In search of a white wash and some cheer leaders
By Fazlur Rahman Chowdhury
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has been ruled by military dictators for a long time. In today’s world it is difficult for such a military government to stand at par with the governments of other civilized democratic countries. As the time went on, pressure started mounting on the military government in Myanmar to change. There was uproar from all corners of the world demanding the release of Ang San Suu-Kyi, the pro-democracy leader under house arrest. Ms Suu-Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle/ movement for democracy. World leaders started going to Myanmar and meeting the imprisoned leader for democracy. The military junta now realized that they were more or less isolated and they had to do something about it. They hastily drafted a constitution and got a referendum on it. They also released Ang-San Suu-Kyi and allowed a general election. People of Myanmar approved the constitution because of only one reason – something better than nothing. But the military would not allow a total return to democracy. They made sure that Suu-Kyi can neither become the head of the state or the head of the government (because she had married a foreigner). They made sure the one-third of the seats in the parliament is kept reserved for the armed forces so that the constitution can never be altered or modified. They kept a surprising provision in the constitution that the defence and interior ministry will be headed by armed forces personnel. Suu-Kyi’s party won a land-slide victory. This proved to the world at large as to how popular she was. In a way the military was defeated. That was the weak point for the military. Suu-Kyi should not have agreed to form a government and should have continued her struggle for total democracy. With support at home and abroad, she would have brought total victory for the people. This should have been the final defeat for the military.
That was not to be the case. The military leaders held a series of meetings with Suu-Kyi. God knows better what they told Suu-Kyi, she surrendered to the lure of immediate glamour. She formed a government in conformity with the constitution. Nothing changed. The military still runs the country. Rather they now got the benefit of doing so under a so-called democratic government. Suu-Kyi is helpless – very much a toy in the hands of the military. She has become their spokesperson. She is trying to support what the military has so far done and also trying to shield the military against all blame.
Military governments all over the world would like to divert people’s attention to problems other than those relating to democracy. The military junta in Burma (now Myanmar) created two such issues to keep public attention diverted away from democratic movements. They were Kachin and Karen fighters in the North-East and Rohingyas in the South-West. In the days of the Kingdom of Arakan (long before Arakan was annexed by Burma), substantial Muslim population from the then East Bengal (mostly from Chittagong region) migrated to Arakan and settled there. When the military took over the reign of Burma, these Arakan Muslims were already well settled there. They were more prosperous than locals and most of the business belonged to them. That is why it was easy for the military to incite the locals (majority Burmese Buddhists) against the Rohingyas – as if the locals would become rich overnight if they could get rid of the Rohingyas. The military succeeded in creating an enmity and rift between the two communities. With the support of the majority Buddhists, the military introduced a Nationality Act in 1984 in which they tactfully stripped the Ro- hingyas of their nationality. The Nationality Act was followed by a number of harsh and cruel actions against the Rohingyas. Since 1984 the Rohingyas are not allowed any business permit or licence. Because of government restrictions neither the state (including the local government) nor any private employer would employ them. They are not allowed to open any new bank account. Their children do not get admission in state run schools. Rohingyas do not get any state run hospital or medical facility. Inter-racial weddings are forbidden and they cannot get married unless prior permission is obtained. It is also believed (I am not very sure) that Rohingya couples required government approval for taking any children. They were totally isolated and outcast. Out of need for basic necessities they started selling of their land and other properties at whatever price they could get. As the days went on for the Rohingyas it was a question of survival. They survived by cultivating small plots of land they still had and by helping each other. Some worked illegally for Burmese employers for whatever wages the employers gave.
The younger generations of Rohingyas grew up without any education or skill. Instead of contributing to the economic growth of their home land they became a liability to the state. They also remain a liability to any country that happens to accept them as new immigrants. In their own home land Myanmar they are routinely subjected to torture and harassment. They still remained there because they have no place to go. It was at this stage that Ang San Suu-Kyi became the so-called head of the civilian government. By then about three hundred thousand Rohingyas fled from Myanmar and entered Bangladesh.
Bangladesh was delighted to see Suu-Kyi coming into power. It looked forward to a solution of the Rohingya crisis. But it was not to be. The eye wash democracy had very little power for the civilian government. Besides, Suu-Kyi had personal reasons to dislike the Muslims. It is known that during her student life in Oxford she had a Pakistani Muslim friend. She was in love with him. The Pakistani fellow achieved tremendous academic success and returned to Pakistan later to become a top diplomat and civil servant. Suu-Kyi only obtained a degree without any distinction and hurriedly married Michael Aris trying to forget about her unsuccessful affairs with the Pakistani. When the BBC reporter Mishal Hussain turned up for Suu-Kyi’s interview, she said, “I knew about a BBC reporter but did not know about a Muslim journalist”. This clearly shows her bitterness towards the Muslims. In her new role Suu-Kyi was trying to please her military masters. The military expected her to support its action and hide the atrocities. As State Counsellor it became her primary duty to support all military actions and work in total harmony with the military. Just to convince the world that Rohingyas were never treated badly she appointed a commission with Mr. Kofi Annan as its head. Mr. Annan was persuaded in the best possible way to give a report to cover up the misdeeds of the military junta. Mr. Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations is a man of principle and he would not compromise for anything. He refused to white-wash and cover up the misdeeds. He exposed all the truth. That was a serious blow to the military junta in Myanmar who still held the real power.
On 25th August 2017 as Mr. Kofi Annan was addressing the press conference to outline the findings of his commission, the Myanmar military started its new offensive against the Rohigyas. It was in fact their vengeance against Annan report. Their military operation is officially to crush the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), an imaginary armed wing of the Rohingyas. This way they could justify their action at home and abroad. They attacked villages one after another killing all young men, raping all the young women and then burning down their home and belongings. The rising smoke was clearly visible from across the border in Bangladesh. The local Buddhists thugs joined in the operation. They looted whatever came their way. The innocent Rohingyas ran for their lives – another 800,000 of them entered Bangladesh. By the end of the year the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh numbered well over a million. It is estimated that another 50,000 or more may have been slaughtered by the Myanmar Army and yet over 10,000 may have drowned trying to cross the border. Several mass graves have been found recently. It was an ethnic cleansing of unprecedented scale. The Myanmar military have been trying to remove all traces of habitat by clearing out those villages but the scars are distinctly visible. They also mined the border with Bangladesh heavily so that the Rohingyas or even the Bangladesh Army cannot cross so easily.
Surprisingly Aung San Suu-Kyi remained silent as if nothing happened. She was still trying to justify military action by saying that security operation had to be taken to flush out the armed miscreants. But the world knows the truth. In today’s world of technology where even mobile phones can take pictures and short clippings nothing can be hidden so easily. BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeerah TV channels have exposed the activities of the Myanmar military. World leaders have visited the refugees in Bangladesh and the aid agencies have come forward with food, medicines and other essentials. Having failed to get anything through Mr. Kofi Annan, Aung San Suu-Kyi sought the help of Mr. Bill Richardson of USA. After a quick assessment of the real situation Mr. Richardson resigned from the mission. Mr. Richardson openly said that he could not cover-up the atrocities done by the army by any white-wash and that he could not be a cheer leader in support of the Myanmar army. He further said that Suu-Kyi was an isolated leader not aware of the real situation. He advised her to get involved in the real solution instead of looking for white-wash and cheer leaders. A few days later British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited some of the villages abandoned by Rohingyas. He asked his Burmese escorts as to why the villages were burnt. They tried to tell him that the Rohingyas themselves burnt it before leaving. Boris smiled and said that he could not believe that.
Under world pressure Myanmar agreed to take back the refugees. They even signed an agreement with Bangladesh to that effect. However, in practice they are adopting a slow and lengthy process raising too many irrelevant questions. The Myanmar military know it very well that the visit of world leaders will slowly come to an end. The international relief efforts cannot continue for long because there are other burning pots like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. They think with the passage of time this will be forgotten and they could get rid of a million people after depriving them of all their belongings. Even when the Myanmar cabinet minister visited Bangladesh in the middle of February 2018, the military continued their operation forcing more Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh. It looks very difficult if Myanmar would ever take back the Rohingya refugees.
The only just and peaceful solution is to implement the Annan report. The report suggests repeal of 1984 Nationality Act and grant full citizenship to all Rohingyas who had been living in Myanmar for generations. It also requires all business and properties owned by Rohingyas be returned to them. The isolation of Rohingyas must end immediately. They must be given equal rights and privileges including education, health-care and employment. All discriminatory laws must be considered against humanity and be annulled immediately. The government must take and encourage all measures for total social integration. The United Nations should adopt a resolution endorsing Annan report and appoint a High Commissioner to oversee completion of the project. The international community should be requested to provide financial support in this effort.
There is no alternative to Annan report. Failure to achieve a peaceful resolution will mean disaster for Bangladesh, Myanmar and for the region as a whole. The crisis is deepening. There has been no progress towards any solution. This may eventually threaten peace and security of the region. The world community got to do something before it is too late. The peace-loving innocent Rohingyas have undergone lot of suffering. They are confined in camps. Bangladesh, the most densely populated state in the world cannot accept more than one million refugees. It cannot go on like that. It will explode. It will be a question of do or die. Nobody can prevent rise and growth of militancy that will spill over the region. ARSA may become a reality and the military junta in Myanmar will repent rest of their life for creating the problem. It could be another burning issue like Kashmir and Palestine. Let us hope good sense prevails. Let us find the just and peaceful solution of the problem. I hope the Myanmar military realises its mistake and tries to rectify the situation. I also hope that democracy returns to Myanmar not only for their own well-being but for the region as a whole.
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.