Dr. Habib Siddiqui
The Rohingya people of Myanmar (formerly Burma) who mostly live in the western part – the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state, bordering Bangladesh, are undoubtedly the most persecuted people on earth. Denied citizenship in the Buddhist majority country, the Rohingyas have simply become the most unwanted people in our planet. The nearby Bangladesh does not want the persecuted Rohingyas to settle there either. In desperate attempts to save their lives, many Rohingyas have become now the ‘boat people’ of our time!
Who would have thought that in our time, some 68 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the world community to guide its behaviors and actions we would see so much of intolerance and persecution of peoples based on their race or ethnicity?
There are 30 Articles of the UDHR, starting with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” The second one reads: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…”
When it comes to the Rohingya, sadly, not a single one of these rights is honored by the Myanmar government. These unfortunate people are denied their right to citizenship while the 15th Article clearly states: “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”
As the UN General Assembly convened last week, it is worth reminding ourselves that the preamble of the United Nations says, “WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, ….”
And yet, the Myanmar government, being a member of the United Nations, denies such fundamental rights to the Rohingya people. It draws justification from the Burma Citizenship Law (1982), which was adopted during military dictator Ne Win’s time. Under the section 3 of this law it is mentioned that “Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens”.
As can be seen the name ‘Rohingya’ was deliberately not mentioned in the list in spite of the fact that before the advent of the Tibeto-Burman races in Arakan, the Indo-Bengali ancestors (the first settlers) of today’s Rohingya people had already settled in the territory and that they have had maintained an unbroken continuity of their existence since time immemorial. In so doing, Aye Kyaw (a neo-Nazi fascist, Rakhine academic) who had drafted the Citizenship Law for the military dictator Ne Win was killing two birds with one stone – permanently erasing the identity and sealing the fate of millions of Rohingyas by not only denying them citizenship in Burma but also from exercising democratic rights in Arakan where they comprised nearly half (or more correctly, 47.75%) of the population, second only to the Buddhist Rakhines. This was a devious ploy by any definition.
The same evil genius – Aye Kyaw – was also a key figure in the formulation of racial, apartheid policy of the ANC (Arakan National Congress). Its draft constitution for the Arakan state reads: “The citizenship of the Republic of Arakan shall be determined and regulated by law. The citizen of Arakan shall be known as Arakanese. Buddhism shall be the state religion. Only the Arakan legal entities and citizens of Arakan nationality shall have the right to own land.” Since the Rohingyas are classified as Arakan Bengalis they will be subjected to a second class citizenship with no right to run for office or own land.
As can be seen, the ANC policy is an apartheid policy of exclusion, discrimination and marginalization of the Rohingya, who are derogatorily called the Kula (Kala) much like how the Afro-Americans were once called in the USA as the Black Niggers.
Interestingly, under the section 4, the 1982 Citizenship Law says: “Every national and every person born of parents, both of whom are nationals are citizens by birth.”
In the section 6, it says: “A person who is already a citizen on the date this Law comes into force is a citizen. Action, however, shall be taken under section 18 for infringement of the provision of that section.”
It is worth pointing out that the Rohingyas were accepted as citizens of Burma, and had elected members of the parliament from their own community. During the Parliamentary period (1948-1962) and the first years of Ne Win’s dictatorship, there were not only many Rohingya organizations, both in Arakan and Rangoon, but the government recognized Rohingya as a Burmese ethnic group, and its language program was also transmitted through the national radio station in Rangoon. As such, to them sections 4 and 6 were only a confirmation of such rights.
But soon the controversial law was exploited by the military regime and its racist and fascist supporters within the larger Buddhist community, esp. the Rakhines, to treat the Rohingyas as non-natives to Burma, opening the door for all types of discrimination against them. A chain of pogroms followed laying down the stepping stones for their genocide.
With the change of the old guards in Myanmar in recent years, we had high hopes that the apartheid Citizenship Law would be revoked. But we were wrong.
The former military general Thein Sein is the poster-boy of so-called reform inside the country. With him as the head of the state, there is a quasi-civil-military government in place that runs the fractured country. Myanmar had its election – albeit a limited one – in which many politicians with grass root support within the masses managed to win the limited seats available in the parliament. The new regime has also released many political prisoners (mostly Buddhists) who were once rotting in many of Myanmar’s notorious dungeons. In reaction to such positive image-building initiatives, the western world has reciprocated by lifting its political and economic sanctions against the once hated military dictatorship, which has ruled the country for almost its entire life since earning independence from Britain in January 4 of 1948.
