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  • Elliot Carmel

A Modern Genocide

In part 1 of this article, we followed the emergence of the Rohingya – an Islamic ethnic minority in the largely Buddhist country Myanmar, historically known as Burma. The Rohingya fought their way through the centuries, developing a culture and a distinct set of religious practices. They made their home in today’s Rakhine state, the far western coastal area of Myanmar, which had previously been a separate country called Arakan. After Myanmar gained independence from British rule in 1948, Arakan was no more… and the rest of the inhabitants weren’t about to be welcoming hosts.

This article talks about the tensions between the Rohingya and the main Burmese population in Myanmar. Tensions that have always existed, slowly beginning to boil over. Until it all came to a head very recently, in an atrocious modern genocide.

Ever since the Rakhine, a Burman tribe, began to settle in Arakan around the 9th century CE and mingled with various Muslim groups from the surrounding area, there has been friction between the two religions. Back then, the ethnicity of “Rohingya” was likely not yet established.

Unfortunately, throughout the centuries, the Muslim population in Burma was repeatedly disadvantaged, often having their religious practices partially restricted. This was largely due to general Islamophobic prejudice on the part of the main population.

The first instance of tension was the animosity between the Rakhine, who were in control of Arakan, and the neighbouring Bengali Sultanate, to which Arakan was temporarily a vassal state. A while later, however, in the 17thcentury, Arakan people raided the borders of the Sultanate, sparking a series of minor conflicts.

The real hatred rose later, after the British conquered both Arakan and Burma around the 19th century. Shortly afterwards the Brits brought in large numbers of largely Muslim immigrants from India as a cheap workforce.

The Buddhist population- considering themselves the rightful inhabitants- were violent towards them, especially once the British began to retreat before the Japanese during WWII. Arakan was no longer its own country – under British rule it had been a part of the Burmese Province, and remained that way afterwards. Now Burma was free to throw the full force of its hatred at the Muslim minority that had been growing under British rule. The immigrants had taken jobs and a country away from the Burmese, and they weren’t going to forgive easily. The Burmans saw the Rohingya and the Indian Muslim immigrants (who mostly lived in the Arakan region) as a single enemy, and took their revenge indiscriminately. This was the first spark of a long conflict between the Burmese and the Rohingya, which was continued when the British attempted to help the Rohingya reclaim territory in Arakan by providing weaponry.

Under brutal persecution from the Buddhist population, many Muslims fled to the north of Rakhine state, the region that had previously been Arakan. Many died along the way or were murdered. But they weren’t going to take it quietly- the Rohingya retreated to the few remaining British-controlled areas in the north and conducted raids using British weapons on Buddhist towns and villages. In March of 1942, the Rohingya slaughtered about 20,000 Arakanese in this insane, violent retaliation. In response to this, the Arakanese fought back, killing around 5,000. The Imperial Japanese army joined forces with buddhist Rakhines who wanted revenge, committing atrocious acts of rape, murder and torture against Muslim groups all across Myanmar. This conflict continued with Britain setting up the “V-force” to help the Rohingya win back territory in Myanmar. Altogether, however, a large part of the Muslim population in Myanmar fled to the nearby area, including the Chittagong region of Bengal, now known as Bangladesh.

Eventually, the Burmese general Aung San joined forces with the British to drive out the Japanese, which led to the independence agreement.

When the Rohingya finally tried to return to their home in the Arakan region, however, Myanmar had not forgotten or forgiven- and so the Rohingya were without a nation.

Unfortunately, the post WWII conflicts were really just the beginning – Burma gained independence in 1948, changing its name to Myanmar, but Arakan wasn’t restored, instead remaining nothing more than the westernmost part of Myanmar. And when the Rohingya people began to filter back in shortly afterwards, they found they couldn’t return legally, but that didn’t stop most. Nevertheless, the intercommunal tensions remained.

When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, things started looking a little better for the Rohingya. A democracy was set up, with some Rohingya sitting in important governmental roles. A year later, they were allowed citizenship as Myanmar set up its first form of national identification, and for the next ten years, they were even allowed to vote.

It all changed in 1962 when the military took over. The bloodless coup established one-party rule by the military and a new constitution.

In late 1974, the military government passes the Emergency Immigration Act, which limits rights of those seen as foreigners, including in no small part the Rohingya that had illegally returned from the surrounding countries. over the next few years, the military checks those who could be foreigners, and soldiers violate many Rohingya who fall into this category. Finally, they are denied citizenship entirely.

In 1991, an operation is launched whose name roughly translates to “clean and beautiful country”. It is nothing short of violent ethnic cleansing, and forces hundreds of thousands of Rohingya back out of the country. The hate that was buried just a few decades before now began to boil back to the surface, with many buddhist nationalists and the general population letting out their discontent on the “foreign” Rohingya Muslims.

The year after, 150,000 return from Bangladesh, cowed and insecure. All Rohingya are forced in 1995 to apply for new IDs called “white cards”, which serve only to keep them apart from the general populace, and do not grant citizenship.

In the slightly more than a decade from the new millennium until 2012, the government undergoes great changes, but the military party remains in power.

Then, around 2012, the Buddhist community strikes out at Muslims again – but this time the state is on their side. Rohingya villages are burned and violence rules once again. Gang rape is common and, reportedly, Rohingya children are seen being thrown into burning buildings. Extreme Buddhist nationalists are the core of the returning violence, founding a short-lived movement called “969” which promotes violence against all Muslim minorities. The Rohingya just happened to be one of the biggest- and the most hated. When 969 was forbidden, the “MaBaTha” movement followed in its footsteps just two years later, aiming to preserve traditional Buddhist values. At this point, the government decides it not only wants to torture the Rohingya people, but deny their very existence as well. After all, wouldn’t it be ever so helpful if the genocide the country has been reportedly committing all this time turned out to be targeting a “made-up” ethnicity? If the Rohingya don’t exist, then surely the country can’t have been murdering them.

Over the course of roughly two years from 2014 through 2015 the government made multiple decisions. These included the invalidation of white cards, which had been the only form of identification allowed for Rohingya, meaning they had no documents to keep them apart from the rest of the populace. And no proof they even exist. At the start of 2014 they are also excluded from the first national census in 30 years. Then, the “Race and Religion” laws are passed. They tighten the grip specifically on Islamic and Rohingya practices, trying to strangle this seemingly unsavoury way of life. And when democracy finally raises its head again in 2015, Rohingya are denied the right to vote.

Slowly but surely, the Rohingya are being treated as less than human, pressed beneath the surface where no-one can hear them scream.

The newfound democracy brings a faint spark of light: Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of general Aung San, is elected Head of State, and she at least addresses the situation. She brings in a former UN secretary to head a government commission to advise improvements to help the Rohingya.

It does little to change anything.

The Rohingya are tired of the abuse, and strike out. Many Rohingya have fought back, striking out and murdering members of other ethnic groups. One important event is when an insurgent group called Harakah al-Yaqin attacks several police posts in Rakhine state, which provokes backlash from the military: they launch a “clearance operation” that murders, rapes, and destroys the villages of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state on a huge scale. This is but one of many destructive rampages on the part of the army. At one point they even use helicopter gunships to shoot down unarmed civilians. Groups of Buddhist Burmans also ravage the Rohingya, with groups nationalist monks being especially extreme. The Rohingya are left with their people and towns decimated, and yet again, many escape to Bangladesh.

In 2017 the UN reach out to attempt research on these happenings. The Burmese government reject the proposal.

When border posts are attacked again by the Rohingya, it is the final straw for the military. They decide to rid themselves of the Rohingya in an attack of a much greater scale: later in 2017 they butcher almost 10,000 of the people, and raze hundreds of villages to the ground. When refugees leave on boats, some are gunned down merciless by the military. Just like stabbing a helpless person with their back turned, they do not even stop shooting when their prey starts to run.

They think they are rid of what they may see as a scourge on their country, but when over seven hundred thousandRohingya refugees are forced into Bangladesh, it does not go unnoticed. The total Rohingya population before all this was only around 1.3 million. Not. Even. Double.

Bangladesh has nothing to hide, and the situation is far out of Myanmar’s control now. The secret escapes, and the world is horrified. Many countries like the USA immediately bring weighty sanctions down on Myanmar’s military leaders and responsible officers to penalise the military’s actions.

By 2019 reports describe refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh with absolutely inhuman living conditions as the world’s largest. There are estimated to be upwards of 900,000 Rohingya living in these, and they have little food and clean water and lacking shelters. The Bangladeshi government does not want them, and abuse has been reported from local gangs and police.

Myanmar’s actions are brought before the court of justice, and numerous investigations are underway. The UN describes the Rohingya as the world’s most oppressed minority. This unacceptable act of genocide is coming into the light, but it will take a while yet before it burns.

Doubtless the Rohingya have not yet finished with this challenge. They are still being oppressed and hurt today. It will be incredibly difficult to find them a home and to save as many as we can from starvation. But the world stands behind them, and they will overcome.

What has been done to them is not the fault of any country or religion. No group of people is worse because it is that group. No, this genocide is the fault of any who thought themselves better than the Rohingya people, for whatever idiotic reason. Buddhism does not promote genocide. Murder is the choice of the individual.

The Rohingya have been horrifically abused, tortured, massacred, disregarded, oppressed and been made less than others. But they will survive. A people is not something to be snuffed like a flame, or torn like a banner. Its spirit lives on in each and every one of its members, and it will continue to grow. The Rohingya can and will make a better future for themselves after they defeat this than Myanmar would ever have let them have. And hopefully we will have learnt something too. To never let the murder of a people rise again.

To make genocide a thing of the past.

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