The Myanmar Rohingya Tragedy: Religious Dimensions of a Refugee Crisis

By: Katherine Marshall

March 16, 2023

Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: The Rohingya

The tragic Rohingya refugee situation illustrates all too well the complex roles of religious beliefs, related perceptions, and religious diplomatic efforts in addressing an acute humanitarian and political crisis. The Rohingya, a community numbering between three and four million, have lived in what is now Myanmar for generations, mostly in the Rakhine State which borders Bangladesh and India. Large numbers of Rohingya, probably a majority, are now living outside Myanmar as refugees, asylum seekers, or migrants. About one million are in Bangladesh, mostly in heavily restricted camps, in a prolonged refugee limbo status, as there are few clear paths towards repatriation, integration into Bangladeshi society, or third-country resettlement. Rohingya who remain in Myanmar live under difficult circumstances, many in what are described as equivalent to concentration camps. The afflictions that have driven Rohingya away from Myanmar are the result of what many (including the U.S. government) describe as genocide.

Among the many complex factors that have produced this tragedy, religious attitudes and actions play a significant part. Most who identify as Rohingya are Muslims; not all Rohingya in Myanmar are Muslim. Further, all Muslims in Myanmar face discrimination, but Rohingya have faced acute discrimination because of their ethnic and religious identity. Their Muslim identity has been one source of historic alienation in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. This religious difference and a popular anti-Muslim sentiment quite widely held in Myanmar have provided the tinder for successive waves of violence, both state-led and civic, which have driven large numbers to flee—most to Bangladesh—or to suffer multiple official restrictions and social discrimination in Myanmar.

The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar represents an extreme case in contemporary society of a group denied citizenship rights in the country where they have lived for extended periods. They also face complex issues in the countries where they have taken refuge, linked in part to their lack of status, especially when they are in countries that are not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention which affords refugees some guarantees and status.

Four features of the Rohingya situation highlight the complexity of religious dimensions of contemporary forced migration challenges.

Religious Nationalism

Myanmar is a notably plural society, with 135 ethnic communities officially recognized by the government. However, three developments have contributed to the tragic Rohingya situation, with an underlying thread that can be termed religious nationalism. Myanmar’s largest religious communities, which largely overlap with the ethnic Bamar, are Buddhist, and Buddhism is linked in many ways, both officially and unofficially, to Burmese nationality and identity. Buddhist institutions have official recognition and narratives about Burmese history that highlight the intricate relationships between historic Buddhism and the emergence of nationalism and national institutions. The special role of Buddhism is reflected in constitutional and legal arrangements (which favor Buddhist institutions) but also in the national political and social ethos. Members of the Rohingya community, meanwhile, are not considered an official ethnic group; the widespread and socially accepted narrative suggests that the community (whose ancestors have deep roots in what is today considered Myanmar) are interlopers and foreigners coming from Bengal. Even the term “Rohingya” is suspect. 

Most Rohingya are denied a wide range of rights, including citizenship. To make matters worse, widespread fear of Islam has permeated the society, reflected in laws that among other things prohibit intermarriage and restrict the number of children Muslim women can bear. These factors have contributed materially to successive civic violence and to the violent actions of the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) that have driven at millions of Rohingyas—over 700,000 in 2017—to flee the country in recent years.

The links between Buddhist heritage, beliefs, national identity, and rhetoric play central roles in the hostility to the Rohingya community and the wide national acceptance of violence and discrimination that have driven them from the country. The perception is that Rohingya (and, to a lesser but still very real degree, other ethnic and religious groups) are foreign with foreign values and agendas that are at odds with the Burman and Buddhist values.

Interreligious tensions extend well beyond the Rohingya community. The Ma Ba Tha movement, with a militant Buddhist nationalist agenda, has incited periodic violence against Muslims in different parts of the country. A Religious Freedom Institute 2018 report comments that

It has led to campaigns—both on social media and in person—of discrimination against Muslims in employment, business, and education, increasing difficulties for Muslims obtaining identity cards or being able to rent property, travel restrictions, the establishment of “Muslim-free” villages, and the introduction of a package of four laws—the Race and Religion Protection Laws—which severely restricted religious conversion and inter-religious marriage.

Christians in Myanmar also suffer, particularly among ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Chin.

In International Circles, a Focus on Religious and Anti-Muslim Motivations is Foundational to the Rohingya Cause

The plight of the Rohingya community and especially those who have fled to neighboring countries is a leading issue for advocates of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). It is raised in bilateral discussions as a foreign policy issue and by United Nations human rights rapporteurs, who highlight the clear violations of religious human rights in actions targeting the Rohingya Muslims. Note the conclusion of a review by the International Commission of Jurists in 2019:

The Government and legislature have a particularly important role to play in setting legal rules and guiding cultural change toward a society that respects the right to freedom of religion or belief for all persons in Myanmar without discrimination, as well as the rights of ethnic and religious minority groups more broadly.

The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have consistently focused on religious dimensions of tensions and conflict in Myanmar and specifically concerning the Rohingya population.

Conflict resolution efforts at diplomatic and civil society levels have focused on the religious dimensions of tensions and conflict, including the commission headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan that in 2017 reported numerous specific recommendations, several explicitly addressing religious dimensions.

Faith-Linked Support for Rohingya within Myanmar and for Refugees Elsewhere

Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine State, face many restrictions on movement, access to services, and basic citizenship rights. While there are some groups that advocate for them within Burmese civil society, including some from Buddhist communities, their scope for action is limited. With resistance to the 2021 military coup, some groups with religious affiliations have taken more positive stances toward the Rohingya than in the past. The main direct support from religiously linked organizations takes place outside Myanmar, notably in Bangladesh, where support to refugee communities includes numerous partnerships with strong faith affiliations. A prominent example of religious diplomacy was the 2017 visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh by Pope Francis.

Efforts to Work through Inter- and Intrafaith Dialogue to Address Underlying Causes

Myanmar is the site of active and creative interfaith initiatives to build peace, including by addressing the underlying social and political factors that drive anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim discrimination and persecution. Prominent among these is a series of forums led by Religions for Peace (RfP), a global interreligious coalition. These have involved high-level encounters with religious leaders and actors from all denominations as well as political and military leaders. The diplomacy by this and other religiously linked groups takes place both publicly and behind the scenes. The avowed purpose is long-term relationship building and honest and authentic efforts to raise understanding among communities and to highlight values shared among the different religious communities. The RfP program came to a halt, at least formally, following the February 2021 military coup d’état.

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