We are called Kalla, or black Kalla, said Soe Mann, a
Rohingya Muslim from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Kalla can mean
“outsider” but also has the more negative connotations of “illegal immigrant” or
“wetback”, literally someone who swam to Myanmar.
“We are a small minority
in Yangon, so no one fears us here, but in parts of the Rakhine, we are the
majority with our own history, land and culture, so they are afraid of us
there,” said Soe Mann, a businessman who has lived in Yangon for decades.
Rohingya - who number 800,000 to 1mn in the three northernmost Rakine townships,
500km west of Yangon - have been legally discriminated against for
They also face widespread prejudice, especially from the Buddhist
Rakhine ethnic community in the state.
“The government wants us to live with
them, but we don’t want to be near them,” said Myra Than Shwe, a Rakhine who
lives in Sittwe in the state. “They are a quarrelsome people and very
The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and tend to have darker
complexions. Myanmar’s counsel general in Hong Kong notoriously called them
“ugly as ogres” in a statement made in 2009.
Successive governments have
denied the Rohingya status as an ethnic group, classifying them as immigrants
from Bangladesh on the other side of the Naal River.
dates to the 1982 Citizen Law, which identified 135 ethnic minority groups in
Myanmar. It excluded the Rohingya and stipulated that people of Indian and
Chinese descent who could not prove their ancestry predated the 1824-1948
colonial period were not entitled to citizenship.
The plight of the Rohingya
came to world attention in June when the Buddhist and Muslim communities clashed
in Rakhine, leaving at least 89 dead and about 90,000 displaced. The violence
was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman, allegedly by
three Muslim men.
The violence occurred as Myanmar was emerging from five
decades of military rule and international pariah status. It sparked a wave of
criticism against the country’s fledgling democracy, especially from Muslim
Outrage grew after President Thein Sein on July 12 told the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees that the UN should help resettle the “illegal”
Rohingya abroad or place them in camps.
In a bid to soothe international
condemnation, Thein Sein last month set up a commission that includes human
rights activists, civic groups and religious leaders to come up with long-term
The commission’s hardest task would be fighting the widespread
antipathy for the Rohingya.
“Hatred, once it is ingrained in people’s minds,
takes a long time to erase,” said Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a former history professor at
City University of Hong Kong and director of Myanmar Egress, a civil society
organization that sits on the commission.
Discrimination against the Rohingya
is not only the outcome of government policy but also the product of campaigns
organised by Buddhist groups over the past five decades, Kyaw said.
of Myanmar monks over the weekend marched in Mandalay in support of Thein Sein’s
call to resettle the Rohingya abroad.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and
democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament, has remained
conspicuously quiet on the issue.
“I think she has handled the issue very
badly,” said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which monitors human
rights abuses in the Rakhine.
“Suu Kyi is an icon of human rights and
democracy, so the least she could have done was call on people to avoid
violence,” Lewa said.
As a politician, Suu Kyi would face a backlash from the
Buddhist majority if she expressed support for the Rohingya, diplomats
“It is one of the only issues on which all Myanmar people can unite in
saying, ‘We want them out,’” one Western diplomat said. “It’s politically a
Diplomats described the Rakhine violence as an
“unfortunate side show” to Myanmar’s strides to become a more democratic
“The problem is that no government has made any effort to integrate
these people into mainstream society,” Kyaw Yin Hlaing said. “This government,
fortunately, is considering the option.”