Tens, rather hundreds, of thousands of Rohingya, fled recurring persecution in the recent years in the Rakhine (named since 1982, formerly called Arakan) province in western part of Myanmar (formerly Burma, renamed in 1989). It became a massive exodus of hapless downtrodden people, men, women and children who had faced the worst type of genocide engineered by the Myanmar government, army and their cohorts. In predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, nearly 1.1 million population of the Rohingyas belonged to an ethnic minority group, mainly Muslims, but including few Hindus. In the last few decades, more so in 2016 and in August 2017, about half of this population fled Rakhine, their home for centuries, by land or by the sea, mainly to Bangladesh, also to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and even India, in Jammu or Muslim majority districts of Delhi, Telangana, Assam, West Bengal and North Bihar.
These wretched victims of severe onslaughts, still shudder at the nightmare of how the army or the masked men– allegedly Buddhist nationalists, armed with guns and machetes shot at or beheaded male members of the village even without sparing a single of them. With the horrible pain of seeing their near and dears being brutally murdered, fired upon or hacked before their eyes, the survivors ran for life looking back at their villages being looted, ravaged and lastly burnt to ashes. Villagers were asked to part with their valuables and then killed. A jewellery owner handed over everything to save his life; he was then dragged out of his home and hacked to death. Women were mercilessly raped, the ‘fortunate’ ones dropped back on the village road, half-dead, others ending up with their throats slashed. When asked by the media, the infamous military junta officers bantered with cruel smile : Did you see those women? Who would rape them? Salvaging whatever they could, mostly empty-handed, villagers still alive fled the scenes of massacre to spend days without food, water or shelter. In masses with horror-stricken faces, vacant eyes and bodies tending to succumb any moment, streams of humans, men-women-children, sick or old, walked for miles and miles to reach a place where they may have to go hungry, but at least can sleep without fear. En route on land, when hunger overwhelmed them, they would pull out plants from the soil and look for worms in the ground; when thirsty they drank straight from the brackish stream, often turbid. When and where they chose to take up dangerous journeys across the sea, they had to pay a lot to the smugglers and human traffickers knowing full well they may not survive. Yet the choice was to try to flee certain death.
In its entirety this anti-Rohingya violent onslaught, involving ghastly murder in thousands and exodus in several hundreds of thousands, has come out as unpardonable ‘crimes against humanity’– carried out as part of a notorious ‘campaign of ethnic cleansing’. It demands two-fold actions: immediate stoppage of atrocities and providing relief to the refugees and finding out a long-lasting solution of the issue . But before going into that we need to know who these Rohingyas are, why they are being attacked and by whom.
Presently Myanmar, which also includes Rakhine, the land of the Rohingyas, earned independence from the rule of the British imperialists in 1948, immediately after India had become independent in 1947. Bangladesh, of which Chittagong district is adjacent to Rakhine (rather Arakan as it was known at that time), was initially East Pakistan. It earned its present independent status in 1971. All the three, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, now exist as sovereign capitalist states. Before the British imperialists annexed different parts of this region at different times to their British Indian empire, this area was divided, as elsewhere in the world, into several kingdoms. Thus the mainland of the then Burma was ruled by the Burmese king belonging to the Bamar (or Bumar) Buddhists. In the Arakan Province separated from the mainland by a mountain range there was a distinct Arakan Kingdom since 1430. The Arakan kings ruled also over adjacent Chittagong for long spells in the 16th and 17th centuries till the Mughals restored their authority in 1666, only to lose Chittagong to the British in 1770. The Arakan kingdom maintained nearly 350 years of independent existence till it was conquered by the Burmese Bamar king in 1784/5, to be defeated by the British in 1824 in the first Anglo Burmese War. The British first included it in 1826 in the Bengal Presidency by the Yandaboo Treaty between the British colonialists and the Burmese king. Following the second Anglo Burmese War the British rulers annexed Arakan to Myanmar in 1885.
The Rohingyas (etymologically Rohang is derived from the word ‘Arakan’ in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means ‘from’) claim that apart from the Arakan Buddhists, now known as Rakhine Buddhists, there was a sizable population of the Muslims in the Arakan or Rakhine since the fifteenth century itself. The Arakan or Rakhine Buddhists, in their turn, were politically and culturally distinct from the Bamar Buddhists. Language and culture of this Rakhine province was somewhat different also from the typical language and culture of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal of India), though the two were closely linked. The main language of the Rakhine people, both Muslim and Buddhist, is a variation of the Chittagong dialect of Bengalee which has incorporated a lot from the Myanmar language. The two communities, along with very few Hindu Rohingyas, were in perfect amity in the Arakan kingdom and had fought many battles together against their enemies from different kingdoms of Myanmar and India. At present, they also use the official language of Myanmar. But the Myanmar government, its army and the dominant Bamar as well as Rakhine Buddhists, brand the Rohingyas, as Bengalis. During the first Anglo-Burmese war the Muslims from Chittagong, and partially also from Noakhali, mostly poor villagers, had provided logistical support as “Lashkars”, that is labourers carrying loads, for the advancing British army. The British continued after the 1826 Yandaboo Treaty to engage them as labourers to develop the Rakhine land for the imperialist rulers and help in their commercial ventures in mining, felling of teak trees and building roads and bridges, as pawns in the rapid spread of the colonial mode of production. They were also made to settle in Arakan in the same way as the adivasis or other labours were made to work for and settle in the British owned tea gardens of Darjeeling and Assam. Once settled they made Rakhine their home to spend generations there.
The British occupation thus brought about significant demographic changes to the Rakhine state. In the 1872 census the British rulers recognized those Muslims living in the Rakhine before the British rule as Burmese Muslims and those living since the British advent as the Indian Muslims. This disturbed the hitherto prevailing amity and solidarity of common people in the Arakan or Rakhine kingdom. First, the Rakhine Buddhists became apprehensive of being outnumbered. Second, the census report also fragmented the Rohingya Muslims themselves into Burmese and Indian verieties. The same British rulers, however, provided arms to the Myanmar people as well as the Rakhines and the Rohingyas later during the second world war when the Japanese conquered Myanmar from the British, though temporarily, and the latter needed the locals to recapture it.
History of the Rohingyas in independent capitalist state of Myanmar
Independence brought in further changes. There had been no powerful anti-imperialist freedom movement in this part of the British Indian empire. Only such a movement could have united and integrated the large number of ethnic and religious groups living there into a modern nation. Instead in absence of such a movement Myanmar nation developed as a loose conglomeration of ethnic-religious varieties which were later included in the long list of 135 ethnic groups. The transfer of power was also achieved through compromise between the British imperialists and new born and weak Myanmar capitalists, that too in an era when crisis-ridden decadent imperialism became further crisis-ridden after two world wars. The Myanmar capitalists thus could get hold of the political power of a still underdeveloped state which was characterized by the combination of a loosely congregated nationhood, its decades-long self-imposed isolation from the outside world much because of its wide mountainous terrain in the east, north and west, with the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to the south for a smaller stretch, the unresolved constitutional structure of the new-born state grading into a hybrid civilian-military political structure and a streak of xenophobia much because of isolation present in much of its elite, the ruling capitalists. Myanmar capitalist state was thus engulfed in acute all-out economic-political-social crisis right from the start. In their bid to consolidate this state, the ruling capitalists belonging largely to the dominant Bamar Buddhist community shunned the desired path of developing geographical integration through developed communication, and socio-cultural movements to bring about unity and integrity of people cutting across race-religion-ethnicity. Instead they fanned up parochialism and separatist outlook under the garb of national reconstruction. The economy was crisis-ridden and the society strife-torn. In this background the Myanmar capitalists targeted the enterprising Rohingyas as the cause of the plight of Myanmar people. Unable to stave off the crisis, the military junta led by General Ne Win seized power for the ruling Myanmar capitalists in 1962 and drew up the agenda for protecting and serving the aggregate and aggressive interest of Myanmar capitalism. They nationalized all industries thus consolidating the available capital in the hands of the state and its capitalist rulers. As a cover up measure and with a view to keeping people disunited to thwart any possible surge of democratic movement, the junta further fanned up the hostility in the Myanmar people against the entire community of Rohingyas.
