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Portraying Rohingyas as Jehadists

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: October 21, 2017 20:00:01 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:45


Since the latest round of genocidal attacks on the Rohingyas began on August 25 resulting in half a million Rohingyas already crossing border over to Bangladesh, there has been a concerted effort by Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the army with the full support of the Buddhist militias and the local media to portray them as terrorists in the mould of Jehadists (as understood in the contemporary Euro-American imagination).

The Rohingyas are portrayed as terrorists out to kill Myanmar soldiers and civilians. This is a view now constantly espoused by the Myanmar government under the leadership of ASSK. ASSK and her government do not recognise the Rohingayas as an ethnic group and blamed violence in the Rakhine state and continuing genocidal attacks on those they call "terrorists''. This view is being more vigorously canvassed since October, 2016 when a small insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), armed with machetes and other primitive arms, staged an attack on police posts in Rakhine. 

According to the UN, 87,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh as a result of the army's attacks on civilian Rohingyas as well as resulting from torching Rohingya villages in the wake of the ARSA attack in October, 2016.  Then in late August this year about 150 ARSA insurgents attacked a number of police posts in Rakhine state. But the attacks were a tactical failure as six times more insurgents were killed compared to the number of police. But it was a strategic victory by causing the army to react. The Myanmar army responded the way they always do. They went on a "clearance operation'' without the slightest regard for human lives. In essence the army carried out pogroms. In the days following the Myanmar army's genocidal attacks, refugees started to cross into Bangladesh. Now it is estimated that about half million refugees crossed into Bangladesh since August 25.

It is not surprising that a Rohingya insurgency has emerged after years of brutal massacres committed by the army, denial of citizenship rights and any other legal protection thus depriving them of basic human rights. The Rohingyas have been forced to flee their homes in Rakhine state. Their houses were put on fire. The UN Human Rights Council and other independent human rights organisations have documented the persecution of Rohingyas. Agence France Press (AFP) was told by the doctors working for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that they had found scores of Rohingya women who have fled to Bangladesh were subjected to rape and they were treating them for injuries consistent with horrific sex attacks. 

As almost half a million Rohingyas have already fled to Bangladesh, ASSK and the army are now out to project the Rohingayas as "terrorists'' of the Jehadist variety by colouring the whole conflict with religious overtone. Historically the conflict is not rooted in religious differences but in ethnic differences where the identity of the Rohingyas as an ethnic group is completely denied by the Myanmar state. Just look at ASSK's speech on September 09; she never used the word Rohingaya in her speech, instead chose to refer to them as Muslims only.  Given her speech was directed at the international community, she knew exactly which constituency she was appealing to bring to her side in light of the current political discourse on Islam in Europe and North America.  Penny Green, a Professor of Law at Queen Mary University, London pointed out that ASSK's connecting the Rohingyas to the ARSA as behaviour common among those targeting an ethnic group. She further added that ASSK's address was dangerous and filled with underlying denials and was "typical of the way state criminals behave''.

ASSK went further to brand ARSA as a terrorist outfit bent on a mission to kill Myanmar people, more precisely by implication, branding the Rohingyas as Jehadists. Her whole strategy was that this was the only identity (Jehadists) that will be attached to the Rohingyas.  Some Myanmar state functionaries went as far as to accuse ARSA of being bent on establishing an "Islamic State''. Such claims have no objective basis; only 3.0 per cent of Myanmar's population is Muslim of which the Rohingyas constitute two-thirds, while 90 per cent are Buddhists. She also blamed the group of acting against the benevolence of the government and the army.  She then went on to say her government needed time to figure out what the rest of the world already knows - thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing from the genocidal attacks. 

Though ARSA was clearly responsible for some of the violence, most of the violence in Rakhine state was perpetrated by the Myanmar army and state-supported Buddhist vigilante groups. In a video statement the ARSA leader, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, clearly stated that ARSA was established in response to army, paramilitary and vigilante atrocities committed against the Rohingya community. He further outlined the objective of ARSA would be to defend the Rohingya people from dehumanised oppression by all successive Burmese regimes. ARSA will continue to pursue "legitimate self-defence''. He further declared that their long-term goal is the peaceful coexistence of Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhine. ARSA also released a statement in March, 2017 where it stated that it was obliged to "defend, salvage and protect the Rohingya community''. ARSA further stated that it would do so "with our best capacities as we have the legitimate right under the international law to defend ourselves in line with the principle of self-defence''.

This must be emphasised that many argue that ASSK is constrained by the Myanmar army to act but that argument becomes untenable when one considers that  she herself described her current position  of "state counsellor'' as  "above the president''. But the 2008 constitution clearly placed the president as the head of government in a hybrid democratic system of which she is now an integral part.  In all practical terms she is in charge of the government, to suggest otherwise is hypocritical. She and her government continue not to recognise the Rohingyas as an ethnic group, a group considered as the "most persecuted minority in the world'' by the UN. Many refer to ASSK's past remarks about "global Muslim power" and her purging of all Muslims from the ranks of NLD (her own party which is now in power in Myanmar) parliamentary candidates in 2015 indicate fairly clearly that she herself personally subscribe to anti-Muslim prejudices. 

 More disturbing is the report by the BBC and the Guardian that the UN leadership in Myanmar tried to stop the Rohingya rights issue being raised with the government by Human Rights groups. The report also mentioned that the UN head in Myanmar tried to prevent human rights advocates visiting sensitive Rohingya areas.  Such a policy stand by the UN head in Myanmar is at odds with the UN Secretary-General's view on the Rohingya crisis. This stark contrast between the local UN representative and the UN Secretary-General does not bode well for the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine or the UN itself.

However, ASSK is not alone in her endeavour to brand the Rohingyas as Jehadists, she has support even in her immediate neighbourhood but not elsewhere. This support obviously came quite very openly and readily from the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has already distinguished himself as instrumental in the massacre of Muslims while he was the chief minister of the state of Gujrat in India in 2002. He and the party (BJP) he represents make no secret about their anti-Muslim sentiments making BJP and NLD ideological twins. Naturally he fully endorsed the ASSK's view that the Myanmar army's response in the Rakhine state was in response to "extremists' attacks'' i.e. attacks from the Jehadists. Modi visited Myanmar immediately after the genocidal attacks against the Rohingyas started and praised ASSK's "courageous leadership'' and issued a joint statement in which he promised to work with her to solve the "terrorist problem''. Many observers now believe that Modi's political rehabilitation by the West has also emboldened ASSK to get on with her government's genocidal atrocities against the Rohingyas.

At home in India, the Deputy Home Minister Kiren Rijiju went even further by declaring India would deport all Rohingya refugees including those registered with the UNHCR. Rijiju's Home Ministry also concluded that Rohingya refugees and others deemed as illegal immigrants were responsible for the rise in terrorism in India and recommended to deport them as they pose security threat to the state. 

State sovereignty remains the core principle of international relations but that does not help the stateless like the Rohingyas. ASSK is using the shield of sovereignty to flout international law and disregard the rights of the Rohingyas. This makes her a state criminal. As her NLD-led government continues to perpetrate genocidal atrocities against the Rohingyas, she is likely to graduate into an even higher level international criminal in the eyes of international law and the international community.

There are other ethnic conflicts in Myanmar which reflect the crisis-ridden nature of Myanmar as a state. The rising Bamar Buddhist chauvinism created a culture of pervasive prejudice against the Rohingyas with complete state support. In effect the Bamar Buddhist chauvinism has become the state ideology, an ideology now is also embraced by NLD. The current NLD-led government - as Burmese governments in the past -continues to refuse to make the necessary concessions to accommodate minority ethnic groups, including the Rohingyas, to build a multiethnic cohesive society. Instead, they continually resort to impose their vision by force. In the process, the Rohingyas have suffered - and continue to suffer - most harshly because their claim to ethnic minority status is not even recognised while other ethnic minorities have this recognition.    

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.

muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

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