Tuesday 11 August 2015

Meet the Most Persecuted People of the World - The Rohingyas

By Aditya Basu 

Myanmar is not so significant of a country when it comes to world politics, but it has this habit of hitting World Headlines repeatedly for its internal political affairs. It has been doing so over the last 67 years since its formation on 4th January 1948.  

Myanmar, or Burma as we know it – is in deep crisis again.  Not only for the reason it normally hits the headlines for – that is for its ongoing civil wars with ethnic minorities and abuse of power by the military junta supported democratic government.  But this time, it is for a massive flood – that has submerged half of Myanmar.  

Recently Myanmar has severely flooded courtesy torrential rains which started on July 16, 2015. As a result of the heavy rains, Burma's main river the Ayeyarwady and its tributary Chindwin, has flooded and displaced over 2,50,000 people around Burma.  

Magway Division, Sagaing Division, Chin State and Rakhine State are the worst affected regions of Myanmar and 80 people have died so far in the floods. The USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) Government, which is a democratic face put up by the military junta, unlike earlier years, has opened to International Aid and Aid has started to rush into Burma. The flood in 2013 also displaced and made over 300,000 homeless and in 2014 it displaced over 1,30,000 people.  

Meanwhile as the flood continues to cripple Myanmar day by day, International Aid Agencies are rushing to Burma for relief and rescue work.  Along with the foreign relief agencies, a Buddhist religious group called Ma Ba Tha has also managed to raise a considerable amount to help the people affected by the flood. Ma Ba Tha is a known religious pressure group, which has decent influence over the quasi-military Government of Myanmar. But unfortunately, the story does not end here for Ma Ba Tha.  

Ma Ba Tha and another Buddhist religious Sect known as 969, happens to be two radical Right Wing Buddhist Groups operating in Myanmar, and are responsible for the communal riots that broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.  

You surely want to stop and ask yourself here, Radical Buddhists – fanning Riots?! Did I hear you right?  

Well, yes. How untrue it sounds, presently Buddhists in Burma are going through a serious Islamophobia crisis. They believe 4% of the Muslim population of Myanmar are in a position overrun the 89% Buddhist population of the country. How much unjustified it may sound, but fact remains these two groups actively engage in hostilities against the Muslim minorities. These two religious' groups over the years have provoked the Burmese people to act against Muslims and to boycott them socially and economically. Many violent riots over the last few years are results of what they teach to the majority population of Myanmar who are Buddhists. 

This highlights the sad fact, that the agony of the of the people of Myanmar, does not start and stop with floods alone. Especially people from the western Rakhine state, which too has been majorly affected by the recent floods. Let's go back a few months to May 2015 and talk about a crisis that made world headlines in case you have missed it. 

The 2015 Rohingya Refugee Crisis  

During January to March 2015 an estimated 25,000 people comprising Rohingyas (Bengali and Urdu speaking Muslim residents of Rakhine State of Myanmar) and Bangladeshis left the shores of Bangladesh and Myanmar. They set sail for the South-East Asian Muslim countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Rohingyas undertook this perilous journey and crossed the Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca, and the Andaman Sea in fragile wooden boats to reach those countries in hope of finding refuge there under humanitarian grounds. They undertook this perilous long sea voyage with the help of human traffickers who promised them a bright future in those Islamic countries. Unfortunately, towards the last leg of the voyage, the traffickers left them stranded in the sea floating around the shoreline of those nations. As an effect of that, close to three hundred people died during this phase – courtesy unhygienic conditions and lack of food and water in the boats. 

The countries to whom they were looking for taking refuge in, initially refused to take them in as refugees, but gradually over few months under international pressure and promised financial aid from US and OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) and other countries, agreed to take them in for one year. 

This spur of refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar also brought forward another sad story that of Rohingya women from Bangladesh and Myanmar getting married to much older guys in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia in exchange for money. So effectively, women are also getting trafficked to paying customers by the human traffickers, in middle of this refugee crisis. 

Automatically the question arises here that who are these Rohingyas and why are they getting trafficked to these Muslim countries? Why are they being forced to lead an uncertain life and with no hope for the future? 

Simply put, they are doing so to escape from their present condition both in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and Rohingya Refugee Camps in Southern Bangladesh. They all undertook this perilous journey to escape from being erased from the face of the earth altogether. In search of hope. It was their last resort to escape the crisis that began in 2012 in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, a crisis whose roots are few hundred years old. 

