By Ameer Ali –
The Rohingya Muslim issue in Myanmar has been brewing for some time, at least since the 1990s when a Buddhist monk and a functionary in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Kyaw Lwin, laid the ideological groundwork for the birth of the 969 Buddhist sectarian nationalist movement. There are ominous signs that a second Marawi may open up in Myanmar which may even turn into another Kashmir if Bangladesh gets actively involved in training Rohingya fighters.
The 969 movement with its three digits representing respectively the nine special attributes of Lord Buddha, six special attributes of his Dhamma and nine special attributes of Buddhist Sangha is an aggressively chauvinistic religious cult that is determined to cleanse Myanmar of all its so called ‘aliens’. The Rohingya community of nearly one million souls whose contested ancestry in Myanmar goes back to at least the 18th century if not earlier, and are living mostly in the Arakan province, has become, after the 1982 Citizenship Law, one of those ‘aliens’ and of ‘impure bloods’ as reiterated by the country’s former head of state Senior General Than Shwe.
It was the 969 movement in 2012 under the leadership of another monk Ashin Wirathu, who the Time magazine described as “the face of Buddhist terror”, that was responsible for instigating its followers to set upon the Rohingya Muslims and forced 140,000 of them into squalid refugee camps. There was absolutely no reaction from world leaders at that time.
Now at last, in the wake of a series of recent horrible massacres, arson attacks, rape and forced evacuation unleashed on the Rohingyas the world media is focusing its lens on this persecuted minority and the UN as usual is sitting down just to condemn the violence and calling for restraint from the regime. The UN has lately described the violence as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Yet, it is too little and may even be too late.
What is new about this issue now is the active entry of Bangladesh into the foray, not in support of the Rohingyas but to prevent the refugees crossing its narrow 64 km border with Myanmar. Once again the television is full of pictures showing the agony of hundreds of thousands of poor, thirsty and starving men, women and children sheltering under trees and begging for drinking water and food. Now they are cramping under tents. Human rights activists and NGOs can play their part in satisfying at least some of the immediate needs of the refugees, but a long term solution to the problem has to come from the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh. What are the prospects?
Myanmar under the present military backed regime has no sympathy for the Rohingyas. The have been disenfranchised once and for all and been declared as immigrants and illegal occupants. Even Aung San Suu Kyi the so called Nobel Laureate has so continued to dodge answering directly all questions put to her by journalists and others about her sympathies or otherwise towards the Rohingya minority. By blaming the violence on terrorists, the usual answer from a politician who does not want to face facts on the ground, she has proved that she is trying to safeguard her own future from the wrath of the military. While she remains gutless the regime will stigmatise, harass, isolate, weaken and eventually annihilate this minority to complete a program of genocide in stages unless some third force like the UN intervenes quickly to stop it.
Bangladesh is already erecting military observation posts along the border to prevent refuges crossing into its territory. According to Bangladesh government sources there are already 400,000 Myanmar nationals causing “massive social, economic and environmental problems”. At the same time the Myanmar regime is also land mining the border ostensibly to prevent the refugees from entering Bangladesh. There may be another more genuine reason for this as I show below.
The danger is that Bangladesh is also the home for hundreds of thousands jihadists and radical Islamists who will consider it their religious duty to defend the interests of fellow Muslims in Myanmar. Since some sections of the Rohingya community are already arming themselves to defend against Buddhist violence the jihadists would be willing to join them in a holy war. Lately al-Qaida also has declared its intentions to enter the arena. Also, with the collapse of ISIS in Syria those fighters will look for other battle grounds to carry on with their jiihad. Myanmar in mining the border areas is taking precaution to stop the flow of jihadists.
It is also possible that the opposition parties in Bangladesh would pressure the government to lend support to the Rohingya fighters at least by training them militarily and equipping them with up-to-date weapons. This will be a replica of Marawi, the current zone of jihad in the Philippines. The worst scenario is for Bangladesh to annex the province of Arakan, which tantamount to an open declaration of war with Myanmar and a recreation of another Kahmir. Only timely action by world leaders can stop these outcomes becoming reality even by default.
Lending humanitarian assistance to victims, though necessary, is not enough to solve the problem. It requires decisive action in tackling the root of the problem. However, the tragedy that the world faces at the moment is this: whenever minorities suffer persecution at the hands of the majority with government support the former’s interests do not receive serious attention at world fora because of the clash of national interests. Countries that hold the trump cards in these fora have economic and strategic ties with the Myanmar regime. It is the negative consequences of jeopardising those ties that dilute and weaken their resolve to tackle the root causes. This is how preventable and controllable disturbances in their initial stages escalate into open wars when decisive actions are delayed. The Sri Lankan civil war is a classic illustration of this tragedy. The Rohingya issue which affects the national interest of Bangladesh bears all the signs of escalating into an undeclared and covert war.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University