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The Rohingya Problem: How to Solve?Dr. Habib Siddiqui Special for Salem-News.com
Rohingya elimination is a Myanmar national project.
(BANGKOK) - [Author’s Note: Excerpts from author’s Conference closing speech delivered at the International Conference on “Contemplating Burma’s Rohingya People’s Future in Reconciliation and (Democratic) Reform,” held on August 15, 2012 at the Thammasat University, Bangkok.] Is there any solution to this problem facing the Rohingya and other ‘nameless’ minorities in Myanmar who are threatened to extinction? I believe there is. I call it the carrot and stick policy. I shall come to this later.
Rohingya Elimination is a Myanmar National Project
Millions of ethnic minorities are now internally displaced as a result of forced migration or what is called the ‘push’ factors. A larger number has been forced out to seek asylum outside as unwanted refugees in places like Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is tragic and its continuation is not desirable for the entire region.
In his book - Worse Than War - Daniel Jonah Goldhagen says that during mass murders, the murderers themselves, their supporters and those who wish to stand idly by practice linguistic camouflage. And this has been the case with the apartheid regime in Myanmar when it comes to its national project towards exterminating or purging out the Rohingyas.
Myanmar government wants to portray the Rohingyas as outsiders who had intruded into the country illegally. This small minority of probably less than 5%, living in a country of some 56 million, is even depicted as a demographic bomb, threatening Buddhist lifestyle. I did not know Buddhism is that frail. Funny that the Thein Sein regime is even touted as a reform-minded government! Their recent statements clearly show that for the past half a century, the Burmese (Myanmar) government ultimately has been the author of its own actions – their genocidal campaigns, their repeated pogroms, and their apartheid character to eliminate the Rohingya people one way or another. It is this policy which has led to forced exodus of more than a million of Rohingyas, let alone the inhuman condition that their people are subjected to day in and day out inside Myanmar.
As we have witnessed in the past with the Jews of Germany, Bosnian Muslims of former Yugoslavia, Kosovars of Kosovo of former Greater Serbia (and former Yugoslavia), and victims of Rwanda and Burundi, any time such mass extermination or eliminationist projects are launched, it is always about societies and their cultures that contribute to the circumstances that produce extermination plausible as a group or national project -- a project that is led by the state, supported by a good percentage of the nation or its dominant group or groups, and which employs large institutional and material resources.
With the current ethnic cleansing in Arakan against the Rohingyas, we are once again reminded of this ugly truth that it is a national project in Myanmar that is led by a criminal neo-Nazi regime where a good percentage of Rakhine and Burman majority -- brainwashed by their own brand of Julius Streicher in the likes of (late) Aye Kyaw, Aye Chan, Khin Maung Saw and others – are willing participants. The extremist Rakhine politicians and Buddhist monks play their respective roles providing the justification and necessary institutional and material resources for such extermination projects.
It was all too natural, therefore, that Daw Suu Kyi and her NLD party members did not condemn this pogrom against the Rohingya, nor did others of the so-called democracy movement. They may not even realize how racists they are, and that is what such eliminationist national projects do to its people.
Dr. Maung Zarni of London School of Economics, who is an expert on Burma, recently said, “The racism against the Muslims in general, in Burma is pervasive across the majority, minority, civilian, military and class lines. And that is one of the scariest and most troubling aspects of this social transition in Burma. And the West has not spoken out against this issue, because the West is desperate to push its own strategic and commercial agenda in Burma. So what we have heard over the past one year or so, is that ‘Burma is a modern transitional democracy.’ And so now, the Burmese democratic transition is bringing about not necessarily concrete and irreversible democratisation process but the most ugly racism the world is witnessing.”
In such national elimination projects, as noted by Goldhagen, the targeted groups come to be seen as deleterious to the well-being of the executioner (often a majority) group. In some instances people deem the group’s perniciousness so great that they want to eliminate it. “In some of the cases such beliefs become socially powerful and coalesce into an explicit public and political conversation about elimination.”
And that is what has happened with the targeted Rohingya people. As part of a very calculated, sinister plan, the unfortunate murder of a Rakhine woman was used as the backdrop to simmer hatred and start the latest extermination campaign against the Rohingya people. It is not difficult to understand why the alleged criminal conveniently committed suicide in the prison so that no one would ever know the truth and whether or not he was used as a pawn in what was to follow. Thus, instead of a much anticipated inquiry report on grisly murder of ten Burmese (not Rohingya) Muslims in early June, we heard President Thein Sein’s statement that the Rohingyas cannot live inside Myanmar; they are unwanted.
