Wednesday 29 August 2012

Ignoring the minorities

Source, 28 Aug

In the last few weeks, the plight of Burmese Muslims has come to limelight. Of particular concern are circumstances surrounding the minority Muslim community of Rohingya. There are reports that the Burmese state is involved in serious violations of human rights and the Rohingya community is subjected to massacres and indiscriminate killings.

Rohingya is a small Muslim community (by some accounts, less than one million people), residing in the western part of Burma for the last several decades. They have been subjected to discrimination by the majority Buddhists and are not recognised as citizens of Burma. The bias against the Rohingyas is so strong that even Aung San Suu Kyi, when asked about whether the Rohingya Muslims are, in principle, citizens of Burma, exclaimed that she does not know. Needless to say that her response was rather unfortunate considering her stature, but goes on to give an insight into the gravity of the situation.

The Rohingyas have been in the news lately with reports emanating from Burma suggesting mass killings of this minority community. International media was slow to respond, the primary reason being that Burma is still a closed territory and analysts still have only limited understanding of what is going on in this reclusive state. Similarly, a section of electronic and print media in the country is influenced by the state and this presents an additional hurdle in the fair and accurate reporting of events.

Unfortunately, and one wishes to say this with utmost caution, the international community is not only slow in its response, but also appears to be biased. Despite clear indications of mass killings, it seems that the international community is complacent with only paying lip service to the problem, and essentially agreeing with the Burmese government that it is an internal matter of Burma.
On the other hand, when the civil society in Pakistan, and certain other Muslim countries, started raising voice against the killings, they were blamed for playing in the hands of fundamentalist Islamic organisations. The argument goes that the situation in Burma is exaggerated by certain unscrupulous elements, the sorts of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, so as to gain sympathies from Pakistanis, and thereafter recruit young Pakistanis into their ranks. This concern may not be wholly misplaced; however, completely dismissing the injustice suffered by Rohingyas based on this premise also needs reconsideration.

Despite the effort of civil society, there is not a single word at the official level in Pakistan condemning the conduct of Burma. Admittedly, citizenship rights of the Rohingyas are not recognised and the Burmese state refuses to protect this minority community. There are also confirmed reports of mass killings, although the extent of killings is yet to be determined. There is, therefore, a need for transparent investigation and international intervention.

There is also a need to put pressure on Bangladesh to open up its borders for the Rohingya refugees, who are trying to flee the country to protect their lives. In fact, the Muslims in Burma did try to enter Bangladesh, but were refused entry in violation of international law and norms. Once again, not a single utterance by the international community reprimanding Bangladesh. One wishes that even if the governments, due to diplomatic complexities, fail to address this issue, the media and the civil society will make an effort to expose the unlawful conduct of Bangladesh.

A discussion of maltreatment of minorities cannot be complete without mentioning the predicament of Hindus in Pakistan, who have been forced to a point where they have no option but to leave the country. The discrimination against minorities in Pakistan has reached alarming levels. The Hindu, Christian, Ahmedi, Parsi, and many other minority communities are subject to systematic discrimination at the hands of state, as well as discrimination by society at large.
Such migration by the Hindus is a result of continued injustice over the years. Can you really blame them when their girls are regularly married to Muslim men after being forcefully "converted" to Islam? The reaction of the government is hopeless and dismal, to say the least!

The response of the civil society on this issue is also unsatisfactory. While we do not let go of any opportunity to highlight the quandary of Rohingya Muslims, what is happening to our Hindu brethren is not a topic of much concern. The civil society ought to play a more meaningful role in developing tolerance for minorities in Pakistan and to ensure that the government does not wilfully ignore this matter.

On a positive note, surprisingly and unexpectedly, the government showed some leadership during the Eid holidays. It banned pillion riding in Karachi and switched off mobile phone networks in major cities. This had a significant impact in Karachi where target killings and street crime was majorly curtailed on Chand Raat. One does not wish to encourage the government to halt mobile phone service, however, considering the worsening law and order situation in Karachi, it may not be a bad idea to implement such bans and stoppages on phone service during night time. The pre-paid SIM service also needs to be re-examined, considering the number of undocumented SIMs operating in the country. One wishes that Rehman Malik et al will examine the proposition of shutting down mobile service at night in Karachi, and impose a permanent ban on pillion riding, so as to bring some respite to the citizens of Karachi from the worsening law and order situation.

The writer practices and teaches law. Opinions expressed herein are solely his own. Email:

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