Rohingya maintain culture amid persecution

The Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim group primarily from Buddhist countries, is one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, according to Al Jazeera English, an Arabian media news organization.

The Rohingya live mainly in Rakhine, which is thought to be one of the poorest states in the country of Burma. The Rohingya is disregarded as one of the 135 official ethnic groups and are denied any opportunities for Citizenship Law.

According to Craig Garrison, a JBU parent and missionary in Thailand and Burma for 12 years, the Rohingya was once considered an ethnic group until the government stripped them of their title and they became illegal immigrants.

Approximately 140,000 Rohingya from Rakhine live in camps in small shacks constructed from wooden planks, tin sheets, blankets and tarps. The refugees can’t lease the ground without permission from the Burmese government.

Burma’s President Thein Sein is known for his anti-Rohingya agenda and asked the United Nations in 2012 to resettle the Rohingya in different countries.

“We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities, and we cannot accept them here,” Sein said to the U.N.

During his time overseas, Garrison worked with a mission organization called Partners Relief and Development who assisted the Rohingya after riots in 2012. According to Garrison, the Rohingya remained relatively peaceful with its Buddhist neighbors, until 2012 after the apparent rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya man.

Tensions quickly escalated and the Burmese government rounded the Rohingya and blocked them in a “concentration camp type area.” Garrison believes there were approximately 100,000 Rohingya in the camp.

Garrison and his team from Partners worked with the Rohingya providing food, water and medical attention. He was appalled at their living conditions.

“They were kept like animals in tents,” Garrison said. “It was not just discrimination, it was outright persecution.”

Garrison believes the Rohingya are unpopular for several reasons.

“They look different,” Garrison said. “They more like South Asian, Indian, or Pakistani.” Most of the indigenous Burmese look more traditionally Asian.

Also, the Rohingya’s population grew immensely over many years due to their culture’s polygamy and many children, which daunted Buddhists who wanted to quell the growing Muslim faith.

“There was a growing sense of fear and rejection for Islam to get any foothold in [the] county,” Garrison said. The Burmese Buddhists, he continued, were afraid of Muslim faith and the changes it would bring in a dominantly Buddhist culture.

“People are afraid of [the Rohingya] because they [are] afraid they will lose their way of life,” Garrison said.

Garrison said a handful of Rohingya managed to resettle in different refugee safe-havens around the United States.

Brian Bollinger, a 2007 JBU alumnus, is the executive director of Friends for Refugees, a Christian community development program which offers creative opportunities, such as education and employment for refugees settled in the Clarkson, Georgia area. 

As part of his work, Bollinger assisted in resettling Burmese refugees, including Rohingya, in America and finding them homes and jobs. In Clarkson, Bollinger reported there are approximately 25 different Burmese ethnicity groups and the Rohingya is the only Muslim group.

According to Bollinger, the Rohingya has hit a “perfect storm of misfortune” due to their history in Burma and their particular type of Islamic faith. 

The Rohingya also has difficulty being accepted by traditional Muslim communities as the type of Islam “to which they subscribe if a form of Islam is usually associated with paganism,” Bollinger said. “Their doctrine isn’t good enough.”

As a result, the Rohingya is unpopular to almost all other Muslims groups and have no permanent safe haven.

Bollinger describes the Rohingya as “kind-hearted, just, genuine, soft-spoken people group” that find difficulty being accepted by any nation.