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Myanmar should change citizenship law

By Dr Habib Siddiqui
October 13, 2014

This year, the Myanmar authorities have cracked down even harder, making the situation worse. First, the government expelled Doctors Without Borders, which had been providing health care for the Rohingya. Then orchestrated mobs attacked the offices of humanitarian organisations, forcing them out. While some kinds of aid are resuming, but not the health care! As noted by award-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, expectant mothers and their children are dying for lack of doctors. They need doctors desperately to save their lives, but the Myanmar government has confined them to quasi-concentration camps outside towns, and it blocks aid workers from entering to provide medical help. They are on their own in Myanmar, where democratic progress is being swamped by crimes against humanity toward the Rohingya.

Many of the Muslim IDPs now live in squalid camps with no provisions and are counting their days hopelessly to be relocated to their burnt homes. And yet, such a provision seems unlikely. In recent months, Rakhine Buddhists have organised demonstrations protesting any resettlement of the Rohingya and other Muslims. Bottom line — they want the Rohingya and other Muslims out of Myanmar, if not totally annihilated.

Many international observers and some experts, including human rights activists, were surprised by such outbreaks of ethnic cleansing drives in the past year against the Muslims, in general, and the Rohingya people, in particular, let alone the level of Buddhist intolerance against non-Buddhists everywhere inside Myanmar. However, such sad episodes were no surprise to many keen readers and researchers of Myanmar’s problematic history.

We all knew that simply a transition to democracy would not and could not solve the Rohingya problem. Instead of a much-needed dialogue for reconciliation and confidence-building between ethnic/national and religious groups, what we recognised was appalling Buddhist chauvinism — outright rejection of the ‘other’ people from such processes by the so-called ‘democracy’ leaders within the Burmese and Rakhine diaspora. As if, their so-called struggle for democracy against the hated military regime was a purely Buddhist one, the Rohingya Muslims were unwelcome in those dialogues between ethnic/national groups.
The level of Buddhist intolerance, hatred and xenophobia has simply no parallel in our time! The chauvinist Buddhists are in denial of the very existence of the Rohingya people in spite of the fact that the latter’s root in Arakan is older than that of the Rakhines by several centuries. While the vast majority of the late-comers to the contested territory were Buddhists, the Rohingyas, much like the people living next door — on the other side of the River Naaf — in today’s Bangladesh had embraced Islam voluntarily. Their conversion had also much to do with the history of the entire region, especially in the post-13th century when the sultans and the great Mughal emperors ruled vast territories of the South Asia from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of the Indian Ocean.

As a matter of fact, the history of Arakan, sandwiched then between Muslim-dominated India and Buddhist-dominated Burma, would have been much different had it not been for the crucial decision made by the Muslim sultan of Bengal who reinstalled the fleeing Buddhist king Narameikhtla to the throne of Arakan in 1430 with a massive Muslim force of nearly 60,000 soldiers — sent in two campaigns. Interestingly, the Muslim General Wali Khan — leading a force of 25,000 soldiers, who was instructed to put the fleeing monarch to the throne of Arakan — claimed it for himself. He was subsequently uprooted in a new campaign — again at the directive of the Sultan of Muslim Bengal, by General Sandi Khan who led a force of 35,000 soldiers. What would be Arakan’s history today if the Muslim Sultan of Bengal had let General Wali Khan rule the country as his client?

The so-called democracy leaders in the opposition had very little, if any, in common with values and ideals of democracy but more with hard-core fascism. Their behaviour showed that they were closet fascists and were no democrats. Thus, all the efforts of the Rohingya and other non-Buddhist minority groups to reach out to the Buddhist-dominated opposition leadership simply failed. It was an ominous warning for the coming days!

So, in 2012 when the region witnessed a series of highly orchestrated ethnic cleansing drives against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups not just within the Rakhine state but all across Myanmar, like some keen observers of the political developments, I was not too surprised. Nor was I surprised at the poisonous role played by leaders of the so-called democracy movement. They showed their real fascist colour. But the level of ferocity, savagery and inhumanity simply shocked me. It showed that the Theravada Buddhists of Myanmar, like their co-religionists in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, have unmistakably become one of the most racists and bigots in our world. With the evolving incendiary role of Buddhist monks like Wirathu — the abbot of historically influential Mandalay Ma-soe-yein monastery — and his 969 Fascist Movement, which sanctifies eliminationist policies against the Muslims, surely, the teachings of Gautama Buddha have miserably failed to enlighten them and/or put a lid on their all too obvious savagery and monstrosity.

Myanmar is still locked in its mythical, savage past and has not learnt the basics of nation-building. It uses fear-tactics and hatred towards a common enemy — the Rohingyas and Muslim minorities — to glue its fractured Buddhist majority. And the sad reality is — its formula is working, thanks to Wirathu, Thein Sein, Suu Kyi and other provocateurs and executioners!

On June 20, 2013 twelve Nobel Peace laureates called upon the Myanmar government for ending violence against Muslims in Burma. They also called for an international independent investigation of the anti-Muslim violence. Yet, the Myanmar regime continues to ignore international plea for integration of the Rohingya and other minorities. It proclaims — ‘There are no people called Rohingya in Myanmar.’ This narrative is absurd, as well as racist. A document as far back as 1799 refers to the Rohingya population in Arakan, and an 1826 report estimates that 30 per cent of the population of this region was Muslim.

As I have noted elsewhere, today’s Rohingya are a hybrid group of people, much like the Muslim communities living in many non-Arab countries around the globe, especially South Asia. To say that their origin is a British-era or a Bangladeshi phenomenon is simply disingenuous.

In recent months, Myanmar has conducted a controversial census in which nearly a million Rohingyas were unaccounted. They were denied their basic rights to identify themselves as Rohingya. It was a gross violation according to scores of international laws.

The Rohingya identity is no more ‘artificial’ or ‘invented’ than any other, including the Rakhine identity. The national politics around the Rohingya people of Arakan who are dumped as the ‘Bengali illegal Muslim immigrants’ is not mere bigotry but a viable toxic fruit of Myanmar ultra-nationalism? Bhumi Rakkhita Putra Principle. It is a deliberate act of provocative target-marking in line with YMBA’s (Young Men Buddhist Association) amyo-batha-tharthana (race-language-religion) and is the foundation of the Burma Citizenship Act 1982. It is strong, powerful, and ultra-toxic. This apartheid law allows a Rakhine Buddhist like Aye Maung — an MP and chairman of the RNDP (a religio-racist Rakhine political party) whose parents only emigrated to Arakan state in 1953–54 from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) — to be automatically recognised as a Burmese citizen while denying the same privilege to millions of Rohingya and other Muslims whose ancestors had lived in the territory for centuries.

Myanmar espouses neo-Nazi Fascism, ie, Myanmarism — the noxious cocktail of Buddhism, ultra-nationalism, racism and bigotry. It is a farcical ideology, which starts on the false premise that the different groups that make up its complex ethnic/religious mosaic today were always under the authority of a single government before the arrival of the British. It is a dangerous ideology since it promotes the agenda towards genocide of the Rohingya and other non-Buddhist religious minorities. It is a medieval ideology of hatred and intolerance because it defines citizenship based on ethnicity or race, which has no place in the 21st century.

The Citizenship Law of 1982 violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights. The 1982 Law promotes discrimination against Rohingya by arbitrarily depriving them of their Burmese (Myanmar) citizenship. The deprivation of one’s nationality is not only a serious violation of human rights but also constitutes an international crime.

This apartheid law is a blueprint for elimination or ethnic cleansing. It has galvanised into genocidal campaign against the vulnerable Rohingya people who have lost everything in their ancestral land and has created outflows of refugees, which overburden other countries posing threats to peace and security within the region. Of the Rohingya diaspora, an estimated 1.5 million now live in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and other places where they could find a shelter. Such a forced exodus of Rohingyas is simply unacceptable in our time.

If Myanmar’s leaders are serious about bringing their nation state from savage past to modernity, from darkness to enlightenment and avoiding becoming a failed state, they must abandon their toxic ideology of Myanmarism and revoke the apartheid Citizenship Law. They must learn from experiences of others to avoid disintegration. They must also learn that like everyone else the Rohingyas have the right to self-identify themselves. And it would be travesty of law and justice to deny such rights of self-identity.

Finally, it would be the greatest tragedy of our generation should we allow the perpetrators of genocide and ethnic cleansing to whitewash their crimes against humanity. The UNSC must demand an impartial inquiry and redress the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya people need protection as the most persecuted people on earth. Should the Thein Sein government fail to bring about the desired change, starting with either repealing or amending the 1982 Citizenship Law, the UNSC must consider creating a ‘save haven’ inside Arakan in the northern Mayu Frontier Territories to protect the lives of the Rohingya people so that they could live safely, securely with honour and dignity as rest of us. The sooner the better!

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