National and International Issues

Thou Shall Not Hate Nor Kill the Religious Other


The Rohingya — described by the international media and human rights organizations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world — have been denied citizenship and expelled from the country they live in i.e. Burma or Mayanmar (neighbouring Bangladesh). Technically, this region is not too far from Pakistan and the treatment meted out to these people reflects a larger issue of how neighbours have been


treated in the region. Escaping persecution and extreme violence in widespread, systematic attacks led by Buddhists (Rakhine); hundreds have been arrested on false charges and over 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced in inhumane internment camps, with thousands having fled the country simply to survive. As scholars of dialogue have argued, “Though the Rohingya may be small in number at less than two million, the real lesson of the Arab Spring is that no notion of democracy can succeed without the inclusion of all people within a country's borders. Every member of society, regardless of race and religion, must be given their due rights as citizens.”


The Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia and hundreds have died on the way to and in these countries. Some of these countries have taken in a small amount of refugees, yet have shut their iron doors to larger numbers. This means that the Rohingya have no citizenship and literally nowhere to go, and many have been stranded at sea and are thus given the name of ‘boat people’ (according to the UNHCR more than 25,000 people have been stranded on boats from January 2015). Those fortunate to arrive in a country are labelled ‘illegal citizens’, meaning they cannot work to feed their starving children. If found begging, they are caught, imprisoned, beaten, and sent back despite the very real fear of being killed in Burma.


One may ask, how can one human being do this to another? At what point do people begin to stop seeing the other as human and start demonizing them? Thinking that they are ‘different’, they are not ‘us’, they are ‘the other’, they are not ‘human’ and, therefore, it is ok to kill – not just kill, but kill with maximum damage and cruelty. This is against the nature of every religion and of human rights.


There are about 1.33 million Rohingya out of 3.5 million citizens in Burma, but the country's 1982 Citizenship Law denied them legal status as citizens in spite of the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations. The one million Rohingyas who have been forced out with nowhere to go are sadly, “the world’s least wanted” community: most of whom escaped violent religious persecution and are left in starvation. In the spirit of Rehma (kindness and mercy to the needy), let us reflect on the situation of millions of people world-wide who have left their destroyed homes behind to seek refuge elsewhere, often in lands with unwelcoming laws (Africans, Syrians, Iraqis and others). Let us especially try to empathize with the Rohingya, and with the Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan amongst us, and let us ask ourselves how can we help?



The agony of forced exile, is reflected in another Muslim’s story in Burma: Bahadur Shah Zafar – the last Mughal emperor – exiled by British colonialists to Rangoon. His extreme longing for his own homeland is captured by these famous lines, Kitna hai bad naseeb Zafar, dafan ke lya Do gaz zameen bhee na melee koo-e-yaar mein!


Evidence points to Muslims ruling Arakan, Burma, in 1430 – their gold coins had Persian on one side with Allah’s and the Prophet’s names. In the 16th Century, other Muslims who migrated to Burma settled in the Arakan or Rakhine State. Rohingya means ‘inhabitant of Rohang’ – an early Muslim name for the Arakan State in Burma. They are an Indo-Aryan people living in Burma for as many years as Pakistanis have lived in Pakistan, yet the local population of Buddhists who have ruled since the 17th century, despite adopting Mughal ways and employing Muslims in their kingdoms, have recently accused the Rohingya of being ‘outsiders’.


As there was no boundary between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration, thousands of people settled in Arakan seeking a livelihood in the paddy fields of Burma. In the 19th Century, as per British policy – the East India Company which had extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan – encouraged the Rohingya to migrate from Bengal to the lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm labourers in Burma (1826-1948). The increase in Muslim population is reflected in the British census of 1871 which reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District and by 1911 this population had increased to 178,647. By the 20th Century, Rangoon was the greatest immigration port for Indians in the world. A British 1939 report fore-warned of “seeds of communal troubles”, it pointed out that the immigrants were hard working and had lower demands, which meant that the local population began to resent the waves of immigrants and reacted, according to one historian, with a “racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear”. Later, the British would continue to trust and even arm the Rohingya to protect this part of the border of British India from the Japanese (unfortunately the arming of one of the two conflict groups, turned into communal violence – the Rohingya and the Buddhists turned to conflict within). Reports show that the recent Burmese governments in favour of the Buddhists have encouraged racial and religious hatred to simmer – leading to further persecution of the Rohingya. The Rohingya lost much of their arable lands to confiscation by the military who gave them to Buddhist settlers from elsewhere in Burma.


