The Rohingya Crisis: Misplaced Concerns and Dodgy Solutions

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Parvin Sultana
The Rakhine province of Myanmar has been witnessing violence for quite sometime leading to a large number of deaths and massive displacement. The country itself languished for long under a military dictatorship installed way back in a Military coup in 1962. However the end to the junta rule and the election of a democratic government is yet to ensure that democratic values has been implemented in true sense. The fragile democracy continues to hobnob between a still powerful army which continues to control many aspects of administration and a democratic government which time and again falls back on majoritarian Buddhist nationalism. While international organisations and human rights activists have often lamented that Kachin and Rakhine have been laboratories of ethnic violence, the Myanmar government has failed in ensuring an end to this violence.

The latest spate of violence which again forced almost 4 lakh people to crossover to nearby Bangladesh began after a police outpost was attacked by alleged members of the outfit Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, 2017. This in turn led to an extremely brutal crackdown on the Rohingyas majority of whom are Muslims. As such a large number of the one million Rohingya Muslims in Burma were forced to flee to Bangladesh. While Bangladesh did stand up to this humanitarian crisis, it is reeling under pressure as it already houses a large number of Rohingya refugees. As such the latest arrivals are forced to live in inhuman conditions in rain battered tents and relying on aid. 

The Rohingya Muslims are regarded as the most persecuted community over the world. While the latest violence in Rakhine has led to all kinds of responses, there is an absence to understand the root causes and nature of the violence and to suggest plausible solutions. There is a huge gap between the claims of the fleeing refugees who claim to have witnessed the brutal murders of women and children as young as six months old and the official state version which not only pins the blame on ARSA but also justifies the military operation by calling it a much need counterterrorism tactic. The ban on foreign journalists and international media houses and a resistance to an inspection by international organisations have further restricted flow of news and opened up the floodgates of misinformation in social media.

The Rohingya crisis should not be seen in isolation from the larger political developments in the country. Myanmar under the civil government continues to witness a kind of ethno-nationalism. While Muslims comprise barely 4% of the population, the fear that they will overtake the country or succeed in getting autonomy is very much real among the majority Buddhist community. The othering of the Rohingyas started way back. While the Rohingyas claim to be descendants of Arab, Turkish and Mughal traders who migrated to Rakhine, the Myanmar state asserts that they crossed over to the country when it was annexed by the British and immigrated from Bangladesh during the war of 1971. 

There is a conflict raging around the very word ‘Rohingya’. While the Rohingya Muslims assert their ethnic identity, the government in turn insists that they will be given certain benefits only if they register as ‘Bengalis’ and not Rohingyas. For the Myanmar government including the Rohingyas amongst the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups would mean also giving them the right to an autonomous region in the Rakhine area. This right is also provided by the controversial law passed in 1982. This becomes problematic for the Myanmar government which plans to make huge investments in the region. This is also a reason why countries like China and Russia which has trade interests in the region are backing Myanmar government amidst allegations of human rights violations.

The continued crisis did see response from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey etc asking the Myanmar government to stop this crackdown. There is also a tendency to give the crisis a communal colour by pitting Muslims against Budhdhists. However Hindus and Muslims of other ethnic origins also suffer from systemic exclusion in Myanmar. The situation in Myanmar should be immediately brought under control. According to a study carried out by the independent Burma Human Rights Network, the ongoing persecution was backed by government elements and ultra nationalist civilian groups. 

Around 21 villages across Myanmar have declared themselves as ‘no-go zones’ for Muslims backed by authorities. Even in Rakhine state the segregation between Muslims and Buddhists is severe and there are extreme travel restrictions for the Muslim Rohingyas. Amidst this, the long silence of Nobel peace prize winner Aung Sung Syu Kyi has enraged many. While she has denounced terrorism, she has made no mention about the mass exodus of Rohingyas. In such a situation, India decided to deport 40,000 Rohingya Muslims stating them to be a security threat. 

While this no doubt adds to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, the way nations are proceeding to solve the crisis is bound to set a dangerous precedent. Firstly the problem is being seen in an ahistorical manner. The problem started with the new laws passed in 1982 which asks ethnic groups to prove that they resided in Myanmar prior to the Anglo-Burmese war in 1923. Any demand of rehabilitation of Rohingyas without amending this will not put an end to the systemic exclusion of the community.

Secondly, while the world is enraged at the silence of Aung Sung Syu Kyi, there is a tendency to downplay the clout that military continues to enjoy in the Myanmar government. The man behind the recent genocide is the Commander in Chief of Myanmar Military Min Aung Hlaing. According to the Constitution drafted by Junta, Syu Kyi’s civilian government does not control army. The army in turn controls police, security services, prisons, border affairs and most of the civil services. It also appoints 25% of MPs. For a constitutional change 75% MPs must vote and this gives Aung Hlaing a virtual veto. The need is to pressurize military heads of Myanmar along with Syu Kyi to work towards ending the violence.

Thirdly, in present day world while most countries have multicultural democratic societies, Myanmar’s exclusivist ethno nationalism and systemic ethnic cleansing needs to be condemned. Other countries giving refuge to Rohingyas can be a short term solution. There is a need to assert their ‘Right to Return’ to Myanmar and work towards an inclusive mechanism to give them back their citizenship status. The world community should no longer see this as an internal problem of Myanmar and work towards solving it in the most pragmatic way possible.

While most world leaders fell short of rising up to the occasion of putting forth a solution and pressurizing the Myanmar government and many countries prioritized financial concerns over humanitarian cost, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh which is finding it difficult to tackle the refugee crisis suggested that the Myanmar government puts an end immediately to the army operations and then the two countries together take counterterrorism measures against ARSA and work towards resettling the Rohingyas. Blame games, misinformation and vested interests continue to play its part while the world’s most persecuted ethnic community awaits a stable solution to its plight.

The Author is Assistant Professor of Political Science at P.B College, Assam