|Volume 6 Issue 02| February 2012|
A Forgotten People
SHUDEEPTO ARIQUZZAMAN traces the 'slow burning genocide' of the Rohingya community.
One fateful night two decades ago, in Burma, the military kidnapped her husband, an elderly scholar in the community. The military then lined him up, along with 17 others, buried them to the neck and summarily executed them. A heartbroken Begum along with her two little boys went to beg the military officer to return the body of her beloved husband for a decent funeral. Instead, the military killed the two boys and shot her in the leg. Their only fault -- their religious identity.
Two decades later, Begum lies on the floor of her meagre hut in a refugee camp of Teknaf, Bangladesh, groaning in pain. She has just been struck on the head with an axe by a local politician. Her only fault -- her ethnic identity. Gruesome as her life story is, it is hardly an isolated incident in her community.
Meet the Rohingyas, a religious and ethnic minority inhabiting the Arakan region of Myanmar. They are a people driven from their homeland, and unwanted anywhere else. In Bangladesh, they are mostly known as unwanted refugees from Myanmar. Little is known of the injustice and persecution they face in their homeland owing to their cultural and religious identity.
So how did the Rohingyas become illegal immigrants in their home country? While there is some truth to the opinion of the authorities that Rohingyas are Bengali Muslims who have migrated to the Arakan during the British colonial era, the fact that the forefathers of present day Rohingyas have existed long before the arrival of even the Burmese invaders is indisputable.
It was at least since the advent of the Mrauk U period in 1430 that a sizable Muslim community from East Bengal had settled in Arakan. They arrived as soldiers in the services of King Min Saw Mon, the founder of Mrauk U dynasty. Another factor that led to the presence of Arakanese Muslims during this time was that the Chittagong region would be conquered by this dynasty in 1459 and would remain so until 1666.
In short, it can be said that the northern part of Arakan, today called the 'North Arakan', was the point of contact with East Bengal. These geographical factors significantly account for the distinct historical development of that area -- both generally and in terms of its Muslim population until the Burmese king Bodaw Paya conquered it on December 28, 1784.
However, the mass migration of Muslims to Arakan from the Chittagong region, and the subsequent economic development of Arakan that accompanied this inflow of labour would take place during the British era. The British colonial rulers were quick to realise that vast opportunities existed in the rich and fertile lands of the Arakan. The flow of labourers and farmers from the Chittagong region, many of them who would later settle in these lands, provided an impetus for development in the region and huge profits for the British colonial administration. The migrants, mostly destitute peasants looking for opportunities to provide for their families first went in as seasonal labourers and many would make Arakan their permanent abode. It is this mass migration that is singled out by the Myanmar authorities to cite Rohingyas as 'illegal immigrants from Bangladesh'. Their struggle that led to the development of Arakan has been conveniently ignored, as has been the existence of the Muslim community of Arakan predating this bloody invasion.
The Burmese conquest of Arakan that resulted in the massacre of more than 200,000 men, women and children in 1784 and destroyed the cultural heritage is totally ignored in this chronicle of history. Neither community, i.e. the Arakanese Buddhists or the Muslims escaped the wrath of the Burmese invaders. Hundreds of thousands of people, irrespective of their cultural or religious identity, fled into present day Bangladesh. Even to this day, there is a Rakhine Marma community inhabiting parts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh who had fled the terrible Burmese invasion, a community different from the Jhumia Marma who has inhabited the region from a much earlier time.
When the British took over Arakan from the Burmese, many Arakanese Muslims, along with Arakan Buddhists went back to their ancestral homes. The fate of the Arakanese Muslims would become more closely tied to the British colonial forces, when the Japanese seized Arakan during the Second World War. The Japanese considered the Muslim community of Arakan as pro-British and many of them escaped into British India, never to return again.
However, there were those who did not want to abandon Arakan, a land that they considered their motherland. They allied with the British and fought against the Japanese for their survival in Arakan. The Arakan Buddhist community on the other hand was more favourably disposed towards the Japanese. It was a time of vulnerability, dejection and despair for the Muslims of Arakan. It was during these hard times that they sought their identity in a new word 'Rohingya' in an attempt to unite in their ranks for the bloody struggle. The Arakanese Buddhists came to be known simply as Rakhines, a term hitherto used to describe all the inhabitants of Arakan, irrespective of Buddhists or Muslims.