As I have noted earlier, crimes at individual levels happen in all societies. But only in eliminationist projects are such crimes exploited to justify elimination of an entire targeted group. To do this, the Myanmar regime has employed all five principal forms of elimination - transformation, repression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, and extermination of the Rohingya people. In spite of world condemnation, the regime, once again backed by its racist monks and mobs, therefore, refuses to allow outside inquiries and refuses to provide necessary food and shelter to the suffering Rohingya victims in this hot summer month of fasting.
President General Thein Sein has publicly stated that the Rohingya people should be expelled and the UN should take their charge as refugees, a call which was promptly rejected by the UNHCR. This attitude of the Myanmar government is worse than racial discrimination. It is an apartheid policy that has no place in the 21st century. The regime has been using the 1982 Citizenship Law as a convenient camouflage (a cover) to hide its sinister plan to depopulate Myanmar of any Muslims. Plain and simple! Let’s call a spade a spade.
The military regimes that preceded Thein Sein have been practicing this Burmanization and Buddhization policy of the country for the last half a century. Soon after assuming power in 1962, General Ne Win’s regime instituted the ‘Four Cuts’ policy, aimed at cutting off targeted groups from food, money, intelligence, and recruits. Even though Muslims of Myanmar, unlike other ethnic groups, were not part of any insurgent group, they did not skip persecution. Ne Win quickly nationalized all businesses and Muslims were the biggest losers. No compensation was offered by the Burmese authorities. He also purged the armed forces and the civil bureaucracy of Muslims. Many fled (including those with Burmese or Karen spouses, known as the Zerbadi) to neighboring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), West Pakistan (now Pakistan), Thailand, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
In the face of international criticism, the Burmese regime began to deny the existence of the Four Cuts policy in the late 1980s; however, evidence suggests that it remains a policy and practice even today. Anti-Muslim riots took place in Mandalay in 1997 and again in 2001. Some two dozen campaigns have also been directed against the Rohingya people to exterminate or evict them from their ancestral homeland in Arakan.
The real power in Myanmar still lies with the generals. President is their front man. They would continue to make sure that they control government and that the head of the state is a Burman from the majority race. To maintain their tight grip of power, they have created a toxic cocktail of ultra-nationalism (which is pure racism) and religious intolerance (which is bigotry) where the government patronized bare-feet monks are the flag-bearers of this new Myanmar. It is no accident that Nazi insignia - signs and symbols - are hot sales amongst the Rakhines and many Burmans today. They see themselves as the Fascist Germans of the Hitler-era ready to weed out their ‘Jewish peril’ – the Rohingyas totally. Even the so-called democracy movement icons and leaders have proven to be closet racists and bigots who approve of this new Myanmarism. Indeed, with the advent of a semblance of democracy, majority Buddhists feel they now have a license to kill and persecute minorities. This is tyranny of the majority at its worst.
As I have shown earlier, the activities of the Myanmar regime since the days of Ne Win have been to heighten animosity among various communities, using one group against another. What goes on in the center by ultranationalists is followed in toto by the racists at the local state level. A transition to democracy alone has not and will not be enough to prevent the people tearing each other apart, irrespective of who forms the central government and whether or not it chooses to behave like a federal union with certain level of autonomy for each state. The first and biggest step in bringing about an end to the racism problem is to admit that it exists and to recognize its scale. Most racists inside Myanmar today are unaware of their despicable racism.
These leaders of Myanmar are also oblivious of the fact that citizenship based on ethnicity or race is an alien concept in the 21st century. Ethnicity based on race was an imaginary concept foisted by the imperialists to divide and rule, and cannot be used as a criterion for determining citizenship rights in our time. As such, the first thing the current regime can do is to bring its laws at par with international laws by amending the 1982 Citizenship Law so that Rohingyas and other minorities are accepted as equal citizens in Myanmar.
The current Rakhine-Rohingya tension can end, by partly expelling a few false notions in the minds of Rakhine and Burmese people that is embedded by text books and sustained false propaganda, authored and nurtured by the military regime and their paid historians and agents. If they instead go to older books of history, they would find not only the fact that as indigenous people the ties of the Rohingya people to the soil of Arakan is even older than the Buddhist Rakhines but also that as part of the larger Burmese Muslim community they partnered with Aung San in the independence struggle for Burma. As I have amply demonstrated in my work on demography they were not implanted by the British. Because of their racial similarity with the Indians, they are often times falsely equated with the Hindu Chettiars or Marwaris and other Indian Hindu money-lenders or absentee landlords during the British colonial period.
What is even more ridiculous is that they are perceived as collaborators of the British Raj before and during the Second World War. In 1920s and 1930s, when Burma witnessed a series of anti-Indian pogroms, often led by Buddhist monks, such were crushed by colonial troops – mainly Indian Gurkha and Sikh (and not Rohingya) and ethnic Karen and Kachin soldiers. In 1942 when Japan invaded Burma, the majority Burmans and the racists within the Rakhine community aligned themselves with the invading Japanese forces and massacred more than a hundred thousand Rohingyas in Kyaktaw, Mrohaung, Kyataw, Rambree and Paktaw where 350 villages were burned down - souring the relationship between the two communities for decades to come. But as events unfolded, it did not take long for Aung San and his comrades to realize that Japan had no intention of liberating Burma; they were simply used as pawns in Japan’s selfish imperial scheme. To this day, however, no apology has been issued for such an atrocity committed against the Rohingya and other affected minorities.
Abandoning All forms of Prejudice, Racism and Bigotry
The current antagonisms are compounded by the false notion that national success lies in racial purity and not in plurality. As I have shown earlier, the Rakhine Buddhist leadership, fascinated with Japanese imperial model of racial exclusiveness, wants to create a mono-ethnic state without any other race or religion. A visit to the USA and many parts of the Western Europe is sure to challenge that false notion and show that it is diversity of the workforce that is catalyzing success in our time. To quote Dr. Fareed Zakaria (of the Time Magazine and CNN) on this issue: “This infusion of talent, hard work and patriotism has kept the country vital for the past two centuries. And if we can renew it, it will keep America vital in the 21st century as well.”
Then there is the overwhelming belief that Rohingya Muslims, who probably constitute only 5% of the entire Myanmar population (counting even the exiled ones), are a demographic threat to the nation of 56 million. Sitting next door to China (with a population of 1.3 billion) and Bangladesh (150 million) where the population density is rather very high, most Rakhines and Buddhist Burmese assume that those people would one day take over their country unless they come hard on the Rohingya Kala and the Chinese Tayut. Thus the proximate linguistic (although very few Bangladeshis, even Chittagonians, can understand the Rohingyalish language spoken by the Rohingya people) and cultural links of the Rohingya with the Bangali makes the Rakhine and Burmese population feel threatened with dismemberment of their country – under pressure from Bangladeshi citizens. Bangladesh, thus, needs to be constantly cognizant of, and concerned with this Burmese/Rakhine apprehension, without sacrificing the right to voice support in a friendly way for the human rights of the Rohingya minority.
It is worth pointing out that democracy minus tolerance leads to fascism. If democracy is the rule of the majority, the protection of minorities against injustice and hegemony is not a matter of empathy of the majority. Human rights in a democracy are held to be inalienable – no human being could be deprived of those rights in a democracy by the will of the majority of the sovereign people. This basic governance norm of democracy seems to have been forgotten in recent months by the so-called reform government of Thein Sein, and the members of the new parliament which includes Daw Suu Kyi and her NLD members.
Most Rakhine and Burmese chauvinists seem allergic to the name Rohingya, claiming that the name did not exist before the 1950s. They are wrong. There are written records in English dating back to the late 18th century, let alone the writings of Muslim poets of the early 17th century showing the name Rohingya. In his treatise, “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” written in 1799, British doctor Francis Buchanan wrote, “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga (Rohingya), or natives of Arakan.”
But more importantly, these chauvinists ought to know that the most egregious denial of human rights is to deny the right of others to define and interpret their own identity, because this is a denial of human freedom and human dignity. If the Rohingyas have chosen that name, it is absolutely their right to be known as such. No one should have the audacity to deny that right.
If they had studied history objectively they would have known that history of the geographical region we call the South Asia including what is today called Myanmar, which is sandwiched between South Asia and South-east Asia, has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. This essential fact is recognized by all great historians -- Professors David Ludden, Abdul Karim, Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and many others -- who spent their lifetimes to study the region. To these unbiased and genuine historians of the ancient India and Burma, the region did not have a singular history, but many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply the more we learn about the region.
Obviously, such an understanding and analysis of history is unpopular and loathsome with communal, racist, xenophobic regimes and their propagandists and vanguards. The latter bigots would rather have it their way in which the minorities or the have-nots in power simply did neither exist nor mattered. To them, the affected persecuted people just appeared in the recent scene through mere accident of history like those possible through a magic lantern! That is the level of their disgusting chauvinism, which is often reflected through the claims and counter-claims of pen-pushing chauvinists and zealots of the Rakhine state of Myanmar.
Racism is a curse and must be fought relentlessly; otherwise for multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries like Myanmar (a hybrid state of states) it will tear it apart. Freedom-loving and democratic-minded opposition groups working outside Myanmar, therefore, must respect each other and shun racism and bigotry. It won't be easy and fast though. After all, it has been in their political-DNA for way too long, nurtured and nourished by promoters of hatred and intolerance.
They must believe and respect all the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That means, they must treat others that look different with respect and dignity. They must bury their pre-colonial chauvinist mindset that is not conducive to our time when increasingly human rights, freedom and democracy are all equally important. They should draw the lessons from former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. If they fail to do so, Burma will remain a country at war with itself, whether or not today’s regime is replaced by another government, civil or otherwise.
In the context of Arakan, it is important that there be a dialogue between the leaderships of the majority Rakhine and the minority Rohingya to bury prejudice and ease tension for a peaceful and respectable co-existence as equal citizens.
As I have noted elsewhere, for every ideology, there is always an ideologue. This role is often shared by intellectuals, who are the real ‘brains’ that energize the wheel of the movement. So, as we have Aye Kyaw and Aye Chan (author of xenophobic works like the “Who are the Rohingyas?” and “The Influx Viruses”) among the Rakhaings, steering the wheel of intolerance against the Rohingyas of Myanmar today, Julius Streicher (1885 – 1946) was the ideologue responsible for breeding hatred against the Jews of Germany.
Julius Streicher was a prominent Nazi prior to and during World War II. In 1923 Streicher founded the racist newspaper, Der Stürmer of which he was editor. The newspaper become a part of the Nazi propaganda machine spreading deep hatred of everything and everyone Jewish.
Streicher argued in the newspaper that the Jews had contributed to the depression, unemployment, and inflation in Germany which afflicted the country during the 1920's. He claimed that Jews were white-slavers and were responsible for over 90 percent of the prostitutes in the country. Eventually the newspaper reached a peak circulation of 480,000 in 1935. After the Nazi party was reorganized, Streicher became the party leader of Franconia. After 1933, he practically ruled the city of Nuremberg and was nicknamed "King of Nuremberg" and the "Beast of Franconia.” His publishing firm released three anti-Semitic books for children, including the 1938 Der Giftpilz (The Poison Mushroom), one of the most widespread pieces of propaganda, which purported to warn about insidious dangers Jews posed by using the metaphor of an attractive and yet deadly mushroom.
On May 23, 1945, two weeks after Germany's surrender, Streicher was captured by the Americans. Chief Justice Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecution, spoke to the tribunal and explained to them the importance of what they were doing. He said, to paraphrase, that: “We are handing these defendants a poisoned chalice, and if we ever sip from it we must be subject to the same punishments, otherwise this whole trial is a farce.” Interestingly, in Jackson’s opening statement he claimed that the prosecution did not wish to incriminate the whole German race for the crimes they committed, but only the “planners and designers” of those crimes, “the inciters and leaders without whose evil architecture the world would not have been for so long scourged with the violence and lawlessness … of this terrible war.”
So, at Nuremberg, the ordinary Germans who threw Jews into crematoria were not tried, but only their leaders, who incited violence. It was not surprising, therefore, to find Julius Streicher included in that short list. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial and sentenced to death on October 1, 1946. Another person who didn’t escape punishment at Nuremberg was Dr. Wolfram Sievers of the Ahnenerbe Society’s Institute of Military Scientific Research, whose own crimes were traced back to the University of Strasbourg. They were not the typical people prosecuted for international war crimes, given their civilian professions. As Professor Noam Chomsky has argued there is a justification for their punishment, namely, those defendants could understand what they were doing. They could understand the consequences of the work that they were carrying out.
What is important here to stress is that Julius Streicher was not a member of the military. He was not part of planning the Holocaust, the invasion of Poland, or the Soviet invasion. Yet his role in inciting the extermination of Jews was significant enough, in the prosecutors' judgment, to include him in the indictment.
I would like to believe that by identifying and prosecuting both the state and non-state actors that are responsible for the on-going extermination campaigns we can show that such crimes against humanity will not be tolerated in our time.
It is high time that the UN and the international media take notice of this grave historic injustice to the Rohingyas of Myanmar. The Thein Sein regime must be obliged to accept the Rohingyas as equal citizens failing which the entire region would be forced to settle for decades of instability and insecurity, something nobody wants. It is for the good of the entire region – south and south-east Asia, let alone Myanmar that the regime fulfills its international obligations by reaffirming fundamental human rights and securing the life and dignity of the minorities within its territory, as are very clearly enshrined in the preamble of the Charter of the UN. The sooner the better!
