I believe “genocide” is the right word to describe the ongoing mass killing, rape, and expropriation of Rohingyas in Mayanmar. Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) first used the expression in 1943, to denote the mass killings, rapes, torture, extortions, and marginalization of Jews and others in Axis-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. As Lemkin has defined genocide, and its origin, growth, and overall impact on society at large, with examples from what Hitler, Mussolini and their cohorts did to Europeans, appropriately explains the Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar, going on intermittently since 1948 [Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944]. One finds all the elements of what constitute a genocide present in Myanmar with regard to the persecution of Rohingyas, such as intentional action to destroy a people, usually an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part.
According to Professor David Simon, Director of Genocide Studies Program at Yale University: “A genocide is underway against the Rohingya of Myanmar…. As several recent reports document, in recent months, security forces, allied militias, civil society organizations, and citizens have committed atrocities ranging from pillaging, looting, and forced displacement to rape, torture, and murder against the Rohingya” [Yale Macmillan Center, “Commentary – Lessons of the Rohingya genocide”, January 17 2017]. According to eye-witness accounts, Myanmar’s security forces killed at least 900 Rohingya civilians in the first two days after 25th August – the day ARSA gunmen attacked 30 police and military camps in Myanmar [Adil Khan, “Rohingya Villages Burning Again”, Countercurrents. August 31, 2017].
I write this to highlight the inadequate response by the world, and by the people and Government of Bangladesh to the ongoing mega genocide of Rohingyas in the Rakahine or Arakan State of Myanmar. I also highlight here Bangladesh Government’s ambivalence about the genocide in Arakan. Shockingly, the influx of tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh seems to be the bigger issue for its people and government than the genocide per se. Nothing more, nothing less!
This is an appraisal of the Rohingya crisis in historical and contemporary perspectives. I am going to use some historical data and flaws and follies of the governments of Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, India, and the US. I am going to critique some experts and analysts of international affairs, human rights, political economy, development agencies, and “ordinary people” across the board in Bangladesh and elsewhere. I am relying on academic, historical and sociological sources, contemporary accounts, eye-witnesses, and the social media – blogs, emails, and Facebook – to appraise what the “ordinary people” think about the main factors behind the Rohingya Crisis. I find some eye-witness accounts and interviews of fleeing Rohingya victims on electronic media very fascinating and useful.
Although we have learnt from former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that the Rohingyas belong to the “single biggest stateless community in the world”, we have no idea about the total number of Rohingyas in the world. We know around two million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since 1978, but we have no clues about the total population of these people who are still in Myanmar. Our guestimate of “two to three million” may be attributed to the deliberate exclusion of the Rohingyas from census operations by successive autocratic regimes in Myanmar, since 1962. We only come across the most racist, prejudicial observations by Myanmar authorities about the “exceedingly high” birth-rate among the Rohingyas in Arakan. Then again, Arakan having 20,000 square miles of territory is not an over-populated state, from any stretch of the imagination.
However, some analysts’ sweeping assertions about the state of anarchy in Arakan is problematic, especially one by Columbia Professor Saskia Sassen, who imputes “corporate land grabs” to the sufferings of “both Buddhist and Muslim smallholders” in Myanmar. Her naiveté is well-reflected in her inability to differentiate Buddhist and Muslim smallholders as victims of “corporate land grabs”. She has raised the question: “Is the focus on religion just a distraction?”. She thinks: “Myanmar has become a last Asian frontier for our current modes of development – plantation agriculture, mining, and water extraction. Its location makes it even more strategic. Besides being the largest country of south-east Asia, Myanmar is between the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, both hungry for natural resources…. Foreign firms have moved in, land grabs have risen, smallholders keep losing ground. Farmers have become poorer or lost their land. But the land market is booming” [Saskia Sassen, “Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion?” Guardian, 4 January 2017].
The Guardian article is a balderdash, a counterproductive exercise which could divert the whole issue or the real problem somewhere else in a futile debate over Globalization, foreign investment, land grabbing etc. Myanmar’s majority Burman Buddhists have been persecuting the Rohingyas since their annexation of Arakan in 1784. Some scholars estimate as high as 50 per cent of Chittagonians are descendants of Rohingya refugees/settlers in greater Chittagong. Thirty-five thousand Rohingyas are said to have fled to Chittagong in 1784 alone. More than 50 per cent of the entire Rohingya population in Arakan are now living as refugees or illegal settlers in various countries. One may find an objective account of the history of the Rohingyas – especially the way they have been victimized by the majority Buddhist politicians, security forces, and people during the pre- and post-colonial periods – in Riccardo Marzoli’s scholarly work, [“The Protection of Human Rights of Rohingya in Myanmar: The Role of the International Community”, Master’s Thesis, LUISS University, Rome 2015].
Unfortunately, no civil and military government in Bangladesh has yet behaved with some dignity and courage to warn their Myanmar counterpart to behave, to respect international law and human rights of minorities. From their insensitive reaction to the mass killing of Rohingyas, and pushing thousands of them as refugees into Bangladesh, by Myanmar, it appears that Bangladeshis have simply forgotten the history of their own Liberation War. They must not forget that but for India’s generous help – especially, its sheltering ten million Bengali refugees during the War – Bangladesh would not have come into being only after a nine-month-long armed struggle in 1971. Both the successive BNP and Awami League Governments since 1978 have tried to address the problem Rohingya refugees through UN and human rights organizations.
A Retired Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Kamal Siddiqui, in a personal communication to me wrote on 31st August 2017 with regard to Bangladesh Government’s lukewarm support for the Rohingyas:
Has Bangladesh the moral right to behave like this? In 1971, when it was facing genocide from Pakistanis, did not India help Bangladesh with shelter, arms and training? I am afraid both AL and BNP have similar policy towards the Rohingyas. I was in PM’s Office in 1992-93 when Rohingyas came in large numbers to Bangladesh…. I see the same indecent behaviour now. I hope Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia will get together and do something to help the beleaguered Rohingyas and put Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh to shame.
Bangladesh Government has not yet warned its counterpart in Myanmar that it would take retaliatory measures against the latter for pushing tens of thousands of Rohingyas into Bangladesh. Like its predecessors, the military-backed puppet government of Aung San Suu Kyi is not only denigrating the Rohingyas as thugs, killers, terrorists, and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but is also denying it has ever committed any genocide against any community in Myanmar. Alarmingly, while more than 60,000 Rohingya refugees had entered Bangladesh by 2nd September, in one week following 25th August disturbances – attacks by Rohingya militants and counterattacks by Myanmar’s law-enforcers and civilians – by September 4th, the number of refugees swelled to 90,000. As there are no signs of any remission in the intensity of organized attacks and killing of Rohingyas by Myanmar’s law-enforcers and majority Rakhaines – who are burning down Rohingya villages and burning Rohingya men, women, and children alive to death – Bangladesh might end up getting more than a million Rohingya refugees before the end of the year [BBC World News, 2nd-4th Sept, 2017].
Bangladesh Government since the overflow of Rohingya refugees at its “sealed” border with Myanmar has recently opened its border, and allowing the refugees in. However, Bangladesh Government’s Rohingya policy is full of loopholes, contradictions, and ambivalence. Even after the resurgence of mass killing of Rohingyas had begun by Myanmar’s law-enforcers and civilians on 25th August, Bangladesh Government proposed joint-military operations with Myanmar against “Rohingya militants fighting in Rakhine state” [“Bangladesh offers Myanmar military aid against Rohingya rebels” AFP/Arab News, 29 August 2017]. This stand is not that different from the Modi Government’s latest decision to deport all Rohingyas from India [Reuters, August 14, 2017]. I’m afraid, if Bangladesh continues playing a hostile role towards Rohingya refugees, and starts joint military operations against Rohingya insurgents along with Myanmar, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which is fast turning into a revolutionary/terrorist-insurgent outfit in Arakan and elsewhere in Myanmar, will backfire and eventually destabilize Bangladesh.
Then again, Bangladesh Government’s ambivalence and the lack of any sense of direction in its foreign policy is well-reflected in its appeal to Washington to “put pressure on Myanmar” to stop the inflows of refugees into Bangladesh. PM Hasina “made the appeal when US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells met her at her office” [Daily Star, August 31, 2017]. At the end of the day, it appears that for the Bangladesh Government, and the vast majority of Bangladeshis, the “Rohingya Crisis” in Myanmar is all about the influx of unwanted refugees into Bangladesh!
