June 19, 2012
By Kazi Anwarul Masud
History has repeated itself so many times in the case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Even after the slackening of the authoritarian control over all sectors of the country by the military since General Ne Win’s military takeover of the country decades back and his Idi Amin –like forced deportation of the people of Indian origin( including Bangladeshis) xenophobic nationalism was adopted as the philosophy guiding the country. Burma Socialist Program Party, floated by the military to the total exclusion of all other political parties, effectively banned the expression of dissident opinion and pluralistic political arrangement in the country. Since then the Burmans who constitute 60% of the population and perhaps all the personnel in the military have been fighting wars with other ethnic groups like the Shan, Mon, Kchin, Arakanese and many others in the ruthless way the Romans adopted to rule their vast disparate empire and consequently driving out hundreds of people to Bangladesh, India and Thailand.
The Burmese military following strict socialistic policy till recently literally ran the resource rich country into the ground and forcing Burma to become a member of the least developed country. The Western world looked on indifferently, barring economic sanctions from time to time, while some of the atrocities in the name of state security interest were being committed by the Burmese junta. The principles of the responsibility to prevent and protect, sanctioned by the UN Summit in 1985 were found wanting but not in former Yugoslavia( where NATO attacks received universal approval along with consequent emergence of new states from the ashes of former Yugoslavia). Burma perhaps escaped international attention because of its geographical location ( it was out of the area for NATO and did not merit US strategic interest) and so its territorial integrity remained inviolate.
What justifies humanitarian intervention? Why Iraq invasion was so important for the West that both Bush jr and Tony Blair had to misrepresent to their own people that Saddam Hussain was about to strike with weapons of mass destruction and that he was bedding with the Taliban-both accusations have now been proved to be incorrect? Can it be that inter-ethnic conflicts are so common with inevitable results of ruthlessness and barbarity like in Sri Lanka and in some African countries that the West suffering from “imperial over-stretch” simply cannot come to the rescue of the rape, murder and annihilation or like in Syria where the efforts of the international community are stymied by veto wielding great power in the UNSC?
Perhaps the answer partly lies in the fact that many countries in the world, both developed, emerging and underdeveloped countries have ethnic minorities preventing their coming to the rescue of the victims of ethnic conflict lest finger is pointed at their record of discrimination against minorities. The declared “failure” of multiculturism in Europe where Jurgen Habermas’ post-secular society is seen as again finding a political space may be a case in point. The saga of the persecution of the Rohingyas is another example of ethnic conflict based mainly on religious differences.
Once again Rohingya people are fleeing from atrocities committed on them by the Buddhists in the Rakhine province into Bangladesh. Bangladesh is already hosting 200000 Rohingyas for the last two decades. The repatriation of these “stateless” persons has been very slow due to insistence by the Burmese authorities in ascertaining their identity which most of them either had not acquired any documents of nationality or had to leave everything behind to save their lives. Bangladesh, despite UN appeal to let the Rohingyas enter Bangladesh, has decided not to allow this time Rohingyas to enter the country in national interest.
Rohingyas were using the land border – kept open until recently to cross over to Bangladesh. The local administration admitted that they had no actual data on the inflows of Rohingya refugees in Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and the adjoining areas An added element has been added by the Burmese authorities accusing the activities of armed Rohingyas, aided by Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami, a right wing political party that had opposed the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, inside Myanmar. Bangladesh government is very clear on the question of refusing Bangladesh territory to be used for terrorism in any country. Some Western countries and UNHCR have urged Bangladesh to give refuge on humanitarian ground.
The US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said at a briefing in Washington regarding the issue that the US “ have been urging the Government of Bangladesh to respect its international obligations under the relevant refugee conventions and to continue its longstanding policy of non-refoulement of refugees”. Non-refoulement is a principle of the international law, i.e. of customary and trucial Law of Nations which forbids rendering a true victim of persecution to their persecutor; persecutor generally referring to a state-actor (country/government). Bangladesh Foreign Minister, however, said that Bangladesh is not a signatory to any international convention or protocol on refugees. She hoped that this ethnic problem would be solved by the Burmese authorities and peace will be established soon.
The Rohingya problem is not of recent origin. The ethnic conflict between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority has been going on for many years and became worse when General Ne Win seized power in 1962. Muslims were expelled from the army and were rapidly marginalized. Burma has a Buddhist majority. Muslims are stereotyped in the society as “cattle killers” (referring to the cattle sacrifice festival of Eid ul Adha in Islam). The generic racist slur of “kala” (black) used against perceived “foreigners” has especially negative connotations when referring to Burmese Muslims. The more pious Muslim communities who segregate themselves from the Buddhist majority face greater difficulties than those who integrate more at the cost of observance to Islamic personal laws. Muslims in Burma are affected by the actions of Islamic extremism in other countries.
