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The Rohingya: their Problems and Solution

Aman Ullah
RB Opinion
July 8, 2016

“The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause.” Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Problems

The Rohingya problem is one of the long-standing and deep rooted problems of the world. It is widespread, systematic and institutionalized. 

Series of armed operations, with frequent state patronized communal riots, have been engineered one after another, resulting in massive drive of Rohingyas from their homeland of Arakan. As a result, since 1948, about 2 million Rohingyas have been expelled or have to flee their ancestral homeland for their lives.

Hence, it is the result of forcible dispossession of their population and expulsion from their homeland by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, executions, rape and sexual assault, military and paramilitary attacks on civilians, robbery and extortion, destruction of cultural and religious buildings and monuments, destruction of homes, confinement of civilians in camps, purposeful starvation, and some others in the most in human manner at the hands of successive Burmese Military Regimes in order to rid Arakan of the Rohingya population.

Moreover, the Rakhine leaders have a long history of vilifying the Rohingya as the cause of their state’s misfortunes. Since 1970s, the anti-Rohingya Rakhine leaders have instilled in Rakhinese society against the Rohingya. They presented the Rohingya as the problem in their society in literature and teachings. Anti-Rohingya Rakhinese falsified history by labeling the Rohingya as foreigners to Burma who were brought in during British colonial rule. The central government’s support of this false story has served to bolster Buddhist hatred toward the Rohingya.

Successive Regimes dehumanized the Rohingya in their official propaganda and depicted as amoral or dangerous to society. Officials falsify history and present justifications for why the entire group, to include the elderly, women, and children, must be viewed as guilty.

The Genesis of the Problems

Across the last two thousand years, there has been great deal of local vibrancy as well as movement of different ethnic peoples through the region. For the last millennium or so, Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) have historically lived on both side of Naaf River, which marks the modern border with Bangladesh and Burma. In addition to Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) majority groups, a number of other minority peoples also come to live in Arakan, including Chin, Kaman, Thet, Dinnet, Mramagri, Mro and Khami etc.

The Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) had been peacefully coexisting in Arakan over the centuries. Unfortunately, the relation between those two sister communities began to grow bitter at instigation of the third parties, during the long colonial rule of more than two centuries. The anti-Muslim pogrom of 1942 has caused rapid deterioration in their relation.

General Ne Win was responsible for this anti-Muslim pogrom of 1942, who commanded the Burma Independence Army (BIA) troops from Bassein. The massacre resulted in a toll of 100,000 Rohingya, a large exodus of them and complete devastation of hundreds of large Rohingya villages and settlements throughout Arakan. These vacated lands or traditional Rohingya areas had been occupied or filled up with Buddhist Rakhines, causing serious demographic changes in complete disadvantage of the Rohingya community and their succeeding generations.

Same general Ne Win took over the power from the civilian government in March 1962 introduced a series of anti-Muslim laws. Since 1974, the launched several Immigration Operations of different categories including the one which is known as the ‘Sabe Operation’. During this operation periods tens of thousands of Rohingyas’ National Registration Cards (NRCs) were seized without any legal authority, on various pretexts which were never returned, for which hundreds and thousands of Rohingya were classified as foreigners alleging illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

In 1978, the government launched another anti-Rohingya military operation in the pretexts of checking illegal immigrant in the name of ‘King Dragon’. As a result, about 300,000 Rohingyas had sought refuge across the border in southern Bangladesh amidst widespread reports of army brutality, rape and murder. Under international pressure, Burma agreed to "take back" most of them in the repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. However, 3 years later; the Burmese government passed the 1982 Citizenship Law, a legal instrument, which may make all the Rohingya illegal status. Since then the Rohingya lost all their rights and privileges. 

Since 1988, the SPDC/SLORC regime turned on eradicating the Rohingyas by way of destroying everything that is Muslim’s or Islamic in the whole of the country. They have been planned and systematic efforts by SPDC to make demographic changes in Arakan with increasing new Buddhist settlements and pagodas in the whole of predominately Rohingya zone of North Arakan, so that it looks like a Buddhist land. The Buddhist settlers have gradually marginalized and elbowed the age-old Rohingya villages out of their homes under the state patronage.

In the direct outcome of these, about 250,000 Rohingya have to cross the border into Bangladesh in 1991-1992. Although many of these refugees have since then been repatriated to Burma, there are still just under 30,000 refugees living in two camps in southern Bangladesh. Moreover, there are also an estimated more than 200,000 Rohingya living illegally outside without access to protection or humanitarian assistance.

After the 1991-92 outflow of Rohingya, the SPDC changed its strategy and engineered a new tactic of slowly and steadily pushing the Rohingya from their homeland, using all sorts of physical abuse and economic obstacles. The SPDC has declared Rohingya as non-nationals rendering them stateless. They have become the worst victims of systematic, persistent and widespread human rights violations in Burma, including denial of citizenship rights, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, education, marriage and religion, forced labour, rape, land confiscation, arbitrary arrests, torture, extra judicial killings and extortion on daily basis.

