The Rohingya genocide and ambivalent Bangladesh – III

by Taj Hashmi | Published: 00:05, Sep 19,2017 | Updated: 00:38, Sep 19,2017


Rohingya Muslims walk to shore after arriving on a boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. — AP Photo/Dar Yasin

ARAKAN was a Bengali-speaking Muslim kingdom up to 1784, when Buddhist Barmans annexed the kingdom to what is Myanmar today. The British occupied Myanmar or Burma in 1826 and ruled the country up to 1948. When the British left Arakan, also called Rakhaine, remained a part of Myanmar. Meanwhile, thanks to Myanmar government policy, Buddhist/Barman people had outnumbered the indigenous Bengali Rohingyas in Arakan. After 1948, Arakanese Muslims tried to become independent, in vain. The rest is history. Salil Tripathi, a London-based renowned journalist and human rights activist, in his well-researched article in 2015 gave a lurid description of the premeditated ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military-backed regimes, in historical and contemporary perspectives. He writes: ‘This May, Tomás Ojea Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said publicly that ‘the Rohingya are in a process of genocide.’ Soon afterwards, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu called the persecution of the Rohingya a ‘slow genocide’.’ His account of what has happened to Arakan since Myanmar’s independence in 1948 is very discomforting too: ‘By the time the Japanese invaded British-controlled Burma as part of the Second World War, in early 1942, about a third of the population of Sittwe, Arakan’s biggest city, was Muslim — almost all of them Rohingya. That is no longer so. Today’s Sittwe — the capital of Rakhine state, home to some 150,000 people, and a place of peeling colonial houses, ramshackle huts and crowded, noisy bazaars — is almost exclusively Buddhist. The attacks in 2012, which were as vicious there as elsewhere in the state, forced thousands of Muslims away. Fewer than 5,000 remain, confined to Aung Mingalar, once a thriving Muslim quarter’ (Salil Tripathi, Beyond All Bounds: How Myanmar’s democratic opening has failed the Rohingya’, Caravan Magazine, November 1, 2015).One may cite multiple historical sources to show as to how the Rohingyas, who are living in Arakan since the 8th century, embraced Islam during the 9th and 15th centuries, have not only become a minority in Arakan, but they have become victims of a ‘slow genocide’ in their own ancestral home. The number of Rohingyas who have lost their lives — dignity, honour, and properties — at the hands of Myanmar’s military and civilians since 1942 is overwhelmingly and disproportionately high to their total population in Myanmar. Around 50 per cent of Rohingyas live as refugees and undocumented illegal workers in various countries. There are credible sources and estimates about the size of the Rohingya Diaspora. Bangladesh is said to have sheltered around 500,000 (by mid-September, another 400,000 have entered the country, following the new surge of violence on August 25). There are 200,000 to 350,000 of them in Pakistan; 200,000 to 400,000 in Saudi Arabia; 150,000 in Malaysia; 100,000 in Thailand; 40,000 in India; 11,000 in Indonesia; and 10,000 in UAE.The Rohingyas have a checkered history. They lived in the Muslim kingdom of Arakan or Rakhaine. Some of their Buddhist rulers in the medieval period adopted Islamic names and titles, and struck coins with Arabic and Persian inscriptions. For several centuries, Arakan and the greater Chittagong had a common government, until the separation of the later in 1666 under the Mughal rulers of India. In 1784, Bodawpaya, a Buddhist Burman king annexed Arakan, which became a British territory, not long after they occupied Myanmar in 1826. Soon, the British brought tens of thousands of Bengalis to work in Myanmar. And Mayanmar government since independence in 1948, are demanding the expulsion of all Bengalis and Rohingyas, as foreigners, which is similar to what Sri Lankan majority Buddhist Sinhalese community did to the minority Tamils. Sinhalese majority community demanded the expulsion of all Tamils from Sri Lanka. They simply denied all historical evidences about many Tamils, who had been living in Sri Lanka for several thousand years.During the Japanese occupation of Myanmar (1942-1945) while Burman Buddhists in general collaborated with the Japanese occupation army, Rohingyas in general remained loyal to the British, and many joined the anti-Japanese resistance army of the V-Force, raised by the British. In 1942 alone, about 100,000 Rohingyas got killed at the hands of Burman Buddhists. Shortly after Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. According to a report (‘Is Genocide Occurring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State?’ October 2015) by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, the Rohingya were not included. The act, however, did allow those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. A massive exodus of Rohingyas took place following the independence. Meanwhile, before the independence in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and asked his assistance in incorporating Arakan to Pakistan, considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with East Pakistan. Two months later, the north Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (modern Sittwe). It demanded annexation to Pakistan. The proposal was never materialised since it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah saying that he was not in a position to interfere into Burmese matters ( Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, South Asian Institute, Heidelberg University, Verlag Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaen, 1972, p.10). Following this ‘utopian’ quest by some Rohingya leaders for joining Pakistan on the eve of Myanmar’s independence in early 1948, Myanmar went through a violent phase of Muslim Rohingya separatist movement for total freedom, known as the Mujahid Movement, led by Jafar Kwal. Myanmar troops killed Kwal in 1951, and his death led to the rise of several splinter groups and disintegration of the Islamic separatist movement. In 1963, the Mujahid Movement was reformed under the banner of the Rohingya Independence (later Patriotic) Front, in alliance with some non-Muslim Rakahine rebel groups, such as the Communist Party of Arakan, and the Arakan National Liberation Party (Riccardo Marzoli’s Master’s Thesis, pp.36-7). In 1962, General Ne Win staged a military coup in Myanmar. His ascendancy signalled the beginning of extremely hard time for the Rohingyas and other ethno-national minority groups in the country. All citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue and obtain. Consequently, several hundred thousand Rohingyas left the country after 1962. In 1978, a large-scale military operation (Operation King Dragon, also known as Operation Nagamin) took place in northern Arakan. Officially, it was against Rohingya insurgents, who had been fighting for an Islamic State, but actually it classified individuals living in Arakan as ‘citizens’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh. Consequently, around 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. Many of them later returned to Myanmar under UN supervision, and faced arbitrary arrests, rape, torture, and expropriation. In 1982, a new citizenship law effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless. They were not among the 135 recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. In order to obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), there must be proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar prior to 1948, as well as s/he has fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them. Henceforth, many Rohingyas cannot vote in Myanmar. In 1990, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won 392 of the 485 seats in Myanmar parliament. Despite their support for the NLD, more than 250,000 Rohingyas were forced out from Arakan into Bangladesh. Since the 1990s, the military junta and the military-backed puppet government of Aung San Suu Kyi (since 2016) are grossly discriminating against the Rohingyas. Afterwards, indiscriminate expropriations, rape, torture, expulsion, and murder of Rohingyas by security forces and Burman Buddhists became the norm. Now, in regards to the Rohingya issue, the options for Bangladesh are very limited. It can, however, now play a different ballgame with Myanmar. As Bangladesh should pressure Myanmar to take back all the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh in the last few years, it should also involve the UN, international human rights agencies, and China (which has considerable influence with the Myanmar authorities) to make Myanmar respect international law and human rights of people living under its suzerainty. Then again, the ambivalence, contradictions, and the absence of any sense of direction in Bangladesh government’s Rohingya policy are big problems toward an amicable settlement of the refugee problem. This is evident in the following excerpts from a UN aid agency official — who wants to remain anonymous and currently working at Cox’s Bazar — shared his opinion on Facebook on September 1:1. For some unknown reasons, the Bangladesh government has not prepared any list of Rohingya refugees. Consequently, although there are around 900,000 Rohingyas in the country, the number of registered refugees in the list of the UNHCR is far less than the actual figure;2. This discrepancy would eventually hurt Bangladesh. If and when there is an agreement for repatriation of the refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, the latter would not accept anybody who are not enlisted in the UNHCR’s list;3. As Bangladesh government’s 2014 policy on ‘National Strategy on Myanmar Refugees and Undocumented Myanmar Nationals in Bangladesh’ does not recognise Rohingyas as refugee or asylum seekers but as illegal immigrants or intruders in the country, they are not entitled to any international aid, and right of return to their homeland;4. And this Bangladesh government is legitimising the exploitation and marginalisation of Rohingya refugees, and this policy might backfire to the detriment of law and order and overall security of Bangladesh.Although unbelievable, it is true that in July 2014, the Bangladesh government prohibited any marriage between Bangladeshi nationals and Rohingya refugees in the country (Huffington Post, July 10, 2014).  First of all, it is a violation of human rights, as declared by the UN in 1945, which declares the right to marry as an inalienable human right — people are free to choose their spouses without any restrictions imposed by any state or law. The Bangladesh government’s decision in this regard is not that different from Nazi Germany’s imposition of restrictions on marriages between ‘German’ nationals and Jews.Recently, some Bangladeshi analysts put forward some very constructive proposals to the government of Bangladesh at a roundtable conference in Dhaka. While Dr Asif Nazrul chewed the GOB out for being obnoxiously docile to the Myanmar authorities, and for not having any Rohingya policy, Dr Pinaki Bhattacharyya asked the GOB to abandon its ambivalent, week, vacillating, and counterproductive policy towards the ongoing Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Portraying Suu Kyi and Narendra Modi as promoters of Islamophobia across the region, Dr Bhattacharyya condemned the GOB’s decision to buy rice from Myanmar, and urged it to break all diplomatic ties with Myanmar to exert pressure on the Suu Kyi regime. Dr Nazrul boldly asserted that while Myanmar’s air force had violated Bangladeshi air space with impunity — 17 times in the last few weeks — Bangladesh had failed to be brave enough to protest, let alone violate Myanmar’s air space in retaliation. He ridiculed the Awami League government as illegitimate, hence weak and vacillating. He condemned the GOB for antagonising the friendly countries, turning Bangladesh into a ‘friendless’ entity; and for failing to understand the security threats the Rohingya genocide posed to Bangladesh, in the long-run (YouTube, ‘Roundtable Discussion on National Solidarity for the Rohingya’, uploaded September 13, 2017).Meanwhile, the GOB has apparently forbidden public rallies against the genocidal Myanmar regime. Recently, the partisan police did not allow the opposition BNP to take any relief material for Rohingya refugees at Teknaf. It turned back 22 trucks carrying relief goods for the refugees. This partisan policy is likely to backfire. Mere lip service to the Rohingya refugees, shedding tears, and hugging Rohingya women and children by the prime minister in front of cameras, will not do any good to the refugees, let alone Bangladesh. To conclude, Bangladesh just can’t afford to be a passive spectator of the ongoing persecution of the Rohingyas who are indigenous to Arakan, once integral to Bangladesh.  Now, there are some open-ended and possibly embarrassing questions in this regard. If Bangladesh should assert its claim on Arakan is altogether a different and difficult question! If there is a military solution to the problem, is another problematic question. Concluded.

Dr. Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). 

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email