OPINION: What's next on the Rohingya issue?
By Shah Husain Imam
23 December 2016

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - The countries having clout with Myanmar need to have a word with its government to restore citizenship rights to a segment of people who have been a part of Myanmar's man and landscapes.

It was called an Asean crisis meeting at a Yangon retreat on December 12. It might well have been termed a solidarity get-together to do some much-needed hand-holding to Aung San Suu Kyi facing criticism for the atrocities on Rohingyas in the northern Rakhine state.

Suu Kyi, foreign minister and state counsellor of Myanmar, convened the meeting in her capacity as the current chairperson of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Obviously, she was aiming at killing two birds with one stone: She wanted to be seen doing something about the fallout of the Rohingya crisis; at the same time, she employed regional diplomacy to spruce up her rather tainted image.

In the process, Asean offered Myanmar humanitarian assistance stressing that aid will be distributed to those affected in northern Rakhine state.

The advent of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate for Peace Aung San Suu Kyi from protracted imprisonment had raised high hopes for liberalism and fairness to pervade in Myanmar. As its next-door neighbour, we looked forward to a resumption of repatriation of Rohingya refugees encamped in Bangladesh for years.

Instead of that happening, Rohingya men, women and children fleeing the worst forms of persecution since October 9 in their natural habitats, have pushed for Bangladesh's shores in large numbers.

The question is why Aung San Suu Kyi should be putting her life-long reputation on the line? This can be ascribed to two reasons. First, the systematic routing of minority Rohingya Muslims from the Buddhist majority Rakhine state feeds into a paranoia that one-sided demographic preponderance has to be maintained at any cost. Secondly, the Rohingyas having been divested of citizenship since 1982 and cannot vote; so why bother about them now? Instead, cultivate the voting Buddhists — an expedient line of thinking one has great difficulty in assigning to someone like Suu Kyi.

Speaking of restoring citizenship rights to the Rohingyas, a very strong and unassailable case can be made out for the same. They have deep historical and ancestral roots to Myanmar, especially to the Arakan province which is now the Rakhine state. Aqiuab, now known as Sittwe like Arakan is an Arab name. The places have had mosques since early seventeenth century.

It is a matter of recorded history that during Rosango kings, Alowal, Daulat Kazi and Magan Thakur used to be court poets. Alowal is said to have served King Sri Sudharam, a sanskritised name.

Hamilton Buchanan's book refers to Ruinga or Rooinga community inhabiting Arakan, a part of Burma which was under British suzerainty with Chittagong adjoining it. They had shared dialects.

The people of Chittagong Hill Tracts too had migrated some three to four hundred years ago to make CHT their homeland.

Ethnic communities belong to certain territories by virtue of continuous residence, let alone the internationally recognised provision for naturalised citizenship.

The Myanmar authorities would do well to remember that a large number of their compatriots had fled oppressive military regimes migrating into Britain from time to time. For generations they have been living in the UK with full citizenship rights which they have denied to the Rohingyas for a good three and a half decades. This is as uncivil as it is untenable.

As if that was not enough, the religious affairs ministry in Myanmar is now taking up a project to rewrite the history of Myanmar keeping Rohingyas completely out of the equation. They are bent upon discarding the continuous residence of the Muslim ethnic community in the northern Rakhine state, although this is a well-documented historical fact. The distortion of history is designed to justify and intensify the ethnic cleansing drives.

They are stepping on a disinformation campaign to hoodwink world opinion which is now focused on a single demand: Since the roots of Rohingya persecution and their spill-over effects lie in Myanmar, Yangon should take full responsibility of righting the wrongs.

There shouldn't be any waffling on this point; for, some criticism of Yangon's cloak and dagger policy on Rohingyas has betrayed a certain lack of conviction by emphasising that (a) Aung San Suu Kyi is too tied down by the military to have any freedom of action; and (b) an assertive policy vis-à-vis Myanmar government in matters of reinstating the Rohingyas could backfire on investment prospects. If the powerful countries be acquiescent on these points to the peril of human rights standards they would be only courting emotional blackmail.

Rather than taking such a course of action, the countries having clout with Myanmar need to have a word with its government to restore citizenship rights to a segment of people who have been a part of Myanmar's man and landscapes. With such a persuasive approach failing, the big countries can think of pressing levers on Myanmar. Once tasting openness, Yangon could ill-afford sliding back to political hermitage with all the lure of animated connectivities around the corner.

- The writer is a senior journalist and former Associate Editor, The Daily Star.


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