India had good reason to try and block the United Nations human rights council from sending a mission to Myanmar to examine the Rohingya situation against the wishes of the State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps the reasons were as much personal as political for
Ms Suu Kyi studied in India when her mother Khin Kyi was Burma’s (as the country was then called) ambassador, graduating from Delhi University in 1964. The relationship goes back much earlier: her father Aung San, was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru’s and one of the brains behind the 1947 Asian Relations Conference.
The Rohingya crisis is a major personal challenge for the heroically brave Ms Suu Kyi whose NLD has completed a year in office. India’s concern isn’t only on personal grounds. It was evident in 1992, before Ms Suu Kyi became a government leader, when India refrained from following Malaysia in protesting to Yangon’s military rulers against what the UN says can be termed “crimes against humanity”. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew long ago articulated the need for circumspection by telling the Americans that he could support their campaign to bring down the military regime through sanctions only if they were there to pick up the pieces afterwards. The havoc that succeeded “regime change” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya is a warning that if North Korea is the next victim of the campaign for democracy, the chaos will engulf South Korea as well. China will probably emerge as the only beneficiary.
However, Ms Suu Kyi must give serious thought to how the situation impacts Myanmar’s global standing as well as on her own integrity. Despite the need to tread carefully, there is no denying that the Rohingyas have suffered – and are suffering – dreadfully and deserve the world’s sympathy and support. With her Oxford degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Ms Suu Kyi must know that the government’s official stance that the Rohingyas are mainly illegal immigrants who moved into Arakan (now Rakhine state) following Burmese independence in 1948 or after the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 is not entirely correct. Historians see them as a mixture of pre-colonial (mostly since the 15th century) and colonial migrants who have intermarried with native Myanmarese and become indigenous to the coastal state.
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country with 135 officially recognised ethnic communities grouped into eight “major national ethnic races”— Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. The refusal to include Rohingyas in the list, smacking of Hitler’s rejection of Germany’s Jews, can only be attributed to historical friction with British India and the fact that the community is neither Buddhist nor of Mongoloid origin.
The term “Rohingya”— then spelt Rooinga — first appeared in 1799 in an article about a language spoken by Muslims claiming to be natives of Arakan. After the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 when the British annexed Arakan, they encouraged Muslim migrants from east Bengal to work as farm labourers. Muslims may have constituted 5 per cent of Arakan’s population by 1869. The British censuses of 1872 and 1911 recorded an increase in the Muslim population of Akyab district (where Sittwe port is located) from 58,255 to 178,647. The Arakan massacres of 1942 involved communal violence between the British army’s Rohingya recruits for guerrilla operations during the Second World War and native Buddhist Rakhine people, increasingly polarising the region along ethnic identities.
When Burma became independent in 1948, the separatist mujahideen rebellion was a protest against discrimination by the Buddhist-dominated administration. It lingered on into the 1960s, along with the Arakanese Independence Movement of Rakhine Buddhists. The rebellion left an enduring trail of mistrust and hostilities between Muslims and Buddhists. The Burmese nationality law, which General Ne Win passed in 1982, 20 years after overthrowing U Nu’s democratically elected government and establishing a military dictatorship, denied the Rohingyas citizenship, making most of the community stateless.
There were between 1.1 and 1.3 million Rohingyas before the crises and crackdowns of 2015, 2016 and 2017. They lived mainly in the northern Rakhine townships, where they formed between 80 per cent and 98 per cent of the population. Many Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, distant Karachi in Pakistan, and even to Jammu and Kashmir. More than 100,000 languish in Myanmar’s camps for internally displaced persons, virtual prisoners of the authorities who will not allow them to leave. UN investigators claim to have found evidence of increasing incitement of hatred against Rohingyas by “ultra-nationalist Buddhists” who preach religious intolerance. The Burmese security forces are accused of conducting “summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment and forced labour”. Rape, pillage, infanticide, murder and the refusal to let development aid reach the Rohingyas are said to be common instruments of official policy. Last October’s Rohingya uprising that killed nine policemen provoked severe reprisals by the army. It prompted an open letter to the UN Security Council by 23 activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai and more than a dozen fellow Nobel Laureates, warning that the army offensive “amount(s) to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
Ms Suu Kyi has tried to defuse the crisis by setting up an advisory commission on Rakhine state under the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, with six local and three international experts, to propose measures to promote communal harmony. Its report has not yet been presented. But addressing ASEAN foreign ministers last December, she asked for “time and space for the government’s efforts to bear fruit.” No one knows what these efforts amount to. And she denies any ethnic cleansing.
Transparency and candour are immediate needs if Ms Suu Kyi’s personal reputation is not to suffer. True, her power is limited. The military controls 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and holds the crucial home, defence and border security portfolios. True also, public opinion, fanned by the Buddhist clergy, is against concessions to the Rohingyas. But Ms Suu Kyi is minister of the president’s office apart from holding the foreign affairs, electric power, energy, and education portfolios. Her NLD won 81 per cent of the seats in 1990. There is no doubt regarding her high international reputation. Nor of the valour of a woman who remained under house arrest for nearly 15 years, sacrificing her marriage and family life. She knows China will back the military in any showdown. India’s policy of “constructive engagement,” citing I.K. Gujral as prime minister, limits New Delhi’s options. Nevertheless, she should not baulk at making at least a token acknowledgement of the need for justice to all communities and internal reconciliation if Myanmar it is to be accepted as a respectable member of the comity of nations.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.