Myanmar – The Not Home of the Rohingya

Myanmar Kyats Banknote Series – Face and Back
Myanmar 75 Kyats Banknote back
75 kyats, Myanmar, issued November 10, 1986, for his 75th birthday. The 50 kyat and 100 kyat banknotes were demonetized November 3rd without warning and many people lost their savings.

Ne Win, political leader of Myanmar, must have been thinking, “It’s good to have power”, when, for the fun of it, he destroyed the life savings of millions and wrecked the economy of a country.

This is where the Rohingya live.

Myanmar 90 Kyats Banknote  front
90 kyats, Myanmar, issued November 22, 1987, because his favorite number was 9. Two and a half weeks earlier, the 75 kyat banknote and others were demonetized without warning. 75% of the nation’s currency was thus rendered worthless.
Myanmar 45 Kyats Banknote front
45 kyats, Myanmar, issued together with the 90 kyat banknote, because 9 was his favorite number. The nation’s economy was thrown into chaos.

As captioned beneath the photos above, Ne Win wrecked life savings and ruined the economy for his birthday, and because of his numerological fascination with the number 9. Imagine the difficulty of daily transactions at the marketplace with denominations such as these, together with banknotes for 15 kyats and 25 kyats and 35 kyats. How do you count out change? But, when you’re a dictator, it’s easy.

The Earth holds us with gravity, a power so gentle that we hardly notice, and yet a power so great that we cannot escape. The Sun holds our Earth by the same power. We ourselves are here by nature’s power of life, a power so gentle that we cannot even remember our own birth. And we cannot go back. And we cannot leave our Earth. This is our home; and who can say it is not? The Infinite Power of the Universe has placed us here.

closeup detail from Myanmar 90 Kyats Banknote  back, featuring farmer working in fields with oxen team
detail from back of 90 kyat banknote. working in the fields.

“Rohingyas have lived in Arakan from time immemorial”. Arakan is the coastal region on the right hand side, the eastern shore, of the great Bay of Bengal, opposite to India. It is now known as Rakhine state in Myanmar. Islam came to the region a thousand years ago. The Rohingya are Muslims in a country with over 125 ethnicities, and a population 90% Buddhist and 4% Muslim. Their history has been traced back to the 8th century.

Families are natural and tribes are normal, and have been for thousands upon thousands of years. And then one day just a few hundred years ago, as tribes grew and fought over things, someone invented states. And states were cool. And they invented powers for the states. So then states multiplied and grew and some of them had colonies.

myanmar map old
The Indian Empire in the days of British rule encompasses Burma and Arakan on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal.

Great Britain’s empire expanded to include India and Arakan and Burma and the surrounding regions in the 19th and 20th centuries. This region became known as “the Crown Jewel of the Empire”. Times were prosperous, and labor routinely migrated back and forth across and around the Bay of Bengal to work the rice paddies of Arakan. As the entire area was under British dominion, these movements of peoples, including the Rohingya, were administrated as internal affairs. But the migrations were viewed negatively by many of the native populations.

And some of the tribes that were colonies, and didn’t like that the states had powers and the colonies didn’t, said, We want to be a state too. Let us have states too. States are fun. States are cool. States have powers. We want to have a state too. And so they did.

closeup detail from Myanmar 90 Kyats Banknote , featuring workers in rice paddies
detail from bank of 90 kyat banknote showing workers in the rice paddies.

Early in WWII, Aung San, then the political leader of Burma (soon to be called Myanmar), sided with the Japanese against the British, in hopes of Burmese independence. Towards the end of the war, realizing that Japan’s overlordship was worse than Britain’s, Aung San switched allegiances back to Great Britain and its allies. This movement of shifting alliances became typical for what came to be known as the non-aligned states during the subsequent cold war.

And so states multiplied, like new tiles on an old earthen floor, being laid end to end and wall to wall, until all the earth was covered with new tiles, and you couldn’t see the earth anymore.

closeup detail from Myanmar 45 Kyats Banknote back, featuring oil dericks
Industry in Burma. Detail from back of Myanmar’s 45 kyat banknote.

Following the war, in 1948, Burma gained independence from Britain, rejecting Britain’s proposal of Dominion status, and its boundaries were drawn around a region very ethnically diverse with more than 135 distinct ethnic groups. Almost immediately, civil war broke out in Burma, pitting the central authorities against various ethno-religious minorities. The 1962 coup d’etat brought the military into dictatorial power. In 1982, the state created a strict new law of citizenship which left many Rohingya out.  They became a people without citizenship.

And then one day, a state said to a tribe, who are you? You do not belong here. And the tribe said, What do you mean? We are a tribe and we have been here for thousands upon thousands of years, with all of the other tribes. And the state said, We don’t recognize you, and they used their powers to make the tribe leave. And the tribe moved a little distance away, and there was another state there. And that state said to the tribe, Who are you? We don’t recognize you. You don’t belong here, and they used their powers to make the tribe move again. And the same thing happened with a third state and a fourth.

The Rohingya are in Bangladesh and India and Sri Lanka, and find themselves unwelcome there.

And the tribe cried out to the world of states, Where are we to go, for the whole earth is covered end to end and wall to wall with these new states! How can you say that we have no home? But the world of states didn’t listen because they were too busy playing with their powers.

The Rohingya have been variously described as “amongst the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”. The conflict in Mynamar, starting shortly after the close of WWII is considered the second longest ongoing conflict in the world, after Kashmir, by just a few months.

But the earth heard, and was sad, and told the sun. And the sun heard, and sighed, and told the universe. And the universe heard, and wept.

And what do you think the universe will do?