Letter from America: Thoughts on the upcoming Oslo Conference

By Dr Habib Siddiqui

In recent weeks, Rohingyas stranded in rickety boats in the Andaman Sea has caused international alarm. There are several thousand of these migrants in boats off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with dwindling supplies of food and water.
In spite of their sad plight, they are unwanted by any of these ASEAN countries.  It is estimated that some 130,000 of them have fled by boat their ancestral home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar (also known as Burma) since mid-2012, and many – probably thousands – have succumbed to death just trying to do so. Many Rohingyas were smuggled or trafficked to Thailand and held in camps until they paid hefty sums of money to reach the Malaysian border, which has been a favorite destination for these migrants that has already housed tens of thousands of them; but now the Malaysian government has ordered its navy to repel them from its borders.

The Rohingyas have been fleeing Buddhist Burma for quite sometime, largely since the 1970s as a result of a plethora of state policies that are brutal, savage and an anathema to everything we consider moral, noble, right, fair and decent in our time. Not a single of the Articles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honored by the Buddhist government in its treatment of the Rohingya people. The Burmese government had effectively made them stateless in their own country with no rights and made them the most persecuted people on earth. As a result of such unfathomable violations of human rights, a majority of the Rohingya have ended up living as refugees or unwanted people in many parts of our world, especially, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf States.

The repression of the Rohingyas has gradually intensified since the relaxation of international embargo on President Thein Sein’s government in 2011. In June and October 2012 there were large scale ethnic cleansing drives on Rohingyas in Rakhine State to exterminate or drive them out of the country. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes, which were destroyed by the marauding and genocidal Buddhists with support from the local and central government and the racist politicians and monks. Some 140,000 of them are now forced to live in concentration camps. To make things worse for the persecuted Rohingya, the government in March revoked white cards – or “temporary registration certificates” – that had been issued to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. This meant that they no longer have the right to vote in upcoming elections in November.

In utter desperation, the Rohingya have become the stranded boat people of our time. Aptly put, they are forced to brave death at sea to escape ‘open-air concentration camps’ in genocidal Burma.

In the midst of this rapidly worsening condition of the Rohingyas, a high level 3-day conference to end Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya people is scheduled to open on May 26 in Oslo, Norway. State Secretary Morten Høglund from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ola Elvestuen, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre) will contribute to the discussion of the plight of the Rohingyas. At the conference, iconic leaders from diverse backgrounds including George Soros, Nobel Peace laureates Mairead Maguire, Desmond Tutu, and José Ramos-Horta, and the former prime ministers of Malaysia and Norway – namely Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad and Kjell Magne Bondevik – will join hands with the representatives of the two generations of Rohingya refugees and activists as well as international human rights researchers and scholars of genocides and mass atrocities. Tomas Ojea Quinta and Yanghee Lee, former and present UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, respectively, will also share their expertise with the audiences and other participants. Dr. Maung Zarni, a human rights activist and co-author of the journal article, “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” will also share his views. [While I was invited, I declined because of a conflict of schedule which won’t permit me.]

One would have thought that no conscientious human being would dare challenge the noble objectives of the Oslo conference. Apparently not true!

Derek Tonkin of Network Myanmar is one such individual. He has been working for the murderous Myanmar regime promoting its cause and advocating for outside investment. In his latest article, he sounds infuriated about the Oslo conference. His opinion is highly biased and does not surprise me a bit.

I shall pick just a few points of his latest article. [There are plenty more which could have been discussed; but I felt it is unnecessary to waste my time and those of my readers. On the British-era demographic controversy, an interested reader may like to read my detailed analysis of the subject in my book – Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar), which is available in the Amazon.com]

Tonkin is critical of Dr. Maung Zarni’s thesis of the ‘Slow burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’. He claims that Dr. Zarni has claimed in his work, co-authored with Alice Cowley that the present-day problems of the Rohingya only started in 1978. That would be a misreading of the work.