Interestingly, European countries – including United Kingdom – have registered their displeasure at the recurrence of state-sponsored violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar. British foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged Suu Kyi to end violence against the Rohingyas, immediately. British electronic and print media has been giving wide coverage of the brutal mass killing and rape of Rohingyas, and setting fire to their houses by Myanmar’s law-enforcers and civilians since long. BBC World News (TV) is not coverage away from showing documentary evidences of government-sponsored mass killings and expropriations of Rohingyas in Arakan. Instead of blaming the Rohingya victims as perpetrators of terror, The Economist has squarely blamed the Myanmar authorities for the rise of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the weekly imputed to the Government’s “savage violence in 2012” against the Rohingyas [“Myanmar’s Rohingyas: Gory days”, September 2nd 2017].
The same report reveals that the Rohingyas who live in Rakhaine “have long suffered persecution”, and that “Most are denied citizenship and therefore have little access to education or health care. They are the world’s largest community of stateless people. Strict laws govern their movement and where they can live: some 120,000 live in squalid camps as a result of past conflicts.” Myanmar’s authorities are so paranoid and uncomfortable with the UN World Food Programme, which they believe are in cahoots with Rohingya rebels, that they have decided to refuse visas to a UN human-rights team. “Allowing such delegates to visit would suggest Myanmar has nothing to hide. Sadly, it is keeping much under wraps”. This report – along with other international media reports – reveals that the latest ARSA attacks on 30 police posts and a military base on August 25th signalled the new surge of state-sponsored terrorism against the Rohingyas [Ibid].
Several other media outlets in Britain have been very forthcoming and objective in their reports on the ongoing ethnic cleansing process in Myanmar. One Guardian report tells us a thousand tales about what is going on in Arakan: “Gunfire and explosions crackle in the hills. Plumes of smoke from burning villages streak the monsoon-grey sky. Refugees fleeing for their lives are pouring into Bangladesh over the Myanmar border as the conflict between Myanmar security forces and Rohingya militias escalates and risks spiralling into a humanitarian disaster” [“Thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar amid tales of ethnic cleansing”, Guardian, 2 September 2017]. Yet another British media report is very succinct, and leaves nothing for speculation: “Fears of mass atrocities against Rohingya civilians in Myanmar were growing after eyewitness accounts emerged of children being beheaded and people burned alive”, writes Fiona MacGregor from Yangon [“Myanmar army ‘beheading children and burning people alive’ according to eyewitnesses”, The Telegraph, 2 September 2017].
While the US and Israel have been avowedly against ARSA and other Islamist insurgent/terrorist outfits everywhere, including Myanmar, some American and Israeli media outlets and intellectuals have strong reservations about their countries’ support for the rogue regime in Yangon, which has blood of innocent Rohingya men, women, and children on its hands. While responding to a petition by Israeli human rights activists who wanted their country to snap ties with Myanmar, Israeli authorities have said the relationship is “clearly diplomatic”, influential Israeli daily Haaretz has recently published an op-ed which is very critical of Israel’s relationship with Myanmar Government, which has expelled about 90,000 Rohingyas in one week and killed many, including 12 children. Israeli lawmakers unite to fight arms exports to countries, including Myanmar, that violate human rights [John Brown, “As Violence Intensifies, Israel Continues to Arm Myanmar’s Military Junta”, Haaretz, Sept 4, 2017].
By the way, it might be of some interest to people who think the so-called Muslim Ummah is in solidarity with the Muslim victims of unjust wars, persecution, and terrorism, that “Islamic” Pakistan is in an advanced stage of signing a deal with Myanmar, permitting the latter to manufacture Pakistani designed JF-17 fighter planes [Naveed Siddiqui, “Myanmar in ‘advanced negotiations’ with Pakistan to licence-build JF-17 fighter”, Dawn, February 08, 2017]. Despite all the prevalent brouhaha about the “solidarity” among the members of the elusive Muslim Ummah, so far only Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Qatar have publicly condemned the rogue regime in Yangon, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who happens to be a Nobel Laureate in Peace. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan have taken large numbers of Rohingya refugees, around 400,000 and 200,000, respectively. One wonders, if they have taken them as sources of cheap labour, or out of genuine compassion for these hapless people, or if there are some other hidden agendas behind it, not known to us!
