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Rohingya: tragic victims of a dark history

By Ishmael Lim
May 25, 2015

Caught between two nations, unwelcome in both and with nowhere to call their home

The Rohingya are tragic victims of their own dark history. Their plight began many decades ago. They had no part in the policy decisions that got them to where they are today, yet poor innocents will be made to pay through hardship and suffering if no deal is reached to address the issue of their citizenship rights. 

Their status has worsened since the ethnic riots of 2012, when Buddhist Rakhine mobs razed Rohingya Muslim villages while security forces watched. Over 200 have been killed and 140,000 have become homeless due to this episode of inter-ethnic violence. The victims were mostly Rohingyas. The homeless have since been sheltering in camps for internally displaced persons.

Officials from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party backed by chauvinist Buddhist monks, have taken to inflaming the racial and religious divide by encouraging segregation, the boycott of Muslim businesses, and describing the Rohingyas living among them as a threat to the state.

Those who now risk the lives of their children and their own on the open seas in rickety boats dice with death on the sliver of a chance that another nation will take them in.

Malaysia cannot handle this refugee problem alone. Doing the moral and proper thing does not have to mean having them settle here. But shelter, food and medical care should be given until they can be relocated.

Even in our minimalist role, we must be wary of those who may be inclined to aggression. Not all of the boat people are as docile and helpless. The Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were fighting each other over the dwindling supplies of food and water. Deaths from axe and knife injuries and stories of people and corpses being pushed overboard have been related by survivors.

The roots of the present day Rohingyas is disputed, as academia does not support that they are native to the region as they bear great similarities in appearance and language to the Bengalis of Chittagong.

The Rohingyas reject the official view that they are descendants of immigrants from British Bengal who were encouraged to settle and farm the North Western region of Arakan state when Burma was part of the British Empire.

Although Muslims were living in Arakan before the British conquest, most of those settlements were in central Arakan and not in the North Western region of Mayu, where most modern-day Rohingyas live. The Kamein are also Muslims from Arakan but in contrast, they are accepted as native and have citizenship.

Arakan is the present day Rakhine state of Myanmar. This seemingly technical labelling is a constant source of pain and anguish for generations of Rohingya as it bars them from being free in the land of their birth.

The Bamar are the ethnic majority in Burma, but were helpless to stop the tide of immigration from the Indian sub-continent after the British conquest. The Bamar hated them and the Indians that followed them. They took Burmese lands and altered the demography by their sheer numbers.

Here is the toxic seed that poisoned the generations that followed.

After the Second World War, Rohingyas got busy with a separatist movement to carve out the Mayu region from Arakan state in the hope of forming a union with East Pakistan. The term “Rohingya” only gained wider usage after Burma’s independence as a means to establish native claims to the Mayu region when it became clear there would be no merger with East Pakistan.

Bangladesh’s war for liberation from Pakistan in 1971 caused hundreds of thousands to flee in the transition of East Pakistan into Bangladesh: they overstayed their welcome and became a nuisance for Rakhine state. General Ne Win’s military solution was predictable. Ne Win told the UN that he was kicking out illegal Bangladeshis who overstayed. Again, hundreds of thousands marched across the border the way they came, but with the Rohingyas mingling among them.

Bangladesh complained to the UN that Burma was sweeping their human rubbish into the new Bangladesh republic. UN sanctions were threatened and Ne Win took back 200,000 people.

Bangladesh quickly amended its citizenship law, declaring all “Rohingyas” non-nationals. In the same year, Burma declared the “Bengalis” as foreigners. The Rohingyas became stateless overnight, treated as alien immigrants: the official view is that Rohingyas were Bengalis living illegally in Burma. Both Bangladesh and Burma tried their best to seal off the borders. The Rohingyas were trapped and landless. They became outcast, reviled and even feared.

It is clear that mistrust and hatred has not abated even if the violence has.

Leaders who paint themselves as communal champions continue to sow discord. Communal relations are made toxic so that all hope of reconciliation is shattered.

The Rohingya, whether technically indigenous or not, have lost prospect of any future in the land where they were born and raised. Thus, the ground has been laid for a mass exodus, or in other words an “ethnic cleansing”.

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