TEHRAN (FNA)- It’s been a few years that the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted religious minority in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, has been making the headlines worldwide.
Rohingya people have been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, also known as Arakan, since mid-15 century. They’re Muslim, and as of 2014, their population in Myanmar amounts to 1.3 million. An estimated 1 million Rohingyas live overseas.
The government of Myanmar denies the Muslim Rohingyas official citizenship, and sometimes cracks down on them violently. They’re usually forced out of their cities, and displaced as refugees in the neighboring countries; however, these countries, including Bangladesh and Thailand, most of the times refuse to grant them entry, and so they continue wandering across the shores and ports despondently.
A British activist who has been working to support the cause of the Rohingya Muslims says there isn’t sufficient determination on the part of the international community to help the Rohingya people, which she believes are an underrepresented and suppressed minority.
“Certainly there is currently a fascist ideology to be found in the country that promotes pure Burmese Buddhist ethnicity as the superior race and this is being played on in the run up to the country’s elections which are due to take place in October-November of this year,” said Jamila Hanan in an interview with Fars News Agency. “The current military powers are promoting themselves as the party of stability and are utilizing the Muslims as scapegoats for all of the country’s problems, holding the Muslims up as a security risk so that people vote for status quo.”
Rohingyas are seen as an outcast group, not favored by the government in Myanmar, a country of about 54 million people. Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority nation.
Jamila Hanan is a Britain-based blogger and social media, human rights activist. She has been working to reflect the voice of the Rohingya community since the attacks broke out in June 2012, leading to the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the Rakhine State. She writes a campaign blog for advocating the cause of Rohingya people at “SaveTheRohingya.blogspot.com”.
Q: Why are the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar being denied official citizenship and equal sociopolitical rights with the rest of the citizens? Why has the Buddhist majority been cracking down on them in the recent years and treating them so pejoratively? Are there historical factors at work?
A: The Rohingya are denied their rights quite simply because the Burmese government, both central and local, do not want the Rohingya living in Myanmar – formerly called Burma, and want to eliminate them from the land. This is a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. There has certainly been a history of persecution that stems back to the late seventies when the first attempt was made to drive the Rohingya from the land, starting under the dictatorship of Ne Win. These efforts seem to have been renewed every decade or so, later by the dictator Than Shwe and more recently under the directive of President Thein Sein. In 1982 a citizenship law was passed which basically rendered the majority of the Rohingya stateless, even though their ancestors have lived on the land for generations. The recent crackdown on the Rohingya which began in June 2012 was a very coordinated effort to clear the land, which in my opinion was with the primary intent to redevelop the area for new business and tourism opportunities. This intent was being disguised as a rise in racial hatred as a result of opening up to democracy and freedom of speech, but the reality is that the propaganda that is ramping up the tension and the monks who are preaching hatred are all sponsored by authorities, whilst the peaceful Buddhist voices that represent the true face of Buddhism are suppressed for political gain.
Q: I’ve noted that discrimination against the Burmese Muslims has been historically rampant in the Buddhist-majority country. As far back as 1550 AD, the Burmese king Bayintnaung banned Islamic ritual slaughter and thereby prohibited Muslims from consuming halal food. During the World War II, the Japanese forces raped, tortured and murdered literally “thousands” of Rohingya Muslims and there have been several instances of massacring them by the invading powers. What’s your viewpoint on the historical persecution of the Muslims in Burma? Does it point to religious intolerance in the country?
A: I think you can look back in the history of any country and find disgraceful acts of religious intolerance against minority religions and ethnicities, my own country, the UK, included. The persecution we see now in Myanmar is not just against Muslims but has been against other minorities elsewhere in the country too.
Certainly there is currently a fascist ideology to be found in the country that promotes pure Burmese Buddhist ethnicity as the superior race and this is being played on in the run up to the country’s elections which are due to take place in October-November of this year. The current military powers are promoting themselves as the party of stability and are utilizing the Muslims as scapegoats for all of the country’s problems, holding the Muslims up as a security risk so that people vote for status quo. The fascist ideology is a tool that is used to drill up the hatred and fear in order to control the public opinion. Actually we see these fear politics played out by right-wing parties in elections all around the world in order to win votes, but to a lesser extent since more developed societies are usually slightly more resistant to such fear and hate-mongering narratives.
Q: It’s said that Rohingya Muslims are the most persecuted minority in the world. Why doesn’t the United Nations take action to end their plight? They’re abused by smugglers and turned away from the countries they try to seek refugee status in, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Is their suffering going to carry on?
A: I have seen it debated as to whether the United Nations ever did actually say that the Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world and I looked for a reference but couldn’t actually find one. However, I think it is widely accepted that they are the most persecuted. I haven’t come across a more persecuted minority yet. The United Nations does not take action to end their plight because it is an organization that I suspect was established to be ineffective and to keep power in the hands of a few, who currently have no political interest to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya. The problem is that since Myanmar’s “move towards democracy” and the relaxation of international sanctions, there are currently many business opportunities in Myanmar as well as oil and gas exploration contracts up for tender, both on and off shore, some of them recently being awarded in 2014. A new oil and gas pipeline opened late 2014 to early 2015, which transports both Burmese and Middle Eastern oil and gas up to China, bypassing the Malacca Straits, which incidentally passes right through land, around which the Rohingya used to live. There’s hardly a country without an economic interest in Myanmar that is currently vying for favor with the Burmese regime, and add into the mix the power play between the West and China for influence over this strategically placed country, and you can easily understand why no nation wants to risk jeopardizing their opportunities by speaking out for an unwanted minority that seemingly holds no power or benefit themselves.
