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GPU 2013: Interview with Director General of Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) - Part 1 and Part 2

(Photo: Nadia Shabir)

By Nadia Shabir 
December 13, 2013

The Global Peace and Unity (GPU) conference took place in London from November 23-24, 2013 at the renowned landmark arena ExCel exhibition centre. GPU invited speakers from the human rights field to speak on current human rights development in the world and to highlight strategies that contribute to immediate or progressive realization of human rights. The GPU Conference differs from the other peace conferences in that it does not just provide a platform for activists, it also celebrates the contributions people have made to peace over the years. The GPU international charity awards 2013 celebrated the steps organizations and different NGOs are taking to prevent abuse of the state monopoly on violence across the world.

This year, the theme of Global Peace and Unity was ‘Freedom for all’. Aside from highlighting conflicts and struggles in the Middle East, GPU highlighted Rohingya Muslims’ human rights situation in Myanmar. Burma has had a long history of wars, civil strife, corruption and ethnic divisions. However, since 2012, the human rights situation in Burma has deteriorated considerably with clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist monks in the Western Myanmar state of Rakhine. In May 2012, the rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman by a three Muslims youths near her village Tha Pri Chaung further fueled the tension between these two groups, the outcome being Muslim villages burnt to the ground and thousands of Rohingya Muslims being displaced. According to the UN, Rohingyas are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. The government’s continuous attempt for the past 10 years to suppress 135 ethnic minorities has resulted in 530,000 displaced people and the destruction of 3,200 villages in Eastern Burma. Over 2,000 Burmese have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring Thailand.

Toonari Post met Dr. Wakar Uddin, Director of Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) in London on November 23, 2013 to discuss the current Human Rights situation in Burma regarding Rohingya Muslims. Dr Waqar Uddin has dedicated his life to this cause and to bring attention to the plight and suffering of the Rohingya community of Myanmar.

Toonari Post (TP): Please tell us about the current situation in Myanmar.

Dr Wakar Uddin (DWU): The current situation in Myanmar has worsened dramatically due to the conflict of the past year. Since June of last year there have been Rohingiyas set on fire by Buddhist mobs and monks and so many of Muslim families and villages have been burnt. There was carnage, violence and dozens were killed. Due to the ongoing civil strife and tension, there have been 130,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Rakhine state and all of them are Muslims. These people were driven out of their homeland and have been subjected to torture and the total denial of their rights and citizenship within Myanmar. Rohingyas are a stateless Muslim minority.

TP: Please tell us more about your organization Arakan Rohingiya Union (ARU).

DWU: Rohingya Union is a global confederation and we are an organization of 61 different Rohingya organizations worldwide and that includes five organizations from inside Myanmar. I am a Director General of ARU and I have been elected for the seven year term. I am running this organization under Secretariat and the Secretariat has a Director General and we have 11 different departments with chair person and teams of people running each department.

TP: How did you become involved in Arakan Rohingiya Union, and do you have a background in human rights?

DWU: By profession I am a scientist, I am a micro biologist. I have been involved in the Rohingya issue for several years now, working with the State Department to highlight the seriousness of plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In 2010 OIC the Organization of Islamic Corporation from Jeddah felt that all Rohingiyas, Rohingya organizations and parties need to come together and form a union for confederation and for elective vote.

At that time I was running BRANA. I am a founder of BRANA and was a Chairman of BRANA. BRANA is Burmese Rohingiya Association of North America. It was formed in 2010, and is an advocacy organization. I was trying to work with the US senate, US state of Department, Canadian government, and various NGOs on issues facing the Rohingya people in Burma. Therefore, we are a part of those 61 organizations and that’s how we got involved with ARU. I was elected by the members to lead the organization and that explains my involvement with ARU. The OIC is backing us now with its 57 Muslim member states, which originally formed and founded ARU, a real legitimate Rohingiya organization that is representing Rohingya people and their interests.

The OIC is very active in working with ARU and Rohingiya issues and last week they went to Myanmar as a seven Foreign Ministery delegation to discuss the plight and suffering of Rohingya Muslims. There is a forming relationship between Burmese government and the OIC, therefore as you can see ARU is instrumental behind all these activities of OIC.

TP: You have spoken about the international community’s response to the Rohingya conflict but tell us what Muslim communities and nations have done to help de-escalate the conflict in Myanmar and to help the Rohingya Muslims?

DWU: This is a very good question; the Muslim nations effort has been tremendous and came from different channels. The main response came from OIC and its 57 members of Muslim states. On the public level there has been a tremendous effort by Muslim organizations, NGOs and aid organizations, and countries like Indonesia, Malaysia also have been very active in Rohingya Muslim issue.

The community here in the UK also stepped forward to offer their help and support and asked us ‘what can we do for you’? SO I feel that on public, international and on governmental level the message has gone out and more and more countries and Muslims across the world are now becoming aware of this Rohingya situation. Years ago even in Burma the term Rohingya was foreign, there was a lack of understanding onto what Rohingya is and who Rohingya Muslims are. I feel getting this message across to masses has been a tremendous achievement by ARU so far.

TP: We have seen scores of massacres and genocides in the 21st century, intervention came too late and thousands of lives were lost in Bosnia, Chechnya, Uganda, and Rwanda to name a few, do you think an intervention by the international community came at the right time in Burma?

DWU: It was little bit late, we lost thousands of lives but we didn’t lose hundred thousands of lives, so it could have been far worst. But it would have been better if local, national, international and Muslim community had gotten involved five years ago. That would have saved more lives. Muslim Rohingyas have experienced discrimination, ethnic cleansing and marginalization since 1962. Racism and marginalization is like a cancer that has been eating away the Rohingya community slowly since 1962. People have been leaving the country and faced systematic discrimination. In June of 2012, things exploded and once the news got out via international and social media, we got a response from the international community. Sadly this awareness came with the price of killings of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

Nonetheless it is not too late, the International community has stepped in and in about right time.

TP: Please tell us about the aftermath of the conflict and how this has impacted on Rohingya Muslims, IDPs and Refugees? 

DWU: The past conflict has brought pain and sorrow. The pain is enormous for these people, their families, children, women and elderly. The psychological impact of conflict is huge. Since last year thousands of Rohingyas got onto boats to flee Burma, going across the Indian ocean to cross into Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. In these countries, they have been placed in refugee camps with not enough food and medical care. This adjustment to a new reality has been painful for these people. It is indescribable what they are going through. Among the most painful consequences of this forced migration is accepting the reality of the loved ones they have lost, and left behind. Even now you will find boats floating the Indian ocean, people desperately trying to get to Indonesia, Malaysia, Srilanka and India. This migration of the Rohingya on boats is one of the biggest movements of recent times. 

TP: What message will you be bringing from ARU to thousands of people who will be watching you live at the GPU? 

DWU: My message to the community here in this large event is to acknowledge the situation of the Rohingya and to come together to encourage the international community to step up their efforts to help the Rohingya Muslims. I would also like to request the guest speakers in this event to get involved with their governments, with their ministries and their NGOs to step up their efforts until Rohingyas get their rights in their kind of state. 

The message is: Please Help Us! Only some parts of story is known, but the width and the depth of the problem in Rohingya state is enormous, so we want to ask the community here to convey this message of help to international actors, to governments and to other ministries. 

TP: It looks like your organization is at the forefront of raising awareness of Rohingya Muslims, so please tell us what you have achieved so far, have you been able to make a difference? 

DWU: Thanks to God, our organization has been able to make so much difference on political and humanitarian grounds. We have stepped up international co-operation among NGOs, governments and the latest achievement is the United Nations General Assembly Resolution where ARU has been instrumental in working with OIC and the European Union, the Canadian government. Those resolutions came out couple of days ago regarding Rohingya citizenship, human rights and ethnic rights and this is the latest land mark achievement of ARU. 

Before that we have worked with US State Department personally and Non-EU Member States to raise the awareness of conflict in Myanmar. ARU has also been active in human rights research for the United Nations General Assembly where OIC has a covering mission working with them. We have covered a high level of international activities including media that has been involved in various departments and Obama’s visit to Myanmar. We have watched and worked with the US State Department, staff and government to make Obama’s trip successful and for him to mention Rohingiyas in his speech in Rangoon has created an awareness of the Muslim people of the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. 

TP: We always hear about crisis in the Middle East, the East Coast of Africa and there has been a recent catastrophe in the Philippines. People often feel confused who to help, what can the ordinary person do to help the Rohingya situation? 

DWU: People throughout the world can collectively do relief efforts to help Rohingya Muslims, especially those who are IDPs and refugees. There is a dire need for humanitarian aid, medicine, clothes, food, blankets, and clean water in order to prevent further health problems and this can be done through aid organizations worldwide. One thing which is really important for us is that the international community should not see this a separate issue. This is a global issue, there is a community that is dying, that is being wiped out, so the message to everyone is to get the message out and help these people. 

TP: Regarding the GPU; please tell us how do you define peace and unity? 

DWU: Peace and unity will be the combined effort; one cannot be achieved without another. It is the peace that will bring the unity. Peace and unity means working together, coming together, to deal with the issues collectively and contributing to the cause, such as the one in Syria, Myanmar, Congo and other countries of the world. To help the victims and the cause. 

TP: How can humanity achieve peace and unity? 

DWU: For humanity to achieve peace and unity, it will be through building bridges, gaining understanding and coming together.

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