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Sat, 23 Jun 2018

Northeast Today

The State-Sponsored Cleansing of the Rohingya

The State-Sponsored Cleansing of the Rohingya
March 11
14:48 2018

Debarshi Bhattacharya

The never-ending ethnicity conflict between the majority Buddhist and minority Rohingya in Myanmar has been outlined into its extreme form during the recent past resulting in thecrossing of Naf River by endless streams of Rohingya for their survival into Bangladesh. In recent days, Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has come to the spotlight of theglobal dome, when the issue involves intense barbaric coercion of the Myanmar army upon the Rohingya minority people, resulting in state-sponsored eradication of Rohingya minority from Myanmar and creation of enormous Rohingya refugee pressure in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Rohingya crisis in Myanmar (formerly Burma) contains a long historical tail. According to a group of historians, the Rohingya, a group of people of South Asian origin, resided in an independent kingdom in Arakan, now known as Rakhine state, in western Myanmar (the then Burma) since the8th century. The Rohingya came into contact with Islam through Persian and Arab traders in 9th to 14th century. On the other hand, according to another group of historians, Rohingya Muslim minority group lived in this area since as early as the 12th century. In 1784, Buddhist Burmese King, Bodawpaya, conquered Arakan and drove out the Muslim Rohingya and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled to Bengal, the then part of the British Raj in India. In 1826, the British took control of Arakan after the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). From 1826 to 1942, Britain ruled in Burma. Rakhine territory was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. During these more than 100 years of British rule, a significant number of migration of labourers took place from today’s India and Bangladesh to the then Burma. British encouraged farmers from Bengal to move to the depopulated area of Arakan, both Rohingyas originally from the area and native Bengalis. As the British administered Burma as a province of undivided India, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), such migration was merely considered as aninternal transfer of people.But such sudden influx of immigrants from British India sparked a strong reaction from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine population living in Arakan at the time, sowing the seeds of ethnic tension that still exists today.

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When World War II broke out, Britain abandoned Arakan in the face of Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia. In 1942, Japan occupied Burma thrusting out the British. In the chaos of Britain’s withdrawal, both Muslim and Buddhist forces took the opportunity to inflict massacres on each other. But the Japanese stood behind the Buddhists and they embarked on a hideous program of torture, rape and murder against the Rohingyas in Arakan. Tens of thousands of Arakanese Rohingyas once again fled to Bengal. In 1945, Britain liberated Burma from Japanese occupation with help of Burmese nationalists led by Aung San and Rohingya fighters, but the British didn’t accomplish the promise of autonomy of Arakan for Rohingya. In 1948, Burma got its independence. It was historically evident that most of the Rohingya people wanted Arakan to join Muslim-majority East Pakistan, which augmented discrepancies between the Buddhist majority population of Burma and the Rohingya. This led the Burmese government and Buddhists population to consider the Rohingya to be Bengali-created for political reasons, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention. After independence, Burmese government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as illegal.

Accordingly, shortly after Burma’s independence, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnic groups could gain citizenship, but the Rohingya were not included in those ethnic groups. Said citizenship act, however, did allow those Rohingya whose families had lived in Burma for at least two generations to apply for their identity cards. Rohingya were initially given such identification or even citizenship under the generational provision. A number of Rohingya representatives then served in Burmese parliament. After the 1962 military coup in Burma, things changed dramatically against the Rohingya.

In 1962, General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Party seized power and took a hard line against the Rohingya. All citizens of Burma were required to obtain national registration cards, but the Rohingya, however, was only given foreign identity cards, which closely restricted their fundamental rights in Burma. In 1977, the Govt. by the army began ‘Operation Nagamin’ (means Dragon King), which they said was aimed at screening the population for foreigners. As a result, more than 2,00,000Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. In 1978, Bangladesh struck a UN-brokered deal with Burma for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, as a consequence of which most of the Rohingya got back to Burma. In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, which effectively made the Rohingya stateless in Burma. Under this law, Rohingya were again not recognized as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups.

Actually, this new immigration law redefined people who migrated during British rule as illegal immigrants. Astonishingly the Burmese Govt. applied this to all Rohingya. As a result of the new law, Rohingyas’ rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access to health services in Burma continued to be restricted. Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State had forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, as well as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, India and other Southeast Asian countries. In 1989, the Govt. by the army changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. In 1991, more than 2,50,000 Rohingya refugees fled as they said was forced labour, rape and religious persecution in the hands of the Myanmar army; to the contrary, the army said that it was trying to bring back law and order in Rakhine state. From 1992 to 1997, around 2,30,000Rohingya returned back to Rakhine under another repatriation agreement.

Since the independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, rebutted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s ethnic groups. Both the Myanmar Govt. and the Rakhine state’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group rejected the use of the label ‘Rohingya’. In Myanmar, Rohingya are largely identified as illegal Bengali immigrants, despite the fact that the Rohingya have been dwelling in Rakhine state for centuries. Myanmar Govt. refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship status, and as a result, Rohingya people do not possess any legal documentation in support of their state citizenship and they were treated as stateless people in spite of their existence in Rakhine for long years. In the1990s, Rohingya people were able to register as temporary residents of Burma with an identification card, known as ‘white card’. This white card conferred some limited rights to Rohingya, but not recognized as a proof of citizenship. Although such temporary card held no legal value in support of citizenship, it did represent some minimal recognition of temporary stay for the Rohingya in Myanmar. White card holders had been allowed to cast vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections.

In 2012, ariot between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists killed over 100 people. As a consequential impact, tens of thousands of people were driven into Bangladesh and nearly 1,50,000Rohingya were forced into camps in Rakhine. Due to tremendous pressure from the Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, the then President Thein Sein cancelled the said temporary white card issued to Rohingya in February 2015.

Rohingya people in Myanmar are the world’s largest ‘stateless’ population. Due to their statelessness, most countries are reluctant to consider the Rohingya as refugees and often label them as ‘economic migrants’. Stringent restrictions imposed by the Govt. upon Rohingya constricted their freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, educational facilities, employment opportunities and other basic amenities. As per World Bank estimates, Rakhine state is Myanmar’s least developed state with more than 78 percent of households living below the poverty threshold. Widespread poverty, feeble infrastructure, lack educational and employment opportunities, ethnic disparity gap, biased attitude of the state, state-sponsored oppression aggravate the situation for thesustenance of stateless Rohingya people in Myanmar. For the Rohingya, the conflict is not a mere struggle to reduce the widened ethnic disparity gap and their distresses; it is a hard struggle to establish their ethnic identity on Rakhine soil. The state and the majority people of the country strongly oppose their existence on the Burmese soil, completely ignoring the truth of history. In October 2016, Rohingya militant group Harakah al-Yaqin attacked border guard posts, killing nine soldiers. The Myanmar army retaliated not only to the Rohingyamilitants but also to the Rohingya common people. Mass killing organized by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar army, on revenge and about 1,200 Rohingya inhabited buildings burned down by the army. Any form of humanitarian aid had been blocked in the areas under army attack and around 30,000 people had been forced to flee for their lives. Govt. led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the noble laureate for peace, denied such atrocities on Rohingya. It is evident that nearly one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar due to widespread persecution since the late 1970s. Due to ongoing violence and persecution, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries either by land or boat over the course of many decades.

In the latest turmoil that took place with effect from 25th August 2017, initial violence broke out in northern Rakhine state when a new Rohingya militant group, the ArakanRohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked Myanmar security forces in northern Rakhine; although it was said on the part of Rohingya militants that the attacks on Govt. forces were an act of self-defence for their survival. The Myanmar Govt. claimed in response that it formally categorized the Rohingyamilitant group as a terrorist organization and had killed 370 militants tied to the group; though Rohingya activists said that many were not at all militants, rather innocent Rohingya and that the number of thedeath toll was much higher than the Govt. confessed. In retaliation, Myanmar army supported by Buddhist militia launched a ‘clearance operation’ through mass killing, torturing and burning of Rohingya civilians’ houses; although the Govt. repeatedly denied such accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The operation emptied innumerable Rohingya villages and forced them to flee to Bangladesh, but the Myanmar Govt. shamelessly claimed that the Rohingya themselves burned their own houses and killed Buddhists and Hindus. Various human right and aid agencies identified the issue as thesevere humanitarian crisis in overstretched border camps and the issue of the dangers facing Rohingya people trapped in conflict zones. The Myanmar army reported that 400 people were killed in the violence, but unofficial neutral sources claimed that the massacre was a state-sponsored genocide. As aconsequential effect, hundreds of thousands Rohingya fled to Bangladesh leaving their birth soil just for the sake of their lives. Those who could finally cross the border had walked for days, hiding in jungles and crossing mountains and rivers. Most of them are female and children, many are sick, infirm and pregnant; and many of them had bullet injury. An unknown number could still be stranded in a narrow strip of no man’s land that separates the two countries, where access to aid is very limited. Around 2,00,000 Rohingya people are still thought to be internally displaced and helplessly trapped in conflict zones sustaining terrible inhuman situation on the spot. Endless streams of Rohingyas have already crossed the Naf River into Bangladesh. As per thereport of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the new arrivals bring the total estimated number of Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh is 5,20,000 since August 25, 2017, when Myanmar’s army began abrutal operation against the Rohingya in retaliation for an attack made by the ARSA. Till date, more than 9,00,000Rohingya refugees have been sheltered in Bangladesh including these newcomers. As many as 1,00,000 more people may be waiting to cross into Cox’s Bazar from North Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township. As per IOM, an estimated 2,000 Rohingyas are still arriving in Cox’s Bazar location of Bangladesh in a day. On September 14, the Bangladesh Govt. allocated 2,000 acres of forest land to set up a new camp adjacent to the existing Kutapalong makeshift settlement and it further allocated another 1,000 acres of land to cope up with the influx of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh has shown its humanitarian face not only by sheltering such a large number of homeless Rohingya on her own soil, the state and the common people are constantly providing food, clothes, medicines to these vulnerable refugees.

