By K S Venkatachalam
The stance of the Myanmar government that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and thus, not the original inhabitants of Myanmar does not stand the test of historical records. It has a ridiculous that these people have been living in Arakan (later renamed as Rakhine) for over 500 years — even before its capture by the Burmese army in the early 15th century.
Ever since the capture of Rakhine, the Rohingya Muslims are now referred as illegal immigrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), because their language is similar to that of people in Chittagong. According to Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya Muslims are not counted amongst the 135 ethnic minority groups of the country, which renders them a ‘stateless’ community with the denial of basic rights of citizenship.
The community has been facing persecution at the hands of the Rohingya Buddhists and the army ever since the capture of Arakan. However, it took a turn for the worse in 2012, when over 10,000 Rohingyas had to flee their homes for Bangladesh and other South East Asian countries, to escape the inhuman and brutal treatment. In 2016, the large-scale human rights violations by the Myanmar army were highlighted by the Human Rights Watch among other human rights activists and were reported widely in the international media. It has been reported that over 40 Rohingyas were massacred in the village of Du CheeYar Tan alone by the local men.
In fact, the United Nations was heavily criticised for not taking up the cause of the Rohingyas at the international forum on top of their failure in pressurising the Myanmar government to stop atrocities against the community. As a result of the international outcry, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR) sent a four-member team to Bangladesh this January to interview Rohingyas, who had entered Bangladesh from Northern Rakhine State (RS) in the aftermath of the attacks of October 9, 2016. Based on the interviews and the documentary, OHCHR released a flash report on February 3, 2017, highlighting the army’s brutality on the Rohingyas Muslims.
The report released on February 6, 2017, is based on evidence gathered by interviewing as many as 220 persons, who had fled Rakhine, unfolds a chilling account of the systemic persecution of the community by the army. The community was subjected to the inhuman treatment, which included torture, rape, burning of their homes, killing their livestock, destruction of farms, and other inhuman acts of violence. Of the 101 women interviewed, 52 percent reported having been raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence. The UN delegation has said that many women, who could have been violated, refused to share their traumatic experiences for the fear of social stigma. It is shocking that the army had even used helicopters to destroy their houses, which had led to the death and also to a large-scale destruction of property. Many instances were recounted where the army had hurled grenades at the homes of this minority group killing of innocent persons. The team has also relied on satellite imagery analysis provided by three different independent sources that point out to the extensive burning of homes having occurred during the months of October and November 2016 in the following ten locations in the lockdown area.
The report also highlights the “calculated policy of terror” unleashed on the community by Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) in RS since October 9. It goes on to say, “The various acts of crimes cannot be seen as an isolated event, but as a larger part of deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing through systemic human rights violations and abuses.”
The report blames the Myanmar army for creating a coercive environment that forced over 66,000 to escape from their homes. Many of the refugees were forced to pay hefty amounts by the human traffickers to facilitate their escape to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia by boats. Last year, it was reported that over 100 had lost their lives when their boats had capsized in the South China Sea.
The human rights champion and a Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the run up to 2015 general elections had promised to offer citizenship to Rohingya Muslims. However, as she feared the wrath of her Buddhist constituency, she chose to remain silent on the issue. Her silence, especially after her long struggle against the Military junta for establishing democracy in Myanmar, was unbecoming of a human rights champion.
Furthermore, what is inexplicable is the total silence on the part of ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member. The members of ASEAN justify their silence on the ground that non-interference on the association’s members is part of their ‘key principle.’ One can’t come across a more ridiculous explanation than this, especially, when one of its members has been targeting a particular community.
The situation has recently worsened with Bangladeshi government’s blocking the entry of refugees. This has led to over 20,000 people living in inhuman conditions in the transit camps at the border. Both Bangladesh and Thailand are now putting pressure on Myanmar to stop the killings and take effective steps to integrate them into the society. According to UNICEF, hundreds of children are facing starvation as humanitarian aid to them has been cut off.
As a part of the national reconciliation effort, the Myanmar government led by Aung San SuuKyi should facilitate the return of the Rohingyas and also consider grant of citizenship which will go a long way in atoning for the various acts of crimes committed against this community. If, however, the Myanmar continues to pursue its discriminatory policies, it is most likely the terrorist organisations like ISIS will take advantage of the situation by recruiting the refugees in launching terror attacks. We have already seen few incidents of attacks on the Myanmar border guards.
K S Venkatachalam is an Independent Columnist and Political Commentator