Bangladesh in its Southeastern shore near Cox Bazar, hosts close to 32,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. These Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after the 2012 Rakhine State riots between Bengali speaking Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. On the other side of the Bangladesh border, the Rakhine State of Myanmar has close to 1.4 million Rohingyas who are known as the "Most Persecuted Community in the World". 

The condition of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is so pathetic that In May 2015 at a conference in Oslo to discuss the Rohingya crisis, Philanthropist George Soros – compared the state of the Rohingyas in camps around Sittwe in Rakhine State of Myanmar to that of the Ghettos, which were run by the Nazis in Hungary in 1944. Most of the Rohingyas of Myanmar are now residing in refugee camps around Sittwe in Myanmar, and around Cox Bazar in Bangladesh, post the 2012 communal riots in the Rakhine state. A riot that was fanned by the Buddhist organizations 969 and Ma Ba Tha. 

2012 Buddhist-Muslim Communal Clashes in Burma 

In June 2012 in the Rakhine State, a riot broke out between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims over "alleged" rape of a Buddhist woman by some Rohingya men. In retaliation – the Buddhists attacked and killed ten Rohingya men in a public bus, which they believed to be – were carrying the rapists. This incident surely did not go well with the Rohingya community and sporadic clashes broke out between the two groups. 

Within few days of this incident many Rohingya villages were torched to the ground by angry Buddhist mobs and many Rohingyas got butchered in the communal violence. The Buddhist groups 969 and Ma Ba Tha meanwhile continued to spread sentiments of hatred against Muslims around Myanmar. These radical Buddhists asked the people to stop doing business with the Muslims around the country and asked them to boycott them socially and economically. These small rioting incidents along with fanning of violence by the Buddhist sects soon blew into a full-fledged riot across Myanmar against Muslims of all ethnic groups and the Rohingyas. When things went out of hand the military was finally called in to control the situation and harness the rioters.  

As the rioting spread, close to 100,000 Rohingyas became homeless, and thousands fled to Bangladesh by boat and land to escape the violence. Bangladesh, when it realized the gravity of the refugee problem started to turn back the Rohingyas back into Burma. It's alleged that many of the returning Rohingyas were then killed by the Security Forces inside Burma. The riot displaced Rohingyas were then settled around Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state, in various Ghetto like camps. 

Hundreds died in the sporadic rioting that happened around Myanmar all through 2012, and Rohingyas alleged that the Army and Security Forces (Buddhists) instead of safeguarding interests of both parties sided with the local Buddhists and even killed people who belonged to the Rohingya sect. 

The role of the Buddhist sects and the Monk during the rioting is highly questionable. The Monks were touring the countryside in motorbikes fanning religious hatred against Muslims in the name of religion and nationalism.  

The role of the Buddhist Monks and Buddhists during the riots, was criticized heavily by the Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama in a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Burma and Opposition Leader – Aung San Suu Kyi, said – the violence instigated against the Muslims by Buddhists goes against what lord Buddha preached about nonviolent ways and violence can't be a solution to any problem. 

Throughout 2012 the violence continued and claimed few hundreds of lives and displaced over 1.4 million Rohingyas in Myanmar. After the 2012 Riots the Myanmar Government instead of re-settling the Rohingyas back to their original lands where they belonged for centuries, confined them in Ghetto like Camps around Sittwe. The Burmese Government then started to ask various International Governments to take the Rohingyas in as refugees. So effectively the pro-Buddhist quasi-military Myanmar Government is trying to deport 1.4 million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to any country or countries that will host them. 

Over the last three years, hundreds have perished in the Rohingya Camps in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. To escape this uncertainty and unbelievable living conditions – the Rohingyas started leaving the two coasts in 2015 in wooden boats with the help of the human traffickers. 

This one-sided approach of the Myanmar Government to the problem of Rohingyas in Myanmar, is not new and the roots lie deep within Burma's history for a few centuries. The Government of Myanmar practices severely discriminatory policies against the Rohingyas since its inception as a country, which can be understood if we try to scrutinize the Burmese Citizenship Law of 1982. 

The 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law and Ethnic Discrimination 

In 1982 the Burmese Government amended the Burmese Citizenship Law and stated that any person whose ancestors were not a resident of Burma pre-1823 will not be able to become a Citizen of Burma. This the Burmese Authorities did to cut out the Rohingyas the right to citizenship, as by widespread belief in Burma – the Bengali speaking Rohingyas settled there during the Colonial Rule of the British post 1823. And more so, citizens must prove with conclusive evidence – that one of their parents was a resident of Burma pre-1823. This law makes the Rohingyas stateless, and effectively they are registered in Burma as Foreign Residents. So effectively this policy denies the Rohingyas the basic rights of a Citizen of Burma and which results in the following. 

* Denial of Education and Employment 

Courtesy of this law the Rohingyas can't pursue any form of education in Burma in any State-run schools beyond Primary Education. So effectively they are denied basic schooling and any form of higher education. When it comes to employment – the same law prohibits them from getting employed in the Civil Services and Health Services and to take part in any Administrative Function in the Rakhine State. So, they are being forced to remain without any form of education and are being economically sidelined. 

* Denial of Freedom of Movement and Guest Registration 

Not only are they denied basic education, the Rohingyas must obtain special permits from Government officials to leave their cities and townships even. More so, even if they manage to leave the township after getting a Travel Permit, they have to register themselves in each place they visit and need to register themselves if they are staying over in any place for the night. The Rohingyas are also normally not allowed to leave the Rakhine state at all. So, their freedom of movement is totally restricted. This has led to corrupt practices and exploitation of the Rohingyas in general.  

* Property Confiscation  

Other than the fact that they have been driven away from their lands and houses that were passed on to them by their ancestors, the Rohingyas are constantly forced by the Military and Security Forces to provide them with food and provisions and livestock and part with any form of money that the Rohingyas might possess. 

* Forced Slavery  

The Rohingyas also are used as forced laborers by the Government and Military and other security forces for construction of roads, railway tracks and dams. Not only do they have to work for free, but they are also not provided with any food or nourishment of any sort while on duty. If they fail to turn up in the labor camps when notified, they are fined heavily in terms of money and provisions and livestock. It has been reported that the security forces even shoot people who refuse to be forced labor. Children also are not spared, and children of age as low as 7 years old have been reported to be seen to be working in these forced labor camps. 

Controversial Myanmar Birth Law Targeted at Rohingyas 

Apart from all these atrocities, as Burma suffers from severe Islamophobia – they have recently passed a law which bans Muslims from having more than two children and that too the children must be born three years apart. Both the citizenship law and the Birth Law are debatable and have been criticized heavily by human rights organizations. 

Concept of Burmese Citizenship and Historical Arguments 

The Myanmar Government can do all these atrocities to the Rohingyas as by law they have made them illegal residents of the country. But this whole concept of the Rohingyas being settlers from then undivided India and the area which falls under present day Bangladesh – post 1823 during the Colonial Rule can be trashed historically. 

Though the Rohingyas speak a dialect of the Bengali language and are Muslims by religion, many among them are present in Burma not only since before 1823 but since 15th Century. For that we must know a little bit about the history of the independent Rakhine State before the British arrived there. Back then it was known as the Arakan Kingdom. Let's focus on what is the Golden Period of the Rakhine State (Arakan) – that is during the rule of the Marak U Dynasty 1430-1784.  

Narameikhla Min Saw Mon was the founder of the Mrauk-U Dynasty of Arakan. When Min Saw Mon initially became the King of Northern Arakan back then in 1404. He was shortly overthrown in 1406 by the Crown Prince Minyekyawswa of Ava, which was a neighboring Kingdom. Min Saw Mon, after being overthrown from his throne, fled to neighboring Bengal. Upon reaching Bengal he went under the service of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, the ruler of Bengal, as a military commander and gained the Sultan's friendship and alliance. For around 25 years he worked under the Sultan, and then with the help of the Sultan and his army which was made up of Afghan and Bengali warriors invaded Arakan and regained his throne in 1429 – and thus began the Golden period of the Rakhine State and settlement of Bengali and Urdu speaking Muslims in the region who served for centuries under the Marak-U Kingdom and stayed on and later came to be known as Rohingyas. 

This proves that the Rohingyas have been present in the Arakan region since 1429, and by this argument they should be considered valid citizens of Burma even with the controversial Citizenship Law. Burmese Government in its part completely denies any historical argument and refers to the Rohingyas as Bengalis who came in with the British Rule post 1823.  It is true that the British encouraged many Bengalis to settle in that region to facilitate their rule, but they were not the only Bengalis who were present there. They were there in Arkan since the time of Min Saw Mon in the 15th Century. 

The Rohingya Separatist Movements of 1948 and 1971 

As Rohingya's 600-year-old lineage lies with the Kingdom of Bengal during the Mughal Period and with British India pre-1947, during the formation of East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) in 1947 – till the Burmese Independence in January 1948, the Rohingyas of Northern Rakhine State started an armed struggle against the Burmese Nationalists. The aim of this armed struggle was to make Northern Rakhine State that is the area of the old Marak U Kingdom – a part of East Pakistan. The Rohingyas were unsuccessful in doing so and the freedom movement was suppressed. It can be concluded that courtesy they are being Muslims, and as 600-year-old lineage lies with Bengal – they felt it was the right thing to do so – to be a part of East Pakistan. They foresaw what was in store for them in the future.  