Rohingyas reduced to statelessness through coercive military administrative measures
Since independence Myanmar’s successive governments refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Instead the Rohingyas were and are branded as illegal immigrants from undivided Bengal. Does it stand to reason that an entire community of more than a million people living for centuries in the country and as an integral part of its history, is entirely made up of illegal immigrants? Neither the central government or the Bamar Buddhists, the dominant ethnic group constituting the major support force of the Myanmar capitalists , nor the Rakhine’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group recognize the term “Rohingya,” that surfaced in the 1950s. Is it not equivalent to wiping out an important part of the history of the Rakhine , and for that matter, also of Myanmar? Can any civilized person with a modicum of democratic sense support this unhistorical, unjust parochial move of ethnic cleansing? The military junta, which seized power in 1962 not only kept this vile approach of the ruling class alive. With the country plunging in deeper crisis , the military junta government introduced a law twenty years later (in 1982) stripping the Rohingya of all access to full citizenship.
Until recently, the Rohingya had been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as white cards, that the junta began issuing to many Muslims, both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, in the 1990s. The white cards conferred limited rights and were not recognized as proof of citizenship. Still, such cards did provide some recognition of temporary stay for the Rohingya in Myanmar. The 1982 Act replaced the term Arakan with Rakhine and excluded Rohingyas from citizenship. Consequently, Rohingyas found themselves as second class associate citizens. Even though the UN-backed national census that the government undertook in 2014, permitted to identify the Muslim minority group as Rohingya, under pressure from the ruling class and the hard-liner Buddhist nationalists, the Rohingyas were registered as the Bengalees and asked to furnish evidence of three generations’ continuous living in Myanmar for eligibility as naturalized citizens; their white cards and voting right were cancelled in 2015. The vast majority of the Rohingyas living in Myanmar thus were made to lose all legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. The entire community was marginalized by such heinous design of the ruling Myanmar capitalists and its army, giving effect to the design at the behest of the ruling class. Using 1826 as the “cut off” point for grant of citizenship, the Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group also by imposing various restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Moreover, Rakhine is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslims. In such a situation, the ruling Myanmar capitalist class and its military made the Rohingyas stateless by the coercive administrative as well as military power. They, along with the majority community, brought down upon them vicious orchestrated attacks repeatedly since 1978, and of late in 2016 and the last in August 2017. Several hundreds of thousands Rohingyas were forced to flee their homeland. With power resting with the army generals, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the well-known leader of Myanmar, simply parroted the official narrative of ‘fake news’, even ‘fake rape’, and the egregious lie that the Rohingyas are burning down their own villages before fleeing to Bangladesh. Her words in her Nobel acceptance speech that Whenever suffering is ignored, there will be seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages has turned out to be a cruel foretelling of the present reality.
In the face of such continued and severe oppression and in absence of a proper correct leadership to guide the oppressed Rohingyas, their movement for democratic rights and demands was led astray. In the 1950s a section of the Rohingyas gripped by racist, separatist approach, tried to launch a fight for their autonomy using the term Rohingya to legitimise their fight. Later, the recent onslaughts of 2016 and 2017 on the Rohingyas were triggered apparently by a series of self-defeating attacks on the security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an organization of the Rohingya militants.
