By Babar Ayaz
“No thank you, we don’t want Al Qaeda or the American guns in support of our peaceful cause, we want sympathy and moral support for our non-violent cause of getting Rohingya their rights.” Burmese Rohingya Association Thailand President Maung Kyaw Nu appealed while talking to me at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in Bangkok last week. I had asked him about the statement of Tehrik-e-Taliban that they will avenge the killings of their Muslim brothers in Myanmar.
To the disappointment of the political and militants Islamist in Pakistan, Maung Kyaw No, whose Muslim name is Najamul Alam Chowdhury, made it clear that the “Rohingya issue in ‘Burma’ “is ethnic and not religious.” “Even some Christian and Buddhists ethnic minorities are persecuted,” he clarified. “Irrespective of religion most people can sympathise with our cause, but we are against terrorism and want no guns,” he made clear with his several colleagues nodding their heads showing their agreement. Rohingya are one of the138 ethnic communities which live in Myanmar, but are the most persecuted. The government says that the Rohingya are of Bengali origin and had only migrated to Burma in 1824. Even by this standard aren’t 188 years enough for citizenship and to be included in the forthcoming 2014 census?
(There are about 5000 Rohingya immigrants in Thailand. And about the same number are living in Karachi in a settlement known as Arakanabad or Burmese colony).
Earlier, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Deputy Director Phil Robertson presented a 56-page report, at the FCC, about the atrocities committed in Myanmar against Rohingya. The HRW report is titled: “The Government Could have Stopped This – Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State.” It was interesting that the Rohingya I met after the media briefing described the conflict as ‘ethnic’ while the HRW has labeled it as ‘sectarian’. This is not the issue of semantics; it changes the very nature of the issue. Particularly, in times of Al Qaeda and its Jihadi franchisees who believe in waging a global Jihad against non-Muslims and their Muslim supporters. They jump in uninvited only to make things worse for the people who want to keep their democratic struggle peaceful and local – Kashmir is one such example.
The Rohingya issue has been simmering in Burma (Myanmar) since 1940. The recent orgy of violence was sparked by the alleged report that an Arakan Buddhist girl was raped and killed by three Rohingya in the Southern coast city, Ramri on May 28. On June 3, an Arakan group stopped a bus in Toungop, separated 10 Rohingya and clubbed them to death in the presence of the security forces. On June 8 and 9 the violence spread to the major cities of Maungdaw and Sittwe. According to the HRW report an undetermined number of Rohingya and Arakan were killed and the properties of both the communities were burnt. HRW has come up with a conservative figure of 80 persons killed. Rohingya leader claims that HRW doesn’t have access to remote areas and their figures were very low. They place the number of Rohingya killed to an exaggerated 30,000, which is typical in such conflicts.
The local law enforcing agencies sided with the Arakan Buddhists. Hundreds of Rohingya were arrested. Now this is the usual course of events when the minority is persecuted by the majority the law enforcing agencies collude with the majority goons. We have seen this happening in Pakistan when Christian or Ahmediya communities or their places of worship are attacked by the religious extremists, or, as in the Indian Gujarat carnage.
The state discrimination against the 800,000 Rohingya of Burma is evident from the statement of Myanmar President Thein Sein. He says that the only solution to the conflict is “to expel Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen” by the UNHCR. Around 300,000 Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh. Unfortunately both the countries do not want Rohingya. Maung says that Rohingya were the actual rulers of Arakan and were conquered by the Burmese centuries ago. “We have been living in Arakan for over 1000 years and are not Bangladeshis,” he insisted.
On the other hand after the recent riots almost 100,000 Rohingya fled for safety. Some tried to cross over by boats to Bangladesh, which forced them to go back. Bangladesh Prime Minister said that her country cannot afford to take refugees as she has to cater for a large population of her own. HRW Director Brad Adams says: “Bangladesh is violating the international legal obligation by callously pushing asylum seekers in rickety boats back into the open sea.”
The major issue is that the Burma government does not accept the Rohingya as their citizens. They are also deprived of the right to own land. The Bangladeshis consider them Burmese citizen. But in 2008 elections Rohingya were given right to vote and they managed to get two MPs elected. That was the right course to follow.
Maung is of the view that the Rohingya have lived peacefully with the Buddhists for centuries, “it is the military government and its collaborators who deny us our due rights.” Rohingya are disappointed that Aung San Suu Kyi has not raised her voice in their favour – the election politics opportunism has kept the Nobel Prize winner silent on the most burning issue of her country. As for the Obama administration, Phil Robertson was right that the West is in romance about the democratic reforms in Myanmar. Just when the Rohingya were being massacred under the protection of the Burmese law enforcing agencies, Washington was passing laws giving Myanmar GSP status and financial assistance. US turned a blind eye to the killings and common practice of forced labour in the country in Myanmar.
In Pakistan there is a bizarre debate is going-on on this issue. A contemporary columnist said that it has polarised the society. I would put it differently that there is a debate on this issue because the Pakistani society is already polarised. Otherwise there can be no two views condemning human rights violations domestically or internationally. There is no point in bashing the Islamist and say why they do not condemn the Muslim terrorist and sectarian groups killing Muslims at home. The secular democrats need to focus on their own positive messages that demand equal rights for all the humanity without any religious, racial, ethnic or nationality discrimination. Remember, positivity cancels negativity in any case. (firstname.lastname@example.org)