One of the articles I saw when we first landed in Thailand was about a group of people called the Rohingya, a name I’d never known. That, alone, piqued my interest as I’m always one to become intrigued by new information. Add in a dose of injustice and I’m all yours.
There’s a group of folks in Myanmar who are unwanted. Like in Thailand, time in these countries is marked by centuries rather than decades. And although I’m uncertain, I imagine that a “generation” here means something vastly different than in the U.S. where it denotes the passing of time between a typical parent and child, or about 20-30 years. In my mind, I imagine a “generation” in these Asian countries to be more symbolic of the passing of one regime to another. For instance, here in Thailand, time is largely marked by what king was in power. The current Thai king is King Rama IX, he is the world’s longest reigning head of state and has been in power since 1946. For us in the West, we can consider time like “the 50’s” to be ancient. Here in Thailand, people refer to events that occurred “during the time of King Rama V” like it was yesterday.
Nearly a million Rohingya Muslims are unwelcome in Myanmar, where there is unrest in the western part of the country. The issue of the Rohingya came to my attention the first day of our arrival and this morning I saw another article indicating that tensions are rising in Myanmar, as is the violence. The Rohingya have been in Myanmar since the early 19th century, with many of them fleeing to Bangladesh in the 80’s and 90’s due to persecution. Even after all this time, they are yet considered outsiders.
Recently Myanmar’s president told the UN that either deportation or refugee camps would be the best solution to handle these refugees. These individuals are not the same ethnicity as those native to Myanmar. According to the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the Rohingya are among the world’s most persecuted minorities. Because many left for Bangladesh, others came from Bangladesh and yet still more left only to have to return to Myanmar, it’s difficult to determine which Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants. What’s not difficult to ascertain, sadly, is that they are unwanted in any country.
Unrest has been in the area for quite some time, with differences arising between the local Muslims and the Rohingya. Severe restrictions have been placed upon the Rohingya and they’ve been left essentially stateless. About 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar with another 300,000 living in Bangladesh, where they are also unwanted. Myanmar doesn’t want them because they consider them to be illegal settlers from Bangladesh. Bangladesh doesn’t want them because they feel they have lived in Myanmar for so long that Myanmar should claim them as citizens.
It is stories like this one that remind me how much I have yet to learn about the world in which we live. While virtually impossible to become aware of all of the world’s various populations, histories, and differences, it does make me take pause to consider the challenges that different groups face.
For the Rohingya, they are in a state of complete limbo, with no true home to call their own or government to call for their protection or to support them. It’s difficult for me to begin to understand what that level of exclusion or displacement would be like, as I’m an American citizen. I have a country and am free to enjoy the freedoms afforded by my country’s ideals, systems, and traditions.
Last year when were traveling, our travel was so frequent and so extensive that toward the end of the six month period during which we traveled more often than were home, I felt somewhat lost myself. We spent blocks of time in different places and different countries, coming home only for brief periods of time. It was a dizzying pace and we were gone more often than not. As a result, even when we were home, “home” began to lose it’s standard meaning and feeling. We were constantly in a state of becoming ready to go to the next place. It was an exhilarating, confusing, exhausting, rewarding period of time in our lives that was a result of our own choices. Having said that, I remember feeling quite disoriented about having lost the sense of “being home” even when I was in my own home. It took a bit of time once we’d ended our travels for the last time to really feel like I was home, literally and figuratively, physically and emotionally with both feet on the ground in the place I call my own.
As I think of the Rohingya, people whose names I’d never known before last week, I wonder what it would feel like to live for centuries in a place that could not be recognized as my own home. Working and living each and every day on land that is in numerous ways denied to me by right or ownership. Even through the simple yet powerful act of being welcomed, embraced by those around us – how would it feel to be denied these things throughout your lifetime? And even more, how would it be to feel that you and everyone you love is not only not welcome where you live, but that no one else will welcome you either simply because of your ancestry, your race?
Sadly, we have too many similar examples of this type of persecution and prejudice within our world, and even within our own country. Even as a child, I remember feeling such tremendous sadness at the pain and suffering we could inflict on others as a result of what, to me, are trivial and inconsequential differences.
I know that the road the Rohingya face is a difficult one, and I know we are not yet in a time in our world when we, in solidarity, firmly turn our backs on inciting or participating in violence as a result of the perceived differences between ourselves and others. But I do long for the days that come that could further our distance from such activities. Such days are possible if we search inside ourselves for the truth that we are more similar than different and use our efforts to help those in need.