The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine region are indeed a hapless lot whom fate seems to have condemned to being refugees for life. But why? Especially when those fleeing war and terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have in the last 5-6 years found asylum in a number of European countries.
The gnawing guilt of historic wrongs induced Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, to give shelter to more than a million refugees of the Syrian civil war in 2015-16, a decision many in her own party found unpalatable for understandable reasons. Predictably enough, the clamor for citizenship and political representation has already begun.
Merkel’s risky decision bolstered the fortunes of the hitherto unrepresented Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a far-right, anti-immigrant formation which won 94 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag in the 2017 poll. The latest party position in the 19th Bundestag shows they still hold 84 seats, the third largest after the ruling Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union coalition (245) and the Social Democratic Party (152).
The central question, however, is why are Muslim states like Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia not willing to absorb their co-religionists fleeing the brutalities of the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, in the Buddhist majority country? It would, after all, have been the natural thing to do.
Neither the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nor the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have volunteered to find a diplomatic solution given the national interest of individual members.
Why then does the United Nations and global human rights bodies expect Bharat alone to stand in despite its own economic pressures and disastrous implications on national security?
Cold statistics, admittedly, tell a ghastly story albeit not of ethnic cleansing which the western liberal press would have us believe. Of the ten lakh Rohingyas in Myanmar, more than four-fifths have fled since the mass exodus commenced in August 2017. Nearly 250 of their villages were allegedly torched, and people rendered destitute. Those who stayed back remain confined to refugee camps.
Let’s not forget that the evacuations began on 25 August 2017 after Islamic terrorists of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts. Rohingyas murdered 100 Hindus, including women and children, in cold blood and buried them in mass graves. Young Hindu women were abducted, raped and converted to Islam. Dozens of Buddhists and indigenous people like Mro, Chakma were also slaughtered by them. These actions resulted in a fierce crackdown by the Tatmadaw. Quoting the medical charity body, Médecins Sans Frontières, the BBC reported that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the month after the violence broke out.
Neighbouring Bangladesh was compelled to bear the brunt of the exodus largely because the Rohingyas are of Bengali descent. Nearly nine-lakh are currently settled on a narrow hilly tract below the town of Cox’s Bazaar, a marshy area prone to flash floods during the monsoons. It is the world’s largest refugee camp.
In March 2019 the Sheikh Hasina regime formally banned the entry of Rohingya refugees regardless of their plight. Earlier this year, Bangladesh started moving some of the refugees to a remote island.
Cox’s Bazar hit global headlines on 22 March 2021 when a massive fire swept through the refugee camp ravaging more than 10,000 shelters, food distribution sites, and sanitation facilities. The conflagration ripped through four of the 34 refugee settlements. Though the death toll was not more than 15-20, nearly 45,000 people were displaced, 560 injured, and over 400 went missing.
The Rohingya have gradually been reduced to being pariahs. Outright refusal to accept the status of “resident foreigners” thrust upon them by the 1983 citizenship law aroused the anger of the Tatmadaw. The new law gave them no rights apart from basic survival. Lack of legal documentation made them stateless.
No Rohingya can hold public office, move freely within the country, or seek higher education. In some parts of Rakhine, they even need to take permission to get married or rear children.
Even their identification as Rohingya was initially frowned upon by the authorities. In the UN backed census of 2014 they were under pressure from Buddhist nationalists and allowed to register as Rohingya on condition that they identify themselves as Bengali. And in 2015 they even lost the right to vote in the Constitutional referendum.
Successive regimes in Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) have since the country’s independence in 1948 rejected Rohingya claims that their settlements date back to the fifteenth (some claim the eighth) century in what was then the Arakan kingdom. Repeated waves of immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under British rule further boosted their numbers.
There are 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar. Barring Rohingya each is reconciled to their status of associate or naturalized citizen depending on whether their forefathers settled before 1823 or after the British colonized the country.
Many like the Karen, Mon, Shan, and Chin have been openly hostile to the ruling regime. Some even employ private militias to safeguard their interests. But the generals have not brought them to their knees largely because they have accepted the citizenship gradation. Whatever their local laws and customs, allegiance to national Burmese culture remains the connecting thread which they respect.
Quite unlike in Bharat where it was the official policy of successive Congress government to appease the minorities and disregard the majority Hindu sentiment.
Threat to security
Security lies at the heart of anti-Rohingya sentiment. The Tatmadaw see them as a threat to the Buddhist way of life. The fear is not entirely ungrounded given the community’s religious and cultural affinity with Muslim majority Bangladesh which has a population of 160 million, almost thrice the size of Myanmar.
Historically, Rohingya loyalties have never been with the land of their birth. Trust was vitiated when the British armed local Muslims during World War II to fight the Arakanese who largely sided with the Japanese. This was also the time when illegal Muslim immigration grew in geometric possession.
Attacks on police and army posts by the ARSA, a terrorist group with ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, deepened the distrust. Both countries have in the past defended their co-religionists. But the attacks gave the military an excuse to unleash the full might of state repression.
The view that Rohingya have ties with terrorists are not confined to Myanmar’s military. It extends to sizeable sections of the Bangladesh government and members of the NGO network involved in disbursing aid.
There is also a feeling that Rohingya have been made the scapegoats when the real conflict is between Rakhine Buddhists who lost their old kingdom 200 years ago and the Burmese Buddhists who rule from Naypyitaw, the capital. And that theirs is an armed struggle for regional supremacy.
Even those inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the disadvantaged community admit that the mere perception of their links with jihadi elements is enough to ruin the prospect of getting them resettled in any developed country.
As things stand they have only too options: beg poor and overpopulated Bangladesh to accept them or fall at the feet of the Tatmadaw to let them return on the latter’s terms. Call it Hobson’s choice.
Bharat is the only Southeast Asia country which has been dragging its feet in taking a firm stand on the issue. The recent apprehension of a Rohingya gang in Uttar Pradesh involved in human trafficking of fellow Muslims through the Myanmar-Bangladesh border was the surest sign of clear and present danger.
The gang was in the business of making fake cards embossed with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees to help people enter the country illegally.
Security agencies estimate there are about 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bharat. Most are settled in squatter camps around Jammu, Delhi, and Jaipur and earn their living as casual laborers at construction sites. They are essentially parasites feeding off our limited resources.
Left-leaning human rights bodies have been running a full-fledged campaign that they be given permanent residence. Cited is the principle of non-refoulement which prevents a country from forcing people who have sought refuge within its borders to a country in which there are likely to be persecuted on grounds of race, religion, or nationality.
The government’s oft-repeated position (the latest being on 20 July 2021 in the Lok Sabha) that their continued stay endangered internal security can be likened to pouring water over a duck’s back. Repeated indications from the apex court that deportation is a must has not discouraged bleeding hearts from batting for the Rohingya.
In October 2018 the top court had refused to stay the return of the first seven Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. The unwanted guests were languishing at a Silchar jail in Assam for six years. On 8 April 2021 the court again rejected a similar petition in Mohammad Salimullah versus Union of India.
The legal position is crystal clear. Since Bharat is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol on the subject, all foreign nationals, including refuge seekers, are governed by the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, and The Citizenship Act, 1955.
Nothing is more specious than to suggest that as a rising power with global aspirations, and with a long tradition in dealing with refugees, Bharat is duty-bound to accommodate the Rohingya. And that failure to do so would impinge on its democratic credentials.
What if it does or does not? There is nothing more important than internal security which cannot be sacrificed or squandered for people of another land whose loyalties lie with the world brotherhood of Islam.
Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.