One wonders, if Saddam Hussein could be overthrown for his persecution of Shiites and Kurdish people, why Myanmar should remain unpunished for its genocidal crime against the Rohingyas! Their situation is not that different from the Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, who after 25th March were no longer willing to remain as citizens of Pakistan. They identified themselves with Bangladesh, which they fought for and liberated on 16th December1971. Now, on the same token, I do not think it is enough to urge the military-backed Myanmar regime to treat the Rohingyas as equal citizens, with full human rights and dignity.
It is also important to make the world understand, the Rohingyas are a nation from every definition of the expression, and they are entitled to exercise their right of self-determination, under UN observation. South Sudan is the latest example in this regard. The Rohingyas might declare independence, or join — “re-join” – Bangladesh after living under Burman and British occupation for more than 200 years since 1784. As we know, historically Arakan was never integral to Myanmar, so are the Rohingyas not a minority community in Myanmar from any stretch of the imagination.
Bangladesh should not only extend generous material and moral support to the Rohingyas – within and beyond Bangladesh – in their (what has already become) freedom struggle against Myanmar, but it should also do its best to champion the cause of human rights and dignity. It is time Bangladesh becomes more generous, assertive, and above all, a powerful voice for the freedom struggle of the Rohingyas of Arakan. Bangladeshis should never lose sight of their own history. They must affirm with no ambiguity that Arakan is integral to Bangladesh. It is a Bengali land, forcibly occupied and annexed by Burmans in 1784. The exigencies of humanity, and national pride, dignity, and self-respect of the Bengali nation of Bangladesh are at stake here. Bangladesh must assert its claim over Arakan, and must be proactive in sheltering the Rohingya refugees, who are above all fellow human beings, and their not-so-distant cousins, as well.
So far, we have only seen Islam-oriented people – mainly madrasa students and teachers – publicly demonstrating against the mass killing of Rohingyas in Myanmar, only because the victims are Muslims. It is sad, although not surprising, that we only come across Muslim solidarity among conservative sections of the Muslim population in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Very few people in the Muslim World seem to have bothered to condemn the killing and persecution of fellow human beings in Myanmar or elsewhere in the world. The Bangladesh government’s ambivalence, and at times bias against the Rohingyas, is partially responsible for the collective indifference of the people in Bangladesh.
Most “leading intellectuals” and members of the moribund civil society – who once played historic role from 1948 to 1971, and beyond up to the fall of Dictator Ershad in 1990 – have remained silent at the ongoing mega genocide in Myanmar. One may cite the latest signature campaign by members of the civil society against some Bangladeshis’ making controversial and defamatory comments against Chief Justice S.K. Sinha, to highlight the state of the terminal decline and degeneration of the civil society in Bangladesh. Early this month, only 25 civil society members put their signatures on the mildest possible statement against the organized defamation of the judiciary.
Last but not least, Bangladesh must affirm the following points in the most unambiguous terms:
- a) Rohingyas in Arakan are not Bangladeshi intruders, rather more than 50 per cent of Chittagonians are descendants of Rohingya refugees from Arakan, who came and settled there since the Burman Buddhist annexation of the independent kingdom of Arakan in 1784;
- b) Historically Arakan and Bangladesh were parts of the bigger entity called Bengal, and they in the pre-British colonial days were at times together under the Mughals, or lived side by side as independent entities;
- c) Bangladesh is not going to remain the main dumping ground of Rohingya refugees;
- d) The Rohingya issue is well-beyond a subject of counterterrorism studies or a terrorist problem – it is about a persecuted minority’s right of self-determination, and a life-and-death issue for them, and the entire humanity;
- e) Bangladesh must accept all Rohingya refugees – if the circumstances force it to do so – and must not join Myanmar, India, or any other country in its so-called quest for countering ARAS terrorism;
- f) Bangladesh must urge the UN, China, the West, and the Muslim World, and all humanitarian aid agencies, human rights organizations, including the Red Cross and international and Bangladeshi NGOs, philanthropists, and civil societies to generously help the Rohingyas within and beyond Myanmar.
- g) Bangladesh should mobilize public opinion across the world against Myanmar’s brutal regime, which has been engaged in the mass killing and expropriation of Rohingya minorities in Myanmar;
- h) Last but not least, it is time for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to have her “Indira Gandhi (1971) moments” by championing the cause of the freedom-loving Rohingyas – for the sake of humanity and just peace – by allowing Arakan to become another South Sudan of South Asia. Bangladesh just cannot remain indifferent to the Rohingya crisis, it must not abandon its own people to die at the hands of brutal Burman invaders, or live as their slaves, indefinitely.
Every society has certain taboos – cultural/religious, social, and political – set apart and designated as restricted or forbidden to associate with, or even to bring in ordinary discussion. The Rohingya issue (for some strange reasons) seems to be such a taboo in Bangladesh. Both people and government here don’t want to go beyond certain limits to have a candid discussion on the crux of the Rohingya issue, which goes beyond the subject of organized persecution and killing of Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Far from being a peripheral issue for Bangladesh – or just a “refugee problem for over-populated Bangladesh” – the Rohingya issue has everything to do with Bangladesh, its identity, integrity, honour, and dignity. Both Rohingyas and Arakan are rather integral to Bangladesh, historically, culturally, and geopolitically. Now it’s time that Bangladesh asserts in unambiguous terms: “Rohingyas aren’t Bangladeshi intruders into Myanmar. They are Bengalis from Arakan, which is their ancestral home for more than a thousand years. Arakan and the Rohingyas are inseparable from Bangladesh and Bengalis; and Bangladesh just can’t be a dumping ground for persecuted and expropriated Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.”
Unfortunately, what we hear from the Government, media, and a tiny minority of Bangladeshi intellectuals is all about asking (rather requesting) Myanmar to take back Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh; and to treat its Rohingya minority humanely. Some Bangladeshi Muslims and Islamic organizations occasionally protest the killing and persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, seemingly only because the victims are Muslims. The problem is no longer Myanmar’s internal problem, as it was never so in the past 200 years; it has everything to do with Bengalis, and the state of Bangladesh! According to a CNN documentary (Jan 31, 2017) more than 92,000 Rohingyas have entered the country in the last one-year alone.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Government has taken two absurd decisions: firstly, it has virtually refused to grant refugee status to the Rohingyas on the flimsy ground of “over-population”; and secondly, it has proposed to “settle” Rohingya refugees at Thengar Char, a remote, marshy, and uninhabitable island, more than 37 miles from the mainland of Bangladesh, which is often submerged in water. “This is a terrible and crazy idea … it would be like sending thousands of people to exile rather than calling it relocation,” a Bangladeshi government official told CNN recently, and he didn’t want to be named because he feared reprisals.
Although Bangladesh isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (for some strange reasons), the country has a moral obligation to accept refugees, as the country was born, as one analyst has put it, “experiencing refugeehood”. During our liberation war, around 10 million people (one out of every seven of that time population) took refuge in neighbouring India. Last but not least, Bangladesh has another obligation to the Rohingya Bengalis from Arakan, which until 1784 was integral to Bengal.
A CNN documentary (Jan 31, 2016) on the plight of the Rohingya Bengalis is heart-rending and revealing. While the Rohingyas, the sons and daughters of the soil of Arakan or the Rakhaine State of Myanmar for more than one thousand years are at the receiving end of murder, rape, torture, and expropriation at the hands of Myanmar authorities and Buddhist majority, the Bangladesh authorities have remained very insensitive to these hapless refugees. They should learn as to how some Western nations, especially Germany, Sweden, and Canada, have welcomed and accommodated Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim World.
Bangladesh should take a proactive role in addressing the Rohingya issue. It should pay heed to what the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Ms Alison Blake has recently told the world about the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar in the most unambiguous terms: “Hearing the description of the torture from Rohingyas who fled Rakhine state in Myanmar, it seemed that it is tantamount to genocide.” As reported in the Time magazine (March 14, 2017), Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar believes the Myanmar authorities “may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether.”
It’s strange but true, while the situation for the Rohingyas in Myanmar is comparable to the plight of the victims of the Syrian civil war, the people and government in Bangladesh are at most lukewarm about the ongoing genocide of Bengali Rohingyas in Myanmar. They aren’t enthusiastic about extending whole-hearted support to the Rohingya refugees, let alone finding out a permanent solution to their problem. They even avoid raising the question: Aren’t Rohingyas Bengalis, and Arakan integral to Bangladesh? The reasons aren’t far to seek. Firstly, Bangladeshis in general don’t know the actual history of the Rakhaine State of Myanmar, and the Rohingya people, who aren’t descendants of Bangladeshi intruders into Myanmar but are indigenous to the state, also known as Arakan. Bangladeshis don’t know that Arakan is an occupied territory, and the Rohingyas are the only legitimate inhabitants of the territory.
