I FIRST heard the word “Rohingya” at the Sedona Hotel in Yangon during my first visit to Burma way back in November 1997. I had left the judiciary a year before.
On an invitation by a university, I was placed as a member of the First Asean Business Mission to Myanmar. The English name was Burma but the SLORC, or The State Law and Order Restoration Council, changed it to Myanmar in 1989. The mission was organised by the Asean Business Forum. The mission leader was Datuk (now Tan Sri) Ajit Singh, the then secretary-general of Asean. My name was listed as a mission member at 07 in the programme.
While I was standing in the lobby of the hotel, a dark-skinned man approached me. He immediately told me he was a Muslim and a “Rohingya” from a village in Myanmar. Hurriedly, he said he was in some trouble and needed help. But before I could respond, a Chinese-looking man, clad in Burmese sarong (known as “longyi”) and white shirt, came forward and sort of manhandled the villager. The second man pushed the villager to another two men, who took him away. The Chinese-looking man, who identified himself as a security officer, explained to me that the villager had been causing ruckus in town and was of unsound mind. So, I left the incident at that.
Little did I know then of the plight of the Rohingyas and the dispute over that name. And I knew much less of the killings of Muslims in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine state. There was little news coverage and even when there was, such news had been brief. Readers with no background information would not understand, much less appreciate the significance.
I visited Myanmar several times since then and on each occasion, it was to meet friends who were either lawyers or bankers doing business in Yangon or a doctor friend. A Burmese gentleman I was introduced to said that the chief justice of Myanmar was a close relative. On my third visit, I met Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari, then head of IJN (National Heart Institute), attending a conference at Traders Hotel.
I also came across Brigadier-General D.O. Abel, who had retired from the junta and was a consultant. I believe he was the only non-Buddhist in the ruling clique. I remember him because I ate dinner at his beautiful home during my 1997 visit. He was then the minister for national planning and economic development. He helped me get a fair price in a gems shop when I wanted to buy a “pigeon-blood” ruby.
From this, one can understand that even those who visit Myanmar cannot realise the undercurrents of the Rohingyas/Muslim vs Buddhists in the country. The people appear to go about their business quietly and both citizens and residents alike seem to live in peace. What one may learn later is that the security was so strong that troubles are suppressed before they are expressed. And one can also come to know that many of the ethnic problems were and are in the states outside of Yangon.
In late 2000s, I started to write but only managed the title “Rohingyas Will See Their Worst Year Yet”. I was too busy relocating to my pondok in the north and did not complete that piece. I did learn, however, that along the Kedah/Perlis border, the town Karpan has many Myanmar (Burmese) and there is a Bukit Burma in Perlis. I shall come back to these places.
Rohingya: A licence to be killed?
I had wondered why a word describing a race or ethnic group is so repugnant to the Myanmar junta. Way back in 2009, Myanmar’s then consul in Hong Kong disseminated information to the press and embassies to dissuade the international community from giving aid to the Rohingyas. According to Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post, the Burmese diplomat showed his racist side by stating that the Rohingyas “are as ugly as ogres” and they were “unlike us, who have fair and soft skin”.
A military coup ended Burma’s democracy in 1962. Out went any official recognition of the Rohingyas. And in 1982, new citizenship laws left many of them stateless and forgotten. The government restricted their movements and denied them basic human rights. Can you imagine yourself becoming a citizen of no country when your family had remained in Burma for the past several hundred years? Thousands are placed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps which are not fit for humans. Why did Burma/Myanmar do this?
The junta decided that the Muslims in Rakhine state are “Bengalis”, which implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine state had felt that they were losing jobs to the Rohingyas. And they mounted a hate campaign. Added to this were the false stories fuelled by certain monks from Yangon. And by 2012, the uneasy relations not only crumpled but exploded. Thousands of Muslims, men, women, children and the aged were speared to death and burned. The police arrived in slow vehicles. They did not rush to rescue the helpless but looked on as if they were watching a cartoon movie. WorldViews reported in 2013 that more than “140,000 Rohingyas eke out squalid existence in ramshackle camps” with no water, no food, no clothes and no medical attention.
One sure quality of the Rohingyas was their steadfast belief in Allah and the afterlife plus kismet. They did not see any reason to arm and they did not prepare for such an impactful eventuality where their Buddhist neighbours suddenly turned on them. Their livelihood hitherto was just sufficient for their day-to-day living and they therefore had no inkling that they would be murdered. They did not organise any military preparations nor did they set up any centre to monitor dangers.
