Exactly how many Rohingya people resided in the conflict-ridden western Rakhine (Arakan) State of Myanmar before the current ethnic cleansing and genocide began under the leadership of Myanmar’s de-jure Head of State and Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi began is anybody’s guess. Thanks to Myanmar military junta, the government of that country does not recognise Rohingyas as an ethnic group of Myanmar and they have not been accounted as citizens of Myanmar in the 2014 census of the country.
Myanmar recognised 135 ethnic minority groups as their citizens and nationals except the residents of their Rakhine state, erroneously terming them as Bengali Muslims who illegally migrated from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The fact is Rohingya people have lived in Arakan at least since eighth century and once was a independent kingdom till Buddhist Burma occupied Rakhine in 1784 and made the Muslim and Buddhist population of Rakhine their tormented subjects and denied all forms of civic and human rights and facilities till the British conquered it in 1826.
Lintner writes ‘according to well-placed sources in Yangon, the military aims to reduce the Muslim majority in the northwestern townships to no more than 60%, with Buddhist making up the remaining 40%. Towards that demographic aim, the sources say, the military is now preparing to resettle thousands of ethnic Rakhines and other Buddhists into the Rakhine area’s now abandoned and burned out villages.’
The renowned Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner who specialises in cross border terrorism and insurgency in South East Asia and onetime editor of the now defunct weekly magazine Far Eastern Economic Review writing for Asia Times on September 22 states there is no credible and independent figure as to the number of Rohingya population of Rakhine state’s three northwestern townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The total population could be around 3.2 million of which 90% are Muslims, but all may not identify themselves as Rohingya fearing persecution by the Myanmar Army.
There has been persecution of people of Indian origin in Myanmar (them known as Burma) at least since 1944 when the Japanese occupied Burma from the British. The Burmese never could accept the people of Indian origin in their land and thought that all of their economic hardship and misery were due to the British policy of bringing the people of Indian origin to fill in many of the official and professional jobs in Burma. As the British considered Burma as part of their Indian empire, for them it was normal to encourage people from India to come to Burma in search of trade, employment and jobs in the government and other sectors. Immediately after the occupation of Rangoon (now Yangon) and later the entire Burma by Japan the local Burmese population began an ethnic cleansing of their own by driving out the people of Indian origin through intimidation, force and rioting.
Today Myanmar still retains a sizeable number of people of Indian origin but they are reduced to the status of second class citizen, all have to have an official Buddhist name and usually lies low and lives the everyday life in silence. In 2013 when I visited Yangon and Mandalay I would often go to Indian restaurants to have my meal, tried talking with the manager but was advised to move on. The Myanmar army at regular intervals would unleash a reign of terror on the Muslims in provinces like the Rakhine state having a Muslim majority population with the intention of driving out the Muslim population, along with small groups of people belonging to other faiths terming them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, denying the fact of history that these people are inhabitants of the land for hundreds of years.
The new persecution began in 1978 when the first new wave of Rohingyas began to pour into Bangladesh from Arakan falling victim of the Myanmar army’s intimidation, arson, rape and murder. With regular intervals it continued with the current phase that began of August 25 taking the shape of one of the greatest human tragedy of our time, only to be matched by genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur. With the release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest by the Myanmar army in 2010 and her NLD forming the ‘democratically elected’ government with all powers resting on the Myanmar army with 25% of seats in the parliament reserved for them and the portfolio of Minister of Defence, Home and Border Affairs earmarked for the armed forces democracy in the country had never a chance. Myanmar politics is heavily militarised and the hope for a democratic system evolving in Myanmar is farfetched. So the expectation on Suu Kyi to be more humane was misplaced, to placate the junta she danced to their tune and emerged according to some as ‘Lady Hitler’ of 21st century.
Falling victim to the current mayhem of the Myanmar army in the Rakhine State, practically the entire population of the region have fled to Bangladesh. Some have crossed the border into India, some have managed to flee by boat to Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds are feared to have drowned in sea. Though the world have witnessed this atrocious behaviour of the Myanmar army and the Suu Kyi government most decided to either keep silent or support Myanmar’s action endorsing their view that they are just mopping up the pockets of the so called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) who launched a sudden naïve attack on some military and police posts on August 24 in the name of retaliating against the action of the Myanmar army on their people. The so called ARSA is one of the eight militant groups operating inside Myanmar but is most ill equipped and disorganised, presumably funded by the Pakistan’s military intelligence ISI to destabilise the region for its personal gains. In the recent exodus at least five hundred thousand Rohingya, mostly Muslims, have fled to Bangladesh and unfortunately none of the Arab countries strongly protested the actions of the Military junta in the Rakhine state. The only exceptions were Turkey and Malaysia. All of them including Russia and China have concluded that only sending relief goods would solve the problem ignoring the fact that just sending material relief is a short term solution. In the long term all illegal Rohingya immigrants will have to go back to their own country from Bangladesh and the neighbouring countries and the onus of guaranteeing them safety and security lies on the Myanmar government and the international community.
