How Democracy Failed the Rohingyas (Part-1)

Kislay Choudhary

The contemporary nature of the Rohingya crisis and the geographical isolation of its venue coupled with strict governmental oversight into the levels of access provided to human rights agencies and independent journalists have severely restricted the flow of information from Rakhine while also significantly hampering the production of academic literature on the issue.

Lynsey Addario, a photographer for Time magazine termed Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya crisis as an “Invisible Genocide” [1].

Rohingyas are a Muslim community concentrated in Myanmar’s north western state of Rakhine. Victims of discriminatory policies coupled with violence, Rohingyas have been persecuted since centuries. Rohingya is a term used for a Muslim native of Arakan (now Rakhine). They have been natives of that area since the 9th century and have mixed with Bengalis, Persians, Moghuls, Turks, and Pathans, in line with the historically pluralistic population of Arakan State [2].

The narrative surrounding the Rohingyas can be divided into people who assign this moniker to them, and others who don’t. The anti-Rohingya camp suggests that Rohingyas (whom they refer to as Bengalis) are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who have filtered in during the colonial period. The claims of illegal immigration rise from the history of the community. In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese had occupied Burma and forced the British to retreat. The onrush of the Japanese army and their cruelty towards natives forced many Rohingyas to head towards Bangladesh (which was still under British administration).

The return of these Rohingyas after the war was termed as illegal immigration.

In 1971 the West Pakistani army had launched a campaign of terror in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) which forced a number of Bangladeshi Muslims to flee towards Myanmar. This mixing of Bangladeshi Muslims with the Rohingyas in a Muslim dominated province forced the government‟s hand. In 1974 the army undertook Operation King Dragon in northern Rakhine. The official motive was to expel Rohingya insurgents (which numbered around 70) [3]. While other sources claimed that the military under General Ne Win singularly focussed against Rohingyas [4]. It was a severe exercise of ethnic cleansing and whole villages were wiped out or forced to flee. By the time the operation was over, around 167,000 [5] to 250,000 [6] crossed the Bangladesh border to escape military persecution. Even before the Military junta took root in Yangon, the U. Nu government had started retracting the rights of the Rohingya and had popularised the slogan of “Burma for Burmans”. General Ne Win after coming into power in 1962 only continued upon these policies. He renamed the province of Arakan to the more Burmese Rakhine. He shut down Burmese Broadcasting Service‟s Rohingya programmes, and most importantly passed the 1982 citizenship law.

The 1982 Myanmar citizenship law recognised 135 ethnic groups in the country, leaving out the Rohingyas. The military junta had intentionally segregated the Rohingyas in the north western state of Rakhine and then shifted the narrative to claiming that they were all illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Decades of military persecution was continued by the first elected government headed by Thein Sein which passed laws forcing Rohingyas to have a maximum of two kids and placed a legal bar on Rohingya men marrying Buddhist women. The pressure exerted by the MaBaTha played a big role in the passing of said legislature.

Ahsan Ullah speaks of the four ways in which the rights of the Rohingya have been curtailed in modern times. He writes that the Rohingya had their freedom curtailed, were socially cornered, financially deprived and politically isolated.

The capital of the state of Rakhine, Sittwe was 1/3rd Muslim in 1942, a majority of whom were Rohingyas. By 2012 only 5000 remain in a city of 150,000 [7].

On the 9th of October, 2016 a Rohingya insurgent group called the Haraka-Al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) – A militant outfit with roughly 400 [8] fighters primarily formed to counter Myanmarese oppression- killed [9] border policemen. After the incident, the military has started its own “clearance operation” in Rakhine, with activity focussed around the border district of Maungdaw. The clearance operation includes area lock downs, a shutdown of humanitarian aid, summary killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence. Access has been denied to humanitarian aid workers, independent media and human rights monitors. On November 11th, the military employed helicopter gunships against civilian populations.

In The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann wrote how “Democracy has always carried with it the possibility that majorities may tyrannise the minorities. In modern times, ethnic cleansing and genocide are rare yet omnipresent risks of this form of government.”

The Rohingyas have been termed the “most vulnerable population” by the Equal Rights Trust 9. Subject to prejudice, oppression and inhuman violence in their homeland, the Rohingyas are truly amongst the most persecuted communities in the modern world.

Jose Ramos-Horta and Muhammed Yunus, both Nobel Peace Prize Laureates pointed out that “A government must be judged by how it protects the most vulnerable people in its midst and its generosity towards the weakest and the most powerless” [10].

Democracy prides itself on its ability to provide a voice to the citizens. Unfortunately for the Rohingyas, “the entire debate is confined to their citizenship status”. Mizanur Rehman writes that the widespread belief in the idea of “one race, one language and one religion” in Myanmar has legitimised the systematic oppression of the Rohingyas by first segregating them to a small portion of the border state of Rakhine, the stripping them off their citizenship via legislative action, and then providing credibility to the Buddhist nationalists‟ portrayal of Rohingyas as „the other‟ and „the enemy‟ by using state machinery to carry out violent measures of oppression against a disenfranchised and derelict community. [11]

Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Joshua Kurlantzick points towards the „Regional Conference on Migration Crisis” held in Thailand in May, 2016 and writes that the Myanmar government‟s refusal to discuss the Rohingya crisis brings to light a continuous attempt to deny the existence of any migration crisis involving Myanmar and the Rohingyas [12]. He also states that the “opening up” of the country‟s polity has brought ethnic and religious tensions to the fore and this has played a major role in devastating the lives of 2 million Rohingyas [13]. He criticises the government for announcing “steps to prohibit migrants –Rohingyas- from fleeing the country” without formulating any plan to limit the persecution the community face. Instead, the NLD government passed a law putting a cap on the number of children a Rohingya woman is allowed to bear.

Mizanur Rehman also focuses on much anti-Rohingya scholarship which claims that the Rohingyas share certain linguistic similarities with Chittagonians and thus they are illegal migrants. Rehman points out the flaw in the argument that Chittagong was also a part of the old Arakan Kingdom which was invaded by the Burmese King Badaw Paya in 1784 and thereafter became a part of Burma [14].

While most commentators criticise the new democratic government‟s silence on the issue, Jasmine Chia writes how Aung San Suu Kyi must maintain legitimacy in an ethnically fractured nation and that “it is understandable that she is not outspoken on an issue that could spark even more violence” [15] She further goes on to point out that if she issue an abrupt statement of support for the Rohingyas “the peace process itself will come under fire for her seeming partisanship”. She warms the international community against “unbridled calls for awareness” while stressing upon the importance of sensible negotiation for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

The argument Chia makes finds further grounding in the fact that the democratic foundation of Myanmar, the 2008 Constitution deprived the popularly elected government from exercising any power in relation to defence or internal security. The military, by assuring itself of a fourth of the seats in both houses of the parliament has also theoretically blocked any constitutional amendments from being passed. In such a situation, the NLD government has absolutely no power to resolve the conflict or even to pursue a move in that direction.

Not everybody has been as patient with their criticism of Myanmar‟s democracy. Sara Sirota recounts all the violence that has taken place since Myanmar shifted its form of governance to a democracy. She blames the Myanmar government for what she terms a “purge” and criticises the violence carried out in Rakhine which forced “tens of thousands” [16]. Of Rohingyas to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh where they have

Heading the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State set up by the NLD government in 2016, former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has also warned the socio-political climate in Myanmar could provide “fertile ground for radicalisation” [17]

Ahsan Ullah adds to the debate by forcefully implying that the government has intentionally shifted the narrative time and again so as to portray Rohingya efforts to counter state initiated violence as religious violence. State violence has also been disguised in the form of counter terrorist action by terming all anti Rohingya violence as anti-terrorist and thereby essential action. Systematic oppression of the Rohingyas “has become an institutionalized practice over time”. Ahsan Ullah criticises the negative legislative measures taken which persecute Rohingyas and push them towards further isolation and dereliction. The lack of socio-economic and financial opportunities have made “earning livelihood extremely difficult for them”.[18]

The literature on the effects of democratization of Myanmar on the Rohingyas remains limited but does open up a number of debates upon the nature and role of democracy in a conflict that has now uprooted hundreds of thousands of lives.

1) Lynsey Addario, Witnessing the Rohingya's Invisible Genocide, TIME (16/12/2016)
2) “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?”, Human Rights Watch, 1996
3) Pho Kan Kaung. The Danger of Rohingya. Myet Khin Thit Magazine No. 25. pp. 87–103.
4) Greg Constantine, Virginia Quarterly Review (18/9/2012)
5) South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2005
6) Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities edited by Carl Skutsch, Routledge, pp. 128
7) A.K.M. Ahsan Ullah, Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar: Seeking Justice for The “Stateless”, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 2016, Vol. 32(3) pp. 292
8) Katie Hunt, Myanmar Air Force helicopters fire on armed villagers in Rakhine state, CNN (14/11/2016)
9) Equal Only In Name: Human Rights of Stateless Rohingya in Malaysia, Equal Rights Trust, October 2014. ISBN: 978-0-9573458-1-2
10) José Ramos-Horta, Muhammad Yunus. Rohingya: Testing Democracy in Myanmar, The World Post
11) M. Mizanur Rehman, Rohingya Crisis: Politics of Denial
12) Joshua Kurlantzick, How to Permanently Solve The Rohingya Crisis, The National
13) David Mathieson, Perilous Plight: Burma's Rohingya Take to the Seas. Human Rights Watch (2009). pp. 3
14) M. Mizanur Rehman, Rohingya Crisis: Politics of Denial
15) Jasmine Chia, The Truth About Myanmar‟s Rohingya Issue, The Diplomat (05/03/2016)
16) Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group, 15 Dec. 2016.
17) Kofi Annan, “Interim Report and Recommendations,” Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, March 2017.
18) A.K.M. Ahsan Ullah, Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar: Seeking Justice for The “Stateless”, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 2016, Vol. 32(3) pp 291

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Jun 12, 2020

Kislay Choudhary

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