Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Interview on the Rohingya Crisis with Journalist S. Azizur Rahman

Recently I was interviewed by veteran journalist Shaikh Azizur Rahman who is affiliated with Radio Australia, Deutsche Welle Radio and Voice of America TV. We discussed the current Rohingya crisis. Here below are my responses to his questions.

Q. Do the Rohingya have right to live in Myanmar
A: Of course, the Rohingyas of Burma have absolute right to live as citizens within Burma similar to 135 other groups that have been recognized as citizens of Burma.

2. Q. Could you tell me in 4-5 sentences why Myanmar is doing wrong by keeping them stateless there? 
A: The heart of the problem goes back to 1982 Citizenship Law which says that Rohingyas are not citizens in Burma. They are outsiders. They have to prove their citizenship. And this law is absurd given the fact that the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan thousands of years ago.  As historians would tell you the Rakhine or the Buddhist people did not enter Arakan until possibly as late as the tenth century. Earlier dynasties were said to be Indians that ruled over people similar to Bengal.
Arakan, in history, used to be known as the land of the ‘Kala Mukh’ - the Land of the ‘Black Faces’ - and these were dark brown-colored people that lived in Bangladesh, lower Chittagong and Arakan.

3. Q. How could this refugee issue be resolved as long as Myanmar does not recognise them and the Rohingyas keep fleeing Myanmar
A. The Rohingya refugee issue can be resolved very easily if, for example, the Burmese government revoke the 1982 Citizenship Law and allow the Rohingya people to be treated as equal citizens. Then I am sure this refugee problem won’t happen. This Citizenship Law violates several fundamental principles of international law. It offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingya people exposed to no legal protection (of their rights) not within their country and not outside. Such persecution and discrimination are contrary to the very purpose of the United Nations. The discriminatory practices against the Rohingyas make the Burmese (or Myanmar) government guilty of non-compliance of each of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And Burma, mind that, is a member state of the UN. So by violating those principles it is basically going against the interest or the purposes for which United Nations stand. The Myanmar government also has to introspect - internally look - at what does this minority crisis – the persecution of a religious minority – do to the image of Burma. Is it good or is it going to be bad on a long run? 

4. Q. Should other countries come forward to host the Rohingyas? 
A: Yes, the global community has an obligation to ensure that the human rights of the Rohingya are not sold for doing petty business with the regime. They should not deny asylum seekers that come to the shores, nor refuse entry of this persecuted people. 

5. Q. Aung san Suu Kyi said, she did not know whether the Rohingya's are citizens of Myanmar. Could I get a reaction from you on this comment by Ms Suu Kyi? Is she afraid to lose Burmese Buddhist voters? 
A. I am disappointed with Suu Kyi's comments. It was none other than her own father General Aung San who assured full rights and privileges to Rohingya people. He said, and let me quote: “I give (offer) you a blank cheque. We will live together and die together. Demand what you want. I will do my best to fulfill them. If native people are divided, it will be difficult to achieve independence for Burma." The former first President of Burma Sao Shwe Theik stated (and let me quote), “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races.” 

Suu Kyi ought to know leadership is about standing for what is right even though such stands may not be popular with people. There is not a single country in the world today that's as much divided on the issue of racism, bigotry and xenophobia as Burma is. The racism of Burmans against other races, and Buddhist people against non-Buddhist people have no parallel in our world today. It is tearing Burma apart into pieces, and will continue to do so unless the leaders there understand that it exists, and therefore, they must address the issue; they must stop it. That would require taking bold steps, not popular steps. Suu Kyi is afraid of rocking the boat of popularity. But popularity is not what Burma needs today. It needs solution to its age-old problem of racism, bigotry, xenophobia. She must demand equal rights for the Rohingyas and other persecuted minorities so that they're treated as equal citizens within Burma.

6. Q. Could you also say something on how the total environment is becoming anti-Rohingya in Myanmar?  
A: As I hinted earlier, there is no country in our world that epitomizes racism and bigotry as Burma does today. There is tremendous influence of Burmanization and Buddhism inside Burma. They want Burma absolutely for their Burmese people, preferably the majority Burmans, and if not, then one has to be Buddhist. There is no place for Christians, no place for Hindus, no place for Muslims. The Rohingyas on the other hand are Muslims. They are the original inhabitants of Arakan and they have been denied their citizenship. For years the Burmese government and the Rakhine extremists – the Buddhist elements – have made a case to make sure that these Rohingyas can be totally erased from the face of Burma. There have been tens of pogroms, starting from the 1940s that still continue. This is absolutely unacceptable.
They say that it is a Rohingya that has committed a crime. Well, when did the crime of some outcast (criminal) within a society become the justification for lynching the entire race, the entire people, [the] entire community? If that were the case, then we would not be seeing a single community on earth today for the crimes of the few that the entire group has been killed.
Today in Arakan state there is hardly a Muslim home that is intact, [and] there is hardly a business that is intact. People are afraid. People are trying to get out of Burma to come to the shores of Bangladesh. And this is absolutely unacceptable.
The world community can help resolve this issue by demanding that the Rohingyas are recognized as full citizens within Burma; nothing short of it. Otherwise, unfortunately, they will not only become the forgotten people of our time, they would become an extinct community much like what happened to the Tasmanians and so many other peoples before their time. It is a sad, sad thing!

Q: Do you have any final comments for our listeners?
A: Anyone serious about understanding the Rohingya crisis should read books written by unbiased and objective researchers. If they do, they will find that the indigenous people of Arakan before the influx of the Mongoloid race (that dominates Burma today) were dark-brown colored Indians – like the people found in nearby Bangladesh. The rulers that had ruled over Arakan, in centuries before the Sino-Tibetan influx or invasion of the late 10th century, were also of Indian descent, as were the people (the so-called Kalas – the ‘black people’) who lived there. They had much in common with Banga, or lower Bengal - today’s Bangladesh. Over the centuries, beginning in the 8th century, gradually a sizable population converted to Islam, much like what had happened in nearby Bangladesh.

As such, the Rohingya history to Arakan is not any different than those of Muslims of Bangladesh, esp. of southern Chittagong. The Rakhine Buddhist history is much younger, dating only back to 957 C.E. From 1430 onward when the Sultan of Bengal restored the throne of the fleeing Arakanese king Narameikhla several of his descendants ruled the country under Muslim titles and struck coins with Arabic inscription of the Muslim article of faith (the kalima – which means - there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger).

To now call these indigenous people of Arakan -- who identify themselves as the Rohingyas in Burma “unwanted guests” or ‘invaders or outsiders’ from Bangladesh -- is like calling the Native Americans ‘unwanted refugees’ who had settled in America after the Europeans. As much as no massacre of yesteryears and ghettoization of the Native Americans today in designated American Indian Reservation camps can obliterate their genuine right, place, history and identity, no propaganda and government or non-government sponsored pogroms can erase the rightful identity of the Rohingya people of Burma. They are the children of the soil of Arakan. They belong there with full rights of citizenship.

Can you tell a group of people that they are not the citizen of this country in spite of the fact that they are there for more than a thousand years? No.

What is happening to the Rohingya people is sheer injustice! This is absolutely wrong, inhuman and unacceptable. Thank you.
Suggested readings:
The Forgotten Rohingya: Their Struggle for Human Rights in Burma
Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)

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