I have been reluctant to write about Burma (Myanmar) and what is happening to Muslims there. Many readers have told me that I should. My answer was always that I needed to know more before I could give my opinion. I then started following what was being written and said in the international media, like NPR radio and BBC, and here in Saudi Gazette. I found particularly useful the articles of Tariq Almaeena and Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdy. I also read the responses of the Burmese readers of this paper.
According to Dr. Al-Ghamdy (a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs), Arakan (Rakhine) province of today’s Burma was an independent kingdom for much of its history. “A vast region stretching from western Burma to the Bengal region, Arakan was weakened when war broke out with the Mughal rulers in India, especially when it lost the Chittagong region to the Mughals. The region’s weaker position and instability led to its annexation to the Burmese state.”
The British invaded and controlled the state, but after the end of World War II, they granted the state its independence, in 1948. The Arakan people demanded their own independence. They did not accept the “self rule” awarded to them by the Socialist government under General Ne Win in 1974. Arakan Muslim “mujahideen” led an armed rebellion to create an Islamic state. However, they were a minority among the people of the region, who belonged to various sections of the pluralist Burmese society.
In retaliation, Muslims found their nationality abrogated and the majority Buddhists taking repressive measures against them with government support. Since the 1960s, they have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, and many have been driven to neighboring Bangladesh, where they live in refugee camps. Others fled to neighboring Thailand, and to Saudi Arabia. More followed, as frequent massacres continued.
This year on June 3, according to Wikipedia, “11 innocent Muslims were killed by the Burmese Army and Buddhist mobs after bringing them down from a bus. A vehement protest was carried out in the Muslim majority province of Arakan, but those protesting fell victim to the tyranny of the mobs and the army. More than 50 people were reported killed and millions of homes destroyed in fires as Muslim-ethnic Rohingya and Buddhist-ethnic Arakanese clashed in western Burma.”
Under intense economic and security pressure, the Bangladesh government decided to close its borders. World relief agencies, as well as UN and Islamic leaders and organizations, tried to convince them to reconsider, promising more aid and support. Among these were the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Asian Human Rights Commission.
However, with over half a million refugees already there, Bangladesh argued that the pressure should be on the Burmese government to stop the massacres and take back its own people. Allowing more refugees to enter Bangladesh, they pointed out, might create a misunderstanding in Myanmar.
To me, what is happening to the Rohingyas is similar to events in the Muslim south of the Philippines, Eastern China, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo. In all these lands, Muslim states were overtaken by larger non-Muslim nations. When they sought independence, they were suppressed by the stronger majority. Massacres and deprivation of essential and national human rights led to genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The world stood watching while Russian, Serbian, Chinese and Filipino forces and militias exercised their “Final Solution” to the “Muslim Problem.” In Europe, they finally woke up as a result of coverage by the global media and public opinion pressure. Thanks to strong US leadership, the holocaust was finally put to an end, and Muslims were allowed to have their own states and live in peace.
Not so in Burma. Western media presence has been weak. UN focus has been even weaker. The US, the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as the Muslim world, seem to have left the massive task of resolving the issue to nongovernmental organizations and charities.
The Burmese government finally decided to interfere and sent the army and security forces to control the violence and to attempt to convince the refugees who escaped to neighboring provinces to return home. Fearing political interference, the military rulers allowed international help, albeit reluctantly, selectively and gradually. And the opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi finally spoke out.
Acknowledging that she might lose much of her popularity at home, she denounced the crimes committed against unnamed local communities. In her first statement to parliament, she called for laws to protect minority rights. “The majority of the people in a society should have sympathy for the minority,” she said. Some of her international fans expected her to take a stronger stand, but one should consider that she has to deal with the military junta ruling the country, and to consider her majority Buddhist constituency. There is an urgent need for immediate solutions, but in the long run much more is required. Burmese refugees in Bangladesh, and elsewhere, must be allowed to return home. Self rule should be given to Muslims in their own state. Help and guarantees from the Burmese government and international community must be granted to the the people in the affected areas of the country in support of resettlement and rebuilding efforts. After all that the world has gone through in the last century, we cannot afford to ignore genocides and holocausts.
— Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at: Kbatarfi@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @Kbatarfi