Persecution of the poor and marginalised Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Buddhist majority in Myanmar has a long history, but since 2012, they are victims of the state-backed genocide. Sadly, champion of human rights, the United States and its allies are not taking actions that are required at this crucial juncture. There is no call from five permanent members of United Nations Security Council or G-20 countries to call an urgent meeting to pressurise the Myanmar government, impose sanctions, send peacekeeping troops, and help the displaced Rohingya Muslims. This exposes their double standards-they insist for actions against groups fighting against occupant forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but look the other way when there is state terrorism in Palestine, Kashmir and Myanmar against Muslims. This also confirms apathy of the Muslim world as till today, no joint action is proposed though individually many countries have criticised the ongoing attacks on Rohingya Muslims.
In the recent wave of violence that erupted on August 25, 2017, according to the European Rohingya Council, not less than 3,000 Muslims were killed in just three days. According to BBC and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 123,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, 2017 after the latest Burmese military attacks. There are another 400,000 Rohingya Muslims estimated who trapped in forests and mountains as the military continues its attacks from the ground and the air.
On September 4, 2017, a senior UN human rights official said it was time for Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to step in to halt the violence. But she even blocked “all United Nations aid agencies from delivering vital supplies of food, water and medicine to thousands of desperate civilians at the centre of a bloody military campaign against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority,” according to The Guardian. UNHCR says that Myanmar continues to block the delivery of food, water and medicine to the Rohingya Muslims.
The Myanmar government always blames Rohingyas for attacks they launch. This time they say an unknown group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked first. However, weeks before the alleged attacks, the UN, the US Congress, Amnesty International, and Burma Task Force all warned a government operation was imminent. Bangladesh even closed its border in expectation of fleeing Rohingya refugees. As the UN General Assembly begins in mid-September, Burma Task Force (the United States-based coalition of several Muslim organisations and activists who previously worked together for Bosnia and Kosovo Task Force to stop genocide in those countries) is calling for a day of worldwide silent demonstrations to protest the genocide of Rohingyas. The demonstrations will be held on Saturday, September 16.
Rohingyas are an indigenous people of Burma living in their ancestral lands. Their citizenship was taken away by the Burmese military in 1982. The UN regards them as ‘the most persecuted people in the world’. About 1.1 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar, which refuses to grant them citizenship and has been internationally condemned for its treatment of the ethnic minority. The Rohingyas are the world’s largest stateless community and one of its most persecuted minorities. Most of Rohingyas live in northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. They face severe persecution, with the government refusing to recognize them as a legitimate native ethnic minority, leaving them without citizenship and basic rights.
According to Al Jazeera, the figure of 123,000 Rohingya displaced after the recent attacks does not include refugees who fled in previous decades or those who set up temporary shelter in “no-man’s land”, an area between the Bangladesh and Myanmar border. Since the 1970s, only 34,000 Rohingyas have been registered with the UNHCR in Bangladesh, with estimates of unregistered refugees in the hundreds of thousands. As a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Bangladesh has refused to register the Rohingyas as refugees since the early 1990s, nor allowed them to lodge asylum claims.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has expressed concern “that thousands of people are increasingly at risk of grave violations of their human rights.” The United Nations has already documented mass gang rape, killings, including that of babies and children, brutal beatings and disappearances. Myanmar security forces used disproportionate force and displaced thousands of Rohingya villagers, destroying their homes with mortars and machine-guns. More than a 100,000 civilians have been displaced in Rakhine; thousands are trapped on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, which was closed by the Bangladeshi government.
To escape violence, thousands of Rohingya massed along the Bangladeshi frontier but were barred from entering. Many desperate were drowned while attempting to cross the Naf, a border river, in makeshift boats. On August 25, 2017, the army launched what it called clearance operations against the insurgents. Advocates for the Rohingya say security forces and vigilantes attacked and burned villages, shooting civilians and causing others to flee. Hundreds of civilians were killed, they say, posting photos, videos and details on social media as evidence.
The Muslim world as usual has failed to take up the matter effectively and only vocal response came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and some others. He said that the government of Myanmar is committing “genocide” of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Erdogan said that “those who close their eyes to this genocide perpetuated under the cover of democracy are its collaborators”.
Aung San Suu Kyi claimed the “terrorist” attacks were “a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine state”. The Myanmar government has repeatedly denied claims that Rohingyas are facing genocide. But the facts speak otherwise. Independent media showed that after attacks from August 25-27, 2017, Bangladeshi border guards had tried to keep out the fleeing Rohingya, but thousands could be seen making their way across muddy rice fields. Young people helped carry the elderly, some on makeshift stretchers, and children carried newborns.
This fact is confirmed by reputed human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A wave of cleansing is sweeping across the victims in various townships in the Rakhine state on the country’s west coast. While the extremist Buddhist monks persecute them on religious grounds, the government openly says they are “illegal immigrants”.
According to the United Nations, widespread atrocities committed against Muslims were not possible without complicity of state. In its various reports, Human Rights Watch highlighted that security forces not only collaborated with Buddhist monks but also actively took part in killing Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Rakhine State.
State complicity was further exposed in a BBC video footage prepared in 2013 of Meikhtila riots where Buddhist monks in saffron robes could be seen leading a murderous mob while police stood by as onlookers. Even after this, the government kept on denying security forces’ indulgence and did not punish the culprits responsible for killing Rohingyas and Kamans. Official stance that security forces “were overpowered by mobs in terms of their sheer numbers” was a lame excuse as the same force brutally suppressed various uprisings during the 40-year military dictatorship.
In 2012, there was massacre of Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in the western state of Rakhine where, according to official estimates, 110 people were killed and 125,000 people were forced to flee to refugee camps. The Arakan State in Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, is inhabited by two ethnic sister communities, the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims. The Rakhine Buddhists are in majority while the Rohingya Muslims are in minority. The Rohingyas numbering approximately two million are enduring continued persecution triggered by ethnic cleansing policy of the military regime in Myanmar. About 1.5 million Rohingyas have been living in exile in many countries all over the world.
Arakan was neither a part of Burma nor Bangladesh and was a separate region until invaded by Burmese King Bowdawpaya in 1784. Arakan’s last dynasty ruled from 15th to 18th century and was highly influenced by Muslim culture. The basis of Muslim religious faith, the kalima was inscribed on their coins. Rohingya Muslims are natives of that region as mentioned in fifth volume of Asiatic Researches. The colonial British census records in 1825 A.D. show one Muslim for every two Buddhists in Arakan. Burma’s constitution and citizenship acts provide indigenous status to all people who were permanently residing in Arakan or in the Union of Burma before 1825. The Muslims, prior to 1825, were counted as one of the lawfully indigenous races of Burma but, today the government is accusing all Rohingyas to be Bangladeshi illegal immigrants effectively denying them Burmese citizenship.
Violence against Muslims in Myanmar is state-sponsored. There has been a marriage of convenience between the government and Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha. It is strange that an organisation that earned worldwide admiration for the peaceful pro-democracy uprising against the military regime in 2007 suddenly started genocide of Muslims. In 2013, the monk, Wiseitta Biwuntha, better known as the Venerable Wirathu, launched the 969 campaign urging its followers “not to transact with Muslims economically or socially and to demarcate their houses and properties from Muslims by putting up the emblem of 969.”
Many allege that the anti-Muslim policy is linked with the ruling elite’s survival. The government is supporting anti-Muslim extremism knowing that it would encourage a multi-ethnic conservative alliance between Buddhists and establishment forces. Thus, state-run media intentionally highlights and sponsors anti-Rohingya propaganda promoting violence and spreading hatred against them.
In September 2016, following a request from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Office of the State Counsellor established an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The Commission, a national entity and having the majority of members from Myanmar, was mandated to examine the complex challenges facing Rakhine State and to propose responses to those challenges. In March 2017, the Commission issued a set of interim recommendations which addressed the suffering and frustrations of the people of Rakhine State, including those who feel especially vulnerable because “they are deprived of documentation and the freedom of movement”. In the final report submitted in August 2017, it was observed:
“With the presentation of our final report, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine has fulfilled its mandate. Responsibility for the implementation of our recommendations now lies with Myanmar’s leaders and institutions: The Union and Rakhine State governments; the national and state parliaments; religious and community leaders; and above all the people of Rakhine. We have suggested that the Government establish a mechanism to facilitate and track that process. Guidance from the Union level must be matched by action at the state level, by local authorities, and the security services, whose powers confer upon them the responsibility and capacity to be a force for positive change in Rakhine State”.
The Myanmar government, instead of implementing the recommendation of the Commission, leashed the worst possible attacks on Rohingya Muslims. The Commission suggested to the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar through joint verification, in accordance with international standards and with assistance from international partners. It further says that “when refugees from northern Rakhine State return from Bangladesh, the Government of Myanmar should help create a secure environment and, where necessary, assist with shelter construction for those whose homes have been destroyed”.
On September 3, 2017, Pakistan’s Foreign Office issued a statement expressing serious concerns at the plight of Rohingya Muslims and demanding the Myanmar government to investigate the killings and displacement of Rohingya community. Pakistan and Turkey should not only raise their voice but must call the heads of Muslim countries to request for urgent UN Security Council meeting to take stringent actions against the government of Myanmar to stop genocide of Rohingyas. It is time that the entire Muslim world unites and takes collective action. It is sad that the United States and other countries of G20 club are acting as silent spectators while violence against the long-marginalized Rohingyas, is on the increase. It is a matter of concern that after emerging from half a century of military rule, Myanmar is rout with this kind of violence that poses a serious threat not only to its own economic and political reforms but also to global interfaith harmony.