By Fakhruddin Ahmed
ROHINGYA crisis has been weighing on the world’s conscience for decades. The UN Human Rights Council lists Myanmar’s 800, 000 Rohingya Muslims among the world’s most persecuted minorities. Residents of Myanmar for over 600 years, Rohingyas have been stripped of their Myanmar citizenship. Oppression and expulsion have been repeatedly perpetrated on them by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for centuries. An estimated 300,000 Rohingyas languish in Bangladeshi and Thai refugee camps.
Rohingya villages have been cordoned off, and many Rohungyas have been confined to concentration camps. Humanitarian agencies such as Doctors without Borders have been barred from entering and treating patients in those camps. Rohingyas are perishing while the world looks away.
Rohingya is an Indo-European Rohingya language; the words Rohingya means a resident of the state of Arakan. Myanmar has recently renamed the Rohingyas’ tiny home state, Arakan, (5% of Myanmar) “Rakhine” to appease its Rakhine Buddhist residents. To obliterate every trace of Rohingya heritage, Myanmar government has deleted the ethnic category ”Rohingya” from the official list and replaced it with “Bengalis,” with the innuendo that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which they are not.
Buddhist King Narameikhla first invited the Rohingyas to Arakan from neighboring India as advisors and courtiers in the 1430s. In 1785, Buddhist Burmese from the south conquered Arakan, massacred Rohingyas and expelled many to British Bengal, eliciting unwelcome British attention.
The British took control of Arakan through the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) and encouraged Indian immigration to the sparsely populated region. Through two additional wars, Burma was fully incorporated into British India in 1885.
At the outset of World War II Britain abandoned Arakan. While Burmese nationalists sided with Japan, the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British and served as spies behind Japanese lines. This infuriated the Japanese who embarked on a hideous pogrom of torture, rape and murder against the Rohingyas, driving thousands into Bengal.
Between Burma’s independence in 1948 and General Ne Win’s putsch in 1962, the Rohingyas advocated a separate Rohingya nation in Arakan. The junta brutally crushed Rohingya nationalism.
After Myanmar army’s 1978 “Dragon King” operation drove 300,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, the junta enacted the draconian Burma Citizenship Law in 1982 with the malicious intent of making the Rohingyas stateless, “resident foreigners,” to be repatriated worldwide.
The law stipulates that a full citizen of Myanmar must belong to one of the ten “national races” (Rohingyas are excluded), or their ancestors must have settled in Burma before the British invasion of 1824. Rohingyas do not qualify for the two lesser citizenships either which require the illiterate peasants to produce documentary evidence of their centuries-long residency in Myanmar.
Colonial Britain had also encouraged Indian immigration to Africa and the West Indies as indentured workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet citizenships for those immigrants and their progeny has never been in question. Neither should it be for the Rohingyas.
No internationally acceptable metric can deny the Rohingyas Myanmar’s citizenship. It is unconscionable to disenfranchise people who have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years before current Myanmar was founded. In a civilized society, the majority cannot legislate away the citizenship rights of a despised minority. This is ethnic cleansing through legislation.
Critics call the anti-Rohingya vendetta linguistically, religiously and racially motivated. While 89% of the Myanmar’s population practice Theravada Buddhism and are of Mongoloid stock, the Rohingya Muslims are easily identifiable by their dark skin.
Amnesty International reports that “the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted,” and “they are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced eviction and house destruction.” They are used as forced laborers on roads and military camps. By law, they are forbidden to have more than two children. The children are born stateless, perpetuating their bleak future.
As non-citizens, Rohingyas are treated as illegal immigrants, with restrictions on movement, no right to own land, receive an education or public service. This is unacceptable. The world must persuade Myanmar to amend the ill-intentioned law and restore the Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. Nothing short of full citizenship for the Rohingyas will solve the crisis.
The current anti-Rohingya crusade is spearheaded by Buddhist monks, notably Ashin Wirathu, who proudly calls himself “Buddhist Bin Laden” and warns that the Rohingyas (1.4% of population), aim to subjugate Myanmar. He laments that Buddhists have already lost Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia to Islam; he is not about to let that happen in Myanmar on his watch. Monks are greatly respected in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s most respected citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, is ambivalent about the Rohingyas’ citizenship status, saying that she does not know if Rohingyas qualify as Myanmar’s citizens. The Economist noted that Suu Kyi’s “halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists disappointed at her failure to take a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority.”
On May 7, 2014, the US Congress passed a resolution urging the Burmese government to end the persecution of the Rohingyas. America and its President are greatly admired in Myanmar, as President Obama experienced firsthand during his Myanmar visit in 2012. If the President and the Congress and the world firmly demand that the Rohingyas must be given full citizenship before further trade with Myanmar, Myanmar will see the wisdom of acceding.
One expected the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold medal, and a current member of Myanmar’s House of Representatives, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out against the human rights abuse of the Rohingyas, just as her father, General Aung San, had done. The world stood by Ms. Suu Kyi during her travails. She should do no less for her beleaguered Rohingya compatriots.
I should also like to suggest to Bangladesh government that it does not behoove Bangladesh to compete with Myanmar in inflicting cruelty on the Rohingyas. Granted that unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh is a very densely populated country. Still, it is unconscionable to ban marriages between Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, or between Rohingyas themselves. Instead, Bangladesh should extend its legendary hospitality towards the Rohingyas, shelter and feed them well, offer them medical service, educate their children, and take some Rohingyas in. After all, the Rohingyas’ ancestors had lived in the area.
Generosity nourishes the soul of a nation. Hatred towards others not only destroys an individual, it can also destroy a nation. By treating the Rohingya refugees humanely with dignity, impoverished Bangladesh can teach humanity to those nations who lack it.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.
Published: 12:00 am Monday, August 25, 2014