Arakan was a Bengali-speaking Muslim kingdom up to 1784, when Buddhist Barmans annexed the kingdom to what is Myanmar today. The British occupied Myanmar or Burma in 1826 and ruled the country up to 1948. When the British left, Arakan, also called Rakhaine, remained a part of Myanmar. Meanwhile, thanks to Myanmar government policy, Buddhist/Barman people had outnumbered the indigenous Bengali Rohingyas in Arakan. After 1948, Arakanese Muslims tried to become independent, in vain. The rest is history.
Salil Tripathi, a London-based renowned journalist and human rights activist, in his well-researched article in 2015 gave a lurid description of the premeditated ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military-backed regimes, in historical and contemporary perspectives. He writes: “This May, Tomás Ojea Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said publicly that ‘the Rohingya are in a process of genocide.’ Soon afterwards, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu called the persecution of the Rohingya a ‘slow genocide’.” His account of what has happened to Arakan since Myanmar’s independence in 1948 is very discomforting too: “By the time the Japanese invaded British-controlled Burma as part of the Second World War, in early 1942, about a third of the population of Sittwe, Arakan’s biggest city, was Muslim – almost all of them Rohingya. That is no longer so. Today’s Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine state, home to some 150,000 people, and a place of peeling colonial houses, ramshackle huts and crowded, noisy bazaars – is almost exclusively Buddhist. The attacks in 2012, which were as vicious there as elsewhere in the state, forced thousands of Muslims away. Fewer than 5,000 remain, confined to Aung Mingalar, once a thriving Muslim quarter” [Salil Tripathi, Beyond All Bounds:
How Myanmar’s democratic opening has failed the Rohingya”, Caravan Magazine,1 November 2015].
One may cite multiple historical sources to show as to how the Rohingyas, who are living in Arakan since the 8th century, embraced Islam during the 9th and 15th centuries, have not only become a minority in Arakan, but they have become victims of a “slow genocide” in their own ancestral home. The number of Rohingyas who have lost their lives – dignity, honour, and properties – at the hands of Myanmar’s military and civilians since 1942 is overwhelmingly and disproportionately high to their total population in Myanmar. Around 50 per cent of Rohingyas live as refugees and undocumented illegal workers in various countries. There are credible sources and estimates about the size of the Rohingya Diaspora. Bangladesh is said to have sheltered around 500,000 (according to BBC, another 90,000 have entered the country in ten days, following the new surge of violence on 25th August). There are 200,000 to 350,000 of them in Pakistan; 200,000 to 400,000 in Saudi Arabia; 150,000 in Malaysia; 100,000 in Thailand; 40,000 in India; 11,000 in Indonesia; and 10,000 in UAE.
The Rohingyas have a checkered history. They lived in the Muslim kingdom of Arkan or Rakhaine. Some of their Budhist rulers in the medieval period adopted Islamic names and titles, and struck coins with Arabic and Persian inscriptions. For several centuries, Arakan and the Greater Chittagong had a common government, until the separation of the later in 1666 under the Mughal rulers of India. In 1784, Bodawpaya, a Buddhist Burman king annexed Arakan, which became a British territory, not long after they occupied Myanmar in 1826. Soon, the British brought tens of thousands of Bengalis to work in Myanmar. And Mayanmar Government since Independence in 1948, are demanding the expulsion of all Bengalis and Rohingyas, as foreigners, which is similar to what Sri Lankan majority Buddhist Sinhalese community did to the minority Tamils. Sinhalese majority community demanded the expulsion of all Tamils from Sri Lanka. They simply denied all historical evidences about many Tamils, who had been living in Sri Lanka for several thousand years.
During the Japanese occupation of Myanmar (1942-1945) while Burman Buddhists in general collaborated with the Japanese occupation army, Rohingyas in general remained loyal to the British, and many joined the anti-Japanese resistance army of the V-Force, raised by the British. In 1942 alone, about a hundred thousand Rohingyas got killed at the hands of Burman Buddhits. Shortly after Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. According to a report [“Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State?”, October 2015] by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, the Rohingya were not included. The act, however, did allow those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. A massive exodus of Rohingyas took place following the Independence.
Meanwhile, before the Independence in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and asked his assistance in incorporating Arakan to Pakistan, considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with East Pakistan. Two months later, the north Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (modern Sittwe). It demanded annexation to Pakistan. The proposal was never materialized since it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah saying that he was not in a position to interfere into Burmese matters [ Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, South Asian Institute, Heidelberg University, Verlag Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaen, 1972, p.10].
In 1962, General Ne Win staged a military coup in Myanmar. His ascendancy signalled the beginning of extremely hard time for the Rohingyas and other ethno-national minority groups in the country. All citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue and obtain. Consequently, several hundred thousand Rohingyas left the country after 1962. In 1978, a large-scale military operation (Operation King Dragon, also known as Operation Nagamin) took place in northern Arakan. Officially, it was against Rohingya insurgents, who had been fighting for an Islamic State, but actually it classified individuals living in Arakan as “citizens” and “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Consequently, around 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. Most of them later returned to Bangladesh under UN supervision, and faced arbitrary arrests, rape, torture, and expropriation.
In 1982, a new citizenship law effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless. They were not among the 135 recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. In order to obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), there must be proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar prior to 1948, as well as she/he has fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them. Henceforth, many Rohingyas cannot vote in Myanmar. In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won 392 of the 485 seats in Myanmar parliament. And despite their support for the NLD, as more than 250,000 Rohingyas were forced out from Arakan into Bangladesh. Since the 1990s, the military junta and the military-backed puppet government of Aung San Suu Kyi (since 2016) are grossly discriminating against the Rohingyas. Afterwards, indiscriminate expropriations, rape, torture, expulsion, and murder of Rohingyas by security forces and Burman Buddhists became the norm.
Now, in regards to the Rohingya issue, the options for Bangladesh are very limited. It can, however, now play a different ballgame with Myanmar. As Bangladesh should pressure Myanmar to take back all the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh in the last few years, it should also involve the UN, international human rights agencies, and China (which has considerable influence with the Myanmar authorities) to make Myanmar respect international law and human rights of people living under its suzerainty.
Then again, the ambivalence, contradictions, and the absence of any sense of direction in Bangladesh Government’s Rohingya policy are big problems toward an amicable settlement of the refugee problem. This is evident in the following excerpts from a UN aid agency official – who wants to remain anonymous and currently working at Cox’s Bazar – who shared his opinion on Facebook on 1st September 2017:
- a) For some unknown reasons, the Bangladesh Government has not prepared any list of Rohingya refugees. Consequently, although there are around 400,000 Rohingyas in the country, there are only around 33,000 of them in the list of the UNHCR;
- b) This indecision would eventually hurt Bangladesh, as if and when there is an agreement for repatriation of the refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, the latter would not accept anybody who are not enlisted in the UNHCR’s list;
- c) As Bangladesh Government’s 2014 policy on “National Strategy on Myanmar Refugees and Undocumented Myanmar Nationals in Bangladesh” does not recognize Rohingyas as refugee or asylum seekers but as illegal immigrants or intruders in the country, they are not entitled to any international aid, and right of return to their homeland;
- d) And this Bangladesh Government is legitimizing the exploitation and marginalization of Rohingya refugees, and this policy might backfire to the detriment of law and order and overall security of Bangladesh.
To conclude, Bangladesh just can’t afford to be a passive spectator of the ongoing persecution of the Rohingyas who are indigenous to Arakan, once integral to Bangladesh. Now, there are some open-ended, — and possibly embarrassing – questions in this regard. If Bangladesh should assert its claim on Arakan is altogether a different and difficult question! If there is a military solution to the problem, is another problematic question. One may agree with what Professor Bhuian Monoar Kabir of Chittagong University, wrote in a private communication to this writer. He thinks there could be three alternative options for the Rohingyas; and Bangladesh could play a positive role in attaining in accordance with the will of the majority of the Rohingya people:
- Northwestern Arakan could be autonomous, with full citizenship rights to the Rohingyas;
- Northwestern Arakan could become an independent Rohingya state;
- Meanwhile the Rohingyas may declare independence, form a government-in-exile, and in the event of overthrowing the Burman Buddhist hegemony, could become a part of Bangladesh.
Dr. Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the U.S. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org