Rohingyas are the 1.3 million Muslim minority ethnic group residing in the Rakhine state of Burma, formerly known as Arakan. According to UN, Rohingyas are the most persecuted community in the world. Labelled as world’s most persecuted people, Rohingya are now becoming Asia’s new boat people. Since 2012, there has been a forcible displacement of around 125,000 Rohingya Muslims by the Arakanese encouraged by the Buddhist Monks and backed by the security forces and by the state government. The Burmese government have denied Rohingya Muslims status of citizens and call them immigrants, non-citizens, Bengalis and resident foreigners. The Burmese government is engaged in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims through acts of violent attacks, forced labour, mass killings, denial of aids, limited access to education, arbitrary confiscation of property and restrictions on Rohingya Muslim movements.
The Rohingya-Buddhist conflict dates back to the 17th century. The root cause of this animosity lies in the successive invasions by British and Muslims of Burma. The Rakhine identity was built upon Muslims Kingdoms to the West and Burman (Buddhists) Kingdoms to the East. In World War II, the Buddhist sided with Japanese forces, while Muslims sided British. The history unfolded to Burmese about the forced conversions of Buddhists under the Mughal rule which developed anti- Muslims sentiments. In 1930’s, there were “Anti-Muslim’s” and “Burma for Burmese Only” campaigns under the British rule. The Buddhists denied Muslims claim that their ancestors were settled in Burma since 9th Century and practically barred Rohingya Muslims from being recognized as Myanmar’s nationals under the constitution. After 1948 Independence, the Burma Muslim Congress was cut out from the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom Party) and was later dissolved. There was expulsion of Muslim soldiers from army and strict reservations were imposed on cow slaughter and pilgrimage.
The Burmese 1982 Citizenship Act does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s national races and exclude it from the citizenship right. Under such drastic circumstances, the rich Muslims gradually took refuge to neighbouring states like Bangladesh and India. The poorer Muslims were left in a deplorable condition at the mercy of Buddhists who deprived them from all socio-economic and political rights. There were also anti Muslims riots in Mandalay (1997) and Taungoo (2001) in the name of racial violence. The situation aggravated after 9/11, as violence was now committed in the name of Islamic extremism against the Burmese Muslims. In 2014, the Burmese government banned the use of word “Rohingya” for this minority group and asked them to register as “Bengalis” in 2014 Burma Census.
Presently, the poor Rohingyas are subject to blistering violence and racist propaganda under the campaign led by controversial monk, Ashin Wirathu, often referred as “Burma Bin Laden”. He heads an anti- Islamic ultranationalist group called 969 that is involved in stirring sectarian violence in Myanmar. The government and security forces have long been complicit in this violence against Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein had clearly mentioned that there were two tangible solutions: either to expel all Rohingya Muslims to a third country or sending them to refugee camps under the oversight of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had been denied. The Bangladesh has refused to accept any Burmese Muslims refugees and has banned aid to them. No permanent solution has yet been formulated to resolve their identity crisis, issue of citizenship and settlement rights of Burmese Muslims. Even the peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader seems numb over the issue, as she is reluctant to alienate her majority Buddhist voters, with the Myanmar’s elections approaching this year. In 2015, a large number of Rohingya people started migrating towards from Myanmar and Bangladesh South East Asian countries through sea route, therefore they were labelled as “boat people”. According to UNHRCR, around 25,000 people have migrated so far. Earlier, Malaysia refused to accept them but later Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand governments have agreed to provide them with temporary shelter and aid.
Although the international community has been making little efforts to end the crisis but they seem inadequate and ineffective. In August 2012, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for the formation of a ‘truth commission’ to examine Myanmar’s human rights violations Although President Thein Sein did not establish a truth commission, he appointed a National Human Rights Commission in September 2011, which did not include a single Rohingya representative. During Barack Obama visit to attend East Asia Summit 2014, he asked Myanmar to grant citizenship to Rohingyas. In one of the speeches by Barack Obama, he said that ‘Discrimination against a Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country that Burma wants to be.’ Along with these measures and worldwide condemning of the issue, there is immediate need for Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and UN to intervene for the cause of Burmese Muslims. The Secretary General of OIC had asked for the unity and co-operation of Muslim Ummah and has proposed an urgent request to the Human Rights Council to send a fact-finding mission to Burma to investigate the massive violence perpetuated against the Rohingya Muslims.
Many countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey and Pakistan have condemned the ethnic clashes in Burma and have called for hastening the process of rehabilitation and settlement of Rohingyas. The National Assembly of Pakistan has unanimously passed a resolution in favor of Rohingya Muslims and against the brutality of the government of Myanmar. Pakistan would also appeal to the United Nations to stress upon the Myanmar government to grant Rohingya Muslims equal citizenship rights and ensure the protection of the oppressed minority community. It is the need of the hour that UN and OIC must address the conflict’s underlying causes seriously and ensure the protection and religious freedom of the Rohingyas at immediate basis.
By Aymen Ijaz (Islamabad)