As I mentioned in some of my speeches, lectures and articles, the persecution of the Muslims of Arakan can at least be traced back to the time of Bodaw Paya’s invasion and conquest of Arakan in 1784 when tens of thousands were killed; some 200,000 fled to Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). As I have noted elsewhere, the tension between Rakhine plus Burman Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan worsened during the Second World War when emboldened by the fascist Japanese occupying forces, Muslims were ethnically cleansed from many parts of Arakan by their Buddhist (mostly Rakhine) exterminators. [Note: Some 600,000 Indians were forcibly evicted from other parts of Burma in the early 1940s; tens of thousands died on their way back to India.] So, surely the pogroms did not start in 1978.

Contrary to overwhelming documentary evidences, Tonkin claims that there was no desire from the Burmese government to push out the Rohingya from Arakan in 1978. He is referring to the Naga-Min (King Dragon) Operation of February 1978-79, which resulted in exodus of some 200,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, and the death of at least 12,000. This is tantamount to claiming that the Rohingya voluntarily chose to flee to Bangladesh. This is a disingenuous claim, an absurd theory!

In his support of the hated Ne Win regime, Tonkin does not quote any Rohingya refugee that fled to Bangladesh in 1978-79 but a British official, the representative of the same government that had created the mess in the first place when Burma was granted independence while ignoring the precarious matter of this Muslim community that had geographical and historical ties with southern Chittagong (of Bangladesh) and had sided with the British during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Arakan. [As a scheming businessman, he has no qualms today that his friendly Rakhines were on the side of the fascists and killing British soldiers and their supporters during World War Two.]

Dr. Abid Bahar (now a professor at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada) did field research work interviewing the refugees who had fled to Bangladesh. His thesis work presents an entirely different picture than what Tonkin would claim in his support of the murderous Ne Win regime. He says, “If Ne Win had really wanted to get rid of 200,000 ‘Rohingya’ said to be illegal immigrants at the time, their unexpected flight to Bangladesh would have been too good an opportunity to miss and he would never have let them back in again. He had after all forced some 300,000 Indians to leave Burma between 1963 and 1967, in the process confiscating all their assets, and this hadn’t exactly improved Indian-Burmese relations. But Indian Government concerns had left him totally unmoved (and no doubt there were many Muslims shopkeepers and small businessmen among those sent packing in 1963-67).” [Note: Tonkin’s remark above tries to give the impression that many of those evicted Muslims were ordinary shopkeepers and small businessmen. Facts are, however, different. Quite a few of those evicted Muslims were very successful, big businessmen who lost everything. I have met a few of those Muslims who were forcibly evicted by Ne Win.]

Well, the case of Indians living in Burma in the 1960s was quite different than that of the indigenous Muslim population of Arakan (irrespective of how Tonkin and his Rakhine criminal buddies like to deny their “R” identity), whose ancestors had settled in Arakan before the Rakhine Buddhists. Most of the Indians living in Rangoon and some other cities like Mandalay were brought in by the British colonial government for a plethora of reasons. Many dockyard coolies were brought in to load and unload ships. Some Muslim businessmen (esp. from Surat and Gujarat) were attracted by the opportunity to expand their business empire in places like Rangoon. Many Hindu clerks, officers, police and soldiers worked for the British Raj. And then there were the much-hated Chettiar money lenders, who were all Hindus. The riots of 1930s and 1940s against the Indians had hardened the Burmese attitude towards them, and Ne Win was able to exploit such national grievances against them when he expelled them en mass, confiscating their properties, much like what President Idi Amin would later do with the British subjects, most of whom were Indians, in Uganda after he had come to power.

Tonkin sounds as if the fleeing Rohingyas took refuge in Bangladesh by dint of their own volition and were not forced to do so. He is either a pathetic liar or an ignorant person. I am not aware of any group of human beings who had left en mass their ancestral home without any pressure. [Here we are not talking about individual migrations but of a group migration numbering more than a quarter million people in a short duration.] During the Naga Min operation, many Muslims of Arakan were murdered and many Rohingya women and girls were raped by Ne Win’s security forces, terrorizing the entire community, thus setting the scenario for their exodus. And yet in his disingenuous attempt to whitewash Ne Win’s crime, Tonkin says, “The Arakan Muslims, on the other hand, were not a threat to his [Ne Win’s] Burmese Road to Socialism, and as they were mainly farmers were in a very real sense ‘sons of the soil’.”

True, the Rohingyas were not a threat to Ne Win’s socialism, and yet his hostile policies led to the Naga Min operation that created the exodus of the Rohingya people. In a military-run government, it would be preposterous to suggest that President Ne Win was not accountable for the pogrom that led to the death of over 12,000 Rohingya. It was the world opinion and international pressure, esp. those from the UN, which motivated Ne Win to take back the refugees. Many Rohingya, however, did not want to go back because of the discrimination that they had faced in Burma since her independence. The once prosperous Muslim community had found itself increasingly marginalized. They lost their jobs, businesses, land and much of personal properties, and were being treated as ‘unwanted’ in the land of their birth.  As Tonkin himself quoted soon after Burma’s independence many Rohingyas were “compelled to leave their ancestral homes as a result of a deliberate Burmese policy to remove them. Massacres by armed forces occurred on 10 and 11 November 1948, and the military told surviving ‘Rwangyas that unless they vacated Maungdaw and Buthidaung they would be tortured and butchered like animals and that they were appointed to wipe out the Rwangyas from Maungdaw and Buthidaung’.” [Reference:  Confidential Records Branch CRiV-10/51 in the National Archives of Bangladesh.]

Interestingly, however, almost in a confessional way, Tonkin says that the Rohingyas driven away from their home in 1978 were truly the ‘sons of the soil’ of Arakan. Is he not the same person who does not mind lecturing the whole world that the Rohingya are outsiders from Bangladesh? Is he not the same person whose website promotes anti-Rohingya polemics by the regime supporters like him? Which Derek Tonkin to believe who has mastered the art of hypocrisy, half-truths and lies?

Tonkin tries to justify Ne Win era crimes on citizenship by saying: “That those Rohingya, possibly as many as two-thirds of their Arakan Muslim communities who enjoyed full citizenship under 1948 legislation, did not receive new IDs was in my analysis due to the recalcitrance and corruption of Rakhine State officials, though central government did nothing to resolve this gross injustice. That is, it was State inaction rather than State action which was to blame, not the provisions of the 1982 Act.”

Interesting observation! I don’t know how Tonkin came about the figure that two-thirds of Arakanese Muslims comprised the Rohingya population. What comprised the remainder 1/3? Is he implying that the remainder had moved from Bangladesh? If he did, he is mistaken or spreading lies. There is no proof of any influx from Bangladesh in the post-liberation period, let alone during the Pakistan era (pre-1971). Aside from that false allegation, does not the central government under a military dictator owe the sole responsibility for why the ‘sons of the soil’ were not issued ID cards in spite of their ‘enjoying’ ‘full citizenship’ under 1948 legislation?

While Tonkin is dismissive about the obvious discriminatory nature of the 1982 Citizenship Law, and criticizes Dr. Zarni for his thesis that the Law had led to the creation of the security-legal framework built around the statelessness of the Rohingya people, he fails to tell us that if the Law was so benign then why are the Rohingyas today stateless? It is difficult to excuse Tonkin’s nonchalant attitude on this crucial issue. Does not he realize that Ne Win’s statement where he said, “Racially, only pure-blooded nationals will be called citizens” is racism in its worst form? In his speech, Ne Win calls the Rohingya and other racially Indian Muslims and Hindus ‘kalas’, which is a very disrespectful term akin to ‘niggers’ in the English language. And I need not quote Ne Win’s offensive statement about them to show his hatred of them.  A student of history would concur that the British had epitomized racism; it is no accident that Tonkin sees no problem with Ne Win’s racism!

As an ex-British government servant, Tonkin is always very generous in his comments about the British era statistics and records. He says, “The degree of detail is impressive, the training of the enumerators detailed, the concern to record every possible variation found in ethno-linguistic analysis truly remarkable.” The facts about the census are just the opposite. It is unreliable and highly flawed (my book discussing the British era demography vis-à-vis the so-called Baxter Report points this problem), which has been well recognized and discussed by many unbiased area historians. The census data not only failed in providing accurate estimates of population, but its categorization of people by so-called ethnicity is highly controversial. They are not consistent either. As I have mentioned during my talk at Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, during the British colonial period, its Military Command recorded the Muslim Rohingyas as “Arakanese” and catalogued the Rakhine Buddhists as “Maghs”.

