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Number 1 Shimbun

Cleansing a Country of Its Ethnic Minority


Cleansing a Country of Its Ethnic Minority 
by Monzurul Huq

What had been happening in the Rakhaine state of Myanmar since late August has attracted global attention, though who is saying what about the happenings depends much on a person's sense of belonging and how those sayings are interpreted tells a lot about our own stance as well.

International reactions to the events have not been even-handed. EU countries, for example, are at the forefront of crying foul and pointing fingers at the regime in Yangon, accusing the leadership for its gross violation of human norms, while Japan and China are taking a cautious standing, presumably for not upsetting the regime of a country where their economic interests are already predominant.

Contrary to that, even the Trump administration of the United States has shown a deep understanding despite its not so encouraging track record on matters related to human rights and dignity of small nations.

As the debate in the international arena continues, so has the plight of the Rohingya people. More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have already crossed the border and taken shelter in Bangladesh, while back at home their abodes are being systematically burned, destroyed and looted by those close to the military and the regime.

How this situation is supposed to be defined is another aspect of the debate, which has continued since the beginning of the latest cycle of atrocities. The Nobel laureate and firebrand political leader of the past, known for her determination to stand firm against intimidation and injustice, is telling the world repeatedly that nothing wrong. Yet, people of the Muslim minority are fleeing from parts of her country to save their lives.

Her fellow citizens of Burmese ethnicity agree with her stance and denounce all who say something abnormal is going on in the region where the Rohingyas live. The Burmese majority, meanwhile, is also accusing the foreign media of fabricating "fake news" of an immense scale. However, those who are risking their lives by taking the dangerous route of crossing the border illegally just to avoid being caught by the security forces for being on the wrong side of the ethnic divide - and for telling the stories of rape, murder and arson.

Yet, the government of Myanmar wants to sell its own version of the story of what has been happening and specifically that law enforcement officials were attacked in the line of duty by a group of armed miscreants of specific religious origin.

Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights chief described the incident as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, while the UN Secretary General termed the brutal repression of Rohingya minorities of Myanmar simply as genocide.

Genocide or not, what has been happening in the Rakhaine state is a matter of grave concern. It is true that the current cycle of violence was ignited after a series of armed attacks initiated by a group said to have a close link with Islamic extremism. To retaliate, the Myanmar army has targeted the civilian population of the minority group that has already been facing systematic repression by the regime.

The government of Myanmar claims that the Rohingyas are not a nationality, but just intruders who had crossed the border and settled illegally to reap the benefit of the country's “good life".

But historical records and reality do not match that interpretation. Rohingyas have always been living in the part of country which in the old days was known as the Kingdom of Arakan, which in the past had a closer link with Bengal rather than with Burma. The Arakan mountain range constitutes the natural boundaries dividing the Burmese living in the east with others who dwell in the western region.

In old days, it was much easier for the Arakanese to travel to Bengal as there was no need to cross the mountain barriers. This interlink obviously resulted in a closer intermingling as some from the adjacent region of Bengal settled down in Arakan. This happened over the period of centuries and might have been intensified when the whole region was under British domination. The Myanmar government suddenly decided in 1982 to brand the Rohingyas as "outsiders" and deprived them of their citizenship.

Since then Rohingyas have been forced into the status of stateless people in the country where they had been living for generations. From then on, many of those stateless people were forced to move to specially designated camps where the situation is hardly better than concentration camps.

Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule raised hopes that the Rohingya issue might at last find a decent solution acceptable to all concerned. It was more because at the helm of that transition was the lady who had earned the respect of the global community for showing true fighting spirit in extremely adverse situation.

But that expectation has now turned out to be a shattered one as under her leadership the Myanmar administration seems to have come to its own conclusion about the “final solution”, which is to drive the entire people out of the country and make the place free of any trouble makers, forgetting the fact that when we devoid a whole population of any other choice, the only door that remains open to them is to take up arms and defend themselves.

Aung San Suu Kyi may have brought the Nobel Peace Prize to her country, but bringing actual peace is proving far more difficult.

Published in: October 2017

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