foreign vessels and detaining their crews in order to secure the supply of marine and especially submarine mineral resources, including oil and gas. In particular, the Palk Strait with its relatively shallow sea-subsection of the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka has emerged as a territory of increasing conflict and violence. Since the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary agreement of 1974 and 1976, agreed upon by the governments of India and Sri Lanka, the whole area has become a heavily contested fishing territory between Tamil fishermen on both sides. For centuries, these two communities enjoyed shared fishing rights and cultivated relations through annual festivals and trade. However, with the demarcation of maritime boundaries based on the concept of national sovereignty, the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have entered into an acute conflict over the fishing grounds in the Palk Strait.
Following James Scott’s recent study on the highland areas connecting Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, we can conceive of the sea as one of the last zones of ‘non-governance.’ However, in the South China Sea or in the Bay of Bengal this concept is now being challenged due to increasing enclosure by surrounding states. The cases of the two regions are comparable examples of complex maritime disputes in which historic fishing rights are often ignored and fishermen – who inevitably become involved in border making – seem to be instrumentalized by their governments. Paradoxically, different stakeholders may use customary fishing practices as legal arguments in the international conflict, thus affecting enclosures of commons. At the same time, the resulting enclosures suppress the voices and interests of these fishing communities.
One such community is Ly Son Island, to which I had unparallel access during my doctoral field research. Ly Son is an atoll lying close to the Vietnamese mainland and about 400 km west of the Paracel Archipelago. Because of its historical association with the Paracels and Spratlys, Ly Son Island is considered a restricted border zone and an important defensive position to Vietnam. From 1974 onward, when Chinese forces overran a South-Vietnamese military station on the Paracels, China and Vietnam have confronted each other over the control of the Paracels and Spratlys, resulting in the sinking of three Vietnamese naval ships by Chinese forces in 1988. After the discovery of submarine deposits of natural oil and gas, China does not only claim the islands, but seeks to extend its sovereignty over the entire continental shelf, hoping to incorporate the South China Sea and its mineral and marine resources under its control. Ly Son Islanders directly bear the historical, geopolitical and economic consequences of the dispute. The already difficult economic situation of Ly Son Island worsened when the Chinese navy denied Ly Son fishermen the rights to use fishing grounds near the Paracels which for generations they had considered their own. Moreover, its sensitive ‘border’ location also hampered other forms of economic development, like international tourism.
On the other hand, the Vietnamese State turned its attention towards Ly Son as a valuable source of information about the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) navy, which was established by the Nguyen lords around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Nguyen dynasty continued to carry out naval activities there. In 2001 the state issued a directive establishing a commemorative site for the two flotillas. Facing competition from China over control over the archipelagos, the Vietnamese Party-State chose to frame its claims to sovereignty not in economic terms but with reference to historical, emotive stories of Vietnamese sailors who shed their blood on the islands. At the same time, Vietnam does not seem much concerned about Ly Son fishermen being denied free access to the fishing grounds on which they depend. Consequently, Ly Son fishermen feel abandoned by the central State, who has a stake in maintaining good diplomatic and political relations with its main trading partner and the region’s dominant military force, China.
The transformation of the political and ecological environment, livelihood and the culture of fishing communities due to the recent territoralization of the sea calls for a deeper knowledge of how local people deal with coastal and environmental damage of marine areas, which are important factors in the loss of the ecological basis for their livelihoods. This is an important question since the growing impact of global competition over energy security, overfishing and the destruction of marine resources via unsustainable forms of coastal development give rise to speculation over the global and local consequences of this process. As such, the need exists for deeper knowledge about the growing competition over marine resources and its consequences on coastal communities and local ecologies in developing countries, where small-scale fisheries are still central in providing people’s food and economic welfare.
Edyta Roszko. “From Spiritual Houses to National Shrines: Religious Traditions and Nation-Building in Vietnam,” East Asia: An International Quarterly, vol.29. no 1 March 2012, pp. 25-41.
________. “Commemoration and the State: Memory and Legitimacy in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol.25. no. 1 (April 2010), pp.1-28.