Long-standing demographic changes have pitted Buddhists against Muslims
A Rohingya refugee at Kutupalong refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia on Oct. 24. (Photo by AFP)
Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar has strong parallels with the genocide of ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda, one of the worst atrocities of modern times.
From April-July 1994, Hutu militias backed by the Hutu-majority government and military, massacred up to one million minority Tutsis.
The genocide was the culmination of long-time ethnic conflict in Rwanda, a small equatorial republic straddling central and eastern Africa.
It was triggered by the killing of then Rwandan Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana in an April 6 rocket attack on his aircraft.
Hutus blamed the Tutsi rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) for the attack.
Then RPF leader Paul Kagame, who is now the nation’s president, alleged it was Hutu extremists who staged the assassination as a pretext for genocide.
The International community stood aside as mass killings took place before the U.N. belatedly intervened to overthrow the murderous regime.
Lighter-skinned and taller than Hutus, Tutsis are widely considered to originally have been immigrants from Ethiopia.
Belgian colonists (1916-61) treated Tutsis as superior to Hutus.
Better employment and educational opportunities for Tutsis frustrated Hutus.
A similar pattern
In Buddhist Myanmar’s Rakhine State, dark-skinned Rohingya - who have their own religion, language and culture - also face persecution.
Rohingya were officially made stateless in 1982 when a military regime amended the nation’s Citizenship Act to exclude them.
They were branded as "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh.
The main perpetrator of bloody repression has been Myanmar’s military, but they have had collaborators.
Rakhine Buddhists, who once saw the military as an occupying enemy, came to regard Rohingya as a common scapegoat.
Hate-mongering extremist Buddhist monks constantly inflame public sentiment against Rohingya, including by concocted warnings of an "Islamic takeover" of Myanmar.
Promoting Islamophobia is part of a far-reaching political and economic agenda.
The latest crackdown on Rohingya following Aug. 25 terror attacks on security checkpoints by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents triggered an exodus of more 600,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.
The ARSA attacks were used in an attempt to justify what the UN brands "ethnic cleansing" in Rakhine.
It also acted as a distraction from the recommendations of a special report compiled by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who called for a review of the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Act.
Thus the scene was set the slaughter and exodus of Rohingya, perceived as an existential enemy along the same lines of what Hutus did to Tutsis in Rwanda.
Rakhine sectarian violence in 2012 radicalized Rohingya militants in the form of ARSA with attacks on Myanmar border police in October last year and again in August.
These are the key factors that have led to the most recent Rohingya exodus.
As in other parts of Britain's former colonial empire, so-called "divide and rule" tactics employed in what was then Burma reverberate to this day.
The British encouraged large-scale Muslim migration into Arakan, more commonly referred to now as Rakhine.
The primary motivations were political and economic, not least to secure profits from agricultural enterprises.
However, the demographic change also pitted Buddhists against Muslims.
That division was evident during World War II.
Muslims fought for the British against a push for independence, while Buddhists supported Japan in order to help drive the British colonial masters out.
The British did withdraw in 1948, but communal divisions had widened.
Some Rohingya leaders opted to join Muslim-majority Pakistan while others became insurgents to fight the Burmese military.
The military branded militants as "Bengali interlopers" who did not deserve citizenship.
Rohingya were portrayed by the military to Rakhines as a common enemy in keeping with colonial Britain’s divide and rule approach.
The Muslim presence in Arakan (Rakhine), an independent kingdom for some 2,000 years, can be traced back to the 8th century.
Arakan’s prosperity, peace and harmony has been eroded since a Burmese invasion and annexation in 1784 and British colonization of Burma in 1824.
The term Rohingya actually means "natives of Rohang," which is a Muslim name for Arakan.
The very name Rohingya is a symbol of Muslim influence in the region that Myanmar wants to erase.
The British drew the borders of India and Burma before departing. However, cross-border migration continued.
Pockets of Rakhine Buddhists still live in southern Bangladesh as citizens, something that has overwhelmingly not been afforded to Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Negligence and resistance
Rohingya have not always been welcomed in Bangladesh, with many who fled there in 1978 subsequently returning to Rakhine.
In 1992, a deadly crackdown forced about 250,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Eventually, most were repatriated through U.N. intervention, but about 30,000 Rohingya lacking personal documentation were left behind.
Nonetheless, Rohingya continuously trickled into Bangladesh. Even before the latest exodus, there were about 300,000 undocumented Rohingya refugees in the Muslim-majority nation.
Ordinary Bengali people of Bangladesh have traditionally been sympathetic to Rohingya as their language, culture and religion are similar.
However, successive Bangladeshi governments deliberately did not seek to improve their lives, fearing that doing so would encourage more to come.
In this vein, local aid groups were discouraged from helping undocumented refugees.
Three international organizations: Doctors without Borders, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid UK were allowed to provide assistance.
However, in 2012 Bangladesh sealed off the border and refused entry to boatloads of Rohingya fleeing sectarian violence in Rakhine.
The same year, all aid groups were banned from operating among undocumented refugees in the Cox’s Bazar area of southern Bangladesh.
The government of over-populated and impoverished Bangladesh defended that stance by saying it was not a signatory to a U.N. refugee convention and lacked resources to shoulder the burden.
By doing so, Bangladesh lost sight of its own past during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan when millions of people were killed and about 10 million fled to India as refugees.
Bangladesh’s negligence has worsened the suffering of Rohingya and forced them to travel to other countries using fake passports or undertaking perilous sea voyages.
Faced with poverty, some Rohingya resorted to militancy or criminality, including drug trafficking.
International community plays safe
Until 2012, the international community and media paid little attention to the Rohingya crisis. Even the Islamic world gave scant practical support to their beleaguered brethren.
The 2015 Asian "boat people" crisis finally put a spotlight on what had become a worsening crisis, but little was achieved by way of finding a long-term solution.
The tragedy came under scrutiny again last October when the military launched a deadly crackdown against Rohingya after police border posts were attacked, spurring a large exodus into Bangladesh.
Western governments have hailed Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi for her years of struggle to end military rule in Myanmar.
But since becoming the nation’s de facto leader she has fallen from grace internationally for failing to act against violent military repression of Rohingya.
Western governments continue to play it safe by not harshly criticizing her, citing the army’s tight control over security and defense affairs.
However, this international position is ridiculous given Suu Kyi’s popular mandate, the blessing of the West and foreign media attention.
She could at least act to stem the military atrocities, while trying to avoid a confrontation with the army, and attempt to influence domestic public opinion.
Instead, she has largely remained silent and defended Myanmar's hegemony.
The international community has in turn done too little to hold Myanmar accountable.
Powerful neighbors China and India continue to support Suu Kyi’s government in pursuance of their own political and economic interests.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has done likewise and so far the United States has shied away from any concerted action.
Muslim countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have publicly challenged Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas.
But doubts remain as to whether these nations have genuine sympathy for Rohingya or are merely using the issue to reap political dividends at home and abroad.
The time has come for all and sundry to face the Rohingya crisis head on.
History will be unforgiving if the plight of Rohingya becomes akin to that of the Tutsis in Rwanda.
It is sad that geo-political games are poised to decide whether many Rohingyas live or die.
Rock Ronald Rozario is Bangladesh Bureau Chief for ucanews.com and is based in Dhaka.
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