The Nation | August 12, 2012 |
The heart-wrenching photographs of dinghy borne Rohingya families begging for their survival from the maritime patrols of Bangladesh, to let them through and to safety of refugee camps are powerful enough to melt hearts of stone. Yet, there is a stunning silence commanding the global podiums and the countries claiming to be the torchbearers of human rights. The migratory wave of these wretched Muslims, primarily inhabiting the Arakan province of Burma, has been caused by a large-scale orgy of killing, rape and mass arrest, involving the Rakhines inhabitants and the Burmese security forces, following widespread sectarian violence that broke out in June this year. A human tragedy of stupendous magnitude is in the making, as Bangladesh has refused to accept the refugees from across the border and has ordered three international aid agencies - the French aid agencies ‘Doctors Without Borders’, ‘Action Against Hunger’ and the British agency ‘Muslim Aid’ - to wrap up their operations providing sustenance to the refugees. These charities were providing health care, food and water to thousands of refugees in the Cox’s Bazaar district of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi rationale is that the economic stamina of the country cannot sustain a permanent burden of the refugees, who have no place to turn back to. This tragedy has been in the making since decades, whereby longstanding tensions between the Rakhine people, who are Buddhist and make up majority of Arakan State’s population, and the Rohingyas’ Muslim population has been simmering. The upheaval poignantly serves to place into spotlight the dispossession of the Rohingya population, which remains alien in a country that has been inhabited by their forefathers for at least a millennium.
The ethnic Rohingyas are Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own. The Rohingya Muslims whose settlement in Arakan dates back to many centuries are not a monolithic ethnic entity, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or a single racial stock, but are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people. The nucleus to this group was provided by the Arab seafarers, who had visited and settled in the area since the pre-Islamic days and embraced local life and culture. A major influx of Rohingya ancestors came in the 14th century when the Arakan king, dethroned by Burmese, sought help from Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah of Bengal, who sent thousands of soldiers, many of whom chose to settle here. Later, other ethnic groups like the Mughals (Mughal Prince Shah Shuja sought asylum in 1660), Turks, Persians, Central Asians, Pathans and Bengalis also moved into the territory and mixed with these Rohingyas. When the British colonised Burma in the 19th century, a major wave of Indian immigrants arrived that curtailed the economic prospects for the locals and initiated a process of discrimination, which entrenched itself even as the Indian influx reversed with the arrival of the Japanese during World War II. The Burmese xenophobia, which intensified after the war, is manifestly based over the fallacious logic that Rohingyas are the foreign carpetbaggers denying economic space to the indigenous people; notwithstanding the fact that the majority of these poor subsistence farmers in the Arakan province are much like their Buddhist neighbours in terms of economic standing.
The situation worsened with arrival of the military on the political scene. Under the regime of General Ne Win in 1962, the Muslim residents of Arakan were wrongfully labelled as illegal immigrants, who owed their presence to the influx of Indian workers during the days of British Raj. While formulating such pernicious position, the historical and cultural aspects of Rohingyas presence in Arakan were blatantly ignored. The Burmese government began all-out efforts to drive out the persecuted ethnic minority from Burma starting with the denial of their citizenship. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act took away Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas, making them foreigners in their own country. The army attacked the Rohingyas and drove some 200,000 of them into Bangladesh in 1978 in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and destruction of mosques. Then followed the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law that effectively reduced them to the status of the stateless; forbidding the community to travel without permission, own land and requiring the couples to get a licence before marriage; committing not to have more than two children. The year 1991 witnessed another massive genocidal campaign, supervised by the military, to drive out the Rohingyas into Bangladesh, marked by the well established pattern of death, rape and destruction of mosques.
It is now apparent that the genocide of Muslims through a campaign of officially sponsored ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from their ancestral abode in North Arakan has acquired a political relevance in Burma that can only be stemmed by a strong willed global effort to reverse the diabolic trend. The military rulers have used the ploy of ethnic divisions to justify prolonging their unethical rule and in the process have unleashed demons of hatred that are difficult to restrain. It is astonishing to note that the sufferings of the Rohingyas are cause of no concern to many otherwise good-natured Buddhists; prominent among those being the Dalai Lama himself, who even though a Tibetan is the spiritual leader of the Buddhist, most of whom in Burma, rather uncharacteristically, consider Rohingya bloodshed as fair game.
The official Burmese position that Rohingyas, despite the long history of their stay in Arakan, have entered the country illegally, justifying the government’s stance to conduct a campaign of ethnic cleansing against an 800,000-strong minority, is untenable. The dire situation calls for a global response, led by the UN, to find a solution of consensus that should, in the long run, accommodate the basic rights of the Rohingya people alongside the rigid and myopic stance of the Burmese government, which is bent upon dispossessing Burma’s established minority of its legitimate inheritance.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.
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