The Rohingya plight is overshadowing Aung San Suu Kyi's historic tour of Europe. Supporters of the military and the democracy movement have one thing in common: hate for the ethnic minority.
Even as Aung San Suu Kyi is on her tour through Europe, receiving praise for her role in the fight against oppression and violence, a popular Myanmar actress has called out on Facebook to not relent in hatred for Rohingyas.
"I hate them 100 percent," the actress writes.
Hundreds of people belonging to Myanmar's Buddhist majority population have been meeting in the city Yangon over the past few days to vent their racist and sectarian hatred for the Muslim minority.
"Rohingyas out of Myanmar!" they call. Some people refer to them as terrorists, and state media now only speaks of "Bengali Muslims."
The Rohingya are, however, not from Bangladesh, but from Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. The ethnic group lives predominantly in the country's west in the Rakhine State. They are not seen as citizens of Myanmar and do not belong to any ethnic minority groups recognized as official by the government.
For decades, they have been subjected to discrimination and violence by Myanmar's Buddhist majority. Two weeks ago, the situation escalated. The unrest continues, even if it seems to have temporarily cooled down. At least 80 people - presumably from both sides - have died and thousands of houses have been burned to the ground.
Ethnic cleansing or slander?
"It is extremely difficult to get credible information out of the region," Ulrich Delius of the rights group Society for Threatened Peoples told DW. He said it was hard to tell the difference between rumors, propaganda and the truth.
"The Rohingyas speak of ethnic cleansing and have even spoken of genocide. The Burmese majority says these accusations are all groundless. They say the Rohingya don't have the right to live in Myanmar. They refer to them as cannibals and say they are subhuman."
The comments on the Internet and the demonstrations make obvious that the core of the problem is racism. And the country's process of democratization has played an unfortunate role in it. While it is surely not the origin of the racism, it has created room for the people to act out their aggression, as the "liberalization is setting free new forces," Delius explained.
He sees some similarities to the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. He says a frequent issue in such countries is "that the people there define themselves through the exclusion of a minority group. That creates unity. Now suddenly, supporters of the democracy movement are standing next to supporters of the military and both are saying, 'we are the real Burmese. What are these idiots after?'"
The government's poor crisis management is making the situation worse, says Delius, who calls it "catastrophic."
"Simply saying, 'we'll impose a state of emergency, we don't want any more reporting on the situation,' is basically a step backwards."
A Southeast Asian crisis
To escape from the violence, people are seeking protection in neighboring Bangladesh. The latter, however, has closed its borders to asylum seekers. Asif Nazrul from the University of Dhaka told DW: "If any of the Rohingyas seeking asylum were involved in terrorism, that would not only have consequences for Bangladesh. If Bangladesh were to let in 10,000 Rohingyas today, tomorrow it could be 10 million."
This statement shows racism from the other side. The Rohingyas cannot simply be placed under a general suspicion of terrorism (although the resistance group Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, RSO, is known to have some contact to radical Islamist groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh). Also, it is not clear whether there are even 10 million Rohingyas in the world who would go to Bangladesh if they could.
The Rohingyas are not welcome on either side. "If we go to Bangladesh, they will kill us," one member of the ethnic community told DW, with his wife adding, "If we go back to Myanmar, they will kill us there."
Myanmar and Bangladesh meanwhile are busy accusing the other of not taking responsibility for the group non grata. But Rohingya don't only live in Myanmar and Bangladesh; they are also in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and Indonesia.
"These neighboring countries are becoming increasingly impatient and demand a solution be found in the country they are from," said Delius.
Just recently (on June 21, 2012) Myanmar's government rejected a helping hand from the Malayan government, according to German press agency, dpa.
Independent observation in need
There is no obvious solution to the Rohingya plight. Many feel that the country's democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not sufficiently spoken out against the racism gripping the west of her country. Observers feel this is because she risks losing support for her democracy movement as prejudice preconceptions can be found throughout the Burmese population.
Amnesty International is demanding that independent monitors be sent in. Only then will the hate-fueling rumors and allegations stop.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams