Almost 400,000 Rohingyas have now poured into Bangladesh following the latest Myanmar military attack on the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. United Nation agencies estimate that the figure is likely to reach 1.0 million by the end of the year. According to the Amnesty International (AI), the Myanmar military has also been accused of planting land mines in the path of Rohingyas fleeing from the military attack. The AI further indicated that the Myanmar security forces are deliberately targeting locations that Rohingya refugees use as crossing points. It now appears that the Myanmar army is not only using shooting by soldiers and arson attacks on Rohingya villages but also anti-personnel mines and other explosives are also being used to kill fleeing Rohingyas. The UN Human Rights Chief described the violence against the Rohingya as "seems a text-book example of ethnic cleansing". The UN secretary-general Antonion Gutteres described it as "humanitarian catastrophe''.
But the Myanmar media response of the ferociously genocidal attacks on the Rohingyas has been approving and quite hostile towards the plight of the Rohingyas who happened to be Moslems in this overwhelmingly Buddhist-majority country. What has happened to Buddhism, the religion of tolerance and universal brotherhood, a theme popularised in the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg? And also remember Keanu Reeves in Bertolucci's Little Buddha. But the history tells us a tale which is very different from the Orientalists discourse (in the Edward Saidian sense) and popular culture. History provides numerous examples from the ancient to the modern times of violent intolerance legitimised by Buddhist doctrines and conducted by practitioners. Many Jain and Brahmanical texts speak of persecution at the hands Indian Buddhists. With the advent of the idea of nationalism, Buddhist monks in Japan fully came in support of Japanese military campaigns against Russia and invasions and occupation of Korea and China where Buddhism from their perspective had been corrupted and needed purification. In more recent times nationalised bigotry and violence have been perpetrated by Buddhist monks and lay persons in Sri Lanka against Tamils and Muslims. Now Myanmar has come to light for perpetrating genocidal violence against non-Buddhists, in particular Rohingya Muslims. In fact, Buddhist extremists wield significant power and influence on state machines in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority and a majority of an estimated one million of them in Myanmar live in Rakhine state, where they account for a third of the population. The generally accepted etymological root of the word Rohingya is derived from Rahang which means "Arakan'' in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya which means "from''. This clearly indicates the ethnic identity of Rohingyas is tied to the land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom. Their Kingdom of Arakan dates back to the 8th Century. In the centuries that followed the inhabitants of this kingdom came in contact with Arab traders and learned about Islam and in the course of time became a Muslim-majority region. Arakan is now Myanmar's present-day Rakhine state. It is also important to note that Rakhine was and still is the poorest region in Myanmar with a poverty rate of 78 per cent compared to the national average of 38 per cent. The region's economic activity is completely reliant on agriculture and fishery.The port city of Sittwe is the only urban centre where some degree of industrial activity takes place. Sittwe is also the provincial capital.
Despite the very long history of Rohingyas living in what is now called Rakhine state, the Myanmar government refuses to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas effectively making them stateless. This denial of citizenship also goes in hand in hand with denial of movement, eviction, violence both physical and sexual, forced labour expulsion from their home, land and property. The UN has described the Rohingyas as the most persecuted minority in the world.
The convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide includes five acts. Any one of them when "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group'' amounts to genocide. With clearly declared purpose of destroying this ethnic group (Rohingyas) four of them have been practised by the Myanmar armed forces.
The initial influx of Rohingyas to Bangladesh dates back to 1978 with a large arrival in 1991-92. These refugees mostly live in two refugee camps managed by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and recognised by the Bangladesh government. But there is also a sizeable number of Rohingyas who are described as "undocumented Myanmar nationals''. Reports tend to indicate that Bangladesh in the past consistently maintained a policy of sending back refugees to Myanmar, including those who fled Myanmar army atrocities in the 1970s and 1990s. But those forced to return from Bangladesh found that there was no traces of old communities and their land have been appropriated by the groups favoured by the state. This generally led to further tension among the Rohingyas, who had 'returned', leading to renewed refugee flows back to Bangladesh and other South East Asian countries.
The August 2017 genocidal attack against Rohingyas in Rakhine state carried out by the Myanmar army triggered a new massive refugee influx into Bangladesh. However, this time around the Bangladesh government has been more helpful and accommodative than before. Also it appears that the Bangladesh government has taken more positive approach to Rohingya refugees since 2014 where undocumented Myanmar nationals (i.e. Rohingyas) humanitarian needs are also now recognised.
Furthermore, the UN Security Council has unanimously condemned the Myanmar government. The European Parliament has not only condemned the Myanmar government but also threatened targeted punitive actions. These should enable Bangladesh to undertake more vigorous diplomatic efforts to create further international pressure on the Myanmar military by imposing sanctions on the military and political leaders. These may include declaring them persona non grata to freezing their foreign bank accounts and limited trade sanctions. These should be the first step, but not the only step.
However, one person has become the centre of attention in this genocidal attack on the Rohingyas: Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). She is a Nobel Peace Laureate and she has been criticised for failing to speak out during the earlier waves of military and para-military violence and atrocities against the Rohingyas. This has become more so as her party National League for Democracy (NLD) swept to power in the election in late 2015. While recognising that the Myanmar army is a state within a state which limits her ability to act, this does not stop her to speak out. Instead her response has been in some cases keeping silent, and on many other occasions, denying the well-documented evidence and obstructing humanitarian aid. Information gathered by the AI clearly provides mounting evidence which suggests that the Myanmar army's actions are designed to eliminate the Rohingyas from Myanmar. But ASSK in an interview defended the genocidal attack by the armed forces and also denied any atrocities committed by them or any other groups. She shielded the armed forces from any criticism. More ominously she even tried to deny the very identity of the people who are victims of genocidal attacks of Myanmar armed forces by asking the US ambassador not to use the term Rohingaya. She upholds the 1982 Citizenship Law which denies the Rohingyas their citizenship rights in Myanmar.
ASSK herself is an integral part of the Myanmar ruling elite. Her father was a Japanese collaborator during the World War II, eventually becoming one of the leaders who secured the independence of the country. Her mother was a minister from 1948 to 1962. Her deputy in NLD is a former Chief of the Myanmar army. That also indicates her close relationship with the Myanmar armed forces. But like all other ruling elites in other countries, the Myanmar ruling elites, though factionalised, remain committed to the same political objectives. ASSK is just a politician and she knows which constituency she needs to keep on her side to be in power and it does not matter how unsavoury the constituency is. On the issue of her Nobel Peace Prize, there is no reason to make a big issue out of it simply because this prize was awarded to many well-known war criminals in the past and not unlikely not to be awarded in the future to the persons of similar ilk. She will just go down in history as another one of those war criminals.