Published in the Express Tribune
by Azam Gill December 10, 2016
A 2015 Amnesty report declared the stateless Rohingya of Burma to be the most persecuted refugees in the world. Their Burmese majority tormenters are trapped between a forgiveness shortfall and a surfeit of rancour at the abortive Rohingya attempt to be annexed by East Pakistan in 1948 followed by an armed insurgency seeking autonomy or independence.
Reprisals have devastated the civilian population. There are currently 140,000 Rohingya refugees mired in squalor in Bangladesh, India and Thailand in the latest phase of their on-going exodus. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called the violence against the Rohingya a “slow genocide”.
On November 30th, France 24 broadcasted that a concerted crackdown from the Burmese army reportedly involved,
“Murder, rape and torture … razed entire villages, abused human rights and caused a massive outflow of refugees.”
The non-profit group, Physicians for Human Rights, wrote in a 2013 report carried by Reuters on June 17, 2015:
“Between May 1991 and March 1992, more than 260,000 Rohingyas fled the country over ‘human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military, including the confiscation of land, forced labour, rape, torture, and summary executions’.”
Nearly a million and a half and Muslim by faith, they are mainly concentrated on Burma’s western coastal state of Arakan/Rakhine where they make up around 90% of the population. They are generally considered to have migrated from present-day Bangladesh during the British Raj, although an indigenous origin has not been ruled out.
In the Second World War, they were armed and supported by the British to fight against the Japanese, co-religionists of the Burmese majority who consider that alliance mortally sinful. Mostly illiterate and almost totally isolated, in 1948, they were unaware that they could have acquired Burma’s ‘Associate Citizenship’. As such, in 1982, under General Ne Win’s dictatorship, they ended up being definitively excluded from citizenship rights. These two procedures blissfully ignored the 1872 report on the census of British Burma which observed that,
“There is more than one race which has been so long in the country that it may be called indigenous, and that is the Arakanese Mussulman.”
The book Human Rights and Statelessness: The case study of the Rohingya in Myanmar, by Fiona Gill, concludes that,
“The first and undeniable change needed … is the amendment of the 1982 Citizenship Act …(Burma’s) regional neighbours have a legal and humanitarian obligation to address the consequences of statelessness and displacement.”
On June 17, 2015, Reuter’s questioned:
“Why is no one helping Myanmar’s Rohingya?”
One year later, Saudi Arabia announced the grant of permanent resident status to four million Burmese workers, presumably Rohingya. This laudable example of affirmative action still leaves the current crisis intact.
To benefit from Saudi Arabia’s largesse, a Rohingya has to enter Saudi Arabia legally. Even if the Saudis were to follow Angela Merkel’s example, the Rohingya victims can’t afford the passage. So the next logical step is for Saudi ships to anchor off on Burma’s territorial waters and take Rohingya boatloads on board. Financially, they can afford it. The political risk is negligible, since Burmese muscle only flexes within its borders.
Last year, Qatar also pledged $50 million to Indonesia to host Rohingya refugees, generously stretching its arm to keep them at bay. Indeed, because these refugees are jobless, poor, unskilled, carry diseases and, actually smell. No one would want to have them in the neighbourhood. Qatar should take its inspiration from Germany and Italy — maybe hire a slick refugee consultant with blow-dried hair and a killer smile?
Oil rich Arab countries wholeheartedly support Palestinians who, of course, also provide a ready means of restoring Muslim sovereignty over the Holy Land. Alas, the Rohingya only have their gratitude, dark skins, rickety bodies and battered souls to offer.
But Saudi Arabia and Qatar can only be reproached for failing to meet high expectations. The persecution itself calls out the Burmese Buddhist majority led by a Nobel Peace Laureate who, as the state counsellor of Myanmar, is the de facto head of state. On the subject of Rohingya persecution, the Oxford-educated Aung San Suu Kyi thrives as the serenely mute counsellor. And the world lies back and lets its intelligence receive these resounding insults without reminding her that her own most outstanding qualification is being a victim of persecution. She has a dozen international awards ranging from the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom to The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding and the Sakharov Prize. Did I hear you applause, Rohingya?
Their repression seriously tarnishes the renowned Buddhist lustre. In 2013, his holiness, the Dalai Lama, pleaded with Burmese Buddhists to end the violence against the Rohingya. Last year, he urged Aung Sang Suu Kyi to speak out on their behalf. Six months ago, he repeated the demand, answered by her deafening silence. Burma’s moral wasteland is overcast with “shades of mediocrity, like emptiness in harmony”.
Three forces can converge to inject solvency into Burma’s moral bankruptcy.
The Dalai Lama, the Pope and the Mufti of Al Azhar University need to announce a joint visit to Burma, to exert pressure on its Buddhists, get the world’s attention and reassure the Rohingya, respectively. Burma would be hard put to refuse such a visit. Were the three religious leaders to publicly demand an end to the violent reprisals and the placing of United Nations observers protected by a UN contingent, it should be enough to move the problem from the paddy fields and narrow alleys to a well-appointed conference room.