Nationalism is running high in current global system. Ethnic and religious minorities are prime victim of this nationalist fervour as they are used as scapegoats by jingoists. The ongoing plight of Rohingya community in Myanmar is a glaring example of this nationalist onslaught on minorities.
The recent episode in persecution of the Rohingya started in 2012 when riots in Rakhine state broke out between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhines. The latter had tacit support of country’s military regime and extremist Buddhist monks. They used cut-and-dried nationalist rhetoric against Rohingya asserting that they are aliens and do not belong to Myanmar, notwithstanding that the claim finds no base if one looks into the history of this region.
Even though Rohingya are ethnically different from other people of Myanmar and they do not speak Sino-Tibetan language like other ethnicities in Myanmar do, historically they are a native community of Arakan, which is known today as the state of Rakhine. Rohingya are inhabitants of this region since 5th century when local rulers brought them here as slaves. They embraced Islam following the preaching of Muslim Arab missionaries who have been involved in trade in the region since the 9th century. Rakhine and Rohingya communities governed Arakan together till the conquest of this region by Burmese Kingdom in 1785.
Under British Raj, since 1826, Rohingya were considered subjects of British Burma – not British India. It were the British who demarcated boundary between India (modern India and Bangladesh) and Burma (today’s Myanmar). After independence of Burma in 1948, Rohingya community remained part of the Burmese nation and their leaders held high positions in the Burmese government and parliament. In 1948, Rohingya leader M. A. Gaffar sought official recognition for the Rohingya community as one of Burma’s ethnic groups. But demise of democracy in Burma changed the scenario. Discrimination against Rohingya started after the 1962 coup d’état. Military used Rohingya as smoke-screen to suppress democracy in Myanmar. In 1982, regime of General Ne Win enacted the Burmese nationality law by which Rohingya were not recognized as one of the eight ethnic groups and they were also stripped of the citizenship rights.
Myanmar’s military, Tatmadaw, is primary beneficiary of persecution of Rohingya people. It is not a coincidence that major surges in atrocities against Rohingya happened when military regime was under threat due to rising popular call for democracy in Myanmar. The military regime was shook by People Power Uprising in 1988 when nationwide demonstrations, marches, protests and civil unrest erupted against military regime. Due to popular pressure, the military junta called a general election in 1990 in which National League for Democracy (NLD) won eighty percent of the parliamentary seats.
It was clear that key leader of democratic movement in Burma and Chairperson of NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, would assume the office of Prime Minister. But the military junta nullified the results, placed Burma under martial law and refused to hand over power which resulted in an international outrage. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest which left Burma isolated internationally. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 which put enormous pressure on military regime of Burma. To ease this pressure, they used Rohingya as scapegoat and launched a crackdown against them in 1991-92. The nationalist rhetoric at the time was same as in current crisis that Rohingya are illegal Bengali migrants who did not have right to remain in Burma. The military also accused Rohingya of fomenting armed insurrection against Burmese government. The brutal crackdown made 250,000 refugees flee to neighbouring Bangladesh – and also provoked international outcry.
The recent ethnic cleansing is second surge of anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar which also coincides with the rise of popular calls for democracy. Due to public pressure, the NLD was allowed to participate in the by-elections in 2012. The victory of NLD created a sense of insecurity in the Myanmar military which again turned to Rohingya to divert public attention – from democratic movement to xenophobia. In 2012, Rakhine youth were organized against the government to defend their “race and religion” and were encouraged to attack the Rohingya. Like previous episodes, the helpless Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Since 2015, thousands of Rohingyas have migrated from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in order to escape violence and persecution. These people were dubbed as ‘boat people’ by international media.
In 2015 election, the NLD won a sweeping victory, taking 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union (235 in the House of Representatives and 135 in the House of Nationalities). It was more than the 67 percent supermajority required to ensure that its preferred candidate will be elected president. Although NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from the presidency, she was, and still is, the de facto head of the Myanmar government.
The victory of democratic forces prompted Tatmadaw to launch a major crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine State in late 2016 with the help of extremist Buddhists. The crackdown drew criticism from international community. Suu Kyi was particularly criticized for her inaction and silence over the issue and for not doing much to prevent military abuses.
In October 2016, three border posts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh were attacked. Authorities blamed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for the attacks. Since then, Tatmadaw is committing atrocities against Rohingya in the name of crackdown on insurgents. The situation got further aggravated by August 2017, and thousands of Rohingya fled from Rakhine state to Bangladesh.
The contention of Myanmar that Rohingya are Bengalis and do not belong to Myanmar is preposterous in perspective that Rakhine State is located in one of the most diverse regions of Indochina with respect to ethnicity and religion. In this region, Assamese and Bengalis are Aryan ethnicities which speak Indo-Iranian languages whereas Buddhists of Chittagong, Christians of Tripura and Animists of Manipur belong to Tibetan ethnicity. If Rohingya are expelled from Myanmar on the contention that they are not citizen of Myanmar as they speak an Indo-Iranian language or their religion is Islam, then Buddhists of Chittagong who speak Sino-Tibetan language will also have to face expulsion from Bangladesh due to their linguistic and religious differences with the Bengalis.
The role of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is intriguing in this crisis. She is giving tacit support to nationalists and military which is a win-win situation for her – if things get out of hand and international community interferes against Myanmar Army, she will get rid of her prime rival. If current inaction of international community persists, she will become a nationalist hero. She is already hailed by nationalists for her stance. She has concluded this Faustian pact for sake of power. Anti-apartheid South African activist Desmond Tutu has addressed her by saying: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
India’s stance on this issue has also astonished international observers. A country which intervened into East Pakistan in the name of stopping human rights violations is silent on persecution of the Rohingya. The reason behind this is India’s own nationalist agenda which is parallel to policies of Myanmar. In India’s Assam state, there is a significant minority population of Muslim Assamese-Bengalis and they, too, are subjected to discrimination by Hindu Assamese majority. In future, a nationalist Indian government can also use tactics similar to those of the Myanmar government to expel these Bengalis.
If international community fails to intervene in this crisis and lets Myanmar government continue committing atrocities against Rohingya with impunity, the ramifications would be grave in a region where ethnicity and religion is already a sensitive issue. International community should use diplomatic ways to pressure Myanmar on awarding the right of citizenship to Rohingya — and it is their basic right given the fact that they are the ancient inhabitants of this land. Instead of consolidating power, Aung San Suu Kyi must nurture democracy in Myanmar by empowering all minorities including Rohingya.