Another Armed Struggle ensued during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Then too the Rohingyas failed to make the Northern Part of the Rakhine State, a part of the newly formed Bangladesh. The second uprising can be attributed to the fact that post 1948, the discrimination against the Rohingyas were increasing and they often found themselves left out of economic and social prosperity – courtesy discriminatory policies of the Burmese Government. During their freedom struggle which was dubbed as a Separatist Movement by the Burmese Nationalists, some terrorist organizations misused the opportunity and used the emotions of the local Muslims to set up bases in Northern Burma and Southern Bangladesh. Many Rohingyas, who were fed up with the way things were in Burma, opted to join them but to no avail. This armed struggle too, never quite helped the prime Rohingya cause of – either independence from Burma or be recognized as proper Burmese citizens. So, from the beginning of the formation of Burma, the Rohingyas were totally deprived of any economic prosperity that might have managed to benefit the rest of the Burmese people. And furthermore, all these armed struggles managed to create the divide greater with the Buddhist Burmese Nationalists – to the extent of Burmese Government wanting to deport 1.4 million people from inside Burma and keeping them confined to Ghetto like camps around Sittwe. 

Role of ASEAN and OIC and UN  

Getting over history and historical roots of present-day problems, if we come back to the present problems of almost 1.4 million Rohingyas (Whom the Burmese Authorities refer to as Bengalis) who are in Burma, what we have in hand is mass slavery of a particular ethnic group induced by the Burmese State and local Rakhine Buddhists and radical Buddhist organizations like Ma Ba Tha and 969. Not only slavery like conditions, its gradually leading up to slow mass genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma. They are now known internationally as – the most persecuted people on the face of the earth. Yes, more so, than that of the Jews, during the World War II. 

As Burma wants to deport the whole 1.4 million of Rohingyas that are settled in various camps around the Rakhine State, and as the Rohingyas are fleeing Burma to stop from being from persecuted – it must come upon the International Communities of ASEAN, OIC and UN to do something for these people. India and Bangladesh too should play pro-active role to safeguard these people and look after their needs just because by lineage these people are from India and Bangladesh – a migration that happened for over five hundred years. 

Either proper rehabilitation of the 1.4 million Rohingyas must be done worldwide, under hygienic conditions and give them proper avenues of growth in various countries, or Security Council of UN must pass a resolution and send in UN Peacekeepers to the Rakhine State whose key role will be to safeguard the Rohingyas. UNV and other International Volunteer Organizations should have access to those areas to safeguard the interest of the Rohingyas and try to bring some relief to the Rohingya people. 

The last option which Burma will never agree to is to let the Northern Part of Rakhine State have a Democratic Election where they decide which country, they would like to be part of, that of Bangladesh or that of Myanmar. 

Whatever course of action must be decided on must be taken now before these 1.4 million people have been erased from the face of earth altogether.  

Upcoming Burma Elections and Future of the Rohingyas 

Election is coming in Burma this November and courtesy the upcoming elections; Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent to the agonies of the Rohingyas for quite some time. It's quite evident that is so, in fear of her Political Party NLD (National League for Democracy,) losing the elections – as Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to alienate herself from the majority Burmese Buddhists, courtesy their outlook of the minority Rohingya Muslims. So, what changes will come to the Rohingyas, even if the quasi-military Government is done away with – in the elections, remains questionable. So, it must come upon the International Community to take responsibility of the Rohingya People and do something about it, which can even be Sanctions against the Burmese Government. Else there is no way out of this, and the lives of 1.4 million Rohingya people hang on a fragile thread. 

The recent flood in Myanmar has increased the agonies of the Rohingyas and that of the Buddhists of the Rakhine State.  Buddhists and Muslims in other parts of Burma have been equally affected by this devastating flood. The flood proves that at least mother nature does not discriminate between people while venting out her fury based on their religion and ethnic background. And we all are at her mercy for our wellbeing, irrespective of our religion. Discrimination on any ground is a man's invention and is not a creation of Nature or that of the Gods.

Editorial Update:
Many years have passed since I authored this article, meanwhile Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, went out of power, and ignored the Rohingya issue when she was in power. The fate of the Rohingyas remains the same till date, while the government keeps changing.

I consulted many sources for authoring this article - some important sources I am mentioning here, based on which I have built certain arguments here.


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