Millennium Post

Tale of a stateless people

The rise of militant Buddhism is the reason behind Rohingya crisis.

The Rohingyas of Myanmar are an unfortunate people. They are stateless. Myanmar, the country they had settled in as early as the fifteenth century (during the Kingdom of Mrauk U), has not given them citizenship. They are unwelcome in India and Bangladesh, from where they originally migrated. India considers them a potential threat to national security. They have been accused by the Indian state of being either Islamist jihadis or having close links with the jihadis, who are identified with terrorism.

According to official figures, there are 40,000 Rohingyas 'illegally' living in India, including 10,000 in Jammu and Kashmir. The latter are suspected by the NDA Government to be having links with terror outfits sponsored by and working from the soil of Pakistan. But the IGP of Jammu, S. D. Singh Jamwal, does not confirm this. He says there are no statistics to suggest that Rohingyas are involved in any crime except petty crimes like thefts. J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti confirmed the police chief's statement in the State Assembly. That, however, has not brought about any change in the Centre's views on Rohingyas and New Delhi's decision to drive all of them out of India.
The persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, first by the militant Buddhist clergy and now by the Myanmar army (which has taken the form of ethnic cleansing), began long ago in the mid-seventies of the last century. Before going into that history and the spine-chilling accounts of 'terror' created by the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, which is said to be the cause for the latest Myanmar army crackdown on the Rohingyas, it is necessary to note that there is as yet no firm evidence linking ARSA to foreign Islamist groups. But the Myanmar Government insists that they are hand in glove with and funded by foreign Islamists. On record, the Rohingyas maintain that their aim is to create a "democratic Muslim state for the Rohingyas" in Myanmar, just as the Gorkhas of Darjeeling in West Bengal are demanding a Gorkhaland state within the Indian Union.
Anyway, what did the ARSA actually do on August 25? According to a cryptic official report, members of the ARSA 'killed 28 Hindu villagers' (not Buddhists) in Rakhine state. No details of the identity of the 'Hindu villagers' were given. But this action of the ARSA provided the casus belli to the Myanmar army to launch a systematic extermination of the Rohingyas. The army attacked Tula Toli, a Rohingya village, and started carnage. Of an estimated population of 1.1 million Rohingyas in Myanmar, about 1.6 lakh fled to Bangladesh in the wake of the army attack.
The fleeing Rohingyas told foreign correspondents interviewing them at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border that the army killed the Rohingya adults and teenagers with rifle bullets, while the babies and toddlers were just thrown into the river and drowned to death. Scores were butchered in Tula Toli village. Soldiers used rocket-propelled grenades to burn Rohingya houses, mostly wood-and-thatch structures. The army blocked all UN aid to the starving Rohingyas.
The Buddhist clergy of Myanmar has played a prominent part in organising anti-Rohingya pogroms periodically in 1978, 1991-92, 2015, and 2016-17. Each time the army, then under military rule and now under a civil government, which has little control over it, acted in unison with the Buddhist clergy against the Rohingyas, killing them and evicting them from their hearths and homes.
An official census conducted in 2014 listed 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar but the Rohingyas find no place in that list. A presidential spokesman clarified that if a family, asked about its ethnicity, identified itself as Rohingya, "we will not accept it."
To the outside world, Buddhists are peace-loving and compassionate people. But the militant Buddhist clergy does not conform to that stereotype. It is very different. As Kenan Malik, a well-known writer and broadcaster has noted: "When groups vying for political power exploit religion, its role is often to establish the chauvinist identities by which other groups are demonised and the actions of one's own are justified." Indians are now quite familiar with this situation at home.
The militant Buddhist clergy has started the 969 Movement, led by one Bhikkhu Ashin Wirathu, who once reportedly called himself the "Osama bin Laden of Myanmar", whatever that may mean. The anti-Islam movement is opposed to what its adherents see as Islam's expansion in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. The 9 of the 969 movement stands for the nine special attributes of the Buddha, 6 for the six special attributes of his Dharma or teachings and the last 9 represents the special attributes of the Buddhist Sangha or monastic community. The movement wants the state to pass a law that would forbid Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men without official permission and without the husband converting to Buddhism. This law is supposedly required to protect Buddhist women "from being forced to convert to Islam" when they marry Muslim men.
The 969 Movement has fraternal links with another militant Buddhist organisation in neighbouring Sri Lanka, named Bodu Bala Sena. In 2014, Bhikkhu Wirathu attended a 'Great Sangha Conference' in Colombo organised by the Bodu Bala Sena. Wirathu assured the BBS that his 969 organisation would work in close concert with the BBS, which has a long record of attacks on Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka. It held a protest rally at Badulla in October 2012 against the alleged conversion and vandalism of Buddhist sites by 'Islamic terrorists'. It organised a protest at the Department of Archeology in 29 November, 2012, urging the authorities to protect archaeological sites in the Eastern Province from Muslim vandalism.
When the military junta captured power in Myanmar in 1962, it deprived the Rohingyas of citizenship and put restrictions on their free movement, education, and land ownership. It also wanted to enforce stringent birth-control measures on the Rohingyas so as to restrict their population. Thus the army and the Buddhist clergy provide a perfect foil for each other. The elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi is apparently helpless to come to the aid of the persecuted Rohingyas for fear of antagonising both the army and the Buddhist clergy and alienating public sympathy.
At the moment, the Rohingyas are a stateless and nowhere people, waiting for Godot to deliver them from their existential crisis.
(Views are personal.)

Next Story
Share it