All the international organisations including the UN, Amnesty International, IOM and Human Rights Watch have condemned the happenings in Arakan terming it ‘ethnic cleansing’ and feared that if the atrocities in Arakan do not stop immediately and safe passage for the Rohingyas is not ensured the region may face other catastrophic human problem, including rise of militancy which was even feared by the Kofi Annan Commission, a Commission formed by Aung San Suu Kyi herself with Kofi Anan, the former UN Secretary General, as its Chief. Some, including Aung San Suu Kyi would like to point out that the Annan Commission report did not use the term ‘Bengali’ or ‘Rohingya’ in its report. However, the Annan Commission Report on the happenings in the Rakhine State clearly states that ‘in line with the request of the State Counsellor (Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi], the Commission uses neither the term ‘Bengali’ nor ‘Rohingya’, who are referred to as ‘Muslims’ or ‘the Muslim community in Rakhine.’
Though the Commission had to operate in a straightjacket situation, it still recommended that certain steps be taken to stop the violation of human rights and displacement of the residents of the Rakhine State. In clear terms it said if things did not improve immediately, it may soon witness the emergence of a new kind of militancy. Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military remain defiant of the pressure from international community, including the strongly worded condemnation from the British, French and US governments.
The concerned world was waiting for something meaningful to happen in the specially called Security Council meeting of UN held on Thursday, September 28 (early Friday morning in Bangladesh) to discuss the situation in Arakan. The meeting was specially called on request from Sweden, the United States, Britain, France, Egypt, Senegal and Kazakhstan. But the outcome of the Security Council meeting fell short of expectation. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the ‘humanitarian nightmare’ for Rohingyas and demanded that the government end military operations and open humanitarian access to its conflict-wracked western region. Ironically the Military in Myanmar cancelled a last minute fact finding mission of UN to Rakhine State on Thursday.
The Military and Aung San Suu Kyi feels protected from any outside pressure vis-à-vis the Rakhine affairs as they think Russia and China support their action in the region. The silver lining is that the US representative in UN, Nikki Haley has called on countries for suspension of all military supplies to Myanmar. The US Congress has called for an immediate sanction against Myanmar. And ironically Russian, Chinese and Japanese representatives in UN supported the stand of Myanmar and felt that whatever Myanmar is doing is geared for ensuring the security of their country, and is their internal matter! Russia is even shy in using the terms ‘Genocide’ and ‘Ethnic Cleansing.’ These two terms will now have to be redefined. UN has again proved that as a collective body it is incapable to take any action in times of need of its member states. It has to work under the shadow of the veto power of the five super powers. Its impotency was proved in the Bangladesh in 1971, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cambodia, Palestine, Middle East and now in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
Craig Considine writing for Foreign Policy Magazine on September 26 wrote the ‘the images of devastated villages and terrified Rohingya streaming into Bangladesh with nothing but the clothes on their backs resonates powerfully with traumatic collective memory of the Palestinian Nakba, the “catastrophe,” when 1948 Israeli forces expelled over 750,000 people from the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine. Muslims around the globe see the Palestinians and the Rohingya, having gone through similar experiences, are being subjected to flagrant abuses and pushed to the fringes of their respective societies. They are stateless, permanent refugees with few allies willing to officially stand up for their human rights. Both groups became disenfranchised in the aftermath of colonial rule and imperial collapse, and both the Myanmar and Israeli governments have attempted to relocate them from their territory, portraying them as foreigners with no claim to the land (of their ancestors). In both Israel and Myanmar, there have been attempts to rewrite the history of the two persecuted groups, claiming that neither of them constitute a “real” ethnic group and are thus interlopers and invaders. However, the difference between Palestinians and the Rohingyas is that the former are mostly refugee in their own land but in the case of the Rohingyas all of them have practically become refugee in Bangladesh, a foreign land. If the world is not listening, the region will have to pay a high price in near future. Security of the region is at stake and the fallout may be costly.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator