VIEW : Rohingya Muslims: children of a lesser god? — Mohammad Ahmad

The HRW report accused the Burmese government of engaging “in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement”

Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire, administering it as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony. Burma was granted independence in 1948.

Post-independence, Burma took measures to strengthen the economic interests of the Buddhist Burmese against those that it saw as foreigners. These measures were intelligently masked to portray generality but most specifically hurt the Rohingya who constituted the biggest section in the Muslim population of independent Burma. Among the several Acts passed by the Burmese government in 1948, the Land Alienation Act forbade the sale of land to non-Burmese nationals while denying citizenship to anyone who could not prove his ancestors settled in the country before 1823. As a result, Muslims in its Arakan province, whose ancestors were in Burma and contributed to its economic activity even a century ago, were denied their right to own land and, therefore, any benefit accruing out of such ownership.

While they may be of Bengali descent, the Rohingya as evidence of their long settlement in Arakan argue that the kings of Arakan from 1400 to 1600 AD took Muslim as well as Buddhist names. Their claim to be an indigenous ethnic group was recognised by the democratic government of Premier U Nu in the 1950s, but it has been denied by subsequent governments since the military took control of the country in 1962. The majority of foreign historians believe that most of Arakan’s Muslim residents came to Burma from Chittagong between 1891 and 1931, when the British colonial authorities were encouraging labour migration in order to develop Arakan’s agricultural potential.

The Indo-Burma Immigration agreement of 1941 can be taken as the root cause of the problem. Although the acumen of the British in drafting agreements is not questionable, one is forced to wonder why the British authorities of the time could not foresee the implications of what was being drafted. Strangely, while the Indo-Ceylonese immigration agreement was debated in India, the Indo-Burma agreement was not. The reservations on this agreement put forward by Indian politicians of the time were brushed aside. This agreement was followed by the Union Citizenship Act, 1948 and is now replaced by the 1982 Citizenship Law that too does not consider the Rohingya to be one of the eight recognised ‘national races’, which would entitle them to full citizenship. It requires them to produce ‘conclusive evidence’ that their ancestors settled in Burma before independence. The denial of land holding put in effect through the Land Alienation Act has made producing this evidence impossible for most Rohingya families. The Rohingya have thus been made a stateless people.

The misery of the Rohingya does not stop here. While the bombing of the Bamiyan statues by the Taliban in 2001 gave attacks on the Rohingya an impetus, they have been mob-attacked and intimidated by the Burmese officials even before. Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report into the sectarian violence that ravaged the country’s Arakan state last year. The HRW report on the disturbance that translated into looting and murder involving Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingya puts the number of people killed at 200. It put the number made homeless at 125,000.The HRW report accused the Burmese government of engaging “in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.” It details how government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests and blocked aid to displaced Muslims following last year’s strife.

The persecution continues. Over the years thousands of Rohingya have fled to Thailand where around 111,000 refugees are housed in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Unfortunately, due to the problem Thailand has had with its militant Muslims, the Thais too have not treated these people well. There have been allegations that Thailand has shipped scores of them to the open sea and left them there. The 2009 evidence suggested that the Thai army towed a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. Refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities that year told harrowing stories of being held and tortured by the Thai military and then abandoned at sea. Unfortunately, Bangladesh also treats the Rohingya refugees who come across the border fleeing persecution badly.

To all this inhuman treatment the response of the Muslim countries has at most been lip service. Ironically, Burma was our neighboir sharing the frontier of our eastern wing. However, because of our backyard attitude towards the then East Pakistan, we never engaged Burma on its Rohingya people. Their Bengali ancestry perhaps made them less worthy. Recently too the example of Saudi Arabia represents this general behaviour. While it offered some financial assistance to the persecuted community in 2011, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar for a pipeline that would deliver 200,000 barrels of oil a day from KSA to China. It knew fully well that the profits of the pipeline for Myanmar go to the regime and ultimately fund the very people who have let hell loose on the poor Rohingya. In 2012, Saudi Arabia accused the authorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of the country. The statement carried by SPA news agency said, “The cabinet condemns the ethnic cleansing campaign and brutal attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya citizens, as well as violation of human rights by forcing them to leave their homeland.” Not surprisingly, keeping its economic interests foremost, the pipeline was kept untouched. Pakistan too has also stopped at condemning the persecution but has not even used diplomatic means to bring about any change. Chinese support for an end to the Rohingya’s plight has not been sought although we have excellent relations with China, which shares a border with Burma and has tremendous influence there. China is one of the few countries that maintained close ties with Myanmar despite its overall pathetic human rights record. The response of the so-called Islamist parties in the Muslim world is also confined to political gaming.

Maltreatment of Shiites, Ahmadis and Christians by Pakistan, maltreatment of Shiites and other dissenting doctrines by Saudi Arabia, and brutal suppression of Shiites demanding democracy by Bahrain leaves little room for these states to take up the issue bilaterally with Myanmar. For its long term resolution, along with forceful representation at the UN, the issue needs to be taken up on a personal level with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic Burmese. She has the charisma to mould public opinion required for any positive change in the status of the Rohingya. Unfortunately, in the Muslim world no such charismatic leader who commands global respect and can take up the challenge is in sight. Benazir Bhutto could have done it but the extremists who did not want the liberal and compassionate image of Islam to emerge removed her from the scene. This does not mean that nothing should be done. A coordinated effort by the Muslim intelligentsia to engage the civil rights groups in Myanmar can be initiated. Their contact with Ms Suu Kyi will also be beneficial. From Pakistan, Bilawal and Fatima Bhutto could take the lead and engage Ms Suu Kyi on this issue. Sitting idle with fingers crossed is no option.

The writer can be reached at


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