State slaughter

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Rohingya refugees queue up for food at a temporary shelter in Indonesia's Aceh province. A file picture. Photo: Binsar Bakkara/AP

A Rohingya refugee breaks down during a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on December 4 against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Photo: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing a session in Singapore on December 1 during a three-day visit. Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP

The government is busy stoking anti-Muslim sentiment to justify its genocidal treatment of the Rohingya, who have been denied basic rights despite having lived in the country for generations.

ETHNIC cleansing of the Rohingya community is going on in Myanmar’s Rakhine State despite pleas by the international community and neighbouring countries. Satellite images have provided conclusive evidence of destroyed villages and mass dislocation. There has also been incontrovertible proof of women and children being killed by rampaging soldiers. Aid workers have been refused permission to visit the affected areas. A new wave of Rohingya refugees has fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. The United Nations’ human rights agency has said that the abuses against the Rohingya could be classified as crimes against humanity.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was on a fact-finding mission to Myanmar in late November, issued a call for “unimpeded humanitarian and media access and strengthened efforts to defuse tensions and promote harmony” in Myanmar. Annan heads an advisory commission to study the situation in Rakhine. It was created on the orders of Aung San Suu Kyi in August “to promote concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine State”. The commission has six members, three of whom are from Myanmar. None of them are Rohingya but instead represent the majority Buddhist community. Many observers are of the opinion that the commission operates with its hands tied as it is mandated to function in accordance with a 1982 law that effectively stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship rights on the grounds that they were not a recognised “national race”. In 1982, after the military ousted the civilian government of the day, a law was enacted removing the Rohingya from the list of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in the country.

When questioned about the Rohingya issue on her visits to foreign capitals, Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she is concerned about human rights violations but has refused to blame the security forces for the widespread human rights violations. “We have been very careful not to blame anyone until we have complete evidence about who has been responsible,” she said during a state visit to Japan in November. The targeting of Rohingya Muslims started in a big way in 2012 after communal clashes broke out in the State. Near the town of Sittwe, more than 1,00,000 Rohingya live in internment camps after their houses were demolished and property was confiscated. Back then, the military was running the government in Myanmar.

Observers of the region thought that the situation would improve after Aung San Suu Kyi assumed major responsibilities in the government following the sweeping victory of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in the elections in 2015. Though she still has to share power with the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi is today in a position to decisively influence government policy. Earlier, when she was on the campaign trail, she tried to explain away her silence on the Rohingya issue by claiming that she did not want to rub the powerful military establishment the wrong way and jeopardise her party’s chances in the election (the NLD did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 elections). She had, however, promised to look into the root causes of the Rohingya crisis.

The Rohingya, more than a million of whom live in western Myanmar, have been denied citizenship and other basic rights despite having lived in the country for generations. They first came to Myanmar in the 19th century when the whole of South Asia was under British colonial rule. Many Rohingya fought alongside the British during the Second World War while most of the Myanmarese in Rakhine State preferred to side with the occupying Japanese forces.

The latest round of violence started in the second week of October after nine police officers were killed by lightly armed Rohingya men. Some Rohingya have resorted to violence in the face of the large-scale discrimination and atrocities their community faces. The army retaliated by targeting peaceful Rohingya communities and burning their villages. The Rohingya are among the most destitute of the ethnic groups in the country as a result of government policies. Since the latest army action began, thousands of Rohingya have been forcibly displaced. The army in its campaign even used helicopter gunships against the unarmed civilian population.

More than 10,000 Rohingya have managed to flee to Bangladesh in the last two months despite stringent border controls. Bangladesh already hosts a high number of Rohingya refugees from earlier conflicts. After one particularly horrific attack by the army in 1978, as many as 2,00,000 people fled to Bangladesh. The government in Dhaka is aware that the Myanmarese army would like nothing better than forcing the Rohingya to move en masse into Bangladesh. John McKissick of the U.N. refugee agency in Bangladesh told the media that the security forces in Myanmar were “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh. Many have died while trying to cross the river that separates the two countries.

Satish Nambiar, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on Myanmar, has issued an appeal to Aung San Suu Kyi to visit the area and “reassure the affected population that they would be protected”. But now, despite the loud pleas from the international community, the Nobel Peace laureate still refuses to speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya. For long the international community had viewed Aung San Suu Kyi as an exemplar of democratic values and human rights. Her continued silence on the targeting of a religious minority has prompted many civil society groups to question her commitment to human rights for all the people in the Buddhist majority country. Aung San Suu Kyi prefers to call the Rohingya “Bengalis” in an apparent effort to emphasise their foreignness.

In the first week of December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a huge rally in his country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, to protest against what he called “genocide” in Myanmar. There are more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. The country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had an obligation to halt the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya and ensure stability and security in the region. Malaysia and Myanmar are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping which has a long-standing policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs. Malaysia’s stance is in marked contrast to that of the United States. In September, the Obama administration lifted all the remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar, citing the focus of the new government under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership on bringing “respect of human rights to its people”.

Though Aung San Suu Kyi is not in full control of the government, she has given the impression that she is in agreement with the actions carried out by the security forces. The army is still in charge of three powerful portfolios, defence, home and border affairs. These three ministries are supervising the anti-Rohingya ethnic purge. A spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi said that his leader had been kept in the loop by the army leadership about the ongoing anti-Rohingya operations. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office has rejected the accusations against the military, saying that they “are absolutely not true”. The ministry over which Aung San Suu Kyi presides has refused to issue travel permits to aid workers to visit the troubled areas. Around 30,000 Rohingya, among them women and children, are in desperate need of aid. Yanghee Lee, the U.N. expert monitoring the events in Rakhine State, said that the “security lockdown” imposed by the state on the affected areas was “not acceptable” in the light of credible reports of rape, summary execution and torture, along with the destruction of mosques and houses. She also expressed scepticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent statement that the government’s response to the events in Rakhine State was based on the rule of law. “I am unaware of any efforts on the part of the government to look into allegations of human rights violations,” Yanghee Lee said. “It would appear on the contrary that the government has mostly responded with a blanket denial.”

Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with its “Rakhine Action Plan”. Under the plan, Rohingya who cannot meet the stringent requirements for naturalised citizenship being demanded by the government or refuse to be designated as “Bengali” will be placed in camps and will eventually be deported. The Rohingya have been denied permission to participate in the national census under legislation introduced in Myanmar Parliament in 2016. The parliament also proposes to pass a law soon that will prevent the Rohingya from voting in elections. Another proposal the parliament is seriously considering is the banning of interfaith marriages. This move is aimed at further polarising the country on a religious basis. The government is busy stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in an effort to justify its treatment of the Rohingya. A spokesman for the Rakhine State government has said that the Action Plan was necessary as the Muslim birth rate posed a threat to the Buddhist majority.

Last year, boatloads of Rohingya left Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. That exodus grabbed the attention of the international community. The last thing the West wants is another international refugee crisis. Indications are that many hapless Rohingya are preparing for another exodus, encouraged and often abetted by the authorities in Myanmar. Investigative reports have revealed that the Thai Navy also played a role in shuttling Rohingya refugees into the country’s seafood industry, where they are virtually used as slave labour.

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