The state of Burma situated on the eastern borders of India’s Tirap Frontier, Nagaland and Manipur was populated by Mongoloid tribes who migrated from China hundreds of years ago. Several different Mongoloid groups constituted this migration. Each tribe had its own language and evolved its own animist religion. When Emperor Ashoka was ruling in India, he was influenced by the Buddhist religion which had been formulated by Gautama Buddha and this pacifist religion appealed to Emperor Ashoka after the brutal war in Kalinga and he adopted Buddhism as the state religion. He also sent Buddhist emissaries to the north, east, west and the south to spread this religion of peace. In the east Buddhism was adopted by the Burmese, and many south east Asian countries and then by China and Japan. In Burma, the majority of people who lived in the central plains of Burma became Buddhists. However several animist tribes who migrated later into Burma like the Wa, Kachin, Kokang, Karen and Shan and some lesser tribes, like the Nagas and Chins remained animist and did not embrace Buddhism. This was the situation when the British East India company conquered Burma after they occupied India.
The situation when Burma was given independence by the British was that in Central Burma the Burmese Mongoloid peoples had embraced Buddhism Some other Mongoloid peoples like the Mon who inhabited southern Burma and the Arakanese who inhabited western Burma had also embraced Buddhism. However some of the Mongoloid tribes who had settled along the hilly eastern borders of Burma like the Wa, the Kachin, the Kokang, Padaung, Palaung, the Karen and the Shan remained animist. Subsequently some Karens and some Shans embraced Buddhism, while others like the Kachin and some Karens were converted to Christianity. In the west, the Arakanese embraced Buddhism, while some of the Mongoloid peoples who inhabited the south and western borders of Burma like the Nagas, and the Chins converted to Christianity. Several Naga tribes however remained animist. Burma at the time of independence from the British therefore had peoples of three classes of religions, a majority Buddhist, some Christian and several animist. When the British left and India and Burma became independent, there was some spill over of people from the western borders of Burma from East Bengal into Burma. These were basically Bengali and their religion was Islam This spill over was into the north western part of Burma called the Arakhan. These people from East Bengal who spilled over into Burma came to be called the Rohingyas. Possibly most of this migration took place before India’s partition into India and Pakistan in 1971. The Mongoloid peoples of west Burma were called Rakhines and they were Buddhist. Today there are some Rakhines in Bangladesh near Cox’s Bazaar. The Bengali Muslims who migrated into the Arakans were not Mongoloid and they naturally stuck out from the local Rakhines who were Mongoloid and also Buddhist. Regrettably as time passed the Bengali Muslims who migrated into the Arakhans were not accepted by the Buddhist Rakhines and gradually they became second class citizens in Burma. These Bengali people came to be called as the Rohingyas.
The degradation of the Rohingyas As Burma evolved and progressed, the main Mongoloid peoples of Burma who were Buddhist began to treat the Rohingya Muslims as second class citizens. They were regrettably not absorbed as citizens of Burma but treated as illegal migrants from East Bengal. Regrettably some Mongoloid peoples who lived in north east Burma who had become Muslims because of invasion of Muslim armies from northwest Burma also were not given equal treatment by the majority Burmans. This became more pronounced when Burma was taken over by the Burmese Army. In riots that occurred between these Burmese Muslims and the Buddhist Burmese, the Police always sided with the Buddhist majority. The worst case was however reserved for the Bengali Muslims who had migrated from East Bengal and came to be called as Rohingyas. The Burmese army and Police treated them as illegal immigrants and they were not accepted as part of Burmese society.
In the Arakhan state, the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Bengalis who called themselves Rohingyas did not get along too well. Things deteriorated when the Army took over the administration. In some clashes that took place in Central and Eastern Burma, where some ethnic Burmans had been converted to Islam by some Muslim invaders who had come in from the north, the Muslims were at the receiving end in the riots. When the Police intervened, no Burmese Buddhist rioters were punished. The situation in Arakhan in the west was much more worse.
In 2012, riots erupted between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas, the houses of the latter were set on fire by the Rakhines. The Government then herded thousands of Rohingyas in camps. More than 1,30,000 Rohingyas, collected from Sittwe town and other places in the Arakhans have since then been living in flimsy bamboo huts without electricity, or drainage. Raw sewage flows through open drains, children are undernourished and healthcare is dispensed by overwhelmed medical personnel who have no facility for treating serious ailments. The Rohingyas here, who had their own homes before the riot were also barred from leaving the camp. Rohingyas who live in countless villages outside the camps, along the border with Bangladesh describe a different kind of imprisonment. They are closely monitored by the authorities, conscripted into forced labour and barred from travel outside the villages.
The Rohingyas have been denied citizenship of Burma, though many Rohingyas had come to this area from East Bengal before Burma and India was given independence by the British. Until the Burmese government’s official policy of discrimination took hold in the early 1990’s and extremist Buddhist teachings espousing hatred of Muslims swept the country, many Rohingyas worked for the government as school teachers, firefighters and clerks. Most families in the camps are now entirely dependent on the assistance from the United Nations and foreign aid agencies. Besides these there are thousands of Rohingyas, who were not registered as camp residents and so are not eligible for United Nations rations. Until two months ago, the Burmese government provided rice rations to the unregistered, but this was also stopped.
The Rohingyas in Burma number more than one million and are wildly reviled in that country. Anti Muslim feelings run strong among the majority Buddhist people. The Government rejects the term Rohingya-they are described as interlopers/migrants from what was undivided India’s Bengal, then under British rule, as was Burma. The truth is that the Rohingyas shifted from the then British Bengal to the Arakhan state of British Burma. Their migration was then from eastern India to Burma. After Burma became independent, the Rohingyas voted in two elections in Burma. They have even voted in the elections in Burma of 2008 and 2010. All of them were born in the Arakhan state of Burma after their parents migrated from East Bengal, then bordering western Burma, both India and Burma being under the British rule.
All the Rohingyas were born in Burma. In a meeting in Bangkok, organised by the Thai Government, delegates repeatedly stressed that the underlying reasons for the continuing exodus must be dealt with. A delegate from Malaysia at the conference said that his country was currently home to 1,52,830 registered asylum seekers and refugees of whom, 1,49,920 were from Burma. The Rohingyas, typically travel via Thailand where loose law enforcement has allowed “the people smuggling business” to thrive. A crackdown by Thailand on human trafficking in early May left thousands of migrants stranded at sea and more than three thousand refugees have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia in later weeks.
The world’s attention to this literal genocide in Burma was riveted from sudden reporting of boats drifting in the Andaman sea and further south and east off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand each full of starving human cargo packed like sardines. All of these drifting boats were packed full of Burmese Rohingyas and Bangladeshis. The figures are hard to keep up with-575 on 10th May, 800, on 13th May, 300 on 14th May, and over 700 on 15th May 2015.These boats were found abandoned by human traffickers.
All these hapless people had contacted smugglers who promised to take them to Malaysia, where they were told they could get employment and a hope of some decent livelihood. These were the Rohingyas, originally descendents of Bengali people from eastern Bengal, who had migrated to Burma when it was under the British and settled in Arakhan state bordering the then eastern Bengal, and now Bangladesh. The others were people from Bangladesh who were looking for greener pastures because of lack of employment in present day Bangladesh.
These boats with poverty stricken people had contacted people smugglers who had taken them to land them on the shores of Malaysia or Indonesia, both Muslim countries, and both with prosperous economies. The nautical distance of Malaysia and Indonesia from the Arakhan in Burma or from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh was about a weeks sailing time. Because of earlier such trips, Malaysia and Indonesia were not willing to allow these boats with human cargo to beach in their respective countries this year. Not knowing what to do, many of the human trafficking smugglers would abandon the boats full of Rohingyas or Bangladeshis and make a getaway in other craft.
Besides this, mass graves have been found in makeshift holding camps of refugees in the jungles along the border between Malaysia and Thailand. In the waters, where the Andaman Sea narrows into the Straits of Malacca, a humanitarian tragedy that has been simmering for years had boiled over recently. In the first three weeks of May 2015, some 3500 people, mainly Rohingyas, from Burma and some Bangladeshi refugees have landed on the shores of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The sudden influx particularly from Burma highlights the huge gulf between the wealthier members of the Association of South East Asian nations and the others, some among the poorest countries in the world. When the ASEAN members gather in the coming weeks to discuss the plight of the refugees, they will have to consider, not just the immediate fate of the hundreds still at sea, but the long term future of the regions most underprivileged people. Members like Malaysia, generally the principal destination for such refugees face mounting pressure to break with the ASEANS long established tradition of not interfering in members internal affairs, and instead to use their considerable economic influence over Burma to stem the exodus. According to the UN Human Rights Agency, about 25,000 refugees boarded boats operated by human traffickers in the first three months of this year almost twice the number during the same period last year. The majority are Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing religious persecution in Buddhist majority Burma. Denied full citizenship and reeling from a series of violent clashes with Buddhists in 2012, many leave for what they see as safe havens, prosperous Muslim neighbours like Indonesia.
George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, who for more than two decades has been active in promoting democracy, said, that he visited a Rohingya settlement in January 2015 and saw parallels to his youth as a Jew in Nazi occupied Europe. The Rohingya settlement he said was a ghetto, an involuntary home to thousands of families, who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallel to the Nazi genocide is alarming.
Crowded under tarpaulin shelters, strewn with rubbish and bottles of fresh water, the Burmese Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants speak of horrors at sea, of murders, of people killing each other over scarce supplies of food and water, of corpses thrown overboard. One family was beaten to death with wooden planks from the boat-a father, mother and son said Muhammad Amin and then thrown into the ocean! Amin an ethnic Rohingya Muslim boarded the boat from Burma a month ago. Now he is among 677 migrants who are being housed in a makeshift camp by the harbor in Langsa, Indonesia after spending three months in the Andaman sea. Getting to the camp was a struggle of epic proportions. After governments around the region refused entry to the immigrants and their Navies pushed them back, it was Acehnese fishermen who rescued the bost, and towed it to shore in Langsa, Indonesia.
At least these migrants were on dry land. Between 6000, to 8000 people were believed to be stuck off the coast of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia with limited water and food in a situation the United Nations has warned could fast become a humanitarian crisis, because no government in the region is willing to take them in. Many of those from the ships are from Northern Burma’s persecuted Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship and voting rights, although they have lived in Burma for generations. In the majority Buddhist nation, the Rohingyas have continued to flee sectarian violence and poor living conditions in refugee camps. The Government is torturing us, says Zokhura Khatun, a mother of three, who fled Burma’s Rakhine state and boarded a boat to meet her husband, who had managed to get to Malaysia in the same manner. Others in the camp were also quick to identify themselves as ethnic Rohingyas travelling to Malaysia to be reunited with their husbands and fathers.
Humanitarian leaders the world over spoke out about the deplorable condition of the Rohingyas in Burma. This included the Dalai Lama. Regrettably, the Buddhist Burmese leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak out about the deplorable treatment of the Rohingyas by the Burmese government. The Dalai Lama spoke twice to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi about this. Despite this Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak out about the cruel treatment of the Rohingyas by the Buddhist Government of Burma.My conclusion of this episode of open inhuman cruelty by the majority Buddhist Burmese people on the minority Muslim Rohingyas is that this is nothing but genocide.
By E N Rammohan
(The author is former Director General, BSF.)