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National contestation, not religion, responsible for the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingyas: Ayesha Siddiqa

August 5, 2012

Guest post by AYESHA SIDDIQA

This photo is a screenshot of a Facebook page that incorrectly shows the self-immolation of a Tibetan activist in Delhi as an image of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. This is one of countless such images circulated in social media. Image credit: Express Tribune, Pakistan.

These days, the social media is abuzz with discussion on Myanmar. Interestingly, it is not even a constructive discussion but one which is meant for point scoring. The nature of the discourse has complicated the issue even more and thus calls for at least a couple of articles: one on the issue and another one meant to be an analysis of the situation of Burmese Muslims. It is important at this stage to disentangle the two dimensions to make sense of what is actually happening.

Scanning through some of the material on the issue in social media, it doesn’t take long to realise that the entire debate is not really about Burma but about the social divide in Pakistan. There seems to be a contest between those trying to frame this as a clash of civilisations problem versus others, who believe the emphasis is on an Islamists conspiracy. In social media language, this is a battle between liberal-fascists and the fundos.

Starting with the latter, the argument is: why the emphasis on the Burmese question when Pakistan has its own minority rights problems to deal with. The neo-nationalist-Islamists in the country are less eager to denounce the killings of Ahmadis, Shiites, Christians and Hindus. Such a proposition is unjustified since there is no bar on the number of injustices that an individual or a country can decry. The persecution of the Burmese Muslims is as serious an offence as any other. Hence, the argument made by both sides is lame — violence in Burma cannot be protested until internal issues are sorted out or that domestic acts of injustice cannot be protested until people have the moral authority of having protested the Burmese issue first. However, flagging an issue and protesting injustice must not be based on an obvious manipulation of facts as it raises pertinent questions about the actual intent. Indubitably, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are in trouble but this does not justify a campaign in Pakistan based on doctored photographs. Some of the photos showing Buddhist monks overseeing hundreds of dead bodies are actually fake. This does not reduce the intensity of the problem or negate the fact that the mixture of religion with state politics anywhere in the world makes a lethal potion used by the powerful to manipulate and persecute.

However, it is not certain if those flagging the issue are really seriously concerned about the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, which represent one of the four groups of Muslims in Myanmar and have been in trouble since the 1940s. The real problem between this religious-ethnic group and the military-political leadership in Myanmar is not based on religion but national contestation as the Rohingyas have never really accepted being part of Myanmar and vice versa. In fact, in 1947, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had discouraged them from harbouring any secessionist ideas and instead advised them to sort out matters with their state.

Although successive governments in Pakistan claim to have stuck with Jinnah’s advice, Burma accused Islamabad of fuelling insurgency during the 1950s. Despite trying to improve relations by signing of a friendship treaty in 1952, which probably led to the arrest in 1954 by Pakistan of the head of the Mujahid Movement of Burma, relations didn’t improve substantially.

The neo-Islamists today like to imagine that Islamabad must threaten Rangoon with direct intervention in support of the Rohingyas like Field Marshal Ayub Khan did during the 1960s. However, Ayub’s stance had nothing to do with religion but about Burmese refugees crossing into East Pakistan. After 1971, Islamabad lost most of its interest in the fate of Burmese Muslims and Burma. Nor did the civil society ever protest the fate of these people. The neo-Islamists, whom I would define as people with a desire to use religion for geopolitical ambitions, have tried to use the religious identity brush for gaining legitimacy in Pakistan and Burma rather than seriously addressing the problems of Rohingya persecution. In Pakistan, it gets them applause without people realising that stopping persecution was never the intent because if that was the case, then the neo-Islamists would have also condemned the alleged victimisation of the Rohingya refugees by Bangladesh in 2010. In Burma, such a campaign helps build inroads for groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba that have reportedly developed limited links with some religious militants.

