By Fazlur Rahman Chowdhury
Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is a vast country of 676,550 sq. km. or 261,217 sq. miles on the north-east coast of Bay of Bengal. Basically it is between Bangladesh and Thailand though it has also long common border with India and China. Its population is only about 49 million. Majority are Buddhists. Next large population is ethnic Bengali Muslims and a small percentage of Indian Hindus. There are some Christians and Chinese in the north. Arakan in the west and south of Bangladesh had Muslim majority. Arakan, at one time, was part of Bengal. It is a country rich in mineral resources – oil, gas and precious stones. The land is fertile producing far more rice than what it needs. There are fishing resources – both sweet water fish as well as sea-fish. Burmese teak wood is very famous. Burma was a happy and prosperous country until 1962 when the military took power.
When the military removed the democratically elected civilian government in the then Burma, they thought they would remove all corruption and with no one to oppose their programmes, they would achieve miracle and win the heart of the people. General Ne-Win soon realised he was wrong. The military’s education and training fell far short of the requirement in the field of politics, economics and diplomacy. Instant nationalisation of banks, insurance, trade, commerce and industry created a big vacuum. The entrepreneur’s left the country and in most cases managed to get most of the capital out of the country. The military lacked the expertise necessary to fill the vacuum. There was no sense of direction. Foreign investors lost all confidence. Burma suffered diplomatic isolation.
Big cities bore the images of derelict buildings and structures. Poverty became wide spread. Store shelves were empty. Public health services collapsed. Inflation was sky high. Local currency lost its value. Big cities became prostitution dens. Despite all that poverty, the junta would arrange big military parade every year to show the public how the country was becoming a military power to suppress its own people – destroy freedom of speech, human rights, democracy and justice. Even the education sector suffered badly. I talked to many young Myanmar graduates and was disheartened to see their lack of knowledge. Yet the military junta introduced nuclear technology in several universities so that they can eventually develop nuclear bombs. People could not even leave the country so easy. The military would make big money even for issue of passports.
The military failed to achieve any success. The country got poorer day by day. To divert the attention of the poor hungry people the government decided to rename the country as Myanmar. That was not enough. They spent millions to build a new capital. The junta realised that they have to find some new reason for all their failures. The found that in the Muslims living in Myanmar. It reminds me of Hitler as to what he did with the Jews living in Germany. Another military dictator Idi Amin of Uganda did the same with Indians living in Uganda. Surprisingly he motivated and unified the Ugandans to get rid of Indians as if all problems would be solved as soon as the Indians leave. In practice, the country got poorer and eventually Idi Amin was dethroned. The military junta followed the example of Idi Amin. They carefully drafted a new Nationality Act in 1984 to deprive the Muslim population of their right of citizenship. Even though these people had been living in Burma for ages, they called them as infiltrator or intruders. They unified the majority Buddhists in their repression of the Muslims in the common acts of killing, burning, looting and raping. It was not confined in Arakan alone. The gold and jewellery business of Muslims in Yangon were over-night taken over by local Buddhists. The Muslims were deprived of basic rights – no licenses for trade, no bank account (in fact their accounts were confiscated), no educational facilities for their children and no medical facilities. Thousands of them were pushed to Bangladesh. Others were taken into concentration camps set up by the government. They re-named Arakan as Rakhain and they started referring to their Muslim population as Rohingas.
It is interesting to note that Bangladesh has a large Buddhist community who enjoy equal rights as their Muslim neighbours. Malaysia has a large population of Chinese and Indian Hindu ethnicity. In Singapore there are three state languages – English, Mandarin and Tamil. Yet, in the same region the Muslims in Burma/ Myanmar are subject to ethnic cleansing. Muslims, Hindus and Christians had been living peacefully in Burma for ages. Ever since the military take-over in Burma in 1962, people had been trying to leave Burma and there is no question of any new immigrant. The 1984 Act has been created deliberately to push out the Muslims as infiltrators or to exterminate them.
Aung San Suu-Kyi was the daughter of a military officer during British rule. He was a great freedom fighter but died mysteriously just before the independence. Her mother was given a diplomatic role in Delhi and Suu-Kyi received good early education. The she went to UK for higher education where she met her husband. She was settled in the UK with her husband and two sons. However, she had to come to Myanmar to see her mother on death-bed. It was in Yangon when she went to Pagoda, a large group of people gathered chanting her father’s name. They did the same near her house. She got motivated and on the steps of Pagoda she declared before a cheering crowd that she would not leave them alone. She would be there to continue struggle for democracy. She never returned to the UK. Her husband died and yet she did not come out of Myanmar knowing that she would not be allowed to return. She became the symbol of struggle for democracy. The military junta put her under house arrest. The Nobel Peace Committee awarded her the Peace Prize.
Myanmar was facing diplomatic isolation. British Prime Minister and US President would visit Myanmar only to meet Suu-Kyi. The military got the message. They decided to give election for a civilian government. Here again, they carefully drafted a constitution by which the military will still retain their grip. The defence and internal security will remain with them. They will hold enough seats so that constitution cannot be amended. They made sure that Suu-Kyi can neither become head of the state nor head of the government. By the time of election the Rohinga issue was made a national issue. Suu-Kyi knew that if she opens her mouth on Rohinga issue, she would lose support of ordinary Myanmar Buddhists. She remained silent and won the election.
The military kept up the heat on Rohinga issue to maintain pressure on Suu-Kyi. Under military pressure, she refused to welcome an OIC (Organisation of Islamic States) mission. She even refused to accept a UN team. Finally, she appointed her own independent commission with Mr Kofi Anan of Ghana (former secretary-general of the UN). Mr Anan has the moral strength and power to stand above all considerations and identify the truth. His recommendations are:
- The 1984 Nationality Act was not fair; it must be reviewed;
- The Rohinga Muslims cannot be stripped of their citizenship;
- Their isolation in concentration camps is wrong;
- Confiscation of their property is wrong and unlawful;
- They must enjoy equal rights for business, education and health-care;
- All sorts of terror including killing, burning, looting and rape must be stopped;
- All discrimination must end and government should assist social integration.
Long live Kofi Anan. No sooner Mr Anan submitted his report, the military along with local thugs renewed their suppression and oppression against the Muslims. This time the military came with a new theory. According to them armed militia group attacked security forces and that they are doing a clean-up operation. Myanmar military is trying to justify their hold on power. Since 1977, the Myanmar military has been pushing and chasing Muslims to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is world’s most densely populated country. It cannot accept any more refugees. Bangladesh is also trying to push them back to Myanmar. The question is: where will they go?
The freedom fighters of Palestine, Kashmir and Arakan are not terrorists. They are soldiers of human rights and democracy. They shall win.
Under pressure from the military, Suu-Kyi is still towing their line. It is time she should have the moral courage to stand for the truth. She cannot hide the truth. Her silence will tarnish the Nobel Peace Prize, as stated by Malala, the youngest winner of Nobel Peace Prize. Suu-Kyi should openly declare her intention to implement the Kofi Anan report. The Rohinga crisis is a creation of Myanmar military. Suu-Kyi has a chance to resolve the matter politically. That is the only solution. Otherwise one day Myanmar is likely to lose Arakan/ Rakhain.
A clash with the military has to take place now. Nowhere in the world the Constitution keep the elected government answerable to military. It should be challenged in the Supreme Court. If Suu-Kyi cannot establish rule of law then she should resign. She should not make mockery of democracy.
As it stands today, there are 650,000 Rohinga refugees in Bangladesh. Another 150,000 are there in different concentration camps. About 50,000 young Muslims have been killed by military. Villages have been burnt and women raped. The UN, USA, UK, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Maldives have condemned the Myanmar government for its atrocities. Indonesia, Turkey and its President Erdogan deserve the praise for their pioneering role. Surprisingly Saudi Arab, Pakistan and India are silent.
The OIC should convene an emergency meeting and draw a resolution boycotting all trade and investment with Myanmar. The United Nations should condemn the atrocities and impose sanctions against Myanmar until a political solution is achieved. Mean time all donor agencies should come to Bangladesh to provide humanitarian assistance. We must not forget that generations of Rohingas are growing up without any education – total liability on the land they live in.
Fazlur Rahman Chowdhury was the Commandant of the Marine Academy and then Director General of Shipping in Bangladesh. He graduated from Juldia Marine Academy and World Maritime University. He pursued a career as a merchant ship cadet. He eventually retired from the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency.