Reports of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community present a heartbreaking picture of suffering humanity. Since August 25, when the latest violence erupted, soldiers and Buddhist militants acting together have torched several Rohingya villages, killing about 400 people and forcing over 90,000 others to run for their lives in neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are not welcome. Many have drowned while trying to cross a river into Bangladesh. At least 30,000 persons are trapped on a mountain without food and other basic necessities of life.
This wave of violence began last October when reacting to relentless atrocities against its people a small Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked some police posts and an army base. It justifies its actions saying “we have legitimate right under international law to defend ourselves in line with the principle of self-defence.” Whether legitimate or not, what ARSA did is hardly surprising given that for long the Rohingya people have been subjected to state-sanctioned bloody repression. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein aptly remarked on the situation “it was predicted and could have been prevented. … Decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”
Myanmar has been shamelessly depriving its Muslim community of its basic rights arguing that they are illegal immigrants even though they have been living there for centuries. Historians point out the first Muslims arrived in that country as far back as early 12th century. Others came during the British rule of India and Myanmar (1824-1948) as labourers from the present-day Bangladesh and made it their home, like the then Indians who arrived in South Africa under similar circumstances and remain equal citizens of the state. It is quite a stretch to term these people aliens after generations of living and dying in that country. As regards the illegality issue, the rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, points out that since the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, hence legal.
But their government is insistent on treating them as outsiders. Back in 1982, it enacted a citizenship law to take away the Rohingyas citizenship right, making them stateless people in their own country. They have been subjected to apartheid-like discrimination, reinforcing societal prejudices. Indeed, religion or ethnicity based bigotry is common to most under-developed societies, as is on display in neighbouring India and Pakistan, too. Power elites exploit such dispositions to advance their own interests. The usual cause of such frictions though is economic. On the face of it, this case looks different considering that the Rakhine state of Myanmar, where most Rohingya population is concentrated, is one of the least developed states of Myanmar. A vast majority lives below the poverty line. Yet they are under attack from both the rulers and Buddhist zealots. There is a method to the madness. The reason behind this humanitarian tragedy is greed dressed up in the illegality argument about Rohingya migrants. Under the country’s law, those who leave to escape violence lose their residency right as well and consequently, the ownership of land or whatever property they have. In a recent article for ‘the Guardian’ a Columbia University professor, Saskia Sassen, described how economic interest is involved in the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar military has been grabbing vast stretches of land from small landholders for large corporate projects. During 2010-2013, such land acquisitions increased by 170 percent. That demand has kept mounting in the recent years with the government allocating 3,100,000 acres of land in the Rohingya area for corporate rural development. That explains the attacks on these people are planned to force them out of their lands and find refuge wherever they can.
Unfortunately, the country’s de facto ruler, Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged as symbol of human rights and democracy when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, has chosen to besmirch her own reputation, and preside over persecution of her country’s Muslim population. Since she has no justification for her behaviour she has consistently been refusing to answer journalists’ questions on the issue. Foreign media is barred from visiting the troubled areas. Under pressure of international opinion she did allow an advisory commission headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to find ways of repairing frayed inter-communal relations, but without giving him the mandate to investigate cases of human rights abuses. No wonder the commission’s recommendation aimed at long-term economic development and access to education and healthcare remain completely ignored.
The violence perpetrated by her government and the resultant exodus have a name, ‘ethnic cleansing’, that no civilized country would want to be associated with. It has caused widespread anger and dismay. While leaders of almost all Muslim countries have issued condemnatory statements, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi called on Suu Kyi as well as the country’s army chief. A more effective initiative for Indonesia would be to initiate a move within the ASEAN, like the Maldives has announced, to sever trade ties with Myanmar until its government takes steps to stop atrocities against the Rohingya people. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he would raise the issue at the upcoming UN General Assembly session. That should be the focus of all efforts to stop persecution of the Rohingyas and ensure these people can live with dignity in their own country.