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Rohingya people have been facing theinhuman situation of statelessness for centuries and are feeling extremely restless every moment for another state-sponsored oppression and genocide. Those who fled to Bangladesh and other countries do not see any ray of hope for their resettlement in their birth soil. Myanmar state supreme and the noble laureate for peace, Aung San Suu Kyi, is not only failed to resolve the centuries-old ethnic community issue in her own country, she is also completely failed to stop bloodshed of innumerable innocent Rohingya on her own soil, where humanity is dreadfully threatened with every puff of air for the Rohingya. Suu Kyi was virtually kept silent on reports of state-sponsored violence that took place upon Rohingya for years. In her efforts to stabilize the situation in Rakhine, she appointed Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, to head a commission to make necessary recommendations to resolve Rohingya issue. The commission’s final report released in late August 2017 recommended the closing of camps for internally displaced people (IDP), freedom of movement for the minorities, minority participation in civic affairs and the creation of a mechanism to carry out the commission’s recommendations. But within days of the release of the said report, the ARSA attacked several border posts and these attacks were then used to justify the violent response from the Myanmar military that led to the current appalling humanitarian crisis resulting in the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority groups has been compounded by the deadly incursions of the ARSA. It was not that all Rohingya were extremist militants; yet, all Rohingya faced with terrible state-sponsored torture in form of burning of houses, killing, rape etc. A team from the UN Human Rights Office, which interviewed 65 Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar between September 14 and September 24, commented that Myanmar’s army is still involved in a systematic effort to rid the country of Rohingyas and has torched homes, crops, villages of the minority community to prevent them from returning. The UN team further added that Myanmar security forces often in concert with armed Rakhine Buddhist individuals committed human rights violations against the Rohingyas and caused over 5 lakh of them to leave the Rakhine state.

Probably, Suu Kyi does not have any control over the Myanmar military forces, and she has been utterly criticized for her failure to condemn indiscriminate coercion made by the Myanmar army upon Rohingya minority as well as to stand up for the human rights of more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar. The noble peace laureate has not yet shown any genuine intention to find out a rational resolution of the long lasted Rohingya crisis in Myanmar; rather, she doesn’t act as the ‘peace finder’ to resolve centuries-oldRohingya ethnicity issue. The international community is not yet vocal enough at all to prevent awful coercion upon Rohingya in Myanmar; although it has labelled the Rohingya as the “most persecuted minority in the world”. The international community does not even bother much so far when a poor ethnic group in our loving world has been brutally killed, raped and tortured by an organized state-sponsored tyranny, and has been forced to flee their birth soil without any ray of hope for their rehabilitation at their homeland in future. The reaction of the UN Security Council on the issue as a world body till date can simply be described as depressing. Mere condemnation of the brutality by the UN Secretary-General has not at all stopped gloomy saga of Rohingya people; instead, a prompt positive reaction from the UN Security Council could have changed the tragic outcome of Rohingya in Myanmar. At the end of the dark tunnel, some rays of hopes are still blinking on the helpless eyes of Rohingya. In the recent past, the UN Human Right Council at Geneva decided to conduct an investigation on the barbaric cruelty committed in Myanmar, especially in its Rakhine state, where sheer brutality forced hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. On the other hand, a few days back, the UN Security Council held its meeting at New York on the issue of severe humanitarian crisis in Myanmar; though the member countries failed to adopt a joint resolution on the issue. Most surprisingly, India, which is labelled as the ‘country of refuge asylum’, has paid no heed so far on the issue of severe humanitarian crisis for Rohingya in Myanmar. Now, interesting to see, when international voices of protest get mounted up to get rid of Rohingya from their miserable destiny of statelessness and ethnic disparity for centuries.

(The author is Assistant Professor (Selection Grade), Department of Commerce, SR Fatepuria College, West Bengal. He can be reached at bursar@srfatepuriacollege.in; ratulbhat@yahoo.co.in)

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