Given the five decades it spent as one of the most repressive countries in recent history, it’s hard to imagine that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was once considered an empire. But 190 years ago this past March, after the Burmese Empire conquered two large Bengali territories across its western border and undertook a series of raids into British-held lands, the British Empire had had enough. British India launched a counter-insurgency that would drag on for two years and take thousands of lives. With some of the heaviest fighting concentrated in Islamic border communities, thousands of Muslims were forced to flee, eventually settling along frontier areas in India and Myanmar.
The Muslim families driven into Burma as a result of Burmese aggression — known as Rohingya Muslims — never left, despite being persecuted ever since. A grisly modern chapter began in 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in western Rakhine State led to mob violence that took the lives of hundreds of Rohingya over the next two years and saw 135,000 Rohingya held in squalid camps for their own “safety.” Seemingly oblivious to global concerns sparked by the persecution of this Muslim ethnic minority, the Myanmar government last week announced a repulsive new policy: All Rohingya must prove that their families have lived in Myanmar for at least six decades. For those we cannot, the penalty is either a refugee camp or deportation. For those we can, the prize is second-class citizenship, but with a catch: They must first renounce the term “Rohingya” and agree to be classified as a “Bengali.” It’s little wonder that more than 100,000 Rohingya have reportedly escaped Myanmar the past two years.