Like Myanmar, if every nation in South Asia sets out on a mission to reverse colonial-era history, the consequence will be horrendous
Hundreds of thousands were massacred; lakhs fled their homes and hearths for unknown destinations to save themselves and their loved ones from certain death in the cauldron of communal violence constantly simmering in Myanmar. While the stories of horror, emanating from the tiny nation bordering India on the east, evoked outrage world over, Myanmar Government seems to be unperturbed by the human tragedy in her neighbourhood, or, at least, this is the impression that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gave to the world while addressing UN General Assembly.
Choosing not to crticise bloody military crackdown carried out on the country’s Muslim minority in what could be known as the worst genocide unheard of in the recent past, she said she did not fear international scrutiny. The United Nations branded the development as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Rather than providing hope for the end of the problem Suu Kyi exacerbated it when she set an impossible term for repatriation of the people hounded out of the country. She called for “verification process” supposed to be based on a 1993 agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, a condition which is impossible to fulfill. Under the agreement, repatriation can be given to only those Rohingyas who are carrying Myanmar identity cards along with other documents issued by relevant Myanmar authorities as evidence of their residence in Myanmar.
It is obviously unlikely that all the 4,00,000 who fled the country in the wake of the bloodshed and arson are carrying their documentation with them. Under the circumstances, asking them to furnish all the documents as a precondition to be allowed in the country is a cruel joke.
The moot point is that Myanmar’s refusal to accept the Rohingya as citizens is at the centre of the current crisis. The Citizenship Act passed in 1982 makes it impossible for the Rohingya to acquire citizenship as they do not figure in the list of 135 Myanmar ethnic groups. What’s more, the government has revoked Temporary Residence Cards issued to the Rohingya in 1995 two years ago. Unless the complex citizenship issue is resolved favourably there is no end in sight to the woes of the Rohingya.
While anti-Muslim sentiment in the state goes back to the British era, the Rohingya issue is different in character.
The Rohingya are Bengali speakers and thus readily identified not only with Bangladesh, but with the Bengali world. At 250 million people, including Indian West Bengal, it is much more populous than Myanmar with its 60 million, let alone its Burmese core (which may only total 40 million).
This demographic issue lies behind the Myanmar’s obsession with Rohingya immigration into Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh and where most Rohingya live. It is also for that reason that the government has refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya — however long their families may have resided there. While Myanmar officials do not admit to racism based on skin colour and facial features, their language, dark skin with facial character matching with the people of the Indian subcontinent sets the Rohingyas apart from the local population with mongoloid features.
As for the issue of citizenship of the Rohingya, it is too delicate than it appears and unless handled with utmost discretion, it has the potential to spill over in entire Southeast Asia.
The forefathers of Rohingyas had arrived in Burma, today’s Myanmar during 150 years of British rule in India, of which Burma was its part. After the exit of the British, South Asian countries have accepted almost all colonial-era boundaries and demographic changes unconditionally irrespective of whether they were logical or illogical, advantageous to one ethnic, linguistic or religious group or disadvantageous to other.
Since independence from colonial rule, the Asian nations have wittingly or unwittingly staved off the issue of transnational immigrations that took place in the past. Any attempt to change the status quo to reverse the history is bound to open up the proverbial Pandora’s Box as it entails rejection of some population movements, if not all, that occurred in the past.
Like the Rohingya, a Muslim minority caught in a predominantly Buddhist nation with Buddhist monks having a nationalist political role since British rule, there are many ethnic groups in similar situation across the region. Hence, the Rohingya crisis should not be viewed from the prism of exclusively Muslim issue as it has the potential to widen the fissures already showing in the edifice of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Today Rohingyas are the target of the government in Myanmar, tomorrow it could be Bengalis or some other ethnic group. If every nation in the region, as also elsewhere in the world, sets out to place the history back to the pre-British era, it will lead to chaotic repercussions with different communities fighting off each other for dominance over one another and the consequent cycle of violence and mayhem.