Burma

Who Are the Rohingyas and Why Are They Fleeing Myanmar?

Photo via REUTERS / Beawiharta / RNS
A Rohingya migrant woman inside a compound for refugees in Indonesia’s Aceh Province. Photo via REUTERS / Beawiharta / RNS

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims live in squalor in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. That number has been falling fast as thousands flee by land and sea in search of better lives and basic survival. Here’s a look at who the Rohingyas are and why they’re leaving Myanmar in droves.

Four Questions for Khaipi

Photo by Dawn Araujo

Bio: "Khaipi" (real name withheld) is a peace studies professor in Thailand and a Chin religious freedom activist who served as researcher for the Chin Human Rights Organization's 2012 report detailing abuses against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma.
Website: chro.ca

1. What is at the root of the persecution of Christians in Burma?
There is an unwritten policy called “Burmanization,” which means that to be Burmese you have to be a Buddhist and you have to speak Burmese. The Chin people are not allowed to practice Christianity, and we are not allowed to study our own ethnic languages. But it’s not all about religion: They are attacking our ethnic identity because Christianity has become our identity.

Before Christianity came to the Chin people, they practiced an indigenous religion. In this religion, they believed in an Almighty One who created the world. In 1899, the very first American Baptist missionaries came to Chin state, and when they talked about the Christian God, our forefathers could adopt it very easily because it was very close to that indigenous belief. Today, when the Burmese military junta persecutes us, they say, “Okay, we want to take out this kind of Western religion.” But for us, once we believed in God, it became our religion, not a Western religion anymore.

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The Lamb and the Beast

WHEN A GROUP of refugees from Burma who attend my church in Melbourne, Australia, asked me to co-lead a study of the book of Revelation last year, at first I was apprehensive. After all, the book is strange and confusing. Many, including Martin Luther, have asked whether it’s even necessary to include it in the New Testament. But, as our group plunged into Revelation’s mysterious depths, I was to learn that, unlike Western Christians, praying refugees readily see its lessons about the powers of evil—social, political, spiritual, and personal—and the decisive struggle that the Son of God mounts against them.

The 18 young women and men in the study, who ranged from 16-to- 24-years old, were members of the Karen ethnic group. The civil war in their home region of Burma has, over decades, resulted in massive displacement and suffering. In recent years thousands of Karen people have resettled in the U.S. and other countries, including Australia. (Although current political developments in Burma raise cautious hope of eventual peace, at present fighting continues in Karen State and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities.)

Leading the study of Revelation with me was Thara Nonoe, a Karen man in his mid-50s highly esteemed in the community for his skills in imparting knowledge and writing poetry. (“Thara,” which means “teacher,” is a Karen title of respect.) The young always listen to him keenly. Our six-part study was a segment of a two-year series of lay religious education. As I prepared, I was haunted by Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17). Pentecost signifies that the last days have arrived, in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel. In my mind, these words have particular reference to oppressed believers such as Christian refugees.

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Nobel Prize Winner Delivers Acceptance Speech 21 Years Late

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1991 for her work for democracy and human rights in Burma. But at the time of her award, she was under house arrest by Burma’s military; her husband and sons traveled to Norway to accept the prize on her behalf. Now, 21 years later, she is able to travel freely and finally, give the acceptance speech for her award.

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West's 'Poverty Tour'

Broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West just wrapped up their 18-city "Poverty Tour." The aim of their trip, which traversed through Wisconsin, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and the Deep South was to "highlight the plight of the poor people of all races, colors, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible." Although the trip has been met with a fair amount of criticism, the issue of poverty's invisibility in American media and politics is unmistakable. The community organizations working tirelessly to help America's poor deserve a great deal more attention than what is being given.

The main attack against the "Poverty Tour" is Smiley and West's criticism of Obama's weak efforts to tackle poverty. For me though, what I would have liked to see more is the collection of stories and experiences from the people West and Smiley met along their trip. The act of collective storytelling in and of itself can be an act of resistance.

Out of the Media's Eye

Before I met a refugee family from Burma, I was mostly unaware of the southeast Asian country. For a year of Sunday afternoons, I taught this family English, took them to the library, and helped them apply for green cards; they taught me courage, hope, resilience—and the story the newspaper headlines hadn’t.

All four children were born in a Thai refugee camp, where the parents had lived the better part of their lives, nearly 20 years. One afternoon they slipped a video into their church-donated VCR and implored me to watch with them. “This Pop’s village,” the oldest girl told me as a lazy river lined with men fishing and women chatting appeared on the TV. Then her face grew serious. “We can’t live there again,” she said.

I drove home wondering: How many other stories haven’t I heard? And how do we learn of, and engage with, the places and stories outside the media’s eye?

The media has blind spots, and they threaten to become our own. The 24-hour news cycle loves novelty; it has room for short-lived cyclones and monk-led protests, but not decades of continuous oppression and ethnic cleansing. There’s also the matter of access. Countries embroiled in human rights abuses are hard, sometimes even impossible, for reporters to get into. North Korea is currently detaining, and plans a June trial for, two U.S. journalists who were covering the plight of refugees along the Chinese border. When and if the media gains access, it often must trade full disclosure to do so; the information that passes censorship can wind up being lukewarm pseudo-truth.

The truth is that Burma is not the only place that’s been hidden. Armed conflict in Colombia has created at least 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs)—perhaps as many as 4.6 million since 1985, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement. The genocide in Rwanda was weeks old before international attention caught on.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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