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Mainstream, VOL LV No 40 New Delhi September 23, 2017

Myanmar : Persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Saturday 23 September 2017


by Ram Puniyani

Massive protests are being witnessed in many countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India among others, against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (September 2017). This time around violence seems to have been triggered due to the attack by militants (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) on police and military posts. As per UN estimates, nearly 1000 Rohingyas have been killed and over 2.5 lakh Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape the violence. The UN has said that the extent of violence indicates that it is a crime against humanity. His Holiness Pope Francis said that he is following the “sad news of the religious persecution of the Rohingya community... he asked that the members of the ethnic group be given full rights.”

The suppression of the Muslims of the Rakhine province of Myanmar has created a grave situation. What seems to be going on is a sort of slow genocide, ethnic cleansing. India has also witnessed the protests against this suppression in many cities in India. Here in India there is an added problem as there are thousands of Rohingya Muslims living in different parts of the country and there is a demand from the Hindu Right-wingers to expel them from the country.

These Rohingya Muslims are mainly concen-trated in the Rakhine province of Myanmar. The government says that they are illegal immi-grants while their history in Mynmar is very old. As such the Muslims in Myanmar are very diverse as most of them have come from different parts of India, when Myanmar was a part of India. In particular the Rakhine province earlier had a Muslim ruler, which fact attracted many Muslims to settle there. As such it is after the military dictatorship that they have been deprived of their citizenship rights and have been the target of persecution and atrocities, particularly after the 1982 Law, which does not recognise their citizenship rights. Earlier they even had a Minister at the Cabinet level apart from many elected representatives.

The problems related to communalism have so many parallels in different South Asian countries. We see in South Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India that religious minorities are subjected to persecution and the pretexts are very similar. After the military dictatorship took over power in Myanmar, the fleeing of Muslims went up in large numbers and many of them came to India also. These reasons are purely humanitarian, but here in India it is being presented as if it is a security threat. Indian laws permit giving shelter to persecuted communities. As per that, the Tamils from Sri Lanka, Buddhists from Tibet and Hindus from Pakistan have been given shelter here. Since Rohingyas happen to be Muslims, the Hindu Right-wing is opposing them and has stepped up campaigns through the media to expel them. As such in India the communalists have been harping on Bangladeshi immigrants, while the fact is that most of the Muslims, being accused of being Bangladeshis, have migrated earlier through the human plantation policy of the British, which encouraged Bangladeshis (then residents of Bengal) to settle in Assam. In the aftermath of the 1971 war also many Hindus and Muslims fled Bangladesh to settle in different parts of India, depending on where they can get some opportunities to survive.

In the aftermath of 1992-93 violence, the campaign to step up the expelling of Bangldeshis from Mumbai and other cities picked up. In one of the studies done in Mumbai by Shama Dalwai and Irfan Engineer, it was found that most of the immigrants (Bengali-speaking Muslims) have been engaged in low-end employment, as maid servants, as zari workers (artisans) etc., who had been putting long hours for mere survival. In popular perception, the issue is presented as a nationalist one related to security and this has been one of the major propaganda planks around which the BJP has been making inroads in the North-Eastern States, particularly Assam.

In Myanmar, the process of democratisation is very slow and painful. The military takeover in 1962 worsened the process. The military had the strong backing of feudal elements and the many Buddhist sanghas (organised priesthood). The hold of feudal powers in Myanmar is a great obstacle for democracy to deepen itself. As in Pakistan (Military-Mullah), the hold of the sanghas and military is strong here also. In Pakistan we witness that irrespective of the democratically elected Prime Minister the military wields great power and the Military-Mullah complex keeps asserting itself, affecting the policies even of the elected representatives. In Myanmar while the major Buddhist organisation, ‘Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee’, has called for a humane approach, Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu, very much like the Sadhvis and Sakshi Maharajas in India, are the major figures spreading hate against the Muslims. In Myanmar, the battle between these two tendencies (military and a section of the Buddhist Sangha) is strong and Prime Minister Suu Kyi is forced to yield to the military bosses and is part of the decision of supporting the inhuman military action, which is like genocide there. Suu Kyi is hankering for power rather than upholding the principles of human rights which a Nobel Laureate should do. At places campaigns are on to take back her Nobel Prize, as the Nobel Prize should stand for the defence of human rights.

In India, with the high communal polari-sation, Rohigyas being Muslims is reason enough to attribute to them the motives of militancy, and to try to link them with terrorism. These scums of the earth need a soothing touch as major humanitarian agencies are asking for justice for these persecuted people in Myanmar. In India, this is an ‘add on’ issue for the Hindu communalists who have been baking their political bread in the name of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The latest in this is to try to formulate a law where the Hindu immigrants will be granted shelter while Muslim immi-grants will be expelled by the state. Narendra Modi on his recent visit to Myanmar has been silent on this crucial issue of violation of human rights for tactical and ideological reasons, that is, due to his political ideology.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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