Burma began its political transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 2011 and anti-Rohingya campaign began to intensify in November in the same year. Since then the nationalists have mobilized Buddhist Burmans for their campaign against the Rohingya by presenting Arakan state as the western gate of Buddhist Burma against 'flooding' Muslims from Bangladesh. A radical Buddhist groups have characterized the Muslims as “a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.” Citing Adolf Hitler, a Rakhine political party has said that crimes against humanity, even the Holocaust, are justified “in defense of national sovereignty” and “survival of a race.”

In June 2012, in the aftermath of the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by few members of the Rohingya community, all hell broke loose. By invoking medieval conception of justice of punishing everyone for the act of a few errant members, not only did the Buddhist Rakhines inflicted disproportionate harm on the Rohingyas, on occasions induced and led by the monks; the Burmese state too instead of providing protection to the victims became an active party in the carnage. 

Since then, Muslim communities across Burma have suffered horrific violence, whipped up by hate speech preached by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Every aspect of their lives, including marriage, childbirth and ability to work, is severely restricted. Their right to identity and citizenship is officially denied. They have been systematically uprooted.

The then-President Thein Sein responded to the riots by segregating Rohingya Muslims in suburban refugee camps under the pretext of maintaining law and order. Several thousands of Rohingya fled the wretched living conditions at the camps and sailed on small boats to Malaysia and Indonesia as refugees. This has provoked international criticism against Myanmar. The riots further fueled anti-Muslim sentiment among Myanmar's Buddhist majority, which has been behind the rapid expansion of Ma Ba Tha's influence.

By the result, about 200,000 held in internal displacement camps and unknown thousands have taken to sea as refugees. The UNHCR estimates that more than 86,000 people have left the area by boat from the Bay of Bengal since June 2012. The government even denies humanitarian agencies unfettered access in their internal displacement camps. Their homes, businesses, and mosques have been destroyed. Amid the destruction, many Rohingyas have been unfairly imprisoned, with some tortured to death while behind bars. 

Moreover, Than Shwe and his USDP men in order to counter the opposition’s activities, to stop the Constitution reformation and to win the 2015 national election not only stirred the public up for more conflicts in Arakan and generated the notorious Ma-Ba-tha with a ulterior motif of halting Daw Suu from coming into power. 

“To beat Suu Kyi, Burma’s quasi-military rulers need xenophobia, and the Rohingya are their chosen scapegoats,” said Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid activist and himself a winner of the Peace Prize. For the last 60 years the Muslims, Particularly Rohingyas, have been subjected to oppression from the successive regimes of Burma. They have systematically been used as a scapegoat by the military junta of Burma for many decades.

Whenever there are public demands to amend the 2008 constitution, whenever there are public protests against the Chinese projects in Burma, anti-Muslim violence was fomented and created by letting loose groups of well-trained mobs in order to divert the public’s attention. Unfortunately, the odious culture of using Muslims as political scapegoats is long anchored in Burmese politics; Muslims have been the victims of various power struggles in Burmese history.

Ma Ba Tha, launched in June 2013, now has 250 branches across Myanmar and 5 million supporters, according to a public relations official. The group's rally was held in Yangon's Thuwana National Stadium and drew a full-capacity crowd. The core tenet of the group is the rejection of Muslim immigrants, whose population is surging.

Though the 85% of the population of the country consists of Buddhists, the Ma Ba Tha has attempted to justify killing of Muslims in the name of defending Buddhism against the encroaching influence of Islam.

Since then, the Rohingya have been backed into a corner, their lives made so intolerable that tens of thousands have fled by sea, seeking safety and a sense of dignity elsewhere. Surviving the perilous journey to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia is, too often, seen as the only way to finally be free from persecution. 

In May 2015, the Rohingya refugee crisis grabbed international headlines when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled discrimination in Burma on the dangerous smuggler-supervised boat journey to Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of Rohingya drowned in the “fleeing season” when their frail vessels collapsed; mass graves of hundreds of trafficked people, many believed to be Rohingya, were found in the forests of Thailand. The human traffickers who work with desperate Rohingya will crowd them into prison camps in the Thai jungle and elsewhere, and, in order to solicit more money, will call their parents and torture them so that their parents can hear their screams of pain over the phone.

This complete dehumanization of the Rohingya has become commonplace throughout Burma and the region, and has infiltrated political and religious discourse. Important government officials have referred to them as ‘viruses’ and ‘foreign entities’ and many important Buddhist leaders have fuelled this kind of sentiment using social media and anti-Muslim rallies.

The abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya population have been flagged by a number of organizations including the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the results are chilling.