Q: Aung San Suu Kyi is a prominent political activist and the only Burmese citizen to have ever been awarded a Nobel Prize. Now that she has been freed from house arrest, it’s expected that she raises her voice in protest against the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims, but she seems to be reluctant to do so. What could be the reasons for her silence?
A: Aung San Suu Kyi was released not long before this current elimination attempt against the Rohingya began. Whilst she was doing her freedom world tour, the Rohingya were being burnt out of their homes. When activists tried to alert people to the fact that the Rohingya were undergoing a genocidal attack in Myanmar in June 2012, we were laughed at since everyone was watching Aung San Suu Kyi promoting a new Myanmar, and if she wasn’t saying anything, then for sure it wasn’t happening. It was a perfect PR campaign and I don’t think that was a coincidence – the Burmese regime were using Aung San Suu Kyi as their puppet to window-dress them as a reformed government so that sanctions would be dropped – and their strategy worked perfectly. However, those activists who had stood up for the human rights of Aung San Suu Kyi and held her up as some kind of idol were sorely disappointed when they started to realize that this was a lady with political ambitions far greater than any interest in human rights. She was therefore no Nelson Mandela.
She herself in an interview when questioned on her silence pointed out that she was not a human rights campaigner but a politician. She is silent because she thinks that if she speaks out for a hated minority, [she] will lose her public support. But increasingly her silence has made her look weak, since if she is going to compete on lines of intolerance, she will always lose to the current powers who can play the hatred card much better than she can. One does start to question, as time goes on and her double standards continue, as to whether deep inside she is also racially prejudiced.
Q: Some of the national laws and regulations that are being exercised over the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar sound to be basically racist and discriminatory. For instance, the Burmese women who want to marry a Muslim man should submit an application to the government. The other one stipulates that Muslim women can give birth to one child only once in three years. Don’t these laws represent a prejudiced attitude towards the Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese government that needed to be addressed by the int’l community?
A: These laws are policies of persecution designed to reduce the Rohingya population and drive the community out of the country. They have been documented in detail by the excellent organization Fortify Rights that focuses specifically on human rights issues in Myanmar. The international community is fully aware of these laws. They know that this is part of the Burmese government’s attempts to ethnically cleanse the country of the Rohingya, but there is no political will to take action since economic objectives always take priority.
Q: It’s on the reports that the Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh to be accommodated in refugee camps are not receiving sufficient support and there have been several cases of human rights abuses by the Bangladeshis in these camps. Why doesn’t the Bangladeshi government protect this ill-treated minority while they have no other shelter or source of sponsorship?
A: Bangladesh has many problems of poverty of its own. It already has over 350,000 Rohingya living in squalid camps near the Myanmar border and it doesn’t want to have to accommodate a further one million Rohingya that are at risk of fleeing Myanmar as the persecution increases. Their government fears that if they show any mercy towards the Rohingya to improve their condition, there will be a further influx of Rohingya leaving Myanmar for Bangladesh. In addition, Bangladesh has its own economic plans to redevelop some of the land on which the Rohingya are currently residing. One might think that if Bangladesh didn’t want to accommodate the refugees, they would at least speak out against the persecution by the Burmese government, but they remain silent as they have their business interests too, as is the case with the Thailand government on the other side of Myanmar. Neither countries want the refugees, but neither will criticize the Burmese government either. There is little humanity to be found in politics today.
Q: As a final question, do you see the determination in the international community to come to the help of the suppressed Rohingyas? It’s reported that already 300 Rohingya immigrants have been capsized in the sea this year while being taken to Malaysia and Bangladesh. President Obama has asked the Myanmar government to live up to its international obligations, but there seems to be no pressure on the government of Myanmar, including economic sanctions, to treat the Rohingya minority humanely. What’s your perspective on that?
A: On an international political level, there appears to be no will in coming to the help of this persecuted minority. However, on an individual level, I am seeing increasing numbers of politicians waking up to their consciences and speaking out. What all those countries who are investing in Myanmar should consider is that there is now a very high risk of a full-blown genocidal elimination attack taking place at any time as the hatred against the Rohingya reaches extreme levels. If this situation blows up, it could see a situation not dissimilar to that which we saw say in Rwanda – and then what would become of their precious business investments?
Genocide is not good for business, and if countries will not act for the sake of humanity, then they might at least consider acting to save their business investments instead. Genocide is already taking place, it is a process of persecution, starvation and deprivation that is killing people and driving them from the land, but the land is precious, and the people are not being eliminated fast enough to make way for new investments. It is no secret that in 2014, the Burmese government published a plan to round up all 1 million of the Rohingya into concentration camps – as they previously did with the 145,000 that are currently living in open air prisons. The international community did ask for the plans to be amended since this was not considered a suitable ‘solution’, but until now, there has been no alternative plan put forward. A lot may depend on what happens in the 2015 elections, but for sure the run-up to them will be a very dangerous time. It would therefore make a lot of sense for the UN to insist on an international peace keeping force to patrol the Rakhine state where the Rohingya live in order to ensure their protection, at least until after the elections have taken place, until the Rohingya have their protection ensured, and until the right of citizenship for the Rohingya be restored.
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari