Rohingya Crisis: Don’t Look Through Coloured Glasses!

Facts , eye witness accounts and statistics are stubborn. It is a matter of conscience, the world leaders, Nobel Laureates, intellectuals, Media and also the human rights lobby groups have agreed upon( of course except some avowed anti Muslim sections) . The Rohingya Crisis referred to as a human catastrophe of exceptional proportions; a text book case of  ethnic cleansing, a total genocide in the making, a clear case for being charged for crimes against humanity and the lowest level of barbarity, humans can stoop to!   

An estimated one million stateless Rohingyans who have been stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar and were forced to live in modern-day concentration camps, surrounded by government military checkpoints for a long time are now being reduced to a status of non-entity and their identity targeted for ultimate extinction, with scant regard to human dignity and rights. Every day seems to bring worse news about the spiralling conflict in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Evidence cannot be clearer. As Lynsey Addario, in Time says, ‘I have seldom seen the systematic oppression and abuse of an entire population go almost entirely unaided and undocumented. The camps and settlements in Myanmar and Bangladesh are conspicuously bereft of the international aid community and, consequently, a countless number of Rohingya are dying undocumented. This is the invisible genocide’

It is therefore a matter of extreme shame for the Myanmar military government , and Aung San Suu Kyi to be in a state of denial , say it is more misinformation or fake news, or put all the blame on a weak militant outfit ARSA and say that this wipe-out is unfinished business. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place and dismissed international criticism of her handling of the crisis. Myanmar has also gone further by asking China and Russia to shoot down any UN Security Council initiatives to force its’ hand to do justice to this most persecuted and single largest stateless community in the world.   

A shameful attempt is also being made to portray these Rohingyan victims of this ethnic cleansing as perpetrators by posting fake photos of them burning their own homes and villages. This assertion cannot be further from the truth. Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, recently posted what he said were “photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses”. The pictures of several sword-wielding women wearing headscarfs and men in Islamic prayer caps setting a house on fire, which were published in one of the country’s leading newspapers, were also shared widely by the military.

But the photographs were criticised on social media with some pointing to signs they said showed the photos had been staged. Also, it did not take long for Internet sleuths to raise questions: Why was one of the men putting on a prayer cap as he watched the house burn? Why did the two women who appeared in some of the photos have their heads covered in scarves that resembled table cloth? . Also hours later, an eagle-eyed reader spotted one of the “Bengalis” in a photo published online by another media group, Mizzima. The photo accompanied a story about Hindu families who had fled the recent violence in Rakhine state. The man was wearing the same green plaid shirt. But after the images began stirring doubt. Zaw Htay said the following day that government was investigating the images and would take action against those who set the fires. He also said police were interrogating the Rakhine man who took the images; the man could not be reached by phone. It was unclear when those images were taken. But pictures recorded at the public school housing displaced Hindus clearly showed the same man and woman, in the same clothes.

While global attention has thus focused on the horrific tales of shooting, arson and rape emerging from the many hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya who have fled from western Myanmar to Bangladesh over the past few weeks, Burmese language media have been trying to divert attention by dwelling more on the threat posed by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has declared war on the Myanmar military on behalf of the disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya minority. Myanmar has declared it a terrorist organisation. ARSA leader said in an interview that the attacks were carried out to “defend our civilian population who have lost their voice, identity and humane status to stand up in the face of an inhumane regime hell-bent on their extinction . UN in fact also blamed decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations against Rohingya as one prime reason which has almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of ‘violent extremism’, with everyone ultimately losing. UN Secretary General rightly said “Shuffling all the blame on insurgents doesn’t spare the Burmese [Myanmar] government from its international obligations to stop abuses and investigate alleged violations.”

Rohingyans are not ‘fly by nights’. The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya are largely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries.

The government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and as a result the vast majority of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced a law twenty years later stripping the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, its first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists led by dreaded Ven Wirathu of 969 movement, threatened to boycott the census, the government decided the Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead. Similarly, against under pressure from these Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, then-President Thein Sein cancelled the temporary identity cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote. Ven. Wirathu is under a ban but his movement is very much lively spreading hatred.

The Myanmar government has been effectively institutionalizing discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.

Violence has been breaking out from time to time since 2012, when Buddhist nationalists then accused Muslim men of raping a Buddhist woman and responded by burning Rohingya homes, killing more than 280 people and displacing tens of thousands. Clashes in Rakhine broke out again in August 2017 after ARSA claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on police and army posts. Fighting between the military and insurgents sent thousands of Rohingya to the country’s border with Bangladesh as government troops opened fire on civilians. Myanmar’s security forces have also allegedly planted land mines near border crossings used by Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. More than 370,000 Rohingya have reportedly left Myanmar, approximately a third of the estimated Rohingya population in the country.

Today , Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of complicity in crimes against humanity. She cannot say that she is helpless as this Nobel Laureate was a leader who rose to power armed with only her words and  her moral authority and therefore she can and should use them in a cause – human rights – which she purported to champion. Thus, she should be able to shape Burmese public opinion, and to channel it towards curbing the military ,without violating the Nobel Prize principles ,based on which she was recognised. She should listen to world opinion.

Today, the whole world has risen to condemn this genocidal campaign, ethnic cleansing, commission of war crimes as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took the rare step of writing a letter to the Security Council urging members to send a message to Myanmar authorities to end the security operation, calling the killings “catastrophic” and “completely unacceptable. The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and was “clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law and “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity. Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has also noted that the humanitarian situation has been deteriorating rapidly and that many thousands of people are increasingly at risk of grave violations of their human rights. Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by its chairman, the former UN Chief Kofi Annan, has called this tragedy a worsening human rights crisis and called for urgent action to avoid further aggravation.

The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, said those carrying out the campaign “should remember Buddha,” adding: “I think in such circumstances Buddha would definitely give help to those poor Muslims.” . Desmond Tutu has condemned his fellow Nobel laureate and old friend Aung San Suu Kyi over her silence on the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. Twelve Nobel Prize laureates have written an open letter to the UN Security Council urging it to intervene in the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Human Rights Watch said “The deplorable actions of the military could be part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity.” Amnesty International, described the current situation as an “ethnic cleansing on a large scale ”. They have also unearthed new evidence that security forces in Burma have been using scorched-earth tactics to drive out Rohingya Muslims. Fortify Rights said “These apartheid-like restrictions drive communities apart rather than together, eroding security and heightening the risk of mass killing”.

In this context, there is no reason for the UN and the international community to ignore this crisis anymore, or delay applying pressure on Myanmar to stop this aggression  and as requested by Nobel Laureates ! ‘Grant the Rohingya citizenship; invite international observers to visit vulnerable areas; invite back the Rohingya who have fled; build camps in Myanmar for the refugees with UN financing and supervision; and ensure political freedom’. More importantly, or at the least , all of us at the gross-root level, should view this for what it is – a humane catastrophe and therefore empathise with the victims and help them to recover, without insulting and hurting them further by making them the perpetrators instead.

-Lukman Harees