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Rohingyas are full citizens of Myanmar

By Fakhruddin Ahmed
August 25, 2014 
ROHINGYA crisis has been weighing on the world’s conscience for decades.
 The UN Human Rights Council lists Myanmar’s 800, 000 Rohingya Muslims
among the world’s most persecuted minorities.  Residents of Myanmar for
over 600 years, Rohingyas have been stripped of their Myanmar citizenship.
  
Oppression and expulsion have been repeatedly perpetrated on them by
Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for centuries.  An estimated 300,000 Rohingyas
languish in Bangladeshi and Thai refugee camps.
Rohingya villages have been cordoned off, and many Rohungyas have been
confined to concentration camps.  Humanitarian agencies such as Doctors
without Borders have been barred from entering and treating patients in those
camps. Rohingyas are perishing while the world looks away.
Rohingya is an Indo-European Rohingya language; the words Rohingya means
a resident of the state of Arakan.  Myanmar has recently renamed the
Rohingyas’ tiny home state, Arakan, (5% of Myanmar) “Rakhine” to appease its
Rakhine Buddhist residents.  To obliterate every trace of Rohingya
heritage, Myanmar government has deleted the ethnic category ”Rohingya” from
the official list and replaced it with “Bengalis,” with the innuendo that the
Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which they are not.
  
Buddhist King Narameikhla first invited the Rohingyas to Arakan from
neighboring India as advisors and courtiers in the 1430s.  In 1785,
Buddhist Burmese from the south conquered Arakan, massacred Rohingyas and
expelled many to British Bengal, eliciting unwelcome British attention.
The British took control of Arakan through the First Anglo-Burmese War
(1824-26) and encouraged Indian immigration to the sparsely populated region.
 Through two additional wars, Burma was fully incorporated into British
India in 1885.  
At the outset of World War II Britain abandoned Arakan.  While
Burmese nationalists sided with Japan, the Rohingyas remained loyal to the
British and served as spies behind Japanese lines. This infuriated the Japanese
who embarked on a hideous pogrom of torture, rape and murder against the
Rohingyas, driving thousands into Bengal.
Between Burma’s independence in 1948 and General Ne Win’s putsch in
1962, the Rohingyas advocated a separate Rohingya nation in Arakan.  The
junta brutally crushed Rohingya nationalism.
After Myanmar army’s 1978 “Dragon King” operation drove 300,000
Rohingyas to Bangladesh, the junta enacted the draconian Burma Citizenship Law
in 1982 with the malicious intent of making the Rohingyas  stateless,
“resident foreigners,” to be repatriated worldwide.
The law stipulates that a full citizen of Myanmar must belong to one of
the ten “national races” (Rohingyas are excluded), or their ancestors must have
settled in Burma before the British invasion of 1824.  Rohingyas do not
qualify for the two lesser citizenships either which require the illiterate
peasants to produce documentary evidence of their centuries-long residency in
Myanmar.
Colonial Britain had also encouraged Indian immigration to Africa and
the West Indies as indentured workers in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, yet citizenships for those immigrants and their progeny has never
been in question. Neither should it be for the Rohingyas.
No internationally acceptable metric can deny the Rohingyas Myanmar’s
citizenship.  It is unconscionable to disenfranchise people who have lived
in Myanmar for hundreds of years before current Myanmar was founded.   In
a civilized society, the majority cannot legislate away the citizenship rights
of a despised minority.  This is ethnic cleansing through legislation.
Critics call the anti-Rohingya vendetta linguistically, religiously and
racially motivated.  While 89% of the Myanmar’s population practice Theravada
Buddhism and are of Mongoloid stock, the Rohingya Muslims are easily
identifiable by their dark skin.
Amnesty International reports that “the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement
is severely restricted,” and “they are also subjected to various forms of
extortion and arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced eviction and house
destruction.”  They are used as forced laborers on roads and military
camps.  By law, they are forbidden to have more than two children.
 The children are born stateless, perpetuating their bleak future.
As non-citizens, Rohingyas are treated as illegal immigrants, with
restrictions on movement, no right to own land, receive an education or public
service.  This is unacceptable. The world must persuade Myanmar to amend
the ill-intentioned law and restore the Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. Nothing
short of full citizenship for the Rohingyas will solve the crisis.
The current anti-Rohingya crusade is spearheaded by Buddhist monks,
notably Ashin Wirathu, who proudly calls himself “Buddhist Bin Laden”  and
warns that the Rohingyas (1.4% of population), aim to subjugate Myanmar.
 He laments that Buddhists have already lost Afghanistan, Malaysia and
Indonesia to Islam; he is not about to let that happen in Myanmar on his watch.
 Monks are greatly respected in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s most respected citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, is ambivalent about
the Rohingyas’ citizenship status, saying that she does not know if Rohingyas
qualify as Myanmar’s citizens.  The Economist noted that Suu Kyi’s “halo
has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists disappointed at her
failure to take a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority.”
On May 7, 2014, the US Congress passed a resolution urging the Burmese
government to end the persecution of the Rohingyas.  America and its
President are greatly admired in Myanmar, as President Obama experienced
firsthand during his Myanmar visit in 2012.  If the President and the
Congress and the world firmly demand that the Rohingyas must be given full
citizenship before further trade with Myanmar, Myanmar will see the wisdom of
acceding.
One expected the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of
Freedom and Congressional Gold medal, and a current member of Myanmar’s House
of Representatives, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out against the human rights
abuse of the Rohingyas, just as her father, General Aung San, had done.
 The world stood by Ms. Suu Kyi during her travails.  She should do
no less for her beleaguered Rohingya compatriots.
I should also like to suggest to Bangladesh government that it does not
behoove Bangladesh to compete with Myanmar in inflicting cruelty on the
Rohingyas.  Granted that unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh is a very densely
populated country.  Still, it is unconscionable to ban marriages between
Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, or between Rohingyas themselves. Instead,
Bangladesh should extend its legendary hospitality towards the Rohingyas,
shelter and feed them well, offer them medical service, educate their children,
and take some Rohingyas in.  After all, the Rohingyas’ ancestors had lived
in the area.  
Generosity nourishes the soul of a nation.  Hatred towards others not
only destroys an individual, it can also destroy a nation.  By treating
the Rohingya refugees humanely with dignity, impoverished Bangladesh can teach
humanity to those nations who lack it.
The writer is a Rhodes  Scholar.