A Japanese defeat would allow many Rohingyas to return again, but their fate would be less certain. The term 'Rohingya' as a separate ethnic identity was recognised in the history of independent Burma only by the democratically elected government of U Nu that ruled from 1948-58. But this was denied by later governments and as the military ascended to power in 1962, the situation began to take a dangerous turn for the Rohingyas. The gruesome persecution of this community that would lead to the present day refugee crisis and the dismal state of the Rohingyas was about to start.
The military junta once in power began to follow a policy of 'divide and rule', trying to drive a wedge between the Rohingyas and Rakhines, so as to ensure that the century old Arakan freedom movement does not turn into a threatening force. The military junta has been fighting ethnic insurgencies on almost all its frontiers. Naturally they are wary of a united front represented by the Rohingyas and Rakhines that can threaten the status quo of Arakan, a region separated from the rest of the country by unfriendly terrain. As Rohingya settlements are concentrated on the border region, there has always been a sense of unease among the authorities that it will be easier for this community to smuggle in arms and ammunition in the event of a conflict in the Arakan. This is another reason why the military has been consistent in denying the Rohingyas any chance of a decent existence in Myanmar.
Persecution of Rohingyas in their homeland
Burma's large and much feared military intelligence service, the Directorate of Defense Security Intelligence, is commonly believed to have agents working within networks of Burmese monks. These so-called Buddhist Monks have involved themselves in deadly riots against the country's Muslim population. It is worth mentioning that most Buddhist monks, a people known for their commitment to peace and tolerance, have opposed the bloody pogrom perpetuated by the regime's monks.
The Rohingyas, with their distinct South Asian physical appearance, have been more vulnerable than the other Muslim communities of Myanmar.
Arbitrary killings, rape, property confiscation, theft and so on, perpetuated by the authorities in cohort with local miscreants, are widespread. The phenomenon, very common since the military junta took over in 1962, can be described as 'slow burning genocide', devised to escape international attention but quietly and gradually achieving the ultimate intention -- complete ethnic cleansing and/or driving the Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
This process of 'slow burning genocide' has not always been the norm. In 1978, the Burmese military devised and implemented operation 'Nagamin' (Dragon King). Officially, this campaign aimed at 'scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally'. In practice, this meant mass killings of Rohingya civilians, rape, tortures, religious persecution and more. More than 200,000 Rohingyas fled the country into Bangladesh during this time.
Rohingyas are totally prohibited from practising their religion publicly. Even private practice of Islam is frowned upon. Those who have tried to practise their religion publicly have been executed, tortured or maimed.
Movement from one village to another is restricted. They are prohibited to marry without permission from the local authorities, and permission is only granted after the payment of a hefty bribe, which is beyond the means of most Rohingyas.
From the Bangladesh side of the border, one can notice labourers are hard at work building a fence on Myanmar's side, supposedly to stop smuggling. These labourers, used by Myanmar's paramilitary border force, consist entirely of Rohingya 'forced labour' who do not get paid. This is only one glaring example of 'forced labour', a routine practice of the Myanmar authorities.
A bleak future
Having counted on the democracy movement spearheaded by NLD to rescue them from their plight, the reality is gradually descending on the desperate Rohingyas. They can expect little from neighbouring Bangladesh, where the vast majority of refugees spend their lives in squalid huts, deprived of any opportunity for a decent survival. Western nations are apprehensive of advocating for the rights of a Muslim minority and in any case, the last year has witnessed a change in the attitudes on their part as they seek to counter balance China's influence in the country and seek to tap into Myanmar's vast natural resources. Unlike the Palestinians, the Rohingya plight has not received attention in the Muslim world, and the two powerful Islamic countries of South East Asia -- Indonesia and Malaysia -- have chosen to ignore the plight of the Rohingyas in the interest of economic development. For the time being, the Rohingyas -- and the other Muslim communities of Myanmar -- are on their own.
Shudeepto Ariquzzaman is a Bangladeshi sympathiser of the Rohingya cause.
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