The Reluctant Rohingyas

The Rohingyas are around a million Bengali-speaking people who used to live in Rakhine state in Burma – until late last year. Then the Burmese army attacked them, claiming they were illegal immigrants. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands were raped, their villages were burned – and at least 700,000 of them are now in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has described these Burmese actions as ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, but the Burmese army denies any wrong-doing. So does its civilian political partner, ‘Special Counsellor’ Aung San Suu Kyi. (Remember her? She used to be a secular saint.)

Bangladesh doesn’t want all these refugees, most of whom have no ties with the country although they speak Bengali, so last month it made a deal with Burma to send them back. But Burma doesn’t really want them back either. If it did, why would it have bothered to drive them out in the first place?

The United Nations has no part in this great ‘repatriation’, nor any of the NGOs either. It was a private deal between Bangladesh and Burma, and the Burmese army knew perfectly well that the refugees would be too terrified to go back. Agreeing to take them back just made the generals who planned the atrocity look a little less vile.

The Bangladeshi authorities fell for it, and chose 2,200 Rohingya refugees to go back in the first contingent. The Rohingyas weren’t fooled, and most of them immediately went into hiding, changing camps or fleeing into the woods.

A loudspeaker truck went around the sprawling Unchiprang camp near Cox’s Bazar last week imploring the ‘approved’ refugees to come out. “We have six buses here. We have trucks. We have food. We want to offer everything to you.” But nobody stepped forward, and the crowd chanted “We won’t go.”

The Rohingya won’t go back because they are quite understandably afraid for their lives. It wasn’t just the army but their own non-Muslim neighbours who turned on them and took part in the slaughter. If you are recalling images of the massacres and expulsions of Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, you are absolutely right. It’s happening again, and again nobody is doing anything effective to stop it.

How did it come to this? All the South-East Asian countries contain minority groups, but Burma takes it to extremes. Bamars (ethnic ‘Burmese’) account for two-thirds of the population, but there are eight other recognised ethnic groups, most with their own language or languages. And there are the Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship by Burma’s military dictatorship in 1982.

Why them? They were only 2 percent of Burma’s population, they were a minority even in Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) where they almost all lived, and they never did any harm to the majority. They are, however, Muslims, and the Buddhist majority in Burma is paranoid about Muslims.

It goes back a long way. Buddhism once dominated Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Indonesia, but it has been in retreat for a long time. First Hinduism made a comeback in India, and then Arab conquerors brought Islam to north-western India.

Islamised Central Asian conquerors spread Islam as far east as Bengal, and finally Malay traders carried it throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The only Buddhist-majority countries left in Asia today are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Burmese Buddhists should feel their faith is jeopardised by the presence of even a single million Muslims – especially if rabble-rousing Buddhist monks advance their careers by preaching fear and hatred.

It’s also utterly irrational and reprehensible. The Rohingya are just as Burmese, in the broader sense, as any of the recognised minorities. The first Bengali-speaking Muslims arrived in Rakhine state in the 15th century as soldiers helping an exiled king regain his throne. The last significant wave of immigration was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s now the 21st century, and there is no excuse for what the Burmese army has done: to understand all is NOT to forgive all. Neither is there any excuse for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, she was trying to preserve a hard-won democratic opening that might close if she openly criticised the army. Moreover, the average Burmese heartily approves of what the army has done. (Shades of Serbia again.) But she is condoning and covering up a genocide. Shame on her.

So will they take her Nobel Prize away? Well, no, because it doesn’t matter what she does after she gets it, and she got it in 1991. As Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said last year, the Prize “is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement OF THE PAST.” Once you get it, you can commit any crime you want.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“A loudspeaker…go”; and “So…want”