But more problematic is Tonkin’s inability to understand that denial of the right of a group to self-identity constitutes a serious crime. If the so-called Mohamedans or Arakanese Muslims, or Chittagonians of Arakan choose to call themselves as Rohingya, they have every right to do so. I am not sure, if in his delusional mind and despicable arrogance, Tonkin has forgotten the simple fact that Muslims are not Mohamedans [again a term concocted by the missionary English Christians who falsely believed that Muslims worship Prophet Muhammad (S)].

Tonkin also forgets or is ignorant of the fact that Muslim identity has always been more important than the so-called linguistic and ethnic identity. During, before and after the British era that is why none of the so-called Dhakaiyas and other Bengalis who spoke colloquial dialects (much like the so-called Chittagonians) identified themselves as such. So, if the British-era records did not mention Rohingyas as a distinct ethnicity, it does not show any unusual pattern but is part of the general Muslim psyche that has been pervasive for centuries. Lest we forget, no Muslim ever called him/her as Mohamedan, and yet the British record depicts them as such.

As hinted above, Tonkin does not tell his audience that the British record does not mention Rakhine as a people, but only as Maghs or Buddhists. So, Tonkin’s hostility to the Rohingya term depicts his deplorable bias.

Another problematic feature of his article is the condescending advice he gives towards a balanced discussion on Arakan. He should be reminded that his Rakhine genocidal maniac friends were invited to come and share the same podium with us in Tokyo and Bangkok, and they chose not to attend. For years, even to this day, these criminal inciters of genocide have refused to include Rohingya people in any discussion about the future of Arakan state. I don’t recall Tonkin about reminding them that the Rohingya who comprise slightly less than half the population in Arakan are a legitimate group to have such a dialogue. Instead, his Rakhine-appeasing writings show that he is more interested in his silly, and often self-conflicting, way to disprove the very existence of the Rohingya people. He is delusional and in his unfathomable denial, he is oblivious of the pre-British 17th century Bengali literature that talks about the ancestors of today’s Rohingya people. I am sure no argument of mine would cure his serious mental sickness. He has to find his own cure.

Obviously, Tonkin is irate about Maung Zarni and other right activists and researchers for poking his blurry eyes to open up and see the Rohingya problem from the eyes of the suffering people, who are termed by the UN as the most persecuted people on earth. And no matter how Tonkin may try to hide the crime of his patrons in Myanmar, the world now knows better that the Rohingya people are facing genocide, and need our help to stop their extinction. The Oslo Conference is a much desired event to bring this tragedy to an end.

I can see why Tonkin is upset. He is in the losing side – the side of mass murderers, the holocaust deniers. His delusional remark – In the last 100 years, the wheel has indeed turned full circle. It is no longer the Buddhist Rakhine who are threatened with extinction, but the “Mahomedans” – says it all. [Much in contradistinction to his false accusation 100 years ago Rakhines did not feel threatened by Muslims.] One can only pity an old fool who has not learned when to call it quits. Tonkin’s falsity is simply mind boggling! It is inexcusable and pathetic!

Enough from such unabashed supporters of the criminal Myanmar regime!

What can we do to stop the plight of the Rohingya people, esp. their desperate maritime movements? I hope the Oslo Conference succeeds in mobilizing the world community to stop their plight, including finding temporary homes for those stranded migrants.

As noted by U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the flow of desperate Rohingya migrants across the Bay of Bengal will continue unless Myanmar ends discrimination against them. “Until the Myanmar government addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration will continue,” he said in a statement.

It is important that the world community press the rogue regime in Myanmar to stop its persecution of the Rohingya people. As I noted before, ASEAN is partly responsible for ignoring the problem, which has now become a wider humanitarian crisis. In the mean time, countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have a moral imperative – if not a legal requirement – to allow migrants to take shelter. It is understandable that some countries may be unwilling to act because by doing so they are more likely to be exposed to the principle of non-refoulement, whereby refugees cannot be forcibly returned to places where their lives or freedoms may be threatened. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2015 urged governments in the region to remember their obligations to keep their borders and ports open to abandoned people at sea and to ensure that “the prohibition on refoulement is maintained”.

“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths. The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” Zeid said.

He said the latest report of the Thai navy forcing a boat carrying several hundred people back out to sea after supplying it with provisions was “incomprehensible and inhumane”.

Will the conscience of world leaders wake up to stop the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people so that they can live as free human beings like most

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