SHUDEEPTO ARIQUZZAMAN recounts the decades of violence perpetrated against the Rohingya community in Myanmar.
In Myanmar and beyond, many are excited about the country’s future where, after decades of direct military rule, a new era suddenly seems to be opening up under reformist President Thein Sein. However, for some ethnic and religious minorities, liberalisation and sweeping political reforms are hardly a cause for optimism. The most notable among them are the Rohingyas, a Muslim community, brutalised ever since Myanmar gained independence and who only this year has been the target of pillaging mobs and an unsympathetic security apparatus. They are widely regarded as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities and the most persecuted minority in Asia. On September 2, the world witnessed scenes reminiscent of a time when Adolf Hitler’s storm troopers marched the streets demanding the suppression of Jews. Except that these protesters were not Nazi storm troopers but Buddhist monks, people who have been revered for centuries for their undying commitment to peace and tolerance. The rally supported Myanmar President Thein Sein’s suggestion that the Rohingya population in Myanmar should be put in camps and sent across the border to Bangladesh or any other nation that would accept them.
This is the biggest rally to have taken place in Myanmar since the Buddhist Monks’ protests of 2007. Back then, the monks defied the military rulers and flooded the streets of Yangon and other towns proclaiming their loving kindness for all human beings. But this time, there was no kindness but only hatred for Asia’s most persecuted minority.
For years, the military junta, deprived of popular mandate, has exploited Theravada Buddhism in a majority Buddhist country. This has resulted in the persecution of religious minorities, i.e., the Christians and especially the Muslims. All Muslim communities in Myanmar have been subjected to gross violation of human rights. The Directorate of Defense Security Intelligence, one of Myanmar’s military intelligence services, is widely believed to have agents working among monks. Whatever the reasons, this demonstration of hate by the men in saffron robes does not bode well for the already embattled Rohingya community.
This demonstration happened in the aftermath of the bloody riots that had taken place in the Rakhine state starting from June this year. When Myanmar is entering a new era of liberalisation, the spate of violence on the Rohingyas could have prompted condemnation and national soul-searching led by those who had risked death and imprisonment in their struggle for democracy and human rights. Instead, the riots unleashed a wave of populist racism and bigotry directed against the victims of the Arakanese violence. The level of hatred can be gauged by the comments of an educated Rakhine woman who returned to the country after 20 years when she told news network Al Jazeera, “Human rights are for human beings only. Are Rohingyas humans?”
In the wake of the political reforms that had taken place under President Thein Sein, hundreds of political activists have returned from exile and hundreds of heroic political prisoners have been released. If the Rohingyas expected support from them, they were bitterly disappointed. Few in Myanmar will stand up for the downtrodden Rohingyas — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman revered by the Rohingyas.
The situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar has never been more hopeless. For a long time, the Rohingyas had counted on Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy to rescue them. But Suu Kyi is in a difficult position. No politician in Myanmar gains popularity by standing up for the Rohingyas. When Suu Kyi was asked if the Rohingyas were Myanmar’s citizens, she replied that she did not know. She has not condemned the security forces for their bloody crackdown on the Rohingyas. She did, however, meet with Muslim leaders in Yangon during the riots and issued a call for tolerance. Other leaders of the democracy movement were even less sympathetic.
In the meantime, amidst the fanfare of political reforms, populist fascism continues to find its voice. Now that many of the heroes of the democratic movement, the ‘peace loving’ Buddhist monks join the military rulers in promoting this populist fascism, the new era of Myanmar is likely to result in a genocidal situation for the Rohingyas. It is unfortunate that the next time Myanmar’s brutal security apparatus carries out murder, rape, mass arrests and other forms of suppression against this unfortunate community, they shall have the backing of the pro-democracy movement and the respected Buddhist clergy as was the case this year.
Even the reaction of the foreign powers that could pressure Myanmar was worrying. As Rakhine mobs pillaged Rohingya settlements, killing, looting and raping, aided by the security forces, the US embassy in Yangon praised the Myanmar government’s handling of the communal unrest in Arakan State. “This is something we would not have seen in the past. The government is trying to help everybody who needs it whether that is Rakhine Buddhists or Muslims,” the embassy’s Charge d’Affaires, Michael Thurston, said in an interview with Reuters. On the other hand, the US government pressured Bangladesh to open up its borders to the refugees who were fleeing the violence, asking the impoverished country to be more humane. It may be argued that the reason for these double standards is that the US is eyeing the abundant natural resources of Myanmar in wake of the political and economic reforms the country is going through.
Six decades of persecution
The plight of the Rohingyas in Arakan began when the Japanese conquered Myanmar and drove the British out from Myanmar, then known as Burma in 1942. Unlike the Arakanese Buddhists who supported the Japanese, the Arakanese Muslims were supportive of the British. As a result, the Japanese forces were brutal in their treatment of the Muslims. They were joined by the Arakanese Buddhists in persecuting the Muslims of the land and many had to flee to what was then British India. Many Arakanese Muslims joined the struggle to free Arakan from Japanese rule. A subsequent Allied victory allowed them to return to Arakan, but their future became uncertain.
It is worth mentioning that it was during the time of World War II that the Arakenese Muslims sought refuge in the term ‘Rohingya’ in an attempt to unify their ranks in the bloody struggle. The term ‘Rohingya’ as a separate ethnic identity was recognised in the history of independent Burma only by the democratically elected government of U Nu that ruled from 1948-58. But when General Ne Win took over in 1962, the situation began to take a dangerous turn for the Rohingyas as it did for other Muslims of Myanmar. A gruesome period of history for the Rohingyas was about to start.
Arbitrary killings, rape, property confiscation, theft and so on, perpetuated by the authorities in cohort with local miscreants, became widespread. The phenomenon, very common since the military junta took over in 1962, can be described as ‘slow burning genocide’, devised to escape international attention but quietly and gradually achieving the ultimate intention — complete ethnic cleansing and/or driving the Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
This process of ‘slow burning genocide’ has not always been the norm. In 1978, the Burmese military devised and implemented operation ‘Nagamin’ (Dragon King). Officially, this campaign aimed at ‘scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally’. In practice, this meant mass killings of Rohingya civilians, rape, torture, religious persecution and more. Rohingya children were killed for no greater an offense than the mother failing to show proper identity cards. More than 200,000 Rohingyas fled the country into Bangladesh during this time.
In 1991, the government conducted another similar drive which resulted in another exodus of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. This time, international pressure halted this genocidal purge early. Since then, oppression against the Rohingyas has been more subtle, designed to escape international attention, till the bloody riots flared up in Rakhine province this year.
The riots of 2012
The immediate cause of the bloody riots was the rape and murder of Thidar Htwe, a Rakhine woman as she made her way home from a nearby village. The alleged perpetrators of this heinous crime were three Rohingya youths, though it is impossible to verify whether they were actually guilty. Tensions between the two communities have existed for generations. The rape and murder of Thidar Htwe was the spark that lit the tinderbox. Many analysts have suggested that this murder and rape was planned and executed by a vested quarter that wanted to inflame anti-Rohingya sentiments at a critical point of the country’s history to deprive them, once and for all, of their place in this nation.
Six days later, a lynch mob of 300 Rakhines ambushed a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims. Ten of the passengers were clubbed to death and a Muslim woman was sexually assaulted. The victims were however not from Arakan state.
On June 8, after Friday prayers, Rohingyas gathered in the town of Maundaw protesting the attack on the Muslim pilgrims. As the police, known for their near genocidal purges of the Rohingyas began to turn up in riot gear, the crowds turned violent. Elsewhere, Rakhine mobs gathered and attacked Rohingyas. In retaliation, the Rohingyas scattered in different directions and began attacking Rakhine settlements.
The government reacted quickly by declaring a Section 144 the very next day and a curfew on Sunday. These measures did not, however, stop the violence and nor was it intended for that purpose. In fact, the curfew was intended to give the Rakhines an upper hand in the violence. While the security forces made sure the Rohingyas stayed indoors, mobs of Rakhines looted and pillaged with impunity. Videos of burning Rohingya villages surfaced all over the internet and the international news networks. Many of the looters, proud of their handiwork, spoke before cameras. The security forces did little to stop them and in many cases aided the mobs. There were consistent reports of extra judicial killings, beatings and intimidation of the Rohingyas by the armed forces. Many Rohingyas were killed and women were raped during this time. The government figures suggested that altogether 78 people, mostly Rohingyas, died in the conflict. Human rights groups estimate the figure to be much higher.
There were unconfirmed reports of dead bodies littered in the streams between Buthidaung and Maungdaw, the two major Rohingya settlements. A few Rakhine soldiers also spoke of mowing down Rohingyas with machine guns, though it is difficult to verify whether they actually did it, or just claimed this out of sheer hatred. Since the government monitored the movements of journalists and foreign aid workers in Rakhine province, authentic information is hard to come by. Many refugees in the Bangladeshi camps have however claimed that they have not heard from their friends or relatives on the other side of the border since the riots.
A report of Human Rights Watch published on August 1 accused security forces of perpetrating crimes against the Rohingyas that included murder, rape and mass detention and doing little to prevent violence from spiralling.
Currently, Sittwe, the main city of Arakan, which used to be a mixed city where Rakhines had a slim majority, is virtually Rohingya-free. About 100,000 Rohingyas displaced by the violence have been housed in squalid refugee camps.
This is hardly the first time that the Rohingyas have been targeted for murder, rape, pillage, arson and other forms of criminal activities in the Arakan. As Myanmar enters a new era, many iconic figures of the democracy movement, the Buddhist clergy and the vast majority of the Rakhine population cheer on, while the security forces and criminal mobs commit heinous crimes in the name of national security on Asia’s most persecuted minority. The Rohingyas face a very dark future in a country which they regard as their homeland. Shudeepto Ariquzzaman works for a private organisation based in Dhaka.