Saturday Sep 09 2017

The Rohingya struggle

On the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma), thousands of Rohingya Muslims are stranded in wretched conditions. But the silence from the Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi is eerie.

The United Nations has shown more sensitivity in this matter, and its special envoy, Yanghee Lee, is not only raising this issue at various international levels but also criticising Suu Kyi for her nonchalance. Rohingya Muslims are mostly settled in the Rakhine State (also called Arakan) of Myanmar. This region is located on the western coast of Myanmar touching the Bay of Bengal. Arakan Mountains separate this region from Central Myanmar.

The origin of the word Rakhine is disputed but some linguists claim that it is derived from Rakshasa (evil or monsters) who were supposed to inhabit this area in ancient times. Historically, this region has remained separate from Burma and most of the time local Rajas (kings) have ruled here. Until the 17th century, Chittagong was also part of Arakan but then during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, Chittagong was occupied by Mughal forces and became part of the Mughal empire.

That was the time when Muslims started settling in this region and then Arab traders also started landing with their merchandise and influenced conversion to Islam among the local people. When the British forces were expanding their influence in the eastern part of the Subcontinent, Burma also came under attack and the East India Company annexed Arakan into British India. Gradually the entire country of Burma came under British control and was made an administrative unit of British India. Finally, the British government decided to create a separate colony of Burma and Arakan was incorporated into it.

After the Burmese independence in 1948, Arakan remained a Burmese territory but soon the Rohingya Muslims launched a freedom movement. They claimed that since Arakan had remained separate from Burma in the past, it should be declared an independent country. In 1982, the Burmese government passed a law declaring that anyone who had settled in Arakan after the British occupation would be considered an alien. That meant that the Rohingya Muslims, who had been living in Arakan for almost 200 years, suddenly found themselves stateless. Now, they were treated as foreigners and their movement into other parts of Burma was severely restricted.

The state deprived them of all the facilities that a citizen is entitled to in any country. No municipal services such as health and education facilities were provided and the Rohingya descended into a mire of disease, illiteracy, and poverty. During the past 40 years, these hapless Muslims have been targeted repeatedly not only by the state machinery but also by the local Buddhists. The Myanmar government has tried to expel or exterminate the entire Muslim population from its territory. Estimates put the number of Muslim population at over a million whereas the total population of Rakhine is around three million.

So, almost one-thirds of the Rakhine state consists of Muslims who are treated as aliens. After the creation of Pakistan, for over a decade some Rohingya Muslims also demanded that Arakan be included in East Pakistan. Since then, an independence movement flares up every now and then resulting in more bloodshed and persecution by the Burmese authorities. Then there are mujahideen groups that claim to be fighting for Islam against the infidels, further fuelling the fire and increasing the tension between Buddhists and Muslims. The recent flare-up started in 2012 when the local Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims locked horns and started killing each other.

Buddhists claim that the Rohingya Muslims killed their monks and burned their stupas. The Muslim version places the blame on the Buddhists for murder and arson. In 2012, thousands of homes were torched and Muslims had to flee in droves to Bangladesh. When this region was handed over to the Burmese army it facilitated the Muslim genocide by arming and helping Buddhist militants. After these riots, the Burmese army forced the Rohingya population from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, to move out and languish in camps. Apparently, it was done to protect them from violence in Sittwe but it deprived them of their homes and livelihood and forced them to look for shelter in other countries.

In 2013, the Rohingya started using boats to sail for offshore lands where they could get some refuge. Scores of rickety boats drowned and some managed to reach the coasts of Malaysia and Thailand. In October 2016, the Myanmar army once again launched an operation against the Rohingya in the areas bordering Bangladesh to push them beyond borders. By November 2016, thousands of Muslims with their families, women, and children, were forced to either take to the rough seas by boats or just walk hundreds of miles across inhospitable terrain to save their lives.

To top it all, some Muslims retaliated by forming a jihadi group called Harkatul Yaqin that started counterattacking the Burmese forces and Buddhists; all this resulted in further reprisals and bloodshed. Now for the past month or so, Myanmar forces have intensified their operation against the Rohingya; the perpetrators are not only army and police but also Buddhist militants. The most disappointing is the apathetic attitude shown by the de facto ruler of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. She was at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Burma and now is proving herself to be a bigoted and racist leader who doesn’t care about a minority being decimated in her own country.

Suu Kyi has even refused to recognise that any such atrocities are being committed by her people. Just like the past dictatorships in Burma, she doesn’t recognise the Rohingya Muslims as citizens of Myanmar and considers them Bengalis who should be thrown back into Bangladesh. She herself has been a victim of military highhandedness but once she came to power suddenly assumed her true colours. Some other Nobel laureates such as Malala Yousufzai and Desmond Tutu have criticised Suu Kyi for her inability and unwillingness to stop the atrocities. Perhaps, this is the appropriate time to use the so-called 40-nation Muslim military alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

If it fails to act even now, the suspicion will prove correct that the alliance is just there to protect the royal families.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Originally published in The News