The colour dark brownby Mubin S Khan
THE Gujarat riots in 2002 began with the Godhra train burning. The London riots in 2011 began with the police shooting of Mark Duggan. The Los Angeles riots began with the police beating of Rodney King. Such has always been the nature of riots. One singular incident can blow the lid of decades, and sometimes generations, of suppressed anger, rage, hatred, animosity and tension. At Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state in western Myanmar, all it took was the gang rape and murder of an Arakanese woman, allegedly by three Muslim Rohingya men, to spark off once again the deeply divisive sectarian strife between the Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in particular, and between Rohingyas and Burmese people in general.
The Rakhines reacted swiftly by killing 10 Muslim men travelling on a bus who had no relation to the incident. Then the Rakhine majority swooped on the Rohingyas living mostly in the northern towns of the state attacking them with knives, guns and daggers, setting their houses on fire, ransacking their places of worship. By the end of it — the violence began on June 8 and subsided by June 13-14 — more than two dozen people were dead, 2,500 houses burned down, 30,000 people dislocated.
This, of course, is nothing new for Rohingyas. In 1978, 200,000 of them had fled into Bangladesh to escape military operations and in 1991, another 250,000 fled under similar circumstances. In 1982 the Myanmar military junta stripped them of their citizenship of a country which recognises the citizenship of 130 different ethnic minorities. More than 800,000 Rohingyas, one of the largest groups of stateless people in Asia, now live an inhumane existence inside Myanmar; they are not allowed to travel, not allowed to own property, not allowed have more than two children.
What has been new for them, however, has been the attitude of their usual benefactors across the border and racial ancestors, Bangladesh. Tired of feeding nearly 300,000 visitors over two decades, tired of Myanmar’s refusal to take back ‘their people’ and tired of the international community’s failure to resolve the issue, the Bangladeshis this time stood strong guard over their shores sending back trawlers and boats carrying hundreds of Rohingyas who had painfully made their way across the sea in search of safety. While the Border Guards Bangladesh claim they have sent back around 728 people in 14 boats, the international media put the number at 1,000 to 1,500 Rohingyas.
Some Rohingyas, however, did manage to slip into the country, and carried over with them horror stories. At Gholapara, a fishing village on the coast of Bay of Bengal, a family of seven — three adults and four children — was being kept hidden by local families. ‘My husband, my son, and my son-in-law were all slaughtered in front of our eyes,’ said Nurjahan, left behind with her daughter, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. ‘They should have killed us as well.’ Another woman, Rehana Begum, escaped with two daughters, one aged three and the other one, from Sittwe but arrived in Bangladesh only with the younger one having lost the elder one while boarding the trawler. A 14-year-old boy, Md Hossain, was working at sea cleaning water off the deck of trawlers, when the violence began, and the last he saw of his parents was when his home lit up in flames from a distance.
It would appear that Bangladeshis, still better disposed to Rohingyas than their Burmese counterparts on account of their shared religion, are slowly subscribing to many of the low opinions held by their neighbours of the hapless Rohingya people. After all, familiarity breeds contempt and Bangladeshis have now known Rohingyas for more than three decades. The New York Times reported last week many Burmese people view Rohingyas as dogs, thieves, terrorists, ‘ugly as ogres’, urging the government to ‘make them disappear’. While Bangladeshis may still be holding back on the more harsher expletives, many now view Rohingyas as a ‘social malaise’, blaming them for drug trade, prostitution, illegal timber trade, smuggling, etc. ‘Since they moved here we have had a population explosion and we no longer find fishes in our rivers,’ a seemingly harmless comment from Zafar Alam, a local politician in Teknaf, Bangladesh, which nonetheless carry the seeds of larger discontent.
The etymology conundrum
OUR traditional shirt — the one we wear during Eids and Fridays — is called a punjabi, which would indicate that the dress possibly originated from that north-western province which runs along both India and Pakistan. But then in Punjab, where the dress is also fairly common, it is known as a ‘Bengali Kurta’.
This is, in many ways, the situation Rohingyas find themselves in. Almost all Muslims living along the northern towns of Rakhine state are invariably referred to as ‘Bengalis’ and not Rohingyas, all over Myanmar. Last week, as people from across the border crossed over to save their lives, the only word the local people in Teknaf used to refer to the visitors, was ‘Burmese’. Fascinatingly, most Bengalis seem completely oblivious to the close ethnic connection between Bengalis and Rohingyas, or deliberately avoid the issue, fearing that the Burmese people might offload the entire population on them once they admitted.
While the United Nations describes Rohingyas as people who have descended from Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Mughals and Pathans, in all likelihood, given their skin colour, language and lifestyle, the likelihood of them having descended from people who now constitute Bangladesh is fairly high. However, given the history of that part of the country — Chittagong was once part of the Arakan Kingdom — and while British rule in the subcontinent meant that people from Bengal travelled freely into what is now Myanmar and vice versa, such retracing of racial and geographical connection along the new maps of the world is rather futile.
