Sunday, July 29, 2012

Forgotten Rohingya

Burma (now Myanmar) has a history of persecuting its minorities, Muslims in particular. The Muslims constitute 4 percent of its 60 million population. When I was posted at Yangon in the 1990s, local Muslims claimed that their ratio of population was much higher. The last official census was held in 1983. The bulk of the Muslims live in the Rakhine State, bordering Chittagong in Bangladesh. From its west, the Rakhine State (called Arakan by the British) borders the Bay of Bengal with a fairly long coastline. In the north, River Naf separates it from Bangladesh. Islam came to this part of the world through Arab traders and Rohingya Muslims, who number around one million and are descendents of the Yemeni Arab traders. With their darker skins and sharper noses, the Rohingya are easily distinguishable from the Burmese.General Ne Win, who assumed power in 1962, nationalised all businesses and Muslims were the biggest losers. He also purged the armed forces and the civil bureaucracy of Muslims. Many fled to neighbouring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Anti-Muslim riots took place in Mandlay in 1997 and again in 2001. 

The current rioting in Rakhine State began early June as majority Buddhists alleged that Muslim men had raped one of their women. In the ensuing rioting, hundreds of Muslims were killed. The security forces sent by Yangon (former Rangoon) to protect the Muslims are alleged to have made the situation worse by siding with the majority.The Rohingya problem, however, goes deeper into history. Their area in Myanmar had been a part of the Mughal Empire till 1785, when it was annexed by Rangoon. Some years later, the territory was annexed by the East India Company and then passed to British India. In those days, the Rakhine State was administered from Chittagong and Rohingya moved freely between Bengal and Burma. This has given rise to the false Myanmar claim that Rohingya are migrants from British India. The fact of the matter is other way round. Many of them migrated from Burma and settled in Bengal.What we witnessed recently is a systematic genocide abetted by the Myanmar authorities and the international media has just about ignored it. The Myanmar government still considers the Rohingya as illegal immigrants, ignoring the fact that they have lived there for decades, if not centuries. General Ne Win stripped them of the Burmese citizenship in 1982. This minority has no rights; it cannot buy land and is not represented in government jobs. This is racial discrimination, plain and simple! The UN has described Rohingya Muslims as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Hundreds killed in a few weeks and the world is just not bothered. The West is salivating about the prospects of new business opportunities in Myanmar. President Barack Obama has recently lifted restrictions on US investments in Myanmar and UK has opened a trade office on July 11 in Yangon. The United States is keen to counter vast clout that China enjoys in Myanmar. China and India have not spoken about this persecution as they too have vital interests there. Even the Muslim world has taken no notice of the grotesque brutalities in Myanmar. The OIC, which adopted a human rights charter in 2008, has also done little. And worse still, this huge problem of violation of basic human rights has not shaken the champion of human rights and darling of the West, Madam Aung San Suu Kyi.Thousand of Rohingya have fled by sea or river to Bangladesh only to be returned by its navy using brute force. This is in violation of the Convention on Refugees 1951 and its attendant Protocol of 1967. Under the Convention, no country can shut its borders to the refugees fleeing persecution. The receiving country, however, does have the right to screen the refugees to determine their credentials. Bangladesh has refused to accommodate these refugees on its soil, as it is not a signatory to the convention. However, that position does not entitle BD armed forces to fire on fleeing Rohingya.It may be of interest to the readers to know that a large number of Burmese, who fled to Saudi Arabia in 1960s and 70s hold Pakistani temporary travel documents even today. Thus, Pakistan had done its bit to help these persecuted people. But today, even Pakistan government is quiet about the atrocities heaped on these innocent people by a racist regime in Yangon. Iran is the only Islamic country that spoke for the Rohingya people this time. I have called the regime racist because Myanmar President General (retd) Thein Sein has publicly suggested that these people should be expelled and the UN should take their charge. 

The UN has rejected this demand, out of hand. The Rohingya have all along been loyal citizens of Myanmar and even then their basic citizenship right is denied to them.The West seemed euphoric in recent months as Aung San Suu Kyi was released to contest by-elections. In this international euphoria, President Asif Zardari too rushed to Yangon to bestow a Benazir Award on Suu Kyi. But nothing of substance has changed in Myanmar. The real power still lies with the generals. Indeed, with the advent of a semblance of democracy, majority Buddhists feel they now have a licence to persecute minorities. This is tyranny of the majority at its worst.I have often wondered what makes Buddhists, their monks in particular, as they walk bare footed to save insects, so cruel. My analysis is that military regimes, lacking legitimacy, befriend clergy. In Myanmar, the generals have often pandered to the monks. Military patronage has made the monks bold, indeed savage.It is about time that the UN, OIC and the international media took notice of this grave historic wrong of racial discrimination that has now become genocide. Bangladesh should speak for the Rohingya rights within Myanmar. After all, a peaceful and stable Myanmar, with all its minorities feeling secure, is good for the entire region. And it would only look good if India, which has secular credentials and aspires to be a global power, also espoused the just Rohingya cause. But I doubt it, as Delhi is too keen on keeping the Myanmar junta in good humour.