There’s something heart-wrenching about watching grown-up men cry. Who can forget the image of a terrified Muslim tailor begging for his life with folded hands and tears in his eyes during riots in the Indian state of Gujarat 10 years ago as a frenzied mob bayed for his blood?
That iconic image of Qutbuddin Ansari — clicked by Reuters’ Arko Dutta — immortalised the artist and subject. It captured the horror of the 2002 genocide like nothing else did. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one certainly was. And more.
Since this madness in Myanmar began, one has come across dozens of such images of desperate men, women and children — fear writ large on their pinched faces — pleading with Bangladeshi border guards to allow them in. Thousands of bruised and battered Rohingya men, women and children have been gathering at Bangladesh’s border checkpoints and ports, only to find the doors shut in their face.
If the refugees thought a shared faith would guarantee them welcoming Bangladeshi arms, they were in for a shock. After all, the same bond of faith had failed to save thousands of Bangladeshis from being killed by their brothers in faith 40 summers ago.
No wonder no hearts have melted in Dhaka since the Rohingya, fleeing persecution and certain death in Myanmar, started arriving at the border. In a world where nation states have emerged as the new gods, in Iqbal’s words, and borders and passports the articles of faith, there’s no place for things like faith, humanity or old-fashioned kindness of strangers.
It’s probably unfair to blame Bangladesh though. As it is, the South Asian nation, amongst the poorest and heaviest populated in the world, has enough on its plate. It has already accommodated thousands of refugees fleeing terror and persecution back in Myanmar from time to time. Dhaka fears that if it opens the doors to new arrivals, the xenophobic mob next door will force the entire minority community out, adding to its backbreaking burden. This is hardly an unjustified concern considering this is precisely what Myanmar’s junta has repeatedly tried over the years.
The Rohingya are ‘non people’ as far as the Myanmarese state is concerned. They have ceased to exist since a 1982 law declared the entire community ‘illegal’ and divested it of all basic rights despite existing in this land for centuries. Arakan, the Muslim province bordering Bangladesh, had been incorporated into Burma following the invasion of King Bodawpaya in 1784.
As elsewhere in Asia and Africa, much of this mess is a colonial legacy. Myanmar has been a veritable hell for its minorities since the British departed, leaving the Rohingyas, Karen and other minorities to the mercy of the militant Rakhine groups.
And the Rohingyas, long vilified as the ‘dark outsiders’ in a yellow country, have suffered the most at the hands of the Myanmarese regime and Rakhine extremists. However, as the recent UN declaration on Myanmar points out, there are enough historical facts to show that the Rohingyas have lived in this land for centuries long before the British arrived and even before the formation of Myanmar.
It’s not as if the generals in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and the thugs on the street aren’t aware of this history. They think they can get away with murder. Thousands have been killed or have disappeared in an ethnic cleansing that has been going on for decades with the blessings and active participation of the junta. As a Reuters report put it recently quoting human rights groups, “the Rohingyas face some of the worst discrimination in the world”.
With Myanmar virtually falling off the world map after the 1962 military coup, little of this has been reported, let alone anyone protesting or acting to stop the state-sanctioned, systematic purging of an entire community. Even the Islamic world has been blissfully ignorant of the nightmare that Myanmar’s Muslims have been living all these years.
The current spate of violence has already claimed hundreds of lives; some fear that as many as 20,000 Rohingyas may have been killed in the past few weeks. Even those trying to flee the country aren’t being spared.
Last month, a Myanmarese military chopper destroyed three boats full of refugees fleeing the reign of terror, killing everyone onboard. “The military has [of late] become more actively involved in committing acts of violence and other abuses against the Rohingyas, including killings and mass arrests,” says the London-based Equal Rights Trust in its latest report on Myanmar.
Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have protested that instead of stopping the violence by the Rakhine gangs, the military has joined them in killing, setting thousands of homes on fire and conducting mass arrests of Muslims. President Thein Sein, lately being lionised by the West as a reformer, has a simple solution to the problem: Expel all the Rohingya or turn them over to the UN as refugees!
All this, however, hardly tops the news agenda of the world media, perpetually obsessing over the minutest ups and downs of international markets and the widening economic mess in Europe. Who cares for the little, colored people on the far side of the world anyway! For all they care, this mass extermination of a helpless, long persecuted people may be taking place on another planet.
Western defenders of freedom and democracy, salivating over the plump economic pie that is Myanmar, have been deafeningly silent on the genocide unfolding before their eyes. So are China and my country India, the greatest democracy on the planet. Both Asian giants have massive economic interests in the country sitting on rich mineral and natural resources. Only recently India inked a clutch of economic pacts with Myanmar, including a huge oil import deal.
The gold rush for Burma has begun, as Alex Spillius argues in the Guardian. “One of the last unexploited markets in Asia, a country blessed by ample resources of hydrocarbons, minerals, gems and timber, not to mention a cheap labor force, which thanks to years of isolation and sanctions is near virgin territory for foreign investors” is up for grabs. So this is hardly the time to talk about the rights of a persecuted, dispossessed minority.
And Myanmar’s rulers are emboldened by the international community’s silence and inaction. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, adored around the world for her heroic struggle, has remained enigmatically silent on the issue even when confronted during her recent European visit. The Arab and Islamic world, preoccupied with Syria and other assorted issues, has done little other than issue perfunctory appeals and statements. As for the UN, OIC and Asean, the less said the better. Is it any wonder then the Rohingyas are seen as easy meat?
Another Rwanda is unfolding in Myanmar on our watch. And only an early and effective intervention by the world community could save the Rohingya from certain holocaust. Silence at a time like this is criminal.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer and columnist.