Today (Aug. 25) marks the third anniversary of Myanmar’s largest genocidal purge in history against its own national minority, namely Rohingyas.
With much of the world’s governments weighed down by domestic health and economic concerns triggered by the global coronavirus pandemic, the only bright spot for the Rohingyas appears to be the shift in sentiment and view among the Rakhine revolutionary movement spearheaded by the Arakan Army and its political wing the United League of Arakan.
It is rather encouraging that the new generation of the Arakan resistance movement as represented by Major General Tun Mrat Naing, an educated tourist-guide-cum-revolutionary, jettisoned the idea of ethnic and faith-based resistance movement and embraced the regional secularist, non-racialized identity to forge a new Arakanese community, inclusive of Muslims, most of all Rohingyas.
Since the current military conflicts between the Arakan Army and the hybrid NLD-military government in Naypyidaw, the younger generation amongst the Buddhist Rakhine have come to view Rohingyas through a twin lens of communal empathy and strategic calculations.
Rakhine villages and ancient religious sites have come under wanton acts of destruction at the hands of the Burmese armed forces. Rakhine communities that until recently cheered on and/or partook in the violence against their Rohingya neighbors are themselves being rendered war IDPs in their own state.
Present-day Rakhine was until December 1784 a completely independent kingdom with its royal capital Mrauk-U, with its known cosmopolitan characteristics typically found in cities and civilizations along any coasts. According to the leading historian of Arakan, Michael W. Charney of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Arakan was not even influenced in any way, shape or form by the Burmese in the central Dry Zone plains along the Irrawaddy River.
Instead, Arakan had unparalleled linkages with the greater civilizations of the Indian subcontinent, including Bengal, both across the Bay and across the seamless geographic landscape with no such modern invention as “hard borders.”.
The Arakanese — as all inhabitants of this hybrid multicivilizational kingdom were known — lost their sovereignty and kingdom as the result of their military defeat and subsequent destruction by invading Burmese troops from a distant kingdom in 1785.
As a matter of fact, historically, the Arakanese nationalists, a majority of whom are Buddhist, have naturally despised the Burmese Buddhist conquerors, who ransacked their kingdom and drove hundreds of thousands of their residents –Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists — to the then British protectorate of East Bengal.
Notwithstanding prejudices and occasional tensions between the region’s majoritarian Buddhist community of Rakhine and the Muslims, of whom Rohingya make up the majority, the religious differences or poverty are not the primary drivers of the state’s conflicts.
On the contrary, it is the fundamentally colonial nature of the Burmese military and civilian administration that has been the trigger behind either “horizontal violence” (or so-called communal violence) and since last year, intense military conflicts between the central government troops and the Arakan Army. The Arakan Army’s ultimate mission is the liberation of multi-ethnic Arakan from the Burmese colonial occupation.
Like all other non-Burmese ethnic communities throughout the vast border regions, the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1948 means, to the native inhabitants of Rakhine region, the release of Arakan or Rakhine from the clutch of the White Man’s rule to the old colonial masters next door — the majoritarian Buddhist Burmese nationalists.
The much-reported popular fear and loathing of Muslim Rohingyas is nothing short of a direct product of the central Burmese military’s Islamophobic propaganda, sustained and systematically promoted through the latter’s psychological warfare division initiated by the military in the mid-1960s.
Based on their national vision of Buddhist Burma, free of Muslims, the military planners set out to re-engineer the demographic character of Rakhine state, targeting Northern Rakhine, where Rohingya officially made up the majority, living alongside their Buddhist co-habitants.
The ex-general Khin Nyunt, the sole surviving architect of Myanmar’s genocidal scheme against Muslim Rohingyas, articulated clearly this “originally Muslim-free” Rakhine in his Burmese language book “Myanmar’s Western Gate Problem” published in Yangon. After the largest exodus of Rohingyas in 2017, the ex-spy-master repeated unapologetically the military’s religiously bigoted vision of Rakhine, and the nation at large, in his three-hour video-recorded interview with Shahida Tulaganova, my Uzbek-Jewish documentary filmmaker friend, who produced “Exiled”, a historical documentary aired on Al Jazeera International last year.
Since the end of parliamentary democracy in 1962, in every single major campaign of violence in Rakhine state — typically targeted against Rohingyas and, to a lesser extent, other Muslims such as Kaman Muslims — the central Burmese government, still controlled by the military, has played an instrumental role.
According to my ten years of research, the dual strategic goal of the Burmese military in Rakhine since independence is to effectively control and reduce the size of the Rohingya group with their cross-border historical, cultural and demographic ties with neighboring Bangladesh and to keep Rakhine’s Buddhist population politically subjugated to the whims of the Burmese policymakers, civilian and military.
