Rohingya: A misjudged case of extremism within the most persecuted people on earth

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Rohingya: A misjudged case of extremism within the most persecuted people on earth

We have failed as the international community in multiple deteriorating humanitarian disasters- most of them, man made. But, the most potent conundrum faced by mankind today is naturally an organic long drawn battle but with newer more complex threats arising to distort the balance of power. Similarly, some would argue the nature of the imminent threats that largely fall under the scope are humanitarian in nature. I argue there are two perspectives to the problem. In the case of the Rakhine crisis, for instance, a particular cluster of nations believe that the Rohingya minority in Myanmar is radicalised by militant units operating out of Al-Qaeda or ISIS institutions.  And they are proven to be aided by the uprisings and attacks that have a long standing history. The other cluster of nations take the problem to be entirely humanitarian with displaced persons and refugees creating the focal point for international response. There are a few devices or measures available to Myanmar and the international community at large that can somehow correlate the two conundrums that have different targets and motives. Both incurring a significant concern towards the most persecuted race on the planet.

According to the International Crisis Group report of December 2016, a mujahideen rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. After Pakistan rejected the rebels’ demand for annexing the northern parts of the Rakhine State to erstwhile East Pakistan. They sought ‘to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state.’ The mujahideen had attacked several Rakhine Buddhist establishments and quickly seizing control of large parts of the north, ousting numerous Buddhist villagers. Burmese army already facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, had little control over the state other than Sittwe. In 1954 the army launched Operation Monsoon, a massive operation in Rakhine State and captured most of the mujahideen strongholds alongside the borders with East Pakistan. The rebellion ended with the defeat of remaining groups by 1961- subsequently, a ceasefire was announced.

However, low level Rohingya extremism continued even after Army seized power in 1962. The army then carried out military operations to suppress support organisations for the distressed Rohingya populace. The non-Rohingya Rakhine inhabitants believed that most of the Rohingya are illegal migrants, assisted the army during the operations. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism in erstwhile East Pakistan triggered anti-Rohingya rhetoric among Buddhist majority in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine.

During General Ne Win’s military rule from 1962 to 1988, Myanmar went into following a policy of self-imposed isolationism, cutting off international participation turning Myanmar into one of the poorest ten countries. As the Guardian noted ‘his strategy was two-fold: to build up a monolithic system of government under the Burmese Socialist Programme party, while launching all out offensives against insurgent groups in the countryside. Foreigners were expelled, the economy nationalised and hundreds of political leaders imprisoned.” His government adopted a hardline stance towards the minorities prompting attempts to reform the mujahideen movement. 

After General Ne Win’s rule ended in 1988, public agitation spearheaded by a concerned, aware youth populace took to the streets demanding civilian rule. In order to pacify the protest, the army was coerced into holding the first-ever multiparty elections in 1991. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national icon Major General Aung San- who had led the National League for Democracy (NLD), campaigned for the full restoration of civilian rule, and as expected- swept the polls in a landslide victory.

In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment runs deep within its majority, with sizeable portions harbouring degrading views toward Islam and Islamists. The notion of Buddhist extremism may seem far-fetched and unrealistic but it is indeed very real. For example, several key religious figures such as Ashin Wirathu, a prominent Buddhist monk who has been described as the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ once stated that he wanted his fellow monks ‘to feel gross’ about Muslims in a manner ‘like they feel gross about human excrement.’ Given this societal backdrop, it’s easy to understand why Myanmar’s military has continued to relentlessly crack down against allegedly the world’s most vulnerable community.

Rohingya muslims, like several other marginalised groups, are frequently scapegoated. The Myanmar military justifies its crackdown with the need to combat a small Rohingya-led militant coalesce, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army(ARSA), which in recent months has launched a series of attacks on local military and police facilities in the Rakhine province to avenge the repression from Myanmar security forces. Most Rohingya muslims have little to do with this group but, the military, undaunted and perhaps empowered by the occasional media reports in Asia suggesting that Islamist terror groups such as the Al-Qaeda are trying to recruit from the radicalised Rohingya community, continues to exterminate and oppress the minority community in Rakhine provinces. 

The moderate half of the Rohingya muslims who were generally averse to violence, supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s struggle for restoration of democracy from 1991 onwards. During the rule of Thein Sein from 2011 to 2016, a number of structural reforms have been carried out. There was an improvement in human rights situation. The government restored media freedom, eased internet access and released most of the political prisoners. The government also constituted the State Human Rights Commission. However, on the flip side, during this period Buddhist extremist elements became more active against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya in Rakhine State, under the dormant protection of law enforcing agencies controlled by the army itself.

The latest violence began August 25, 2017 when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was on a two-day visit to Myanmar, have both blamed the Rohingya violence on extremist groups. The Rohingya military group ARSA perpetrated deadly massacres and abductions of the Hindu community in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, a new report by Amnesty International later revealed how around a hundred Hindu men, women and children were killed by ARSA militants armed with makeshift weaponry such as knives, swords and sticks. Only those who agreed to convert to Islam were spared.

They burned down 50 houses after clashing with the security forces in Aukpyuma village and set ablaze to around 120 houses in Ountaw village.

More than 90 houses in Dingar, Sawkeenama and Hontarya were also destroyed as it were set ablaze by explosives while in Thinbawgwe village, these militants burned down over 400 houses. The extremists launched renewed attacks on 30 police posts in northern Rakhine killing more than 13 security forces personnel. Reports also suggest that around 15 civilians including seven Hindu and five Daingnet ethnic people were also killed while fleeing the attacks. Over 38,000 Muslims from Rakhine state have reportedly fled to the Bangladesh border. There has been a significant displacement of local populations following serious allegations of human rights abuses, including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians.The genocide-like persecution of the Rohingyas continues to put Bangladesh in a strenuous geostrategic position. While Bangladesh has welcomed the refugees, it is also a poor country with limited resources. 

While the ARSA has links to both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, there is no valid proof that the entity has any links to an al Qaeda faction or the Islamic State (ISIS) or, that it has been incorporated into larger transnational Islamist extremist networks. It is a small group whose main grievance– persecution of Rohingya Muslims that can be resolved relatively by ending widespread discrimination against the minorities. While meeting ARSA’s demands of citizenship and political equality will expose Myanmar’s poor governance, especially in the Rakhine province, it is likely to eliminate the crux of violence in the area. The demonization of this Muslim minority as ‘extremists’ has proved effective for nationalist politicians within Myanmar’s Buddhist majority- with adverse side-effects of actually inciting certain extremist units take advantage and recruit a few militants from the already radical Islamists, from among the Rohingya who the entire world considers a refugee. 

Secondly, the Rohingya muslims are becoming a propaganda mechanism as a mere regional political tool that continues to be used in order to justify a series of predatory counterterrorism narratives throughout MyanmarBangladesh, and a few instances in India. In February 2018, more than 671,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh causing a human rights crisis of global proportions. An Amnesty International report, citing satellite images, said 350 Rohingya villages were completely destroyed and the military was building bases where some of the Rohingya homes and mosques once stood. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Mahmood Ali called it a ‘genocide’ waged by Myanmarese troops, while UN Human Rights Commissioner called it ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in addition to the refugees in Bangladesh, around 120,000 internally displaced persons, mainly Rohingya, driven from their homes by inter-communal violence were now in their sixth year of confined encampment.

It’s only necessary that the international community gets its priorities straightened. The involved nations must not be misguided by extremist attempts but offer protection to the Rohingya muslims, as a whole. Ofcourse, only after thorough documentation. However, since almost 250,000 refugeee have already fled to neighbouring nations, mostly to Bangladesh, the onus of compliance lies with the concerned nations themselves and the international community can do very little apart from offering prayers and petitions trying to mediate a resolution while both the nations try to maintain their own balance of power in the region by diplomatically strong arming each other. In the past, Myanmar and Bangladesh had bilaterally handled the Rohingya issue, making pragmatic compromises. However, the results were temporary as Myanmar never addressed the core issue of Rohingya citizenship status.  However, after Rohingya refugees figures have increased to a near million only in Bangladesh in 2017, it placed a heavy economic and administrative burden on Bangladesh threatening their territorial securitisation policy. The plight of Rohingya refugees in such large numbers triggered international concerns. The rise of democracy in Myanmar 2011 onwards, saw it becoming the focus of a regional power-play involving China, India and the western bloc led by the United States of America. The growth of Islamist terrorist groups in South Asia and their efforts to take advantage of the plight of the Rohingya muslims has added yet another international security dimension to the issue.

UN intervened in Myanmar to facilitate the repatriation of 250,000 Rohingya muslims who fled to Bangladesh as refugees when army carried out ‘Operation Dragon King’ in Northern Arakan in 1978. Thanks to the intervention about 125,000 refugees were repatriated back to Myanmar. Similarly, UN intervened again in 1989 after about 250,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh when army launched an operation in Rakhine. According to the Arakan Project, Rohingya muslims population estimates in various countries are: Myanmar-484,000, Bangladesh-947,000 (including those who migrated since August 2017), India 40,000, Indonesia-1000, Malaysia-150,000, Pakistan-350,000, Saudi Arabia-500,000, Thailand-5000 and UAE-50,000. 

Aung San Suu Kyi should be encouraged to draw up three-tiered plans to ensure cohension, inclusion and proper integration of the Rohingya minorities within the mainstream communities in Rakhine provinces. The government will have to systematically carryout a nation-wide integration campaign in schools and work places to create better understanding between Buddhist Bamar community and Muslims as a whole. Only then the government structural and systemic reforms both in the constitution and governance would become meaningful to yield long term results to usher in permanent peace. However, until Aung San Suu Kyi manages to gathers enough confidence among the common masses and the political parties to amend the constitution she will continue to be compelled to make compromises on the Rohingya issue. In the short term, the international community must ensure that Bangladesh is provided all assistance and resources to look after nearly a million Rohingya refugees. It should also assist Bangladesh in preventing spread of extremism among Rohingya refugees as it majorly obstructs any democratic process that can be drawn up to sustain the politics of the region. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar should be encouraged to continue their bilateral interactions to evolve and implement a time-bound plan for systematic repatriation of refugees. Political and diplomatic intervention and development assistance by India, China and ASEAN can help this process to progress. They can also use their influence to ensure Myanmar creates suitable conditions for their resettlement.

Yesterday’s news highlighted Myanmar’s willingness to accept the Rohingya refugees back through a relocation process and it was consequently applauded by the United Nations. It is only first step towards any long term resolution. We can only hope for the better and prepare for the worst.

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