Rohingyas should not take any suicidal decision

Weary Rohingya trudging from Myanmar's Rakhine state to Ukhia, Bangladesh.Prothom Alo file photo

 Evicted from their own land, the marginalised Rohingyas in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, have long been fleeing into Bangladesh. Due to the persecution of the military junta and the local people, a large number of the Rohingya population left the border-lying Arakan state (later known as Rakhine) and took shelter in Bangladesh. General Ne Win was the military ruler of Burma, that is, Myanmar, at the time. And Bangladesh’s president had been Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman.

The Rohingyas couldn’t remain for long in Bangladesh at the time. It is said that on the basis of direct bilateral talks between Bangladesh head of government at the time and Ne Win, it was possible to send them back. In a matter of one and a half years, 180,000 Rohingyas were sent back.

Even after that, the Rohingya people were repressed by the military junta from time to time. But in 1992 the persecution of the Rohingyas increased once again. At the time, around 300,000 Rohingyas left their homes and came into Bangladesh. After two years of efforts, it was possible to send back a section of the Rohingyas. The rest remained in Bangladesh.

But the biggest influx of the Rohingyas took place in 2017. They are still residing in Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar. Seven years have passed since then. It is estimated that around 1.2 million to 1.4 million Rohingyas are sheltered there at present. The number of children has increased over these seven years. Kutupalong is known to be the largest refugee camp in the world at present.

The manner in which the Rohingyas were evicted in 2017 was one of the most barbaric killing sprees in the world, even internationally recognised as genocide. The Rohingyas were identified as outsiders with the passage of Myanmar’s Citizenship Act in 1982. When martial law was declared in 1962 in Myanmar, the citizenship of Rohingyas was denied, but their voting rights were not officially snatched away. However, after the Citizen’s Act was declared in 1983 they lost that scope too.

Rohingyas were not even included in Myanmar’s latest population census. As a result, it is not possible to determine the actual number of Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. Taken the last census into consideration, it is estimated that the Rakhine state is home to around 1.5 million to 2 million Rohingyas. Most of them live to the north of the Kaladan river in North Rakhine, along the border with Bangladesh.

Based on estimates, it is said that around 600,000 homeless Rohingyas have been kept interned in various camps in North and South Rakhine. Outside of Bangladesh, there are around 300,000 Rohingyas living as refugees in Australia and South and Southeast Asia. Around 150,000 are living in Malaysia and 40,000 in India. There are many Rohingyas in Europe and the United States too. The fact is that the Rohingyas are not only becoming a stateless people, but their very existence is at stake.

The main objective behind luring the Rohingyas into joining this war is to use them against the Arakan Army and their political organisation United League of Arakan (ULA). Notably, in these changed circumstances, the Arakan Army has expressed political will to give recognition to the Rohingyas

The Myanmar Citizens’ Act is both unwarranted and one of the most condemnable laws in the world. Under this law, only those whose ancestors were residents in Myanmar, that is, Burma, before 1823, will be counted as full-fledged citizens. Then there is acquired citizenship.

The question is, why was the year 1823 taken as the baseline? It was because in 1824 the British rulers of India, East India Company, began a war with India in 1824, known as the Anglo-Burmese War. There were many soldiers of Indian origin fighting in this war. They occupied and took over Assam, Manipur, Kachar, Jayantiya and Arakan from the Burmese rulers. There were toe more wars later through which the entire Burma was occupied and brought under British rule in 1887.

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The history of the Rohingyas, one of the major people of Rakhine, that is Arakan, dates back for thousands of years. However, instigated by the Burmese rulers, the majority Buddhist population there has deprived the Rohingyas of their fundamental rights. The Rohingyas were also misused by the British colonial powers.

The Rohingyas first fell victim to persecution in 1942 during the Second World War when Arakan went temporarily under Japanese rule. The Rohingyas were the mainstay of British army’s V Force at the time. As British army’s spies, the Rohingyas faced the ire of the local Arakan Buddhists who were collaborators of the Japanese. In the riots, Rohingyas were victims of genocide and rape and were driven from their homes. Most of them relocated from South Arakan to the North, along the border with present-day Bangladesh.

Due to their historical mistake, even after independence in 1948 the Rohingyas remained the target of the Arakanese Buddhists’ hatred. In 2012-17 the local people also joined in the extermination of the Rohingyas. There are now vibes of change. Presently the anti-junta National Unity Government (NUG) has been making commitments to give the Rohingyas citizenship of Myanmar. Under the leadership of NUG and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), other anti-junta ethnic groups are fighting against the government and now large portions of the country are under the anti-junta elements. NUG is in favour of making Myanmar into a federal state in future and give more autonomy to the various anti-junta groups.

At such a juncture the junta forces have become weak and cornered in Rakhine in the face of the Arakan Army’s onslaught. In order to tackle the situation, they have made it compulsory to join the armed forces. This has evoked widespread anger in Myanmar. Thousands of youth are trying to leave the country. There have been desertions from the armed force and the para military too.

With the Arakan Army growing strong in Rakhine, the Rohingya youth detained there in various camps are being forced and lured to join the military with promises of citizenship. The junta government wants to use the Rohingyas to confront the Arakan Army. Compulsory conscription does not apply to the Rohingyas as, according to the law, they are not citizens. And to give them citizenship, it will not be enough to change the law. The constitution will have to be amended.

The local Arakan leaders have issued notices saying the Rohingyas are being forced against their will to join the armed forces. It was reported that the cornered junta forces have taken away around 150 young Rohingya men from an IDP camp in Rakhine. The objective is to give them two weeks’ training and them use them as human shields in the battlefield.

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The main objective behind luring the Rohingyas into joining this war is to use them against the Arakan Army and their political organisation United League of Arakan (ULA). Notably, in these changed circumstances, the Arakan Army has expressed political will to give recognition to the Rohingyas. It has been learnt that a large number of Rohingyas in Rakhine are working with the Arakan Army, particularly with ULA.

The Myanmar junta forces are also luring the young Rohingya men in Bangladesh’s refugee camps with promises of citizenship. This was evident from the statements of a few so-called leaders in the camps. If the Rohingyas step into this trap of the junta, it will be suicidal. These leaders must remember the history of 1842-45.

Once the junta government is out of power, there is strong likelihood of a change in the type of rule in the Rakhine state. The Rohingyas will have to live there along with the Arakan Army and the local people. So before falling prey to the military’s temptations, the Rohingyas must take a lesson from history.

* M Sakhawat Hossain is former election commissioner and SIPG senior research fellow (NSU) and can be reached at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir