Politics of religious animosity: Imtiaz Alam

Politics of religious animosity“When even suffering is ignored, there will be seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades, embitters and enrages” said Aung San Suu Kyi – rightly so – in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

And that is what has been happening right before her eyes under a dominating military junta against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Instead of blaming her – though she is partially responsible as well for her timidity – the world should have targeted the real culprits behind the ethno-religious cleansing and military-led genocide of the Muslim minority: the fascist Myanmar Army Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing who exclusively controls the internal and external security policies and powerful security apparatuses over and above a besieged and relatively powerless civilian government.

The history of persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Chin, Mon and others, is as long as the brutal domination of a military junta which ruled for over fifty years. Their plight is further reinforced by the Chinese and Indian interests and rivalries. A transnational pipeline had been built connecting Rakhine with Kunming, China, and a deep-sea port was built in the same state by India connecting Mizoram state with the Bay of Bengal.

The disenfranchisement and annulment of the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims was the result of the 1982 Citizen Law that was premised on their exclusion from the population census. For its prolonged rule and expropriation of vast mineral and other natural resources, the military junta has been forcefully displacing large sections of population from various minority ethnic groups who have been fighting the expropriation of natives’ resources by successive military regimes. Successive military juntas in Myanmar took ideological refuge behind Burmese Buddhist nationalism/fascism for the self-aggrandisement of the sprawling garrison and to suppress the forces of democracy and indigenous minorities.

Such is the racist discrimination against the Rohingya that the Burmese Buddhist nationalists term them as alien Bengalis not recognised by Bangladesh as such. The Rohingya are Indo-Aryan people, like most of us in the Subcontinent, with roots beyond the 8th century, and are also called Arakanese Indians. They have been a victim of various Burmese dynasties and colonialists who have been using them as slave labourers. The word Rohang is derived from ‘Arakan’ and they call their homeland Rohingaw – the former name of the Rakhine state. They are concentrated in the Maungdaw district bordering Bangladesh, which is separated by a river. They sided with the British imperialists against the Japanese fascists in World War-II, like Netaji Subhash Chandar Bose in India; the Japanese were supported by the Burmese Buddhists to get freedom from British colonialism.

In the post-Independence period, the Rohingya continued their struggle for autonomy or secession. During 1947-61, the Rohingya mujahideen wanted autonomy for the Mayu Peninsula in Northern Arakan or to secede to the then East Pakistan. Faced with the democratic resistance of the Bengali majority, the military junta headed by the then F M Ayub Khan didn’t respond to their calls; rather, successive military dictators in Pakistan built affinity with their fellow Burmese military juntas. The isolated Rohingya resistance intermittently faced military suppressions in 1978, 1992, 2012, 2015, 2016 and now a mass eviction and fascist cleansing in 2017. It is Bangladesh – which we continue to ostracise despite our crimes against its people – that is providing refuge to over 450,000 Rohingya refugees.

Before the latest racist cleansing, burning of Muslim localities and killing of hundreds of innocent people, the popularly elected State Counsellor Suu Kyi, after two decades of incarceration and sweeping the last elections, had appointed an Advisory Commission on the Rakhine state on September 5, 2016 under former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to settle the ethno-religious imbroglio. Yet another commission was formed after the brutal attacks on the Rohingya in the Maugdaw district. Both the interim and final reports ensuring civil and human rights to the Rohingya were submitted to Suu Kyi’s office and she on August 23, 2017 formed a high-powered inter-ministerial committee for the implementation of the Annan-led commission’s recommendations with immediate effect, despite the rejection by the Gen Min Aung Hlaing who in a military junta-written constitution has absolute sway over home and security ministries; and one-fourth of seats are reserved for serving military officers in parliament.

Suu Kyi, due to a popular support-base among the Buddhist majority, was under great pressure from the Buddhist nationalists and extremists, as well as opposition from a powerful army. The pressure came from both the army and the Buddhist extremists and from among her Buddhist followers who suffer from a majoritarian ethnic chauvinism like the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists in Sri Lanka. As a result, she earned the ire of her admirers across the world. Malala Yousufzai and another Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu, had to speak against her initial silence as the price was “too steep” for accession to highest office. Yet she formed the Annan-led commission and decided to implement its recommendations.

But on August 25 – two days after the implementation of the commission’s recommendations – 150 members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), known as the Harakah al-Yaqin, simultaneously attacked 30 police stations and a Light Infantry Battalion Base in the Rakhine state – resulting in the death of 71 people, including 12 security personnel. This provocative violent act subverted the Suu Kyi-led political solution and facilitated the military junta to go for the final military kill which then resulted in unprecedented casualties and a mass exodus of the Rohingya. The leader of ARSA, Ataullah Abu Ammar Janooni, was born to a Rohingya refugee family in Karachi and grew up and was educated in Saudi Arabia; some of its other leaders are Saudi emigrés. It is said that these militants were trained in the camps of various terrorist outfits.

While the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the international community reacted very sharply against the atrocities, we in the Muslim world showed our usual disgust for Western apathy; and sectarian rivals competed in rhetoric to compensate for their hypocrisy. As this human tragedy ignited a mass reaction among the Muslim populations, religious extremists have exploited their sentiments to promote their own terrorist agendas. Banned extremist outfits, including the Taliban and Daesh, have become super active to raise funds and recruit volunteers to wage jihad in South East Asia after the demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In a call for jihad, a leader of banned the JeM has – under his pen-name Saadi – written in the weekly magazine, ‘Al-Kalam’: “Myanmar’s soil is essentially waiting for the thundering sounds of the footsteps of the sacred conquerors”.

As human beings and champions of civil and human rights, we must condemn the fascism of a section of a majority community in Myanmar against a minority, the Rohingya, and demand their safe return to Rakhine with equal rights as citizens. We must also look into our own discrimination and fascism against our religious and ethnic minorities, while not allowing religious extremists and terrorists to exploit the plight of the persecuted Rohingya for their own designs. Let us remind ourselves of an IS flag raised in Islamabad as well as Daesh’s desperate forays into South East Asia.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA