Rohingyas: The People Of Nowhere
On November 19, 2013 the Human Rights Committee of the UN General Assembly passed a resolution by consensus asking the Myanmar Government to grant the Myanmar’s Muslims/ Rohingyas equal rights to citizenship. The Myanmar government reacted with caution. Maj. Zaw Htay, the Director in the President’s office, denying that the Rohingyas were stateless said that “steps are being taken to address the issue”. The government insisted that the Rohingyas were “either Bangladeshis or Myanmarese. We are not denying their right to citizenship. They will be given citizenship according to law.” Mr. Nyan Win the spokesman of the opposition party, however condemned the decision of the Committee as interference in the country’s internal affairs, and it’s leader, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi , endorsing the party’s stand of interference added: “Anyone who is eligible to become a citizen will get citizenship, but they cannot become ethnic nationals.” The Buddhists of the country regard the Rohingya as interlopers brought in by the British colonialists from former Bengal province but the Rohingyas maintain that they had lived in the country once known as Burma for hundreds of years. Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty, Benjamin Zawacki reportedly told the Associated Press that: “Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless”, and added: “For too long Myanmar’s human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for Rohingyas and a host of discriminatory practices against them.”
The resolution also expressed its serious concern about communal violence and other abuses of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state in the past year, and for attacks against the Muslim elsewhere.
Who are the Rohingyas and what are they doing in Myanmar? They are the Muslim minority speaking an Indo-European language akin to Bengali spoken in and around Chittagong in the present-day Bangladesh. As per latest estimates, Myanmar has about 2.27 million Muslims or Rohingyas, out of its estimated population of 56 million. According to country’s last authentic census held in 1931, there were 5,84,839 Muslims out of the then total population of 14,647,497.
The Rohingyas were mostly confined to Arakan state of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. The major migration of Rohingyas in Arakan took place in 1826 after the first Anglo-Burmese war. They were needed as agricultural labour. The East India Company’s extension of the Bengal Administration to Burma facilitated migration, since barriers for travel between the two countries stood removed. This also facilitated the movement of Indians from other parts of India to Burma. The migrants occupied a big slice of government jobs and dominated the professions, earning the hostility of the locals in general.
After Burmese independence on January 4, 1948, the reverse exodus started back to India and East Pakistan. The Rohingyas, who dominated the towns of Buthidaung and Maungdaw in district Mayu in the Akakan region of Burma, given their number, long residence and stake, resisted any move to oust them claiming residence there for hundreds of years. They started an insurgent movement for a separate Muslim State in district Mayu and succeeded for a while, forcing the Buddhists to leave the area to other parts of the country. By June 1949, the Burmese government’s control was limited to Akyab city and the Rohingyas were in control of the Northern Arakan. The locals accused them of making use of this opportunity to encourage large scale migration of their people from East Pakistan thereby changing the demographic profile of Arakan. Alarmed at the developing situation, the government handed over the area to the army, which broke the insurgents’ back. They fled to jungles and many crossed over to East Pakistan. When the Pakistan government decided to negotiate with the Myanmar Government on the question of Rohingya refugees, they were disheartened and decided to make their peace with the Burmese administration and according to the reports of November 1961 surrendered before Brigadier Aung Gui in the eastern region of Buthidaung.
After the 1962 coup of General Ne Win, the rebel activities almost disappeared. The Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 infused a fresh lease of life in the demoralised Rohingyas since it enabled them to collect significant number of weapons which were floating around. The fresh attempt like the previous ones too failed and they fled once again to Bangladesh. Another attempt under the banner of Rohingya Patriotic Front in 1974 met with similar fate.
To eliminate any future chance of revival of insurgency, the Ne Win government launched operation code named “King Dragon” to check on the status of Rohingyas living in any part of the country particularly Arakan. To escape the wrath of the army, tens of thousands of the Rohingyas had no alternative but again to cross over to the border towns of Bangladesh as refugees. The presence of Rohingyas on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border became a fertile ground for the revival of insurgency under the banner of Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), which was lying dormant for some time. But like all such movements, it split soon and new body, Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) under Mohammad Yunus with a radical Jahadi agenda emerged. RSO’s programme attracted the attention of Hizb-e-Islami (HeL) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), besides Malaysia’s Angkatan Bilia Islam sa-Malaysia (ABIM) and Islamic Youth Congress. In 1986, this organisation too split and new group Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) was formed, after uniting the remnants of the old RPF and as per reports it based itself in the Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. It was said to have come under the influence of Afghan Talibans, who provided the instructors and other infrastructure to set up camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Reports had it that some of the volunteers also received training in the Afghan province of Khost with Hizb-e-Islami Mujahideen.
The expansion of the rebel activities and the involvement of Taliban elements was a cause for great concern for the Myanmar Government. In order to tackle this problem, the Myanmar troops often crossed the border with Bangladesh to attack the rebels. This created a major crisis in the Myanmar —Bangladesh relations.
Under pressure, on 28 October 1998, Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) combined together to form yet another body the Rohingya National Council (RNC). The Rohingya National Army (RNA) was also established as its armed wing; and, the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) appeared to organize all the different Rohingya insurgents into one group. The Wikileaks Cables confirmed the above scenario, adding that there was connection between Talibans and ARNO Rohingya militants.
In recent years there has been large scale unrest and violence involving the Rohingyas. In June 2012 reports of gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, led to retaliatory killings of Rohingyas, and demand for their expulsion from Myanmar by treating them illegal migrants. Violence continued almost throughout the year and the current year saw repeated cases of violence on the Rohingyas. To tackle the violence the Myanmar Government declared a state of emergency. Expulsion into Bangladesh did not solve the problem either, since Dhaka refused to recognise them as its own citizens and turned them back. Rohingyas’ attempt to find refuge in other Muslim countries like Malaysia or Indonesia too failed.
The manner in which the Rohingyas were being treated was a challenge to the gradual process of national reconciliation set in motion by President Thein Sein since 2010 of peace- making with the ethnic insurgents floating along the Myanmar borders. It is a different thing that the peace-building plan was really one of delayed nation-building. Ms. Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy were unwilling to cooperate with the government in its policy of reconciliation towards the Rohingyas.
In May 2013, the authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Muslim families to two children. It drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups and even the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who generally has not been sympathetic to the Rohingyas. The U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on May 28, said the U.S. opposes coercive birth limitation policies, and called on Myanmar “to eliminate all such policies without delay.”
Rohingyas’ fate continues to attract attention of humanitarian organisations like the Amnesty and Asia Human Rights Watch. One has to wait and watch whether the Myanmar Government would be more sympathetic to Rohingyas after the UN human right committee’s resolution! In recent months the Rohingyas have been linked to some of the terrorist acts. It was even believed that some of them may have been involved in the terrorist attack on the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya in Bihar on July 7, 2013 in retaliation to the Buddhists violence against them in Myanmar. But this is in the conjectural realm so far. The Myanmar Government has to understand that a large body of people, who have lived peacefully among the other people of the country until its discriminatory policies forced them to take up to insurgency, will be loyal citizens of the State, when treated like other citizens. They only seek a place under the sun, as they have lived for hundreds of years. The UN Human Rights Committee resolution gives the government an opportunity to redeem itself in the eye of the world.
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
(The writer is a retired diplomat and author/editor of many books on South Asia and on foreign policy issues.)