The international media is paying considerable attention to the stories of bedraggled men, women and children fleeing their homes in the Rakhine province of Myanmar to seek shelter in next door Bangladesh. In the past few weeks, almost four hundred thousand Rohingyas- an ethnic minority- appear to have been forcibly evicted from their homes by the Myanmar security forces. If the tales of these refugees who have been interviewed by the major TV channels are to be believed, and there does not appear to be any reason to disbelieve them, the Myanmar army shot at them to make them flee from their dwellings which were then set on fire by the heavy-handed Myanmar army. It is not at all surprising that the Myanmar government has been roundly criticized by the United Nations, concerned human rights groups, eminent international personalities and governments for visiting hell upon the Rohingya, one third of whom are now in squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The current conflict has a background of armed clashes between a Rohingya militant group calling itself the “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” which had attacked some army posts a few weeks back in which some twelve Myanmar army soldiers lost their lives. In the past also there have been sporadic clashes between the militants and the army forces which had also led to an exodus of a few thousand Rohingya to Bangladesh. But these developments were nowhere near the scale and ferocity employed this time by the Myanmar army, under which up to now one third of the entire Rohingya population of around 1.2 milliion, has already been ethnically cleansed.
The issue of the grant of citizenship to the Rohingyas is the main irritant between Yangon and this stateless group. Without the imprimatur of citizenship, the Rohingyas are denied employment, education and other facilities which are taken for granted by the 135 recognized ethnic groups living in Myanmar. The majority communities in Myanmar are Buddhist and to them the Rohingya are the “Other”. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel-laureate for peace, reportedly told the American ambassador to Myanmar recently not to refer to the Rohingyas as Rohingyas but to call them “Bengalis”. This reminded me of an attempt some decades ago by Turkey not to refer to the Kurds as Kurds but as “Mountain Turks”. Similarly Golda Meir, the feisty Prime Minister of Israel, originally from Hungary, denied the existence of the Palestinians by stating that there is no such thing as Palestinians.
Watching the plight of the desperately poor Rohingya refugees trudging wearily to safety across the border to Bangladesh, many of them bloodied and bandaged, reminded me of another episode of ethnic cleansing which was highlighted by the international media in the 1990s. Upholding their historic claim on Kosovo as a part of Serbia, the then Serbian dictator Milosevic sent in his army into Kosovo who burnt the houses of ordinary Kosovars and forced them to flee from their homes. Fortunately for the Kosovars, the major powers stepped on to the plate. They initiated a bombing campaign against the Milosevic regime which resulted in his downfall and which event facilitated the return of the Kosovars to their homes. The only country so far that has asked for these nearly four hundred thousand Rohingyas to be returned to their homes is Bangladesh. Given the animus against the Rohingyas by elements in the Buddhist majority, it is not clear when and if the Rohingyas will be allowed to return.
The media attention on the plight of the desperate Rohingyas has aroused international attention especially of the major powers. The UN Security Council is debating the issue. Senator John McCain in a show of support for the Rohngyas, stated that he would support the removal of “military cooperation” with Myanmar in a forthcoming bill before the US Congress. Other countries are likely to follow suit particularly because the United Nations has not minced its words when it described the Rohingya as the world’s “most persecuted minority”. Amjad Bashir, a British member of the European Parliament, in a statement said, “ the world is waking up to the horrors being visited upon the Rohingya. This is ethnic cleansing of the 21st century”. Similar sentiments have been expressed by the UN Secretary General António Guterres and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra’ad.
What is inexplicable is the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the most powerful civilian with the title of State Counsellor, in criticizing the army crackdown on the largely defenseless Rohingyas. Aung San had been an icon of democratic resistance against the Myanmar army junta which had ruled with an iron hand, brutally putting down all political opposition to it. Perhaps she did not want to ruffle the feathers of the Myanmar security establishment if she had publicly criticized their actions. Not surprisingly, a number of Nobel peace prize laureates such as Malala Yusafzai, Shirin Ebadi, Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams, Leymah Ghowee and Tawakkol Karman have strongly criticized Aung San for her looking the other way while atrocities are being committed on the Rohingyas. Some of these Nobel laureates in their joint letter to her stated, “How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defence of those who have no voice”.
The Rohingya issue will continue to fester until the citizenship issue is resolved because under the 1982 Citizenship Act, the Rohingya are excluded. Last year a Rakhine Advisory Commission under former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had been convened with the approval of the Myanmar government, to suggest ways to ameliorate the Rohingya issue. The Commission in its recent report, had suggested that the Rohingya had become vulnerable to human rights abuses due to the protracted conflict, statelessness and discrimination visited upon them. The report charts out a road map on how the Rohingya should be integrated into Myanmar society. Let us hope that the international community will be able to put sufficient pressure on the Myanmar government to stop the military crackdown on the Rohingyas and extend the olive branch of negotiations towards them. That appears to be the only way this long standing and vexed issue has any chance of resolution.