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The Rohingya question
Publication Date : 16-06-2012
An old wound in the body politic of Myanmar was reopened last week.
In western Myanmar, in the state of Rakhine next to Bangladesh, a group of Muslims riding a bus were killed by a mob of Buddhists.
According to news reports the killers displayed a degree of cruelty that is the usual hallmark of Myanmar's security forces. The incident was allegedly in response to the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim men, a few days before. The ten Muslims killed that day were beaten to death before the bus was set on fire. It did not matter to the killers that the men accused of the rape had already been arrested and were in jail.
Reactions inside Myanmar of the killing was even more startling. Comments circulated in the internet said that 'killing of the kalas is good'. The term 'kala' refers pejoratively to the dark skinned Muslims of South Asian descent known in Myanmar as the Rohingyas. It reflected their general resentment towards these Muslims.
But who exactly are these Rohingyas? Why are they the target of xenophobic elements in Myanmar society ?
Myanmar's frontier areas are inhabited by many ethnic groups. Most of such groups are recognised as citizens of that country. But there are exceptions. One of the notable one is the Rohingyas. They live along the Myanmar border with Bangladesh. These people have deep historical roots in north Rakhine (also called Arakan). Their name comes from the word 'Rohans' which was the earlier name of the Arakan. They are an ethnic mix of Bengalis, Persians, Moghuls, Turks and Pathans.
Their language is part Bengali ( as spoken in Chittagong in Bangladesh) with sprinklings of Urdu, Hindi and Arabic words. The tall Arakan Yoma mountains cuts off their area from the rest of Myanmar. So for centuries they have been living isolated from the mainland. It has been so since the 7th century when they first settled there.
Indeed upto 1784, Arakan was an independent Muslim kingdom. In that year it was colonised by a Buddhist Burmese king called Bodawphaya. From that time two distinct communities started living in this 22,000 square mile territory .
They were the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Maghs. When the British came in 1824 and started ruling all of Burma, they recorded that Arakan had one lakh population of which 30 per cent were Muslims.
This percentage of Muslims however increased over the years. However the British at one stage of their stay profiled the various races living in Burma. They identified a total of 135 distinct races in that country. But they had left out the Rohingyas as a separate ethnic group. This mistake made by the British is being paid ever since by the hapless Rohingyas .
After Burma got its independence from Britain in 1948, a number of Rohingyas were elected to Burma's post colonial parliament. Under their 1948 Citizenship Law, they were also made bonafide citizens of the country. It was well known that from 1961 to 1965, the Burmese Broadcasting Service also had a Rohingya language programme.
But all this began to change under the rule of General Ne Win who overturned the democratic government in a military coup in 1962. Ne Win's argument was that the ruling political party before his takeover , recognised Rohingyas as an ethnic group merely to get their votes. He therefore took away their Burmese citizenship and made them stateless. They were considered as immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).
The army then subjected them to forced labour, expropriated their property and did extra judicial killing. They denied Rohingyas employment, access to education and trade, and also restricted their movement.
Even their right to marry and to form families was subject to permission which had to be bought with high bribes from the authorities. In effect the world began to see a 'slow genocide' taking place against these people. Many of the Rohingyas in the face of persecution left their land and escaped by boats to Bangladesh. In 1978 and then again in 1991 major exodus took place.
In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution No. 47/144 recognising the suffering of the Rohingyas in the hand of the Burmese army. About 200,000 Rohingyas had by then fled to Bangladesh. But the military government there did not take steps to bring them back to their homeland.
About 28,000 of them who are registered with UNCHR are still housed in two big camps in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh, after the rest left for various destinations within Bangladesh or in other countries of the region. The Myanmar (then Burmese) government has not responded to the pleas of the Bangladesh Government or the international community to take them back.
Now that there are fresh attacks on the Rohingyas across the border a new exodus is likely. Already we have seen some of these people taking small boats and crossing the Bay to reach safe haven in Bangladesh. This time our Government is discouraging their entry into Bangladesh. Our Border Guards and the Coast Guards have been alerted and under their supervision these small groups are being temporarily fed, given emergency medical treatment and sent back.
For our Government a serious moral and ethical issue is involved here. In 1971 when we were subjected to torture by the then military Government of Pakistan, we left for safe havens in neighbouring India. We were received and housed there for nine months.
But in these months many of us fought a war of liberation and returned as soon we got our independence. Many people seem uncomfortable with our government dissuading the persecuted Rohingyas to go back to their homes. Even some of our international friends have been putting pressure to accept Rohingya refugees. But there is more to this than that.
In more than 21 years we have been requesting the Myanmar government to solve the Rohingya question so that these hapless people feel secure and can go back. But they have been dragging their feet. They obviously think that Bangladesh cannot but give refuge to Muslims. But the political scenario within Myanmar has changed dramatically in the past couple of years.
Today under the leadership of President Thein Sein , Myanmar is moving towards a democratic system of governance. Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and she and her party has returned to parliament there. In this new dispensation the Rohingyas may see some positive changes .
But the timing of the riots against the Rohingyas is quite worrying. Many see this as a ploy by the entrenched military to keep Suu Kyi under political pressure. She cannot overtly support the Rohingyas for then she may lose support of Buddhists there. But she cannot at the same time afford to ignore the human rights violations of the Rohingyas. This will bring condemnation from the international community. She has therefore to find a solution to this question with the authorities there soon.
A possible way out for the Myanmar government is to repeal or amend the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Translated it means that the Rohingyas should have their citizenship rights restored. Once they are recognised as citizens then they will have their basic rights.
Next month the president of Myanmar is expected to visit Dhaka. If the visit take place we must do our homework now and build international pressure on Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya question.
We must insist that it would be to the mutual benefit of our two countries to have a peaceful border. But if Myanmar wants to keep this wound in their body politic festering , then we may caution them that it may take some time before a democratic Myanmar can join the comity of other democratic nations in the region if not in the world.
They must resolve this sectarian issue first which has potential to spill over their borders, before they can display any democratic credentials.
The writer is a former Ambassador and is a regular commentator on contemporary issues.