The Rohingya agony
Myanmar is finally finding its voice as the generals ease their grip on its sorely stricken throat and let popular energies loose once again. Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, long known as the conscience of Myanmar, is free from her nearly two-decade house arrest and is being lionised by the world at large. It’s too early to say that the shadow has lifted but there’s room for hope again. The country and the people may be able to realise the enormous potential that had made (then) Burma the cynosure of all eyes at independence.
The task will be daunting because this is a fractured land of multiple ethnicities literally at war with each other. There’s always been tension between the dominant Burmese people with their Buddhist religion and the Shan, Karen and Kachin people, who have conducted a virtual civil war since the British left Burma. Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was a hero essentially to the Burmese, not the others. Myanmar, indeed, is the theatre of one of the longest civil wars since the Raj was dissolved.
It should thus come as no surprise that even as Suu Kyi becomes the most authoritative voice of her country, some ethnic tensions should erupt. While the Karen National Union is in an uneasy truce with the government, tension with the Rohingya Muslims has flared again in Rakhine, where most of them live. The July riots were among the most serious in recent times and, by one estimate, left over 650 Rohingyas dead. The official count is 78 dead, 87 injured and thousands of homes destroyed. The troubles also led to the displacement of some 52,000 people.
The Rohingya are a Sunni Muslim community who have always lived in fearful proximity with their majority Buddhist neighbours in western Myanmar along the border with Bangladesh. Their life since independence has been marked by periodic uprisings.
It is not clear if the latest incidents are the result of military provocation but the official attitude is represented by President Thein Sein in his controversial statement about resettling them in a third country. He did not name the country but the statement aroused no opposition either from the military or any local leader.
Under the successive juntas that have ruled Myanmar since 1962, the Rohingya have been the target of systematic discrimination, partly the result of a campaign of strident nationalism combined with an emphasis on the Burmese majoritarian Buddhist status. It has led to a situation similar to the ethnic and religious divide fostered by the Sri Lankan Sinhala clergy’s Buddhist identity politics.
Other factors, too, are responsible for the crisis but a major reason is perhaps their relative lack of weight. In a country of 60 million they number less than one million, so they can never be a significant factor in the political set-up. Nor do they play a significant role in the economy. Secondly, unlike the Shan, Karen or Kachin, they have no outside constituency to provide weapons or logistical assistance. They have no background of armed resistance either and so make a safer target, especially as they form a distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious group. Unpopular dictatorships constantly seek avenues for mass distraction, and the Rohingya fit the bill almost perfectly.
It may be difficult to believe that any government is capable of such cynical behaviour, but it should be remembered that the Rohingya were disenfranchised under a 1982 law that stripped them of their citizenship. They have restriced access to education in a country with a high literacy rate, cannot travel without official permission, cannot own land and have to sign a commitment not to have more than two children. The result is a community in economic and social breakdown with no realistic hope of advancement.
In despair they have tried mass migration; over 2 lakh fled to neighbouring Bangladesh following the Nagamin operation of the army in 1978 and in 1991-92 (2.5 lakh). But they are unwelcome in the long run as the strains on the local economies are unsustainable. Moreover, despite their common faith there seems to be little real empathy for their plight. In Thailand, too, where they have sought refuge, the Rohingya have been subjected to abuse, including by the Thai military.
At home their condition is best summed up in the sober words of Amnesty International — “The vast majority have effectively been denied citizenship. They are subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingya continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labour in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade.”
“In 1978 over 2,00,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, following the Nagamin operation of the Myanmar army. Officially this campaign aimed at ‘scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally’. It directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques.”
“During 1991-92 a new wave of over a quarter of a million fled to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingya were forced to work without pay by the army on infrastructure and economic projects. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour by the security forces.” Mass migration in times of stress is often followed by a return. But in the case of the Rohingya that seems a remote possibility.
Unless Myanmar recognises them as its own and takes responsibility for their safety, there is no future for the Rohingya. This is one of Suu Kyi’s greatest challenges; to find a way that offers dignity and hope to one of the most unjustly persecuted minorities on the planet.