Accusations of rape, torture, forced removals; forced labour, child labour, detention and killings are widespread and have been well-documented. Further, there have been major restrictions placed upon Rohingya reproductive rights, the ability to move freely and access to basic social services. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division has called the Rohingya ‘the world most forgotten, abused people’, and the UN has called them ‘one of the most persecuted minorities in the world’.

According to Prof. Schabas, one of the foremost experts on international criminal law, “We’re moving into a zone where the word can be used (in the case of the Rohingya). When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they really are eventually, that they no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”

International journalists, genocide scholars, human rights researchers and humanitarian aid workers have all acknowledged Burmese persecution of these Muslim minority people. In the last several years, a growing international consensus is emerging as to the nature of the crime: Human Rights Watch has described the persecution of the Rohingya as ‘ethnic cleansing’ while several major empirical studies published by the University of Washington Law School, Yale University Law Clinic, Queen Mary University of London International State Crime Initiative and Al Jazeera English Investigative Unit have accused Burmese military government of commissioning the crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Virtually, every iconic leader in the world – from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis to Desmond Tutu and George Soros to the youngest Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yusufzai has called for the end of Rohingya persecution and restoration of their full citizenship rights.

On Nov. 8, 2015, NLD win landslide victory and from government which started ruling the country from 1st April of this year. In her first speech the democratic icon leader of ruling party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that, “This victory should be for the whole country not a particular party or individual”. However, a fundamental question for the Rohingya is whether her vision of “the whole country” includes the Rohingya, who were systematically excluded from voting this election. 

In the recent report of UN Human Rights Office on the human rights situation for minorities in Myanmar, stated that “a pattern of gross violations against the Rohingya... (which) suggest a widespread or systematic attack... in turn giving rise to the possible commission of crimes against humanity if established in a court of law.” The report also criticizes the new government steered by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party. There were huge expectations that Suu Kyi, after assuming power, will work to improve the plight of Rohingyas, but she has refused to act. The report lists a number of violations committed against the minorities, which include summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment. The report says the new government has “inherited a situation where laws and policies are in place that are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities, and where impunity for serious violations against such communities has encouraged further violence against them.” 

Now, it is democratic government led by Daw Suu but the Rohingyas problems remain the same as previous regimes. According to UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, “The home ministry and the Special Branch of the police are the same people from the past government, that is why things have not changed…Old habits die hard.”

Ms Lee urged the government of Myanmar to make ending what she calls "institutionalized discrimination" against Muslims an urgent priority. She said government reluctance to crack down on perpetrators of religious violence out of fear that it would lead to more tension sends the wrong signal.

Lee also criticized conditions in camps for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims. She urged authorities to ease restrictions on their freedom of movement, which makes it hard for many of them to find jobs. The National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, took power in Myanmar in March after 50 years of military rule. But hatred and mistrust between majority Buddhists and religious minorities, especially Muslims, have been simmering for several years and often boils over into violence.

In her statement she said, “The recent establishment of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine [Arakan] State signals the priority given by the government to addressing the complex challenges facing both communities”. She also added that, “Nevertheless, my visit to Rakhine State unfortunately confirmed that the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change”.

The Solution of the Problems

The most important task in this time, in Arakan, is re-establishment of trust among the peoples of Arakan, after a long period of bitter antagonism which causes suffering and discord. Healing the hearts of these peoples is essentially a process of reconciliation with a genuine desire to place happiness and well-being of the whole peoples of Arakan, which will require an atmosphere of increasing trust.

The government needs to take confidence building measures in order to create congenial atmosphere in Arakan that will re-establish trust among the peoples of Arakan. In this regards the government should immediately need to take the following steps:-

· Make relieve form the hell like conditions and several restrictions to the peoples of Arakan, particularly the Rohingya.

· Abolish the Rakhine Action Plan and end institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship. 

· Recognize the citizenship and ethnic rights of the Rohingya. They should be able to peacefully co-exist in Arakan as equals and common citizens of Arakan with their ‘collective rights’; 

· Hold accountable all those who commit human rights abuses, including inciting ethnic and religious intolerance and violence.

· Take masseurs for rehabilitation (not relocation) of IDPs to their original homes, which need to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of them to their communities. 

· Take masseurs for repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of Rohingya refugees outside the country in their original homes and properties.

· Take masseurs to reintegration of these IDPs to their original society.

· Develop a comprehensive reconciliation plan, including establishing a commission of inquiry into crimes committed against the Rohingya in Arakan.

· Improve the welfare of ethnic and religious minorities and repeal laws and discriminatory practices that pose an existential threat to the Rohingya community. 

Furthermore, the government’s sincere attempts are needed to implementing a genuine dialogue for promoting reconciliation between the two sister communities of Rohingya and Rakhine and for restoring peace and relaxation of tension in Arakan. The international community must urge the new NLD government to constitute a UN mandated ‘commission of inquiry’ into crimes committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Neighboring countries should offer protection and assistance to Rohingya asylum seekers.

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