There was much expectation – probably too unrealistic and too premature – that the Thein Sein government was serious about ‘real’ reform and that the Rohingyas will be integrated as citizens at par with other ethnic/national groups inside Myanmar. What we have witnessed instead is worsening of their situations. They are now victims of a highly organized genocidal campaign in which even Buddhists like Aung San Suu Kyi – touted one-time as the democracy icon – are sadly, either silent or willing partners in this gross violation of human rights. Since May of 2012, an estimated 150,000 Rohingyas are internally displaced in the Rakhine state. Tens of thousands of Muslims living in other parts of Myanmar have also seen organized mob violence, lynching, and wholesale destruction of their homes, schools, mosques and businesses, which have resulted in some 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) all across Myanmar.
What is worse, the international NGOs, esp. from the Muslim countries, were barred from helping out the Muslim victims. In the face of reported protests from the Rakhine Buddhist community, the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) could not even open an office to carry out its much needed humanitarian relief work in the troubled region.
This year (2014), the Myanmar authorities have cracked down even harder, making the situation worse. First, the government expelled Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which had been providing health care for the Rohingya. Then orchestrated mobs attacked the offices of humanitarian organizations, forcing them out. While some kinds of aid are resuming, but not the health care! As noted by award-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, expected mothers and their children are dying for lack of doctors. They need doctors desperately to save their lives, but the Myanmar government has confined them to quasi-concentration camps outside towns, and it blocks aid workers from entering to provide medical help. They are on their own in Myanmar, where democratic progress is being swamped by crimes against humanity toward the Rohingya.
Many of the Muslim IDPs now live in squalid camps with no provisions and are counting their days hopelessly to be relocated to their burned homes. And yet, such a provision seems unlikely. In recent months, Rakhine Buddhists have organized demonstrations protesting any resettlement of the Rohingya and other Muslims. Bottom line – they want the Rohingya and other Muslims out of Myanmar, if not totally annihilated.
Many international observers and some experts, including human rights activists, were surprised by such outbreaks of ethnic cleansing drives last year against the Muslims, in general, and the Rohingya people, in particular, let alone the level of Buddhist intolerance against non-Buddhists everywhere inside Myanmar. However, such sad episodes were no surprise to many keen readers and researchers of the Myanmar’s problematic history.
We all knew that simply a transition to democracy would not and could not solve the Rohingya problem. Instead of a much-needed dialogue for reconciliation and confidence-building between ethnic/national and religious groups, what we recognized was appalling Buddhist chauvinism – outright rejection of the ‘other’ people from such processes by the so-called ‘democracy’ leaders within the Burmese and Rakhine Diaspora. As if, their so-called struggle for democracy against the hated military regime was a purely Buddhist one, the Rohingya Muslims were unwelcome in those dialogues between ethnic/national groups.
The level of Buddhist intolerance, hatred and xenophobia has simply no parallel in our time! The chauvinist Buddhists are in denial of the very existence of the Rohingya people, in spite of the fact that the latter’s root in Arakan is older than that of the Rakhines by several centuries. While the vast majority of the late comers to the contested territory were Buddhists, the Rohingyas, much like the people living next door – on the other side of the Naaf River – in today’s Bangladesh had embraced Islam voluntarily. Their conversion had also much to do with the history of the entire region, esp. in the post-13th century when the Sultans and the great Mughal Emperors ruled vast territories of the South Asia from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of the Indian Ocean.
As a matter of fact, the history of Arakan, sandwiched then between Muslim-dominated India and Buddhist-dominated Burma, would have been much different had it not been for the crucial decision made by the Muslim Sultan of Bengal who reinstalled the fleeing Buddhist king Narameikhtla to the throne of Arakan in 1430 with a massive Muslim force of nearly 60,000 soldiers – sent in two campaigns. Interestingly, the Muslim General Wali Khan – leading a force of 25,000 soldiers, who was instructed to put the fleeing monarch to the throne of Arakan –claimed it for himself. He was subsequently uprooted in a new campaign – again at the directive of the Sultan of Muslim Bengal, by General Sandi Khan who led a force of 35,000 soldiers. What would be Arakan’s history today if the Muslim Sultan of Bengal had let General Wali Khan rule the country as his client?
The so-called democracy leaders in the opposition had very little, if any, in common with values and ideals of democracy but more with hard-core fascism. Their behavior showed that they were closet fascists and were no democrats. Thus, all the efforts of the Rohingya and other non-Buddhist minority groups to reach out to the Buddhist-dominated opposition leadership simply failed. It was an ominous warning for the coming days!
So, in 2012 when the region witnessed a series of highly orchestrated ethnic cleansing drives against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups not just within the Rakhine state but all across Myanmar, like some keen observers of the political developments I was not too surprised. Nor was I surprised with the poisonous role played by leaders of the so-called democracy movement. They showed their real fascist color. But the level of ferocity, savagery and inhumanity simply shocked me. It showed that the Theravada Buddhists of Myanmar, like their co-religionists in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, have unmistakably become one of the most racists and bigots in our world. With the evolving incendiary role of Buddhist monks like Wirathu – the abbot of historically influential Mandalay Ma-soe-yein monastery and his 969 Fascist Movement, which sanctifies eliminationist policies against the Muslims, surely, the teachings of Gautama Buddha have miserably failed to enlighten them and/or put a lid on their all too obvious savagery and monstrosity.
