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Persecution of the Rohingya

(Photo: AP)

By Asrul Daniel Ahmed 
May 14, 2014

THE United Nations has called the Rohingya the most persecuted minority in the world.

In April last year, Human Rights Watch released a report in which they condemned the treatment of the Rohingya in their home region of the Arakan, going so far as to refer to them as Crimes Against Humanity, one of the highest ­categories of wrongdoings under international law. 

The killing of over 200 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims and the displacement of more than 140,000 of their people was the result of the eruption of violence that engulfed over nine townships in June last year and was characterised by the report as a form of “ethnic ­cleansing”. 

One of the most recent episodes concerning the plight of the Rohingya took place in January this year. South-East Asian based human rights non-governmental organisation, Fortify Rights, reported that 40 Rohingya from the Du Char Yar Tan village were killed and hundreds displaced in an apparent act of retribution for the suspected killing of a police officer.

According to the UN, the victims were killed by security forces and members of other ethnic groups, many of them apparently ­followers of a radical form of Buddhist ideo­logy that has been preaching violence and discrimination against non-Buddhist minorities. 

The act itself might not have come to light had not severed heads of at least 10 Rohingya, including those of children, were found floating in a water tank. 

At the centre of the turmoil has been the 969, a nationalist Buddhist movement, to which many have attributed the rising bigotry and intolerance in Myanmar. The movement is led by Wirathu, a monk whom Time magazine had dubbed “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.

Having broad support both from Myanmar’s political elite as well as the popular masses, Wirathu has spoken out against police violence and his sermons have been described as promoting peace and understanding between religions, even as he calls for the boycott of Muslim businesses, rallies against inter-racial marriages and regarding mosques as “enemy bases”.

Physical and psychological abuses are not the only forms of violence that the Rohingya have been made to suffer. In a move that echoes the 1982 Citizenship Law which does not recognise Rohingya as among the 135 legally recognised ethnic groups, effectively denying them citizenship, the 2014 census deli­berately excluded those identifying themselves as “Rohingya”.

The UN Population Fund has described this as departing from international census standards, human rights principles and procedures, carrying the possibility of heightening tensions in the Rakhine State, as well as undermining the credibility of the data collected. They have apparently been written out of existence, any official reference towards them using the ethnic category of “Bengali” instead.

With a long history of persecution and violence that has ongoing ever since the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act had stripped them of their nationality, it should not come as any surprise that many among the 1.3 million Rohingya who currently live in Myanmar have attempted at some point to flee the country, or at least know somebody who did.

Most have done it riding overcrowded, inhospitable and unrelia­ble boats, and many have perished in the high seas in pursuit of a better life. In the first eight months of 2013 alone, the UNHCR reported more than 24,000 have risked their lives, many of them children.

Even if they manage to survive such ordeals, they might fall prey to human trafficking operations or face persecution and imprisonment by the authorities of neighbouring countries who regard them as illegal immigrants on unwelcome shores. 

Some might even be involuntarily sent back, known in international law as “refoulement”, to where they might have to face dire consequences.

As these words are being penned, the 24th Asean Summit is taking place in Nay Pyi Taw. It is questionable whether concerns for the Rohingya will ever be brought to the table, as disputes concerning the South China Sea are sure to dominate due to the various claimants in South-East Asia becoming increasingly nervous about China’s growing assertiveness.

Whereas such conflicts over maritime borders are not likely to involve any great violence to populations, issues such as the persecution of the Rohingya involve not only the suffering of over 1.3 ­million people, but are trans­national concerns with conse­quences that can reverberate throughout the whole region. 

It will be a challenge, though, for Asean, with its long-standing tradition of non-interference and decision-making through consensus, to tackle such problems that are often characterised as domestic issues. 

However, as we move closer towards realising this dream of an Asean community by 2015, perhaps it is helpful to remember a saying that has often been attributed to Mahatma Ghandi: “The true ­measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

ASRUL DANIEL AHMED is Director of Research Department at Global Movement of Moderates Foundation.

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