Persecution of the Rohingya is nothing new

A bicycle abandoned in the grass in front of a burning building in a Burmese Muslim villageThe persecution of the Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar in the main native language) has picked up in the last few weeks, with obvious signs of genocide or as the UN has called it “classic ethnic cleansing”, the burnings of villages and half-hearted attempt to disguise the burnings as the Muslims (Rohingya) burning their own homes. The ‘provocation’ was some attacks on Burmese police and military by a new Rohingya militant force and this is being used to justify attacks on civilians by Burmese forces. Aung San Suu Kyi, long-time leader of the National League for Democracy who won elections in 1988 but was prevented from taking power by a military coup and is now foreign minister, has mouthed the military-dominated government’s line and been condemned by many of her former liberal allies in the West. There have been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded, although there is no mechanism for this to happen.

I first became aware of the situation in Burma as a teenager, when I saw full-page adverts from Amnesty International which described the campaign of rape, torture and murder against Muslim civilians by the Burmese army in the early days of the second period of military dictatorship (then known as SLORC, or State Law and Order Restoration Council; they have used various other names in the period since the 1988 coup). The one I remember had the headline “The soldiers who crucified her husband and raped her 12-year-old sister to death will do it again, and again, and again. And there’s nothing we can do to stop them”. It described how a woman and her sister were imprisoned with a group of other Muslim women by soldiers who would pick a woman every day and rape her in front of the others. The sister eventually died of a seizure and the mother was released. The accompanying article said that the Burmese military did not care what Amnesty or anyone else thought of their butchery.

At the same time, AI were championing ASSK as a ‘prisoner of conscience’. At the time, she was being held under house arrest unless she decided to leave the country. She was the daughter of Aung San, a founding general of the Burmese army, premier of the British Crown colony of Burma and founder of the Burmese Communist Party (assassinated just before independence) and clearly got special treatment from the military regime; other high-profile political prisoners got far worse treatment from some less extreme dictatorships than Burma’s. Almost any time the dictatorship was mentioned in the British media, she was the only prisoner mentioned by name (on one occasion, U Nu, prime minister before the 1962 coup and also a popular spiritual leader) was mentioned in AI’s publication as a POC). No coincidence that she had spent much of her adult life living in Britain and America, that she had a British husband and two sons living in the UK and having a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Oxford University. Despite retaining Buddhist beliefs, she was obviously very westernised and quite photogenic from a western point of view.

I never trusted her. In the manner in which she rose to (near-)power, she follows the same pattern as so many other female Asian politicians such as Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Megawati Sukarnoputri, namely being the daughter or widow of a dead (usually assassinated) male politician or “great leader”. She had two sons who were still children when she left the UK for Burma in 1988. Admittedly, she travelled initially to look after her own mother, but remained there for twenty years for vain political reasons and missed not only their adolescence but also her husband’s terminal illness. Apparently this was ‘the deal’ when she married Michael Aris in 1972 — that Burma had the ‘first claim’ on her — but her sons weren’t around when the ‘deal’ was made. I can’t admire a mother who chose not to be a mother to her children before they become adults; I’m not going to say “a woman’s place is in the home” (although that has proven to be her place for the intervening two decades, just not the home where her children live), but a mother’s place should be fairly close by. If she had been allowed to take office within a few years, the sacrifice could have been said to have been worth it, but she stayed in the country for more than 20 years and the rewards — becoming a minister in a military-dominated government at a time when persecution was turning into outright genocide — were so miserable. Yet her saintly reputation was promoted until recently, as well as the notion that there really was nobody to lead except her — and, of course, no other opposition leaders were ever given coverage in the western media. Did ASSK spend any of her time in exile building a government in waiting? If not, why is she considered the person to lead Burma?

As for the Nobel Peace Prize, there have been so many undeserving recipients over the years and at the time, ASSK did apparently merit it, in as much as any other recipient had — more so perhaps than Arafat and Rabin, or that friend of the Duvalier family and abuser of the sick, Mother Theresa, or Henry Kissinger. Many of them have not been people who devoted their lives to the cause of peace but people who had contributed to both war and peace. That said, is being an opposition leader who had not taken to arms despite the vicious nature of the regime she was opposing really that admirable? General Ne Win and SLORC were not the British Raj; they were not a regime with a conscience and did not have to answer to a public “back home” that would not tolerate massacre. ‘Peaceful’ resistance is always the type of ‘resistance’ powerful people preach to those they want to see crushed, and sometimes the only way to combat oppression is to combat it, in the traditional fashion.

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from Matthew Smith (no relation) of Fortify Rights, a human rights group which monitors the situation in Burma, saying “We condemn all attacks. Context: The vast majority of Rohingya militants in Myanmar carry sticks & knives. Myanmar Army carries an arsenal.” I responded that I supported the Rohingya’s right to fight back as they were being persecuted in their only home country and rejected by all their neighbours. I got a flood of tweets from people (or bots) supporting the Burmese regime, claiming that “they are just invaders from border, no more ethnicity” (sic), “#Myanmar have every right to fight back as they are being killed by bengali in myanmar country and rejected by all world media” and similar sentiments, echoing the line of the regime in Naypyidaw (the military regime’s new capital). I don’t play the condemnation game on Palestine and I won’t play it about the Rohingya either, and the situation in Arakan is far worse than in Palestine and has been for decades. The obligation for peacefulness and law-abidingness doesn’t apply when the ruling power is neither and there is nowhere else to go. The argument that “they came from over the border” is not valid even if true, as they came generations ago. They were citizens of Burma, serving in Parliament before the 1962 coup, until 1982 when the military dictator Ne Win excluded them.

Right now, the Rohingya’s best hope is to be taken in by surrounding countries, particularly Muslim countries of which there are many — Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan (I won’t count the Maldives as they have severe environmental pressures); it is possible that Turkey will also accept some. There is a case to be made for military action against Burma, as they will not desist from persecution and violence against the Rohingya if left in charge of their homeland, but between them they can absorb a million Rohingya and if the government also persecutes the Rohingya Hindu minority, India can take those. We cannot rely on the remote prospect of genuine democratic reform in Burma itself as the military are unwilling to give up power and the population has been subject to decades of propaganda from the regime as well as from monks sympathetic to a Hindu-style nationalism. But the wider world has a responsibility to the Rohingya and the Muslim countries of the region must take them in if they are unwilling to militarily guarantee their safety in their homeland. We as Muslims should be putting pressure on these governments to do one of these two things, as well as on our own governments to take in Rohingya refugees and to stop arming the Burmese regime. Of course, the United Nations cannot be relied on; they will not act to stop genocide and we will not even hear the word mentioned at the Security Council as it will mean action, which there has not been in the face of two genocides in the 1990s.

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