Express Tribune

If oil rich Arab countries can support the Palestinians, why not the Rohingya refugees?

Published in the Express Tribune

by Azam Gill December 10, 2016

The Rohingya only have their gratitude, dark skins, rickety bodies and battered souls to offer. PHOTO: AFP

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 30thFrance 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.

Christian Warriors of Pakistan

Azam Mairaj’s three finely penned English articles and Urdu book Dharti Jaey Kyun Paraey (links below) are a timeless gift that position him as a selfless historian of Pakistan’s Christian community. Without provoking or whinging, Azam Mairaj brings into focus the input of Christian warriors to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He does this at a time when Christian minorities within Muslim lands are undergoing discrimination and persecution as a misconstrued extension of the West.

There are mindsets that presume a Christian counterpart to the transnational political Ummah, supposed to be a faith community, which has now assumed political dimensions that put Muslim minorities in a conflict of interest. The absence of a Christian Ummah and a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state, ensures the integrity of the national loyalties of Christian minorities.

Azam Mairaj’s writings on Christian contributions to the defense of Pakistan performs this unparalleled service of bridging a credibility gap between his community and the rest of the nation without making any but the most positive of waves. In the light to his creativeness and consequent experience, it is now time for him to start a foundation to finance a collective of writers to continue the remaining stages of his initiative.

The artist Zulfikar Bhutto might want to set aside his apparently Marxist-Leninist analyses of society, appreciate that communities in Pakistan are identified by their belief systems and come on board such a project. He and other mainstream intellectuals have this opportunity to go down in history as Ralph McGill, Virginia Foster Durr or Joel Elias Spingarn did for the American civil Rights Movement.

There are enough well-filled Pakistani pocket books to compete with the patronage extended by the White majority of the United States to its minority communities. The moral high ground on which Pakistan stands should be at the same altitude as that of the United States of America to freely brandish anti-American rhetoric!

Mahatama Gandhi said: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Accordingly, before quantitatively expanding the subject of minority participation in Pakistan’s defense and development, two dust devils need to be vacuumed.

The first one is about the inversely disproportionate number of Christian officers to Christian Other Ranks (OR s), Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs). The second dust devil is the swearing-in of Christian officers whereas Muslim officers only ‘solemnly affirm’.

Unless things have changed in the last three decades, the Pakistan Army had no provision for Christian applicants as combatant ORs. Their state of scholastic, medical and physical fitness notwithstanding, they were only employed as sanitary workers. Most of them were strapping lads from Christian villages representing martial castes deridingly amalgamated within the C-word reserved for the Christians of Pakistan. So, every regiment had its contingent of ‘Masihs’ as they were known and, occasionally, the odd Christian officer. But no combatant ORs, NCOs or JCOs, which is perhaps why only two of them are mentioned by Mr. Mairaj.  And it is telling that the author has not been able to unearth any information about Lance Naik Yaqoob Masih from 21 Punjab. This is a subject of study worth a research grant.

Now to the second dust devil.

The stirring ritual of the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul’s Passing-Out Parade, commissioning officers of the Pakistan Army, is solemnized within the framework of military precision and pomp. Muslim Gentlemen Cadets (GCs) ‘… solemnly affirm …” their loyalty to their profession and nation to become commissioned officers.

Then the Adjutant raises his sword and orders Christian GCs to take one step forward, triggering a moving display of Silent Drill.

The GCs step out.

A splendid looking Havildar Major in full regalia including a curling moustache and crimson sash marches across the parade ground carrying a silver bound Holy Bible on a solid silver tray.

The exact second that he slams to attention in front of the GCs, their palms go over their Holy book and they start reciting the lines of the oath pronounced by the Adjutant, ‘I … swear by Almighty God …’.

The ceremony leaves no spectator or participant unmoved.

Yet, the Muslim GC only needs to affirm his fealty but the Christian has to swear by Almighty God.

The consequences of this difference were brutally brought to my attention by the Head Clerk of my Punjab Regiment battalion.

Prime Minister Bhutto had instituted a new oath in which we all had to promise not to take part in politics. So, I once again had to swear by Almighty God. Then I had to affirm my men, as Company commander and Adjutant. The men were lined up and waiting when a deeply embarrassed Head Clerk, who is also the unit’s legal advisor, hurried up. With great embarrassment and, unable to look me in the eye or actually say anything, he handed me the open section of the Manual of Pakistan Military Law (MPML) to read. It unequivocally stated that only an affirmed officer (and not a sworn officer) could administer the affirmation to junior ranks.

I was stunned.

I could lead my men to hell and back but not affirm them?

Another officer had to replace me.

The men looked sulky.

I was a popular and respected officer. The embarrassment of my troops’ and most of my brother officers took a while to settle down.

This, too, is a subject of study worthy of academic scrutiny.

The unifying consequences of Azam Mairaj’s initiative on inter-communal harmony cannot be underestimated in this time of communal alienation and strife.

Mahatama Gandhi’s contemporary, John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer offers food for thought: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”