Sultan M Hali
THE genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar continues unabated. Unsurprisingly, the western powers and their otherwise vibrant media like the BBC, CNN et al are mum on the subject. Even the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – the OIC – is silent. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Myanmar, who are known as the Rohingya, are being targeted. Myanmar Army is beheading children, women and burning the Muslims alive while Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a prominent leader in Myanmar and herself suffered incarceration and deprivation and is considered a champion of human rights is maintaining an eerie silence as if providing tacit approval to those who are wreaking havoc on the Rohingya and forcing them to flee to save themselves from slaughter.
The Rohingya people, historically also termed as Arakanese Indians, are a stateless Indo-Aryan people from Rakhine State, Myanmar. There are an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, and up to another million refugees abroad. The majority are Muslim while a minority is Hindu. Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted communities in the world, the Rohingya population is denied citizenship under the 1982 Burmese citizenship law, which restricts full citizenship to British Indian migrants who settled after 1823.
According to Human Rights Watch, the law “effectively denies to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races.” While the ethnic conflict in Rakhine state is very old, it has over the last many years assumed great significance because of geo strategic interests of key stakeholders.
Rakhine plays an important part in the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), as it is an exit to Indian Ocean and the location of planned billion-dollar Chinese projects—a planned economic zone on Ramree Island, and the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, which has oil and natural gas pipelines linked with Yunnan Province’s Kunming. Pipelines from the western coast of Myanmar eastwards to China allow hydrocarbon imports from the Persian Gulf to China while avoiding the bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca and disputed parts of the South China Sea. There have been big gas fields found offshore Myanmar adjacent to the Rakhine province. In addition on shore is being explored.
It is in “Western interest” to hinder China’s projects in Myanmar. Inciting genocide in Rakhine could help to achieve that. There is historic precedence for such a proxy war in Burma. During World War II British imperial forces incited the Rohingya Muslim in Rakhine to fight Burmese nationalist Buddhists allied with Japanese imperialists. The Rohingya immigrated to the northern parts of Arakan, today’s Rakhine state of Myanmar, since 16th century. A large wave came under British imperial occupation some hundred years ago. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh continued over the last decades. In total about 1.3m of Muslim Rohingya live in Myanmar. Birthrate of Rohingya is said to be higher than that of the local Arakanese Buddhists. These feel under pressure in their own land.
While these populations are mixed in some towns there are many hamlets that belong 100% to either one. There is generally little integration of Rohingya within Myanmar. Most are officially not accepted as citizens. Over the centuries and the last decades there have been several violent episodes between the immigrants and the local people. The last Muslim-Buddhist conflict raged in 2012. The Rohingya have been used as pawns earlier too. In April 1942, Japanese troops advanced into Rakhine State and reached Maungdaw Township, near the border with what was then British India, and is now Bangladesh. As the British retreated to India, Rakhine became a front line. Local Arakanese Buddhists collaborated with the Japanese forces but the British recruited area Muslims to counter the Japanese. According to renowned scholar Moshe Yegar, “Both armies, British and Japanese, exploited the frictions and animosity in the local population to further their own military aims.”
It is pitiable that wherever the Rohingya turn to escape slaughter and persecution, they are turned away. Bangladesh has closed its borders with the plea that it cannot handle the over 120,000 Rohingya immigrants. Numerous others took to rickety boats that either capsized in high seas or were refused landing by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates about 25,000 people have been taken to boats from January to March in 2015. There are claims that around 100 people died in Indonesia, 200 in Malaysia, and 10 in Thailand during the journey. An estimated 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore and several thousand more are believed to remain trapped on boats at sea with little food or water. A Malaysian newspaper claimed crisis has been sparked by smugglers and human traffickers, who extort heavy sums of money and leave the refugees high and dry.
Turkey and Iran have taken a strong stand against the government of Myanmar and threatened to send their armed forces to save the Rohingya unless the genocide of the Muslims ceases. Pakistan too needs to support the Rohingya Muslims wholeheartedly and ask the UN to impose sanctions against the repressive regime in Myanmar. After all we cannot remain innocent bystanders while humanity is being trampled and genocide of the Rohingya persists.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
Sultan M Hali