Myanmar is still locked in its mythical, savage past and has not learned the basics of nation-building. It uses fear-tactics and hatred towards a common enemy – the Rohingyas and Muslim minorities – to glue its fractured Buddhist majority. And the sad reality is – its formula is working, thanks to Wirathu, Thein Sein, Suu Kyi and other provocateurs and executioners!
On June 20, 2013 twelve Nobel Peace Laureates called upon the Myanmar government for ending violence against Muslims in Burma. They also called for an international independent investigation of the anti-Muslim violence. Yet, the Myanmar regime continues to ignore international plea for integration of the Rohingya and other minorities. It proclaims – “There are no people called Rohingya in Myanmar.” This narrative is absurd, as well as racist. A document as far back as 1799 refers to the Rohingya population in Arakan, and an 1826 report estimates that 30 percent of the population of this region was Muslim.
As I have noted elsewhere, today’s Rohingya are a hybrid group of people, much like the Muslim communities living in many non-Arab countries around the globe, esp. South Asia. To say that their origin is a British-era or a Bangladeshi phenomenon is simply disingenuous.
In recent months, Myanmar has conducted a controversial census in which nearly a million Rohingyas were unaccounted. They were denied their basic rights to identify themselves as Rohingya. It was a gross violation according to scores of international law.
The Rohingya identity is no more “artificial” or “invented” than any other, including the Rakhine identity. The national politics around the Rohingya people of Arakan who are dumped as the ‘Bengali illegal Muslim immigrants’ is not mere bigotry but a viable toxic fruit of Myanmar ultra-nationalism? Bhumi Rakkhita Putra Principle. It is a deliberate act of provocative target-marking in line with YMBA’s (Young Men Buddhist Association) amyo-batha-tharthana (race-language-religion) and is the foundation of the Burma Citizenship Act 1982. It is strong, powerful, and ultra-toxic. This apartheid law allows a Rakhine Buddhist like Aye Maung – an MP and chairman of the RNDP (a religio-racist Rakhine political party) whose parents only emigrated to Arakan state in 1953-54 from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) – to be automatically recognized as a Burmese citizen while denying the same privilege to millions of Rohingya and other Muslims whose ancestors had lived in the territory for centuries.
Myanmar espouses neo-Nazi Fascism, i.e., Myanmarism – the noxious cocktail of Buddhism, ultra-nationalism, racism and bigotry. It is a farcical ideology, which starts on the false premise that the different groups that make up its complex ethnic/religious mosaic today were always under the authority of a single government before the arrival of the British. It is a dangerous ideology since it promotes the agenda towards genocide of the Rohingya and other non-Buddhist religious minorities. It is a medieval ideology of hatred and intolerance because it defines citizenship based on ethnicity or race, which has no place in the 21st century.
The Citizenship Law of 1982 violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights. The 1982 Law promotes discrimination against Rohingya by arbitrarily depriving them of their Burmese (Myanmar) citizenship. The deprivation of one’s nationality is not only a serious violation of human rights but also constitutes an international crime.
This apartheid law is a blueprint for elimination or ethnic cleansing. It has galvanized into genocidal campaign against the vulnerable Rohingya people who have lost everything in their ancestral land and has created outflows of refugees, which overburden other countries posing threats to peace and security within the region. Of the Rohingya Diaspora an estimated 1.5 million now live in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, USA, UK, Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and other places where they could find a shelter. Such a forced exodus of Rohingyas is simply unacceptable in our time.
If Myanmar’s leaders are serious about bringing their nation state from savage past to modernity, from darkness to enlightenment and avoiding becoming a failed state, they must abandon their toxic ideology of Myanmarism and revoke the apartheid Citizenship Law. They must learn from experiences of others to avoid disintegration. They must also learn that like everyone else the Rohingyas have the right to self-identify themselves. And it would be travesty of law and justice to deny such rights of self-identity.
Finally, it would be the greatest tragedy of our generation should we allow the perpetrators of genocide and ethnic cleansing to whitewash their crimes against humanity. The UNSC must demand an impartial inquiry and redress the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya people need protection as the most persecuted people on earth. Should the Thein Sein government fail to bring about the desired change, starting with either repealing or amending the 1982 Citizenship Law, the UNSC must consider creating a ‘save haven’ inside Arakan in the northern Mayu Frontier Territories to protect the lives of the Rohingya people so that they could live safely, securely with honor and dignity as rest of us. The sooner the better!