However, as I have noted elsewhere the Myanmar government is known to have perfected the game of playing cat-and-mouse with the world community, hoping that such occasional extermination campaigns (dubbed as ‘sectarian’ clashes or riots) would soon be forgotten. After all, it has never been punished harshly for its horrendous records on a plethora of violations. In 2006, Special Rapporteur Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro stated: “As noted by the Special Rapporteur in his previous reports, the above-mentioned serious human rights violations have been widespread and systematic, suggesting that they are not simply isolated acts of individual misconduct by middle- or low-ranking officers, but rather the result of a system under which individuals and groups have been allowed to break the law and violate human rights without being called to account.” It is not by chance that when Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, urged an independent inquiry on Arakan Thein Sein promptly announced its own internal inquiry commission only to diffuse such outside pressures.
It is, therefore, necessary for the world community to ensure that it is not fooled by such ploys again, and instead, to demand full compliance – including restoring Rohingya citizenship rights - within a prescribed period of, say, six months. If the regime fails to reform by improving the status of the minority Rohingyas, the ASEAN and the OIC, with or without the UNSC, must press for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the massacre, and indict the Myanmar government for its war crimes against the Rohingya and other minorities, violating international criminal laws based on the provisions stipulated under the Rome Statute of the ICC.
If anyone is looking for evidences there are plenty to indict the Myanmar regime for its crimes against humanity. Unless the Myanmar government corrects or is pushed to correcting its Rohingya problem soon by allowing them to live as equal citizens, I am afraid that the agenda could be hijacked by extremists on both sides of the Muslim-Buddhist divide which could lead to war of secession, further threatening the regional peace and security.
It is worth noting here that the UN Security Council has the power under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to take measures “to maintain or restore international peace and security” when it determines “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” Article 41 of the Charter allows the Security Council to take action that does not involve the use of force. As articulated in Article 33 of the Charter, whenever the Council “deems necessary,” at “any stage” of a dispute, it may intervene “to ensure prompt and effective action” to safeguard peace and security. Myanmar is a prima facie case for the UNSC to intervene to ensure that the Rohingyas are protected from any further violations of their human rights.
In its 2009 report the IHRC stated, “If the international community and the UN Security Council fail to take action the evidence presented in this report suggests that the grave humanitarian situation in eastern Burma and elsewhere in the country will continue unchecked. The perpetrators of serious human rights and humanitarian violations will remain unaccountable. A culture of impunity will persist that is highly conducive to the continuance and escalation of violations.” And as the latest pogrom testifies, these fears have become reality for the Rohingya people.
The report recommended, “To help prevent future violations, the UN Security Council should create a Commission of Inquiry mandated and sufficiently resourced to investigate adequately the situation and make appropriate recommendations based on its findings... Finally, the Security Council should be prepared to act upon findings and recommendations made by such a Commission, including a potential referral to the International Criminal Court, the permanent body established to investigate, try, and sentence those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Three years have passed by since the IHRC Report surfaced. And yet today, the lives of persecuted Rohingya are infinitely worse. Simply put, they face extinction. How long can the UNSC afford to do nothing when it comes to protecting their lives? How about starting with an international inquiry commission, as recommended by Tomas Quintana?
It would be the greatest tragedy of our generation should we allow the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing to whitewash their crimes against humanity. The UNSC must demand an impartial inquiry and redress the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya people need protection as the most persecuted people on earth. Should the Thein Sein government fail to bring about the desired change, starting with either repealing or amending the 1982 Citizenship Law, the UNSC must consider creating a ‘save haven’ inside Arakan in the northern Mayu Frontier Territories to protect the lives of the Rohingya people so that they could live safely, securely with honor and dignity as rest of us.
Unless, the Myanmar government restores the fundamental rights of the Rohingya people, let no government reward it with lucrative business deals, nor lift the current sanctions. Otherwise, they must share the guilt of aiding mass murder, making a mockery of everything that we cherish dear and noble, letting the bleeding and suffering to continue. If they truly want to see change, they better walk the talk! The US and her western partners must establish concrete, identifiable benchmarks, as I hinted here, to make sure the so-called reform is irreversible and inclusive for persecuted minorities like the Rohingya. They should insist that “ethnic cleansing” of any minority is unacceptable and is a crime against humanity, and ensure that Myanmar’s reforms include its minorities, embrace international human rights standards, and end its ethnocentric agenda.
If the Thein Sein regime is truly reform-minded, let it prove itself by doing what is just, morally right and honorable. It has the choice to either pick up the carrot or be beaten by the stick. It can capture this moment to either make history or be dumped in its garbage, sealing the fate of the country much like what happened to Yugoslavia and its leader Milosevic. I pray and hope that it chooses inclusion over exclusion, diversity over racism, tolerance over intolerance, wisdom over idiocy and ultimately life over death.
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