By Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
At this tragic time when we are witnessing increased acts of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people of Myanmar (a country that was previously known as Burma) I would like to draw our attention to the history and longstanding suffering one of the most impoverished, oppressed and neglected inhabitants of our world today, Sadly, the dreadful plight of the Rohingya is not as widely known and acknowledged and has not generated the same level of outrage and activism as has been the case with other contemporary humanitarian crises.
I wish to address three interrelated questions:
1) Who are the Rohingya people?
2) What are the root causes for their oppression and exploitation?
3) How can we show solidarity with the Rohingya people?
Who are the Rohingya people?
The Rohingya people are set apart from other inhabitants of South East Asia by language. The majority of the Rohingya speaking people live in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). They constitute about 5% of the population of Myanmar rendering them effectively an ethnic minority in Myanmar. There are about 1.3 million Rohingya in the Arakan (Rakhine) state of Western Myanmar and another million living in neigbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The Rohingya people are almost all Muslims and are mostly farmers by trade. 43.5% of the Rohingya in Myanmar live below the poverty line.
The root causes of the displacement and persecution suffered by the Rohingya people is complex but one of the major contributing factors is the contestation over their ancestral roots and the refusal by the Myanmar government to grant them citizenship. A 1982 Citizenship Law denies the Rohingya of Myanmar citizenship. The government regards them as Bengali Muslims despite the fact that some Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar to over 800 years, others to the British colonial era after 1823, when many Rohingya were brought to work in the rice paddy fields in Burma.
The Rohingya are thus rendered stateless despite their presence in Myanmar going back many generations. The United Nations has offered to assist the Myanmar government to review its 1982 citizenship law and to help bring it in line with international human rights standards, but this has been doggedly refused.
Regarded as non-citizens of Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims are denied basic rights such as education, the freedom of movement, employment, the right to own property and marry without state permission. They are also restricted to only 2 children per family and subjected to forced sterilization and forced labour. Moreover, as an ethnic minority, they face continuous prejudice, racial discrimination and harassment from the nationalist majority of Myanmar.
The brutal persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar has forced them to flee in droves as “boat people”, risking their lives on rickety boats on the open seas in order to seek a better life making them easy prey for human traffickers. Sadly, almost all of the neigbouring countries have refused to provide the fleeing Rohingya with refuge and safety and so some have perished in the sea and others have been forced to return to their life of misery.
Religion and Violence
In 2012, the raping of a girl allegedly by Rohingya men precipitated a wave of violence against Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist extremists. Beginning in June and again in October 2012 there were brutal reprisal killings against Rohingya Muslims spearheaded by a rightwing Buddhist nationalist movement called the 969 movement led by Buddhist monks. This movement has identified the Rohingya people and particularly their religious affiliation to Islam as anathema to the Burmese way of life, which needs to be exterminated. In the ensuing violence, many Rohingyan villages were destroyed, more than 250 people lost their lives and close to a quarter of a million Rohingya people fled their homes. Even more disconcerting is that three years later this antipathy towards the Rohingya people and Islam continues and seems to be growing in Myanmar.
This is evidenced by the fact that in 2014, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingya” insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as “Bengali.” During the first week of Ramadan 2015, 1300 Buddhist monks attended a conference convened by a group calling itself the “Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion” in which they produced a list of recommendations which included campaigning for a ban of women wearing hijab in public schools and the ritual slaughtering of animals during `Id al-Adha.
An intriguing question is the complicity of some Buddhist monks in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Conventional wisdom regards Buddhism as a religion relatively more conducive to peace than the Abrahamic faiths. A number of scholars of religion, including the Sri Lankan, Stanley Tambiah, have challenged this assumption as being historically flawed. Buddhism’s sacred teachings and texts, like all other faith traditions, when interpreted and exploited by religious demagogues in the service of political ideologies, can lead to violence.
The Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi
Yet another question to ponder is the shocking silence from Myanmar’s Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. According to an Al-Jazeera journalist, Mehdi Hasan, “Her silence is inexcusable. Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists, makes her part of the problem, not the solution”. Hasan suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi has transformed from a former prisoner of conscience to a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles; party political advancement ahead of innocent Rohingya lives.”
How can we display our solidarity with the Rohingyan Muslims?
First, we can educate ourselves and others on the issue so that we are aware of the precarious circumstances the Rohingya are faced with.
Second, we must call on the South African government to support a United Nations inquiry into the atrocities committed by the Myanmar state against the Rohingya people.
Third, we must call on the media to report on the plight of the Rohingya as rigorously as they do for other violent conflicts in the world.
Fourth, we can support the relief efforts of South African organisations, such as Muslim Hands, Islamic Relief and others, in assisting the thousands of Rohingya people living in refugee camps.
Last but not least, we can remember the Rohingya Muslims in our supplications. We should never underestimate the power of prayer. We believe that prayer draws human attention to things that need our attention, and that God hears our prayers, which can work to change human events and history.