A BBC report from last November that carried a map depicting Arakan state as populated by the ethnic Rohingya minority has caused anger in Burma, and once again brought to the fore accusations of entrenched racism within Burmese society.
Although published a year ago, and since corrected, the BBC report has circulated rapaciously on the internet in recent weeks, and has become the subject of a number of blog posts either criticising the BBC for implying the Rohingya are part of the Burmese population, or lamenting the vitriolic responses its report has attracted.
The map in question demarcates areas of Burma as belonging to specific ethnic groups, albeit somewhat erroneously: the Shan, for instance, are said to inhabit only a third of modern-day Shan state, and the Karen are shown as the main ethnic group in Irrawaddy division.
But it was the identification of Arakan state as the home of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has been the subject of a perennial and fiery dispute over its origins, that has sparked outrage.
Following the publication, the BBC’s Burmese Facebook page was hit with hundreds of complaints, some from monks, calling on the organisation to issue a public apology and even remove any reference to Rohingya from the map. Failing to apologise should result in a boycott of the BBC, some even argued. The BBC has since amended the map to include ‘Rakhine’, the name given by the government to Arakanese, as also populating the state, but anger continues to boil.
Many Burmese believe the Rohingya to be of Bengali origin that over centuries have migrated to western Burma, a sentiment shared by the Burmese government which denies them citizenship and which for decades has meted out hefty treatment against the group, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the country.
Rohingya support groups say however that there is evidence that Islam existed in Burma prior to the now-dominant Theravada Buddhism, and that the Rohingya’s roots in Arakan state go back centuries.
Rumours circulated in Rangoon today that a protest would be held outside the British embassy over the BBC report, although except for a number of local and foreign journalists, little appeared to happen. Jeremy Hodges, deputy head of mission at the embassy, told DVB that he had made himself available to accept any petition that may have been circulated among protestors, but that nothing was in sight.
“We know there is a perception among some Arakanese groups that Rohingya are singled out for preferential treatment by groups like the International Organisation for Migration, and that money is given to them at the expense of other Arakanese, but we feel this is a misconception,” he said.
Unlike many Arakanese, Rohingya are prevented from travelling freely outside of specially-designated zones, and are often subject to racial and religious persecution. Up to 400,000 are living as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh, having fled decades of maltreatment at the hands of the military and local civilians.
An article last week on the New Mandala blog, run by academics from the Australia National University, said the cries of protest were somewhat hypocritical.
“…although Arakan ethnic members very often talk against majority ethnic Burmans (or Bamar) for what they call the ‘colonization of Arakan’, ‘Burmanization’ and Burmese chauvinism, they now mobilize the entire Burmese population against Rohingyas to ‘protect Burma and its ‘national races’’.”
Among critics of the Rohingya are high-profile Burmese, including Berlin-based historian Khin Maung Saw, whose paper, “Islamization of Burma Through Chittagonian Bengalis as ‘Rohingya Refugees’”, triggered angry responses.
Widespread anger was also vented at current Burmese ambassador to the UN, Ye Myint Aung. During his tenure as Consul-General to Hong Kong, he wrote in a letter to other heads of mission, and copying in international newspapers, that Burma’s ethnic Rohingya were “ugly as ogres”.