Rohingyas, like most other peoples and races of the world, are people who travelled to the Rakhine state hundred years ago for better livelihood and have since settled there. It is outrageous, in the twenty-first century, to ask them to go back to where they had originated. That would be like asking the Americans descended from the English to go back to England, the West Bengal Indians originating from East Bengal to go back to Bangladesh, or the Mohajirs in Karachi to go back to India.
Why they are being asked to go back from a country which recognises 130 other ethnicities is also not clear. At one end there seems to be a political problem, where recognising them as ‘ethnic minorities’ would entail ‘territorial claims’ for the Rohingya people on the land of the Rakhine state, a situation not too different from the one where Bangladesh has refused to give ‘indigenous’ status to its ethnic minorities fearing great concessions in the future. But the resentment seems to run even deeper. According to the New York Times report last week, one Burmese diplomat once described Rohingyas ‘dark brown’ in comparison to the ‘fair and soft’ skin of the majority. The hatred towards Rohingyas appear to stem from religion, language, colonial resentment, nationalism and what is most surprisingly is how deep into the Myanmar society this resentment runs. Even a large section of pro-democracy activists who have suffered the wrath of the military junta over years appear to agree with the view that Rohingyas are not one of Maynmar’s accepted nationalities since they do not have any connection to the local languages and culture. Even the great Aung San Suu Kyi was oblique and evasive about the issue recently, saying ‘we have to be clear about the laws of citizenship and who is entitled to them.’
It would thus appear that the greatest crime of Rohingyas, the one that denies them a Myanmar citizenship, is that they look, feel and behave too much like Bengalis.
The bong connection
THE iconic photo of a Rohingya man on a boat at sea, begging for him and his family to be let in — which has since travelled around the world — has somehow managed to make Bangladesh look almost as bad as Myanmar during the five days of violence last week. The Bangladeshi government found themselves under immense pressure from international organisations — UNHCR, Human Rights Watch — and given their recent troubled history with international organisations and the West in general (read The World Bank and the alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project), the government was understandably extremely nervous. The top functionaries must be thanking their lucky stars that the Myanmar military stepped in on time.
Given both Myanmar and Bangladesh’s precarious situation in the world arena — the former trying to step out of its military past and the latter getting itself into troubled waters over the Dr Yunus issue — the conspiracy theories — that of someone trying to kill two birds with one stone — cannot be completely ruled out in this incident either.
On the local front, the Bangladesh government ignored its obligations to international law and justifiably faced the wrath of its own people. Many have drawn parallels to 1971, when Bangladeshis escaped to India to save their lives from the Pakistani military operations, and was looked after for nine months by Indians. Bangladesh has certainly failed on that front this time.
People who made three to four day journeys across sea were sent back immediately on another arduous journey back home. How many lives have been lost at sea, how many children suffered from hunger, how many were killed on their return — because of this unprecedentedly cruel decision — is still unknown. The Bangladesh government should have found a better way to deal with the issue.
But the Bangladeshi fear, I dare say, is also justified. In 1978, when the first group of Rohingya people arrived, Bangladeshis went out of their way to house and look after this people. But since then, the Myanmar junta has managed to send over 300,000 people of a race who are not anyways more than a million strong, and the fear that they are indeed succeeding in carrying out their design of offloading the entire population to Bangladesh has become a real fear. And Bangladesh would also not be unjustified in thinking that the international community also acquiesces to this plan, since, despite repeated requests from the Bangladeshi side to resolve the issue, all they have managed to do is to relocate 920 Rohingyas in different places around the world.
To be fair to Bangladeshis, however, on the ground in Teknaf, there was much compassion and empathy on display. Villagers living along the coast were angry at the border guards for refusing entry to ‘fellow Muslims’ who were under attack while there is good reason to believe that some of the border guards themselves took part in rescuing and hiding some of Rohingyas in very precarious situation or health inside the villages. It would also not be a stretch to imagine that the hard-line stand taken by the government in public was not necessarily the same message given to its functionaries down below. The government actually did not mind being sympathetic towards these people, as long as the Myanmar government and international community did not know about it and began taking advantage of it.
Being one of the most densely-populated nations on earth, Bangladesh can, of course, ill-afford to house another 800,000 people. After all, one of the reasons Bangladesh could never solve the Chittagong Hill Tracts issue is because it could not afford to give up 10 per cent of its land to one per cent of its population. But if Myanmar is hell-bent on kicking out these people who are ‘dark brown’, then Bangladesh might as well ask the ‘fair and soft’ skinned people to give up the land on which these people live so that we can at least afford to look after them.
Mubin S Khan is an assistant editor at New Age.
comments powered by Disqus