However, it is important to maintain that the Rohingya issue is essentially a non-religious crisis of serious magnitude. Sacrificing these people further at the altar of a clash of civilisations will certainly be criminal.

The problem of the Burmese Muslim that people in Pakistan seem to have woken up to is a historic issue, pertaining mainly to the Rohingya Muslims from the Arakan state in Myanmar, an area that borders the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. This is one of the four Muslim groups in the country. The other three — two groups of Burmese Muslims and Chinese Panthay — are better integrated with the Buddhist majority. The Rohingyas, which are the largest and the most persecuted of the approximately two million Muslims (five to six per cent of total population), are also the most troubled. Some of the Rohingyas claim their ancestry to the Arab merchants that came and stayed on during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. But the majority of the people were actually migrants from East Bengal after the British colonial takeover in 1886 that continued until 1948, when Burma became independent. There are three dimensions of the current ethnic problem in Myanmar: its historic nature, internal politics, and the peculiar internationalisation of the issue.

Although the Burmese state recognised Islam and Christianity as two religious cultures existing in the country, the nature of the state and society began to change due to communist influence and militarisation of the state after 1958. This is also the time when in 1961, Buddhism was declared the state religion, followed in 1962 by the establishment of the socialist party as the single party in the country. Clearly, the military-controlled state wanted greater unification, an idea that was constantly challenged by the presence of minority groups and assertiveness of the Rohingyas, who wanted to create a separate state with Muslim Rohingyas from what is now Bangladesh. Consequently, Rohingyas were persecuted by the military. In January 1950, about 30,000 refugees fled from Burma to the then East Pakistan. Rangoon has mostly viewed these people as outsiders. The 1953 population census report declared 45 per cent of the Rohingya population Pakistani in origin. Their links with the Bangladeshi Muslims allows them greater flexibility of moving between the two territories, but which also means greater suspicion by the state. In 1978, an agreement was signed between Dhaka and Rangoon, according to which, any Rohingya who could produce any documentary evidence of being Burmese could return. However, this did not solve the problem or stop the state-sponsored massacre in 1991.

The problem is not likely to be resolved due to the political influence of the Buddhist Monks. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is not likely to flag the minority issue due to her concern for losing support of the Monks, who were the largest force to stand up against the military. The Rohingya separatist tendencies make the Monks insecure about sovereignty of the Buddhist state. Things did not become easy when in 1978, the Palestinian militant leader Abdullah Azzam, who later became a member of al Qaeda, declared Burma one of the countries to be liberated from foreign rule.

However, it is also a fact that Muslim militant groups have not really had a huge influence on the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, which is primarily due to the fact that no other Muslim country, including next-door Bangladesh would intervene, and also because the majority belong to the Sufi school of thought. There is no real evidence that the majority of the Rohingyas are inclined towards external forces or violence despite pouring in of Saudi money and intellectual investment by groups such as the Harkatul Ansar, the Harkatul Mujahideen and the Harkatul Jihadul Islami, who have developed links with minor militant groups in Burma and are even trying to link up Burmese groups with others in Assam. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that the Jamatud Dawa in Pakistan has started highlighting conditions of Muslims in both Myanmar and Assam on social media. The South Asian militant cadres also find Myanmar exciting because of the investments made in developing human resources. Reportedly, 350,000 Rohingyas were trained in the past couple of decades in madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The issue right now is what option will Rangoon consider in engaging with this population. Treating it through the lens of international terrorism is a dangerous possibility. The Burmese authorities seem to be tempted by this option considering the fact that they are trying to adopt the US as a new patron and the war against terror could attract resources. Although Myanmar has been a target of terrorism, it has mainly been carried out by Buddhist groups rather than by Muslims. This issue is like many other problems in the larger South Asian region where states have gone astray with a singular national vision in a multi-polar environment.

(Ayesha Siddiqa is a well-known political commentator based in Islamabad. This article first appeared in two parts in the Express Tribune, Pakistan.)

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