'Rohingya – Frequently asked Questions,' by Cardinal Charles Bo

Appeals for an End to Crimes Against the Rohingya Minority

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What does everyone generally ask as they try to understand who are the Rohingya’s? ‘  With this in mind, Salesian Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon (Myanmar), which His Eminence has provided to ZENIT on Oct. 4, 2017, responded to various such questions to help people better understand. In recent messages, Burma’s first cardinal appeals for an end to crimes against the Rohingyas minority.
Myanmar is emerging from decades of military rule after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the 2015 elections and took office in April last year.
The Muslim minority of the Rohingyas is considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted. According to data from the Arakan Project, a humanitarian organization defending Rohingyas rights, since 2010, some 100,000 members of the minority have fled Burma (Myanmar) by sea. Violence between radical Buddhists and Rohingyas has left, since 2012, more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.

A few days before Christmas, Burma’s first cardinal in history recognized how his nation suffers from war and violence, and appealed: ‘It is time for all Burmese people to be united so that 2017 may really be the year of peace.”
He proposed that “all those who flock to our monasteries, churches, temples and mosques bring signs and banners with the phrase ‘Stop all wars!'”

Rohingya – Frequently asked Questions

  • Who are the Rohingyas?

Rohingyas are Bengali speaking Muslims of Sunni sect in the North West state of Rakhine state in Myanmar.  Their name comes from Rooganga – a Bengali term denoting that the person comes from Rakhine state.

  • What is in the name? Why is the government not willing to call them “Rohingyas”?


    1. The name is highly controversial inside the country.  Government has forbidden the use of the term and also requested the diplomatic community not to use that term.
    2. Myanmar is a colorful nation of 7 major tribes with 135 sub tribes. These are considered indigenous communities – mostly from Tibeto Burman stock with Mongoloid features.  The country is a mosaic of these indigenous tribes who must have come thousands of years ago.
    3. Rohingya claim to this category is highly contested.   Rohingyas are not indigenous tribe like Kachin etc.   Their cultural expressions, according to the government, is not indigenous but they come from other countries.


  • What is their history?


    1. Like their name their history  remains highly contested.  There are two versions – one by the nationalists (which is also the implicit view of the army and the government.) Another one is by the people especially the strong Rohingya lobby.
    1. Government Version:  There is no Rohingyas in the history of Myanmar. They were the people brought by the British as cheap labour.   Colonial aggression penetrated first Arakhan state. For their own reason the British encouraged the influx of laborers from then British India, especially from Bengal.  Since Myanmar was part of the British India till 1935,  Bengali labourers were brought by the British for working in Rakhine state. British never used the term Rohingya. Porous border facilitated many to cross over since Bangladesh population is exploding with no resources.  There is no mention of Rohingya in the British records, so these are illegal migrants from Bangla desh and they should go back.  2 million “rohingyas’ are outside and they would also claim citizenship if we are to give citizenship based on this term.
    1. Rohingya Assertion:  Our history is four century old from the Mogul kings in India.  Muslim merchants were trading with Arakhan state even before. Living here for centuries has evolved a unique identity Rohingya.  Rohingya is a term used by foreign authors from 1773.   We are a unique group.


  • What is the history of the conflict?


      1. Second World War:  During the Second World War, Muslims formed their own defense forces and allied with the British.  Arakhan Buddhist allied with the Japanese army.   These two groups indulged in massacres.
      2. Aftermath of Independence: The Rohingya elite formed a mujahidin jihadi group and tried to have a separate ARKHANSTAN. Some wish to be part of the then east Pakistan.  Pakistan rebuffed that move.   Armed struggle was continued for a separate autonomous Muslim State.


  • After the Coup: The Burmese defeated the militant groups and imposed restrictions on the Muslim population, their movement, their ownership etc.


  • What is the reasons for the recent conflict?


  • 60 years of military junta caused deep wounds in the society.  Poverty, displacement and unsafe migration broke our society.  After long struggle and suffering the country opened up.   There was never a truth and reconciliation commission.   There was a need for a scapegoat and unfortunately an incident in 2012 became a trigger in Rakhine state.  A rumor of rape of local women by Muslim youth triggered a riot which resulted in nearly 120,000 Muslims displaced in the camps.  These camps were the breeding grounds for frustrations.
  • Many Rohingyas chose to flee to other countries, especially to Malaysia for livelihood. After allegations of human trafficking and the discovery of mass graves of Rohingyas in the Thai Malaysia border, the Thai authorities closed the trafficking routes, impacting the one possible way of Rohingya to seek livelihood away from the camps.
  • As frustration was brewing a militant group was being set up outside with the support of groups from Middle East.  The first attack took place in August 2016, with attacks on the security points.   The police and army reacted with aggressive response.   Thousands fled.
  • After heavy criticism and allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ Myanmar Authorities tried to revive the civil administration and village administration.   But the militant elements had already penetrated the Rohingya youth populations.  Revenge killings of those Rohingyas who collaborated with the government were killed.
  • Transnational Militant Group:  The human rights group:  International Crisis Group has given the summary of the militant group origin: The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Hadaka al-Yawing (Faith Movement, Hay), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits. Kashmiri militant groups and  Al Qaeda  rally Muslims worldwide to support Rohingya
  • Aug 25, 2017 Attack By Militant Group: This is the trigger to the present exodus. Around 450 militants attacked the police posts and those who supported the government.  The army reacted with aggressive response.  


  • How many are displaced?

As per the international organizations around 470,000 have displaced among them around 230,000 are children.  The government and other agencies have confirmed this has stopped from Sep 5th.    This is significant 50 percent of the Rohingya population has left the place.  There are also around 30,000 Rakhines and Hindus displaced inside the Rakhine state.

  • What is the response of the Buddhist monks?

Myanmar has 500,000 monks and most of them are very peaceful monks.  But a section of the monks have become highly radicalized and nationalistic.  They put forward the following poisonous theories:

  • Islam has an agenda to convert countries to Islam from Saudi to Indonesia and they already achieved this till Bangladesh.  Now they have opened operations in South Thailand, Philippines and the  Myanmar
  • Rohingya population is a Trojan horse.  Through high fertility rate and through unrestricted migration from Bangla desh they have determined to change the demography of Myanmar.
  • Rohingya also marry the local Rakhine girls thus reducing the Rakhine populations.

 Though all these theories are not true, when it comes from the Monks the Buddhist population believes.  There is an extremist movement:   969 and now Ma Ba That which are poisoning the minds of the innocent people.   Fascism slowly takes root in some of the areas.

  • What is the position of the majority  of the people of Myanmar?

As we have discussed, the people are innocent but will listen to their religious leaders.  Most of the people are not compassionate at present based on the phobia created through hate speech and social media.
Social media and freedom of expression given after the democracy is proving a double edged sword.  Hate speech spreads fast and fake news becomes true news.
Apart from this the Myanmar people are much influenced by what is happening elsewhere in the world.
Rohingya issue was a smoldering cauldron for long time. But their suffering has increased emboldened by the following global changes in the last two decades:

  • Manufactured and marketed Islamophobia from the west.
  • Xenophobic official discrimination of Muslims in countries like US
  • Treatment of minorities by the Muslim countries.

All the more reasons that we should follow the efforts of Pope Francis in upholding the rights of everyone that includes Muslims in this era of Islamophobia.

  • What the role of Aung San Suu Kyi?

As we know her role has come under scorching criticism.  Her status is not official under the constitution. She has suffered and sacrificed much in her life.  Her role in melting the rock of totalitarianism in Myanmar is historic and the people of Myanmar are indebted to her for the freedoms they enjoy.  
Our perception is that she is trying to stabilize the fragile democracy.  Democracy is a hard won and it took sixty years to reach where the country is.  The army, like Thai army, has no patience with democracy and grabbed power from democracy thrice already in Myanmar.   I think DASSK has an agenda to pull the country from the grips of the army which controls 25% of the parliamentary and also the important ministries.  This is a tight rope walk and she is trying her best.   With extreme monks and the Ma Ba Tha extremist group her government took right moves.
Having said that, it is very unfortunate that the recent events did not show her in good light.  She should have spoken on behalf of the victims, especially so many women and children forced to leave under such painful circumstances.  She lost the support of the international community by her silence.   We are not aware of another sensitive.
Her speech and subsequent announcement the rehabilitation and verification process would start is a good start.  I only hope and pray she is allowed to do what she has done.

  1. What is the role of the church – was it silent during the exodus?

Church was not silent – though no statements were issues. We were working towards bringing some understanding among the various actors.
Church has stood for the rights of every one – including the Rohingyas.  Christian ethnic groups – Kachin, Kayahs and Karens – continue to be in conflict and displacement for the last thirty years. Both as the Bishop conference of Myanmar and as personal response we have stood for the rights of all the people.
On personal capacity, I have opposed the following

  • The four black laws enacted targeting the Muslims by the previous military government.  Our appeal was widely covered by the media and the diplomatic community.  We have resisted all  efforts of the extremism both the 969 movement and the  Ma Ba Tha.
  • When the  Rohingyas  met a watery grave in the  Thai seas, victimized by the traffickers  we have raised our voice.
  • Even in June we have appealed to the government and others to go deeper into the  allegations of  ethnic cleansing and  genocide.
  • Our position is  clear :   


  • The 1982 citizenship law was not enacted by a democratic government.  It was the military dictatorship  and revisiting this 1982  act is overdue.
  • This law stipulates 1885 as the date of accepting citizenship.  This is impossible.
  • The Rohingyas have been issued twice  some quasi citizenship once during U Nu  time and then recently before  the 2010 election.  Government must start by regularizing these cards.

What is the  future – are you  hopeful?

 1. As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues we have hope.  She is a strong woman with strong principles.  Despite the piercing criticisms of the  international community, Myanmar depends on her for many compassionate responses.    I am confident that her acceptance of the  Kofi Annan commission report.

 2. She has already formed a working committee and welcomed  the return of the  refugees and  asked the committee to start the verification process. This is a welcome move.

 3. Violence by anyone needs to be avoided.  It is a great tragedy that militants from outside are opening a new front of conflict.    Both the government and the Myanmar army  need to realize that aggressive responses  without embedding any solution  in the long rang policy would turn this issue into a pestering conflict.  Myanmar has many other pressing issues – poverty alleviation,  strengthening  democracy, state and nation building.   

Dialogue is the only way forward.  Peace is  possible ; peace is the only way.

  • What is the role of the church ?


  • We affirm the  rights of every  person in the Myanmar  and would continue to affirm the rights of the Muslims in Rakhine for a dignity which includes citizenship.
  • We would extend our services to Rakhine state through Caritas network.  At present this  area is inaccessible and  not much presence of the church.  Already the Caritas network in Pyay diocese  and the national office would  respond and be ready for the  repatriation of the refugees.  
  • Since religion play a major role in the response of the people of Myanmar we will continue to  organize  the inter religious  peace conferences.  We have already conducted one at the national level. We may   host the next  one in the Pyay or  Rakhine itself.


  • How is the visit of the Pope impact the events


  • Pope has been an active supporter of the Rohingya issue.  Already thrice he has spoken from the Vatican  and world has  taken note of his interest.  So his visit has generated  lot of interest.
  • There is an effort by a section of lobbying groups that his visit is connected to the plight of the Rohingyas.    This is a apostolic  pastoral visit. He comes at the  invitation of the  government which has articulated that his visit would  encourage “peace and harmony”.
  • The government is very eager to get this visit going.  Pope has an opportunity to impress all stakeholders to take the path of peace, not only with  Rohingyas but other conflicts as well.
  • It is an extra ordinary moment of grace for the little flock of  what is really a Buddhist country.   

We are sure  this great good shepherd of Peace,  through his presence and prayers  bring a new dawn of peace to this long suffering nation.
Thank you.
+ Charles Cardinal Bo
Archbishop of Yangon.
[Text of Message provided to ZENIT by Cardinal Bo]

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