Violence in Indonesia perpetrated by Islamists is used as a pretext to commit violence against Muslim minorities in Burma. The anti-Buddhist actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan (the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan) was also used as a pretext to commit violence against Muslims in Burma by Buddhist mobs. Bangladesh is not the only country of refuge for the Rohingyas. It is understood that over the years thousands of Rohingya also have fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities also in February 2009 told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports that of a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore. In February 2009 then Thailand’s prime minister Abshit admitted and regretted “any losses”, and promised to work on rectifying the problem. One may wonder who are these Rohingyas fighting for recognition as Burmese nationals where they claim to have lived for centuries.
Wikipedia reveals dispute over the origin of the term “Rohingya”. Some Rohingya historians contended that the term Rohingya is derived from Arabic word ‘Raham’ meaning sympathy. They trace the term back to the ship wreck in 8th century AD.
According to them, after the Arab ship wrecked near Ramree Island, Arab traders were ordered to be executed by Arakanese king. Then, they shouted in their language, ‘Raham’. Hence, these people were called ‘Raham’. Gradually it changed from Raham to Rhohang and finally to Rohingyas. However, the claim was refuted by some leaders of Arakan Muslim Conference who argued that ship wrecked Muslims are called ‘Thambu Kya’ Muslims and currently residing along the Arakan sea shore. Should the term Rohingya derive from these Muslims, “Thambu Kyas” would have been the first group to be known as Ruhaingyas. According to them, Rohingyas were descendants of inhabitants of Ruha in Afghanistan. Another historian argued that among the Muslim populations, the term ‘Mrohaung’ (Old Arakanese Kingdom) is corrupted to Rohang. And thus inhabitants of the region are called Rohingya.
These claims are categorically rejected by Burmese historians. Burmese historians like Khin Maung Saw asserted that the term Rohingya has never appeared in history before 1950s. According to another historian there is no such word as Rohingya in 1824 census survey conducted by the British. Historian Aye Chan from Kanda University of international studies noted that the term Rohingya was created by descendants of Bengalis in 1950s who migrated into Arakan during colonial area. He further argued that the term cannot be found in any historical source in any language before 1950s. However, he stated that it does not mean Muslim communities have not existed in Arakan before 1824. But history also reveals that during World war II Japanese forces invaded Burma, then under British colonial control. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable violence erupted. This included communal violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya villagers. The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and Burmese nationalists. The Rohingya supported the Allies during the war and opposed the Japanese forces, assisting the Allies in reconnaissance. The Japanese committed atrocities against thousands of Rohingya. They engaged in an orgy of rape, murder and torture In this period, some 22,000 Rohingya are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence. 40,000 Rohingya eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces. The history of this part of Burma is replete with ethnic wars. The Muslims being a minority are the worst sufferers.
Rohingya activists have long fought for full citizenship and some were hopeful that after the recent elections and the victory of Aung San Su Kyi things would be better. But Aung San Su Kyi chose not to address the Rohingya issue during her visit to Thailand. All said and done Burma, under long military rule and the present façade of civilian government, remains a fractured, ethnic conflict –infested, pre-modern country despite being endowed with rich natural resources. It is true that after the visit of Hillary Clinton, some opening of the country to international community and internal political reform, and the holding of general elections through which Aung San Su Kyi was elected to Parliament the US has eased some of the sanctions imposed upon Burma and the ASEAN countries may enhance their engagement.
Bangladesh, as India has done, would like to get gas from Burma and increase trade with her. It is, therefore, to the advantage of the countries concerned to remain engaged with Burmese authorities. But as the Americans have learnt from their experience of engagement with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, ethnicity and religion play a great role in underdeveloped societies.
Had it not been so the Yugoslavia, despite being a relatively developed economy, would not have fragmented into many independent states. In the case of Bangladesh we have to doggedly work with the UNHCR and international community to stop the exodus of the Rohingyas into Bangladesh and to effect the repatriation of those already in our country. Patient diplomacy would give result. Crossing of the swords will not. But he international community should not remain silent spectator to violence against unarmed people forcing them to flee their land of birth but should continue to encourage, in particular ASEAN countries, Burmese military to mend their ways enabling that resource rich country to be on the same page with the international community respecting the rights of their own people as well as those of the foreigners. But as Richard Hass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations notes: “Humanitarianism is another contender for America’s post-Cold War doctrine, and it is one that animated much of the foreign policy of the Clinton Administration.
The international community has enshrined the “responsibility to protect” as an obligation all states must fulfill on behalf of threatened peoples everywhere. The appeal of humanitarianism is obvious: to save innocent lives. Alas, there is no shortage of situations calling out for such intervention. But therein precisely lies part of the problem with humanitarianism”. Rohingyas, therefore, are likely to remain a forgotten chapter in the post-Cold War and current history where bread and butter issues gain prominence and perception of direct security threat are more important for the leading powers than the daily and deadly humiliation of some people in some remote part of the world.
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.