Capitalism, the devil behind, unrelentingly weaves the design of driving cleavage among oppressed masses
Myanmar people in the Rakhine, and of course in the mainland, may have been swayed by their ruling class and the army. But it is high time, that at least the right-thinking section of Myanmar people with a minimum democratic sense recognize certain irrefutable truths. First, in these days of tottering capitalism- imperialism, the moribund world system is bringing down vicious attacks on people, wherever possible, all over the world in a thousand and one ways. On one side, the system is unrelentingly giving way to the intense all-out crisis, economic as well as social-political-cultural-moral-ethical. On the other side, the capitalists-imperialists, the rulers of every imperialist-capitalist state, are thrusting the entire burden of the crisis upon people, fleecing them to their skeleton. At the same time, frantically they try out every possible means of creating division among the vast multitudes of toiling people, so that they may not stand united against the capitalist system and its rule in their respective countries. Stealthily or loudly, the design works on and on, changing place and technique. In consequence, people find violent ethnic strife, fearful fundamentalist communal genocides, mindless terror acts that end only in spurt of counter violence from the ruling dispensations in the name of curbing terrorism and maintaining law and order. Whatever be the immediate ignition, in the ultimate analysis all these are manifestations of capitalist design, all these are filled with virulent venom of bringing division among the masses of toiling people. It is only by overthrowing the capitalist system and establishing a system that does not rest upon exploitation and oppression of people, can such venom be neutralized and stopped from vitiating the society, though that does never mean that there is nothing to be done to end any crisis cropping up now and then.
Second, the Rohingya issue can not be judged in the proper light on the anvil of history and reason until and unless it is considered with this class angularity and outlook. Only this can unveil the heinous inhuman design of bringing deep-seated disunity among different communities of Myanmar people mooted by the ruling Myanmar capitalists and being given shape to by its army in the aggregate interest of the class aided and abetted by their subservient parochial separatist agents.
The saner section of Myanmar people require to look at the issue from this class angularity and come out of the spell cast upon them by the ruling capitalists and their subservient agents.
Capitalist-imperialist hawks keen to reap harvest from the grievous humanitarian issue
A look at the response of capitalist-imperialist powers underlines further the importance of class approach. As said, the Rohingya issue is clearly an outcome of number one British imperialist design of plundering Rakhine which only sowed seeds of disunity, discussed earlier. The second is the design of the Myanmar capitalists after independence to bring about disunity among its people so that they may not stand united against the crisis-ridden system. Now through the years the issue has reached a stage that transgresses Myanmar’s boundaries. It is affecting neighbouring ASEAN countries with huge masses of migrants desperately looking for a refuge there. Besides the organization like the ARSA formed by a section of the Rohingyas is reportedly tending to grope for help from more powerful forces, thereby causing concern about rise of fundamentalism or separatism in southeast Asia, hitherto less affected. If this design is not thwarted, it will be allowed to create a fertile ground for imperialist powers to give effect to their other intrigues in Myanmar and its Rakhine province. In fact, there are allegations in the air that external global players are already active behind the Rohingya issue to undermine southeast Asian stability, with the keen eye of imperialist hawks on the vast reserves of hydrocarbons located offshore of the Rakhine province.
For instance, silent on the humanitarian crisis centred on the Rohingya issue, the US imperialists, ring leader of imperialist brigandage have long since been trying for the earliest chance to take root in this country fighting out China and to exploit its natural resources. Thus the Council of Foreign Relation’s (CFR) 2003 document entitled “Burma: Time For Change,” announced that “democracy… cannot survive in Burma without the help of the United States and the international community.” George Soros, a US tycoon, joined a US Task Force group aimed at increasing “US cooperation with other countries to bring about a long overdue political, economic and social transformation in Burma [Myanmar]”. Incidentally Soros is known for his efficiency in hatching designs to incite and activate divisive elements based on religion, ethnicity etc.
The ASEAN member governments like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as also Myanmar have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention or its protocol and thus lack established legal frameworks to protect refugees’ rights. In some recent moves, these states have come to an agreement with the Myanmar government on humanitarian relief effort in Rakhine. But that too is in principle, its details are yet to be ironed out. Even the latest agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on repatriation of Rohingya refugees by which Myanamar agrees to take them back, is really no more than a statement of intent , without defining a time frame and without any reference to the problem of citizenship that gave birth to the present statelessness of the Rohingyas.