Myanmar must take into account the gentle nature of the Rohingyas. They do not copy the character of the ethnic minority rebels in Kachin state. The Myanmar military battled the Armed Wing (KIA) of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and lost several outposts. They had to resort to the use of air power. The KIO are supported by Christian churches and donations from outside Myanmar. They run secret channels to arm the KIA. The Muslims in Myanmar are not aided or sided by any Muslim or Islamic organisations secretly.
The Burmese accepted the Muslims who arrived hundreds of years ago and called them Karman. These were assimilated into Burmese society and got on cordially. But my guess is that the “fair skinned” Burmese, thanks to the British who had begun the collation of Indian Immigration census in 1939, saw an increase year on year. The Baxter Report on Burma noted that the Indian population “grew continuously in numbers and its rate of growth exceeded that of the population as a whole”. At that time, no Rohingya was recorded; only Indians. The term “Indian” comprised Hindus and Mohamedans (nowadays known as Muslims). This was the first alarm.
The second alarm could be the influx of “enemies” into Burmese territories for habitation purposes. This was during the Burma Campaign 1944-1945 when Burma sided with the Japanese and the Indians (including the people who later became Bangladeshis) fought for the Allies. During the battles, “tens of thousands of wretched Indian refugees were harassed and murdered by the Burmese population as they struggled to gain Indian soil” (per Michael Hickey). Major-General Orde C Wingate led the Chindit columns to retake parts of Burma. The “enemies” I refer to are the Indian soldiers who, after the war, decided to remain in Myanmar particularly in the areas they had fought for the Allies. Added to these were the other Indians, mostly Muslims, who entered Burma then. Naturally, the local Buddhists (who suffered the ignominious defeat by the Allies) could not take them as friends. And this animosity could have continued to this day.
President Thein Sein met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on July 11, 2012 and told him that “the Bengalis came to Myanmar prior to 1948 because the British colonialists invited them”. This helps corroborate my submission regarding the “enemies”.
Buddhist nationalists did not really fully appreciate that the Rohingyas contributed towards their commercial interests. And by God’s creature, a prominent monk called a UN official a “whore” for her comments in defence of the defenceless Rohingyas. Such words cannot be part of any religious leader.
And much to the surprise of the whole Buddhist priesthood in Burma, international Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama and those from several countries, had expressed their concern “about the growing ethnic violence and the targeting of Muslims in Rakhine state and across the country”. These foremost Buddhist leaders’ exhortation fell on deaf ears because one monk, Ashin Wirathu, defied them. Today, he is abbot in Mandalay Masoeyein monastery. He also claimed he is “Burmese ben Laden” when in actual fact he heads killer squads to eliminate Muslims. He leads an ultra-nationalist group billed as “969”. He was jailed from 2003 for inciting hatred and urging sectarian conflicts. When he was released in 2010, he started the “Kill All Rohingyas Muslims” campaigns with a vengeance and with renewed vigour. The Myanmar government has not stopped him and the military seems to abet if not look the other way.
Human Rights Watch stated in 2013 about Myanmar’s government and local authorities being complicit in the violence against the Rohingyas: “Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks organised and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorise and forcibly relocate the population”. Wirathu, who urged all Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops, justified the violence by saying that he had information the Muslims were planning to establish an Islamic state in Rakhine!
The murders were so gruesome that international independent reporters who witnessed at first hand have described these as “slow genocide” or ethnic cleansing. Among the reports are those from Reuters: “Myanmar gives official blessing to anti-Muslim monks” (in the War on the Rohingyas) and “The Buddhist War on Myanmar’s Muslims” regarding the Saffron vs Green (or understandably the Buddhist monks vs Islam).
One more Buddhist leader who instigates violence against the Rohingyas in Rakhine state is Dr Aye Maung, president of the Arakan National Party. He is known to hate the Rohingyas with a burning passion. According to Dr Azeem Ibrahim, international security lecturer in the United States, who is writing a book Rohingya: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, Dr Aye Maung is aiming to become chief minister of Rakhine state. Many believe his ambitions could trigger full scale genocide”.
I quote from the May 26-28, 2015 Oslo Conference to End Myanmar’s Persecution of the Rohingyas: “George Soros who escaped Nazi-occupied Hungary sees a parallel between his experience of life under the Nazis in 1944 and inhuman conditions for the Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, which he witnessed at first hand during a recent visit to the country”.
Part 1 in 2 NST
Part 2 of 2 (Whither reconciliation for Rohingyas?)