The drastic reduction in the Rohingya population is in sync with the Burmese military’s radical revisionist history of the region according to which Rakhine was a “purely Buddhist region,” until the Muslims arrived from the Indian subcontinent — and in the largest number during British rule (1824-1886). This “Muslim-free Rakhine region” is what has been institutionalized in the Burmese military’s policies towards Rohingyas and other Muslims of Rakhine.
After the 2016 and 2017 waves of exodus, the Rohingya population has been reduced from the official estimate of 1.33 million, according to the then Population Minister and ex-Police Chief Brigadier Khin Yi, to less than half-a-million. Of the estimated 500,000 Rohingyas still in Myanmar, about 120,000 have been locked up as internally displaced ğersons or IDPs in camps throughout the state, which a visiting German diplomat characterized to this author as “concentration camps.”
The rest exist in ghettos where they have no freedom of movement, no meaningful livelihoods, no access to primary or emergency healthcare, or adequate sources of nutrition.
Since the military take-over in 1962, Myanmar’s successive central governments, both the military junta of General Ne Win and post-Ne Win’s military-controlled regimes, have accomplished the drastic reduction in size and demographic re-engineering of Rakhine region through their systematic, sustained scorch-earth policy of physical destruction. In the year 2017 alone the military’s “security clearance operations” — billed falsely as “anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency” self-defense of a state under attack — resulted in the total destruction of nearly 400 villages.
In the midst of what effectively was a genocidal purge against the utterly defenseless Rohingya communities in Northern Rakhine, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the world via a national broadcast, having justified the military’s genocide, on the false pretext of “Muslim terrorism” by Rohingya militants and chiding rights-concerned journalists to stop fussing about 750,000 Rohingyas who fled for their life. Instead she pointed out the Muslims in Rakhine who chose to stay in Myanmar as a proof of non-genocidal intention.
Starting in 1978, there had been several large-scale waves of similarly terrorizing campaigns — all organized and directed by the central government (that is, the military), which caught the world’s attention — particularly the West and the United Nations. The official narrative and rationale has shifted from the original “migration control” along the then East Pakistan to the non-existent “Muslim terrorism” and “secessionism” amongst the Rohingya communities.
It is the vast and unknown number of Rohingyas who had been slaughtered during these four decades of relentless and systematic genocidal destruction that Rohingyas and their supporters worldwide will be memorializing today via the Free Rohingya Coalition’ social media pages. Nearly 50 speakers and musicians from all 6 continents will speak and perform in one dozen world languages from 1400GMT till 1900GMT.
Last year, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh made headline news as thousands of them gathered for the second anniversary of what they want the world to recognize as Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day.
So this year, they and many of their international supporters worldwide will join them in spirit and in virtual web events.
Beyond virtual commemorative events and the NGO initiative lobbying the Trump administration — itself unashamedly vile, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic — no viable policy solutions are proposed or entertained by external actors with any geopolitical clout.
Painfully, neither Myanmar nor the international community of UN member states show any sign of commitment, serious efforts or viable policies aimed at either Myanmar’s long-standing policies of genocidal persecution or repatriating and resettling 1 million Rohingyas across the 170-mile-long land and river boundaries in Bangladesh. This does not even include the 140,000+ Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur, who have also come under the recent orchestrated racist campaign by the Malaysian public.
Additionally, the two parallel juridical proceedings in the Hague — the full investigation of Myanmar’s crimes of deportation and other crimes by the International Criminal Court and the Gambia vs Myanmar legal case at the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice — lack any real potential to deliver what Rohingyas need — a homeland they can call home, where their basic and citizenship rights are guaranteed and their safety is no longer under threat.
Bangladesh, which is now home to the largest population of Rohingyas in the world, “rejects any notion of local integration of the Rohingya people” in the country, according to Dhaka’s Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen.
With the countries in the richer Global North under the reins of racist populist regimes soaked in Islamophobia and anti-refugee and anti-migrant stance, third-country resettlement is not a viable solution for the Rohingyas, or any large refugee population either.
Against this bleak picture, the Arakan Army leadership offering an empathetic and strategic olive branch to “Muslims of Rakhine,” the code word for Rohingyas, whether the latter appreciate it or not, is a move that contains the potential for reconciliation among two communities divided by the common oppressor, namely the Burmese military and central government.
Neither group can achieve their long-term strategic goals of peace, safety and freedom — on their own — in the face of a determined oppressor armed to the teeth and financed by billions of dollars in foreign investment and development aid, so-called. Forging an alliance based on a genuine sense of regional brother- and sister-hood and mutually complemental self-interests is definitely a step in the right direction.
*The writer is a Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, general secretary of Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia and a fellow of the Genocide Documentation Center in Cambodia.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency
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