The UN Secretary General has called upon Myanmar to stop military operation in the Rakhine and facilitate the return of refugees, and seek a negotiated settlement of the citizenship issue. But it does not stand much prospect considering the past experiences with the Myanmar government on UN proposals and the credibility the UN itself enjoys as an independent organization free from the influence of the US imperialists.
India and China are the two major Asian, rather present-day world powers which also acted pathetically. China, now an imperialist power, competes with the United States for influence in Myanmar and has backed Myanmar‘s efforts to safeguard “development and stability”, virtually supporting and endorsing the steps and policies of the Myanmar rulers.
India, an immediate neighbour and a growing imperialist power, is only keen to side-push China and extend its sphere of influence. Thus when its Prime Minister Modi visited Myanmar recently, he did not care to touch upon the barbaric attack and genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar government and its army on the Rohingyas, who form an integral part of the country’s population. Besides, in response to the Supreme Court’s questions in a PIL filed, the Indian government termed the entire bulk of 40,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees with 16,000 registered, as illegal immigrants and a ‘threat to national security’, on the ostensible ground that some of them are linked to terror groups. Thus trampling upon its obligation to international laws and all humanitarian values and considerations, the Indian govern-ment pleaded to the Apex Court and the leaders of the ruling party BJP started campaign for wholesale deportation of 40,000 Rohingyas. Knowing full well under which condition these refugees had to helplessly flee their country, the BJP-led union government feel no compunction in thrusting them back to that hell without ensuring with the Myanmar government to enforce security for them. How, on the ground that some Rohingyas may have terror links, can the government ‘simply paint’ every Rohingya as a terrorist? The government has challenged ‘justiciability’ of the Rohingya issue and called it a matter of executive concern. Can debate on ‘justiciability’, that is legality, outweigh humanitarian concern for children, women and the sick? The stand of the India government could be termed as neither humanitarian and truthful nor wise but outrageous.
Unavoidable tasks ahead : Only formidable people’s movement embracing all sections of oppressed people can create required pressure to stop atrocities
Under the circumstances the immediate necessities are as follows. Wherever the persecuted Rohingyas have taken refuge, they must be given every possible relief to fulfil the minimum basic needs of life, specially with winter ahead. Besides food, shelter, water, sanitation and health care, financial assistance to rehabilitate and sustain them are also essential. The Myanmar government and its army must stop any fresh and savage atrocities on the Rohingyas by them or their cohorts in the guise of nationalists. When under pressure of world opinion, the Myanmar government appears agreeable to take refugees back home, the latter must be ensured full security and necessary assistance and relief for rehabilitation. Any breach of security and relief would stand out as criminal offence to the international community, not to speak of humanity.
But apart from these, finding a lasting solution is imperative by any and every rational and available means and methods, making use of all avenues of negotiations and dialogues to arrive at solutions. It is quite clear that a pro-active world opinion is direly needed to enforce democratic humanitarian norms and values, to prevent ethnic cleansing, even extermination of a community in a world that boasts of civility and progress. The right to live a decent life cannot rest upon the mercy of the rulers and their strong-arm coercive bandwagons. Question of citizenship also needs be resolved on the anvil of the several centuries-long history and reason; the crisis-ridden capitalist system cannot simply thrust the burden of the crisis on helpless common people by driving divisive wedges to disunite them. Right-thinking, saner section of people who have a modicum of feelings for humanitarian democratic norms and values, both within Myanmar as also beyond it in other countries, neighbouring or not, must realize the gravity and urgency of the situation and boldly face these questions. They should take leading role to organize and develop powerful mass movements in Myanmar and the world over to give birth to an ambience of firm unity and deep-rooted fraternity of common people, cutting across all divisive traits, an ambience of genuine leftist mental make-up. Only such movements can create required and desired world opinion to effectively combat the parochial, divisive chauvinists and reactionaries and their savage atrocities upon innocent populations, to reach any tangible solution for problems that remain pending for years simply to serve the vested interests at the huge cost for humanity. These are the needs of the hour that beg attention of people of the world.