Away from the mainstream media, the tragic persecution of the forgotten Rohingyas is unfolding in neighbouring Myanmar. The recent flare-up was of a scale that prompted the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) to intervene and censure the Myanmar Government, “to ensure the protection and dignity of all civilians on its territory in accordance with the rule of law and its international obligations”. This purge is especially ironic as it takes place under the watch of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Su Kyi, as the ‘First and incumbent State Counsellor’ (a creative designation that overcomes her inability to be formally anointed as President, owing to a constitutional provision). Oddly, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize citation had mentioned “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. Today, the Muslim Indo-Aryan race of Rohingyas is facing systemic disenfranchisement in the latest democracy in the world, as indeed, violent backlash from the majority non-Muslim Rakhine people that has led to over 100 confirmed deaths and displacement of 30,000 Rohingyas.
The Rohingyas have been subjected to an identity crisis for centuries, as their disputed claims of nativity to the Rakhine State (a coastal strip that is contiguous to the Chittagong division of Bangladesh) in Myanmar, are buttressed with documented records of Bengali labour imports during British rule and by the multiple exodus warranted by the Bangladesh liberation war, into the bordering Rakhine State. Their Muslim identity, separatist movements (including a failed one to join Jinnah’s Pakistan in 1947) and the popular perceptions of imminent demographic changes with their burgeoning population has always posited them with suspicion and discrimination. Theravada Buddhism and Myanmar nationalism have ensured that the fractured and diverse society of Myanmar is able to close ranks against the Rohingyas from the days of the Burmese junta to today’s ostensibly, pacifist government of the National League for Democracy. The Bamar majority of Myanmar is openly in favour of denying the Rohingyas citizenship, with even Suu Kyi maintaining a populist and partisan stand of refuting any genocidal tendencies and stating that there is a general “climate of fear” caused by “a worldwide perception that global Muslim power is very great”.
The expected mellowing of the national narrative against the Rohingyas was short-lived with the transition from the heavy-boots of the junta regime to the freedom of participative democracy in 2016. Internationally, talk of a “democratic dictator” in new Myanmar does the rounds as her silence on “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”, is widely construed as ingenious complicity.
Even though Myanmar hosts an uneasy and restive diversity of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups, the Rohingyas remain unrecognised under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, and are, therefore, stateless. These nowhere people scurrying across the borders have earned the unfortunate sobriquet of Asia’s latest ‘boat people’. Over 1 million Rohingyas reside restively in Myanmar and an equal number are believed to have fled in exile to neigbouring Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, some even attempting to make a desperate dash to the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Denied citizenship in Myanmar and with the status of illegal immigrants everywhere else, the Rohingyas are closeted in squalid camps on both sides of the border. Adding to the ostensible numbers of the Rohingyas are the fleeing Bangladeshis who are attempting their own exodus from grinding poverty, while getting clubbed as Rohingyas, in the region.
The wave of global Pan-Islamic assertion is resulting in all Rohingyas being conveniently labelled as ‘Islamic Jihadists’ from Bangladesh, overlooking generations of existence in the Rakhine State. But, with their own tryst of economic compulsions and unemployment levels, all countries in the vicinity like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand are pushing back the hapless Rohingyas. Deprived of civic rights, employment or freedom of movement within Myanmar, their refugee-like status affords a ghostlike anonymity that is sought to be played down and removed from public imagination as Aung San Suu Kyi maintains an ambivalent and uncommitted attitude — “we have not tried to hide anything on Rakhine” — in the face of international criticism.
There isn’t one nation in the region backing the cause of the Rohingyas and the banality of asking “both sides” to exercise restraint is widely suggested. The popular perceptions of fear and loathing against the Rohingyas and the electoral importance of that sentiment in a participative democracy, is preventing the ‘champion of freedom and human rights’, to come clean and extend the equality of citizenship to the Rohingyas. The 2012 outbreak and Rohingya riots were attributed to the junta-era, but now the civilian and democratically elected government is equally failing in its first visible test of demonstrating its inclusiveness and democratic instincts.
Today, access to the Rakhine state is tightly controlled to-and-fro, and reportage is restricted. UN bodies and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) are pressing for access to aid agencies, independent journalists and humanitarian aid workers to operate freely. Equally, Bangladesh is getting pressured to provide critical humanitarian aid, as per international laws, to Rohingyas fleeing human rights violations. In such times, for Rohingyas to seek succour, relief and protection by informing the police or the military on either side of the border is not an option. This gives rise to protectionist militant groups like Aqa Mul Mujahidin (AMM), who come with the additional baggage and regression of promoting extremist Islamic ideology. The net result then, is the widely supported military crackdown by the Myanmar military that results in extreme brutality, under the ostensible purpose of fighting Islamist terror.
The Rohingyas are stateless ‘nowhere people’ who are fleeing one form of discrimination to land in another. There are no state benefactors or mentors for their cause, caught as they are in the vortex of an apathetic regime and an equally disinterested neighbourhood. The human crisis unfolds silently.
The writer is LT GEN PVSM, AVSM (Retd), former Lt governor of Andaman & Nicobar islands & Puducherry.