Faces all around. Faces more than you can count. Tired faces, scared faces, faces that are hungry and without hope. Bodies stinking of sweat and blood, punctured by bullets, blown by landmines and robbed of their integrity. Clouds of smoke visible from hundreds of miles away. Rising from the fire which burnt the place they called home. People catching their breath, the ones fortunate enough to flee alive successfully from their homeland. The very land which never recognized them. Maybe the land accepted them but the ones who controlled it never did.
In one of the general wards of a small government hospital in Cox’s Bazar lies a 15-year old Azizul Haque. Both of his legs were blown when he stepped on a landmine while trying to escape for his life. His mother, Roshida Haque says that she used to pray to Almighty Allah for a son. Among all sons she had, Azizul is the last one left. In another ward, a 5-year old Zahura is playing with her sister. A bullet pierced through her right hand when her father tried to run her to safety. That bullet did more than just injuring her; it also killed her father. Zahura’s mother has no idea where to take her incomplete family next. There are thousands of Families like Zahura’s who were displaced during the recent violence in Rakhine state and have fled to Bangladesh seeking for refuge. According to latest stats released by UN, more than 313,000 Rohingyas have fled to an already overpopulated Bangladesh after recent communal violence in Rakhine province.
On Aug 25th, an insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked over 30 security force posts with homemade bombs in northern Rohingya and killed 12 security personnel. In response, the security forces launched an all-around attack to take out these insurgents. On September 1, Burmese army released a toll of 400 deaths out of which most were militants, they claimed. However, the stats shared by UN human rights officials a week later suggest that over 1,000 lives could be lost in these military operations.
Why is state of Rakhine burning? Who are Rohingya? Why their own army is targeting them? What made them flee from their homeland? Why is the world ignoring them?
Rohingya & Their Existence
Rohingya are Indo-Aryans, residents one of Myanmar’s states called Rakhine earlier known as Arakan. Rohingya has a majority of Muslims and Hindu minority. First signs of Rohingya existence in Myanmar (then called Burma)dates back to 15th century when Kingdom of Mrauk U was in power. Many records of Bengali-speaking settlers were found. The next instance of their arrival in Burma was in the 17th century. Slaves were brought from Bengal after the raids by Arakanese raiders and the Portuguese. British colonized Burma in the 19th century, and by early 20th century, they started bringing workers from Chittagong. Later on, some of these workers returned but a sizeable number decided to stay and thus became a part of Rohingya community. In short, Rohingya was not like most other community who migrated all at once. Instead, their arrival to Arakan is spread over centuries and thus can be termed as a multi-layered community. Hence, all Rohingya do not have the same root but their existence was long enough to consider them as an indigenous ethnicity at the time of Burmese freedom.
Rohingya are stateless people of Myanmar. It means that the Myanmar government doesn’t recognize them as their citizen. They are denied citizenship under the 1982 Burmese citizenship law. They do not have the right to education or health. They are not even allowed to move freely. It’s almost like living in an open prison. In 2013, UN described Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Before the 2016-17 crisis, there were 1.1M Rohingya out of 54.3M of the total population of Myanmar. Still, Rohingya were not among the 135 ethnicities recognized by Myanmar.
The Rohingya state of Myanmar has always been troubled by its communal difference. It’s history and population distribution always keep it on the brink of a violent communal outbreak. The northern Rakhine has Rohingya Muslim as the majority and the southern Rakhine is dominated by Rakhine Buddhist. The nation had a 4% Muslim population out of which 1.1M was concentrated in Rakhine making the Rakhine Buddhist a minority. Rakhine state has been burning since 2012. However, the roots of its violent past go way back.
1942: Arakan Massacre
Burma was under British rule when the Imperial Japanese forces attacked it during World War II. The British army started retreating to India and armed the Rohingyas in northern Arakan to create a buffer zone for them. The Buddhist Rakhine were Pro-axis and Rohingya loyal to British. Instead of fighting the Japanese, the armed Rohingya started attacking Arakanese. Rohingya from Northern Rakhine State killed around 20,000 Arakanese. A historian, Aye Chan has written about the consequences of Rohingya taking up arms from Allies, as they started destroying the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese. Later, Japanese armed the Rakhine and around 5,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed and roughly 22,000 fled to Chittagong. Not only Rohingya Muslims but thousands of Burmese Indians, Anglo-Burmese, and British who had settled there, emigrated to India. As per the available information, this is believed to be the start of a never-ending chaos. However, the facts about Arakan Massacre were not well-documented.
In 1940, Rohingya supported the Pakistan movement and organized a separatists movement to merge with Pakistan. When India gained freedom and Pakistan was formed, the Rohingya leaders urged Muhammad Ali Jinnah for assistance incorporate this region along with East Pakistan but it was turned down. These events created a sense of mistrust in the Burmese towards Rohingya.
1948: Burma Gained Freedom
On 4 Jan 1948, Burma gained freedom from the British. The Rohingya community was recognized as one of the ethnicities of Burma. Rohingya represented in Burmese parliament and were positioned on high-ranked government posts. In Fact, in the general elections of 1951, Rohingya gave the nation her first female MP in Zura Begum. In 1960, it was suggested by a Rohingya MP to either form Rohingya-majority northern Arakan as a separate province or to keep it under central government rule. However, during the general elections in the same year the then PM U Nu pledged to make all of Arakan into one state.
In 1962, Burmese coup d’état, saw the removal of the elected government. The military junta took matters in their hand and continued to rule for 26 years. Later, the martial law would seal the fate of over a million of Rohingya.
1982: Myanmar Nationality Law
In 1982, Gen. Ne Win the army dictator of Burma along with some of his close allies coined a new law for citizenship called Myanmar Nationality Law. According to this law, Myanmar divided its citizens in three categories namely citizen, associate citizen and naturalized citizen. The rules defined under this law were such that it stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. The Rohingya were no more legally recognized as an ethnic group of Myanmar. Millions of people who were granted citizenship of Myanmar by the Union Citizenship Act 1948 became stateless, all at once.
1988 & 1990: 8888 Uprising & General Elections
Aug 1988, a nationwide pro-democracy protest peaked in Myanmar. The 8888 Uprising was a protest started by students of Rangoon Arts & Science University and the key events took place on 8 Aug 1988, hence the name. Thousands died during the protest. Rohingya were in support of the uprising and participated actively. The uprising ended on 18 September and from this crisis, Aung Saan Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon.
As an outcome of the protest, the military junta arranged for general elections in 1990. Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 80% of the seat. But in order to suppress the democratic progress, Aung Saan Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for 20 years. In this regard, she is recognized as second most iconic personality after Mandela.
Martial law returned in the country and the military junta launched a crackdown against Rohingya in 1991-92. This resulted in over 250,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh and almost brought a war between the two nations.
2012: Rakhine Riots
The tension was rising in the Rakhine province for some time. It is believed that there was a widespread rumor among the Rakhine that they would soon become a minority in their own ancestral state. On 28 May 2012, a Rakhine woman was gang-raped and murdered by three Rohingya Muslims. On 3rd June, ten Rohingya men were out of a bus and killed by Rakhines. The army was ordered to intervene and by the time they were able to restore order in the region, there were 80 casualties and over 90,000 people displaced, according to an official report. The riots started in early June and ended on 28th June. However, the communal violence broke out again in October resulting in 80 deaths, over 22,000 people being displaced and nearly 5,000 houses burnt. Hundreds of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh claiming that the Burmese army is targeting their community. However, a research conducted by International crisis group showed in their report that both communities were grateful for the services of the army during riots.
2016-17: Insurgence & Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)
On 9th October 2016, the insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts which killed 9 border officers. Two days later, four more soldiers were killed while fighting these insurgents. In response to the insurgent attacks, Myanmar Security forces along with extremist Buddhist started operating in the western region of Rakhine state killing Rohingya Muslims. This attracted a lot of criticism by the human right groups.
Initially, the government was blaming the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) party which was active during the Uprising for these insurgent attack. But on 17 October 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks on security forces. The same outfit claimed the attacks carried out on 25th Aug 2017. After the clashes army released a death toll of 134 out of which 102 were insurgents.
Exodus & Refuge
In the recent violence in Rakhine province where the Military forces are believed to be working on a campaign to drive out Rohingya, termed as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Majority of Rohingya have fled the country. Approximately, 80-90% have fled for Bangladesh and the surrounding southern countries. Remaining 100,000 Rohingya are placed in IDP camps in Myanmar.
Malaysia: 56,000 registered Rohingya refugees and around 40,000 without status. They can not work legally. They refused to take in the Rohingya refugees and sent back the boats in 2015. But later accepted more than 1,600 refugees in.
Nepal: 250 registered Rohingya refugees living since 2012 riots. They live on the outskirts of Kathmandu and live in makeshift homes. The locals help them with tin and bamboo.
India: Around 40,000 Rohingya refugees live in India of which only 16,500 have been registered. they are scattered in places like J&K, New Delhi, Hyderabad.
United States: 7,362 Rohingya living in the US since 2010. The largest group of 1,000 in Chicago and California, Georgia, and Indiana.
Bangladesh has been hit hard by the refugee crisis. The places like Cox’s Bazar were already full with refugees and there is no more space to accommodate the huge number of Refugees rushing in. Bangladesh is an overpopulated country and has limited resources. However, it is worth mentioning that back in 2012, the Bangladesh government had refused to a $33M UN program to assist the local community. The Bangladesh government do not recognize them as their citizen. They are not allowed to work and can’t see a doctor. Girls, at the age of 14 onwards are forced to take up prostitution in order to win bread for the family.
In Jan 2016, Bangladesh authorities formulated a plan to relocate tens of thousands of refugees to the island of Thengar Char. This island has recently surfaced in the Bay of Bengal and is only 11 years old. It is a safe haven for pirates. It is only accessible in winter and is mostly flooded. This decision received a lot of criticism from Human rights groups. The Rohingya refugees said that they would rather go back to Myanmar than to leave their fate to cyclones and floods.
Rakhine Crisis: Government’s Stance
The government under Aung Saan Suu Kyi, also a Nobel laureate for peace in 1991 and an icon of human rights, is accused of mishandling the situation. On the accusation of army’s involvement in crimes against the civilians, the stance of Aung Saan Suu Kyi is very different from what she is known for. In an interview with BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, Suu Kyi talks about building roads, creating jobs and electrification in the country. While answering a question, she openly admits that the constitution allows the military to have full authority over military matters, keeping the military out of reach of the government body. She also mentioned that they are trying to make amendments to the constitution. She also says that the Rohingya coming back to Myanmar will be welcomed but it’s up to them if they want to come back or not. She seemed to be averting the questions related to army pull out from Rakhine and appealling to people of Rakhine for peace.
An incident worth mentioning here is the assassination of a 63 years old reputed Muslim lawyer Ko Ni, also one of the top advisors of Suu Kyi. He was at the Yangon airport, holding his grandson in his arms when the assassin shot him dead. He had been helping to draft the changes in the constitution.
Why is the world ignoring Rohingya?
“Our community is like a football. We are being kicked from both sides”, says a Rohingya refugee from Cox’s Bazar. This pretty much explains the whole situation. They have been kept in captivity for decades. They were stateless in Myanmar and Bangladesh won’t recognize them. As the Bangladesh Prime Minister said in an interview, Bangladesh is already an overcrowded country with limited resource. It can not provide for the refugees, not unless there is an external source. The government spending the resources on the refugees makes the locals despise the Rohingya and want them to leave.
Rohingya have been kept away from education and have been tortured for years. The frustration can be easily exploited and thus rise security concern. There is also the political complications for a country like India.
Apart from a few Human right groups and Muslim countries, there has been any real pressure on the Myanmar government to control the situation. No sanctions on Myanmar. Why? The reason is simple. After being under military law for almost half a century, the democracy has just recently returned in Myanmar. An economy with over 55 million people is about to open and everyone wants to seize that opportunity.
The ideal solution would be a callback of the Rohingya community by the Myanmar government. The government must have a neutral approach in recognizing the Rohingya as their citizens and ensure their safety. However, for the time being, it seems like a distant dream. Even if Suu Kyi wants to have a progressive approach towards the matter, she doesn’t seem to be in total control. Myanmar is under the rule of an elected government, but the military still seems to be pulling all the strings. Suu Kyi government is under tremendous international pressure. Though she claims that Myanmar is making every possible effort to restore peace and bring normalcy but the government doesn’t fear the international scrutiny.
If you care to ask a Rohingya, a lot of them want to go back to Rakhine, if allowed. I saw an interview of a young refugee boy from Cox’s Bazar saying,”Even if they give us whole Bangladesh, I want to go back to Myanmar.” Of course, he wants to go back; he was born there. Myanmar is his motherland and he wants to go home.
Source: Wikipedia, BBC, Washington Post, Aljazeera.
Image Source: Reuters, AFP Photos, Aljazeera.