Voices of con­science must speak up for the per­se­cuted Ro­hingya peo­ple

Weekend Mirror - - FRONT PAGE - By Odeen Ish­mael

world looks on as the per­se­cuted Ro­hingya peo­ple in Myan­mar (known as Burma up to 1989) are sys­tem­at­i­cally chased, bru­tal­ized and killed. More than 400,000 have fled as refugees across the bor­der to neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh. World lead­ers and re­gional group­ings, es­pe­cially at the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly, must firmly de­mand that the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment cease its atroc­i­ties and re­store and re­spect the cit­i­zen­ship and hu­man rights of these bru­tal­ized peo­ple.

The early In­dian an­ces­tors of the Ro­hingyas orig­i­nated from the re­gion­now known as Bangladesh­from nearly thir­teen cen­turies ago at a time when bor­ders were largely non- ex­is­tent and when Burma was not yet a na­tion state with carved-out na­tional bound­aries. Thus, over time, these peo­ple­have in­trin­si­cally formed part of the gen­eral Burmese pop­u­la­tion, and un­der Bri­tish rule (1824-1948), and even for a while af­ter Burma achieved in­de­pen­dence, some Ro­hingya lead­ers were elected to the na­tional leg­is­la­ture.It must be firmly em­pha­sized that the Ro­hingyas are Burmese and are not na­tion­als of Bangladesh.

How­ever, as Burma achieved in­de­pen­dence, dis- crim­i­na­tion against mi­nori­ties in­creased af­ter a mil­i­tary coup in the coun­try in 1962. Then in 1982, the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment en­acted a na­tion­al­ity law dere­c­og­niz­ing the Ro­hingya as a “na­tional race” and deny­ing that en­tire sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion of cit­i­zen­ship rights. The mil­i­tary junta launched a bru­tal of­fen­sive against the Ro­hingyas in 1991–1992, which caused 250,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh and es­ca­lated ten­sions be­tween the two coun­tries.

Be­fore the 2015 Ro­hingya refugee cri­sis and the mil­i­tary out­rages 2016 and 2017, the Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion in Myan­mar was around 1.3 mil­lion.The ma­jor­ity are Mus­lims while as­mall mi­nor­ity are Hin­dus. De­scribed by the UN in 2013 as one of the most per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties in the world, they are re­stricted from free­dom of move­ment, vot­ing rights, state ed­u­ca­tion and civil ser­vice jobs. The le­gal con­di­tions faced by the Ro­hingya in Myan­mar have been com­pared with apartheid.The UN of­fi­cials has de­scribed the per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingya as eth­nic cleans­ing and Yanghee Lee, the UN special in­ves­ti­ga­tor on Myan­mar, be­lieves the coun­try wants to ex­pel its en­tire Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion.

In­ves­ti­ga­tions by the UN have found ev­i­dence of in­creas­ing in­cite­ment of ha­tred and re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance by ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist Bud­dhists against Ro­hingyas while the Burmese se­cu­rity forces have been con­duct­ing un­pro­voked ex­e­cu­tions, en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances, ar­bi­trary ar­rests, burn­ing ofRo­hingya vil­lages, de­ten­tions, tor­ture and ill-treat­ment and forced la­bor. (More than 87 per­cent of Burmese iden­tify them­selves as Bud­dhist.)

In 1990, the mil­i­tary junta al­lowed an elec­tion which was won over­whelm­ingly by the Na­tional League for Democ­racy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was im­me­di­ately placed un­der house ar­rest by the mil­i­tary lead­ers and not per­mit­ted to be­come prime min­is­ter.

In the af­ter­math, sup­port­ers of Aung San lob­bied for­eign gov­ern­ments to seek her re­lease and to pres­sure the Myan­mar regime to al­low free elec­tions. There was the ex­ist­ing feel­ing that the re­turn to demo­cratic gov­er­nance would give recog­ni­tion to the Ro­hingya peo­ple, a tenet that the world felt that Aung San Suu Kyi would em­brace. I re­call nu­mer­ous in­stances when on the side­lines of in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences at the UN, the Non- Aligned Move­ment, and also the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Is­lamic Co­op­er­a­tion (OIC), I, as well as many other am­bas­sadors, met with some of these lob­by­ists and dis­cussed the plight of Myan­mar un­der the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. And dur­ing dis­cus­sions on the draft fi­nal dec­la­ra­tions at con­fer­ences of the OIC in Iran, Burk­ina Faso, Malaysia, Mali, Su­dan, Qatar, Egypt, Dji­bouti, and the UN, on be­half of Guyana, I spoke in sup­port of the Ro­hingyas’ strug­gle for cit­i­zen­ship and the recog­ni­tion of their rights in their own coun­try.

When Aung San’s party over­whelm­ingly won the elec­tion in 2015 and she be­came the de­facto leader of the coun­try, the Ro­hingyas hoped that their fu­ture would see brighter days. But they were sorely dis­ap­pointed when vi­o­lent at­tacks car­ried out by the mil­i­tary and Bud­dhists, in­clud­ing ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist monks, con­tin­ued un­abated. These at­tacks con­tinue to this day.

Sadly, Aung San has re­fused to con­demn the at­tacks on the Ro­hingyas, and de­spite be­ing the leader of the coun­try, has turned a blind eye on the mil­i­tary’s atroc­i­ties on these be­lea­guered peo­ple. She has also re­fused to ac­cept that the Ro­hingyas are part of the cit­i­zenry of the coun­try.

Dur­ing the years of her house ar­rest, she was a voice of con­science, speak­ing out against atroc­i­ties car­ried out in var­i­ous parts of the world. She was revered for her hu­mil­ity and com­pas­sion and the world ap­plauded when she was awarded the No­bel Peace Prize in 1991.

But to­day she has not ex­hib­ited that com­pas­sion to the most down­trod­den peo­ple in her own coun­try. She sees noth­ing wrong in the op­pres­sion, claim­ing that the mil­i­tary is sup­press­ing a Ro­hingya “ter­ror­ist” group, formed as a re­sult of the bru­tal ac­tions of the state agen­cies.

Even if the mil­i­tary is bat­tling a ter­ror­ist group, does that give it the right to mur­der, rape, burn and ex­pel and en­tire pop­u­la­tion? Surely, that small ter­ror­ist group does not en­com­pass over a mil­lion peo­ple! The mil­i­tary atroc­ity amounts to col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment, akin to that used against the Pales­tini­ans— some­thing that Aung San her­self con­demned when she was not in power.

Iron­i­cally, in her ac­cep­tance speech in 2012 for her No­bel Peace Prize, she com­mented on the prob­lems faced by refugees: “Is the cost of meet­ing the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be con­se­quent on turn­ing an in­dif­fer­ent, if not a blind, eye on their suf­fer­ing?” Now that her own gov­ern­ment is creat­ing a huge refugee flow, her words now seem to be highly hyp­o­crit­i­cal.

The voices of con­science across the world, in­clud­ing some other No­bel lau­re­ates, are urg­ing Aung San to come to the de­fense of the Ro­hingya peo­ple. Un­for­tu­nately, she still re­mains in­dif­fer­ent and she should know that the flow­ing tears of these un­for­tu­nate peo­ple will leave an in­deli­ble stain on what­ever l egacy she leaves for the world.

[ Dr. Odeen Ish­mael, Am­bas­sador Emer­i­tus (re­tired), his­to­rian and au­thor, served as Guyana’s am­bas­sador i n t he USA ( 1993- 2003), Venezuela ( 2003- 2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He rep­re­sented Guyana at the OIC from 1997 to 2014.]

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