During the past 50 years rule, ethnic and religious minorities in Burma have suffered from systematic and widespread human rights violations including summary executions, torture, state sanctioned rape, and forced labour. Furthermore, law and policy makers refuse to hold perpetrators to account or provide legal redress to displaced, imprisoned, raped, and murdered Muslims who have become victims of an avoidable, manmade humanitarian crisis. The Burmese government unwittingly has restricted education for the Rohingya, so that many pursue Islamic studies in stringent mosques as their only educational option breeding generations of Rohingya who remain oppressed and marginalized from mainstream community. This spells disaster for the communities in the coming years where there is little room for bridge building education. These acts of persecution by the ruling regime have resulted in up to two million fleeing Burma.


Denied Citizenship Everywhere

At the time of the Pakistan Movement in the 1940s, Rohingya Muslims in western Burma as a result of suffering extreme persecution, organized a separatist movement with the intention of merging Muslim-dominated regions into East Pakistan. In January 1948, before the independence of Burma, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed the Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and asked to incorporate the Mayu region with Pakistan considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with (the then) East Pakistan. Two months later, the north Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (modern Sittwe) which desired annexation with Pakistan. However, with Pakistan’s own overwhelming challenges and refugees in the period of 1947-48 this was not a feasible request to accept at the time. Migration to Burma continued in the chaos of the 1971 war.


Extreme marginalization and violence with no educational opportunities for the Rohingyas or recognition as citizens and the Buddhist fear of being overtaken by a Muslim majority will drive these communities to further violence. The answer is in acceptance of the ‘Other’ first as human beings – restoring human dignity to the Rohingyas; and second as neighbours – mutual respect and understanding is key, and finally seeing strength, not weakness, in diversity is important.


Denied Pakistani citizenship, the dejected Rohingya Muslim elders founded the Mujahid party as a freedom movement in northern Arakan. The aim of the party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan where the Rohingya could live in peace and dignity with freedom to practice their religion and to be accepted for who they are. This dream of acceptance was not to be realized, as after the 1962 coup de etat by General Ne Win oppressive military operations against the Rohingya were carried out for two decades. The army, which ruled for half a century, heavily favoured and invested their trust in the Buddhists – encouraging Burmese nationalism. From 1971 to 1978, Rakhine monks and Buddhists staged hunger protests in Sittwe against immigrants of other faiths. They particularly saw the Rohingyas as "the vanguard of an unstoppable wave of people that will inevitably engulf Rakhine" and forced the government to tackle immigration. The divide between the communities grew wider, uglier and deeper: this hatred of the other led to terrible communal violence, discrimination, and slavery against all minorities including the Chinese and the Rohingya. ‘The King Dragon Operation’ or Naga Min Sitsin Yae, was a large scale military operation in Arakan aimed to root out Mujahid ‘rebels’ who desired independence. Many have argued that this was a front to round up Rohingya people.


Beginning on 6th February, 1978 in the village of Sakkipara in Sittwe district mass arrests and tortures began. Anyone who sympathized with the Muslim rebels was dealt with severely: over a period of three months, approximately 200,000 to 250,000 Rohingya Muslims escaped, a few managed to migrate to Karachi and others to nearby Bangladesh to seek refuge. Here the Bangladesh government allowed them to settle in makeshift camps as refugees. In 1978, the Bangladesh government protested against the Burmese government’s expulsion of thousands of Burmese Muslim citizens to Bangladesh. The Burmese government responded by saying that they were Bangladeshi citizens who had resided illegally in Burma. In July 1978, after intensive negotiations mediated by the United Nations, Ne Win agreed to take back 200,000 refugees who then settled in Arakan.


At the heavy hand of the discriminatory military might, extreme hatred for the religious other increased leading to dehumanization of helpless minorities. In 1982, the new Burmese National Law denied their own citizens, the Rohingya, citizenship. The Burmese President, Thein Sein, denied outrightly the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Burma, labelled them "Bengali", and expelled them as “foreigners”. In the 2014 Burma Census, they have been classified as “stateless Bengali Muslims” from Bangladesh since 1982. From the perspective of the Rohingya, who only know their identity as Burmese, this labelling is a discriminatory way of implying that they are non-Burmese – a rejected community and illegal immigrants. At the same time, in 1982, the Bangladeshi government amended their citizenship law and declared all "Rohingyas" “non-nationals.” Overnight both countries denied the Rohingya people the dignity of recognition as citizens. Without citizenship, they were left without rights, protection, and worst of all, an identity.

Constructing and Deconstructing Identity

Rohingya argue that they have been living in Myanmar along with other communities for centuries, and it is in recent years that they are being treated as outsiders or aliens. Despite world attention on the terrible misnomer of the growing threat of ‘Islamist militants’ many Muslims around the world have experienced exile, persecution and even genocide – the image drawn is of them being the perpetrators when in reality the majority of Muslims are the victims of violent extremism (e.g. in Bosnia, Middle East, Afgahnistan, Pakistan, Burma, etc).


Since the 1990s, a new 'Rohingya Movement’ which is distinct from the 1950s armed rebellion emerged. Rohingya scholars have claimed that Rakhine was previously a Muslim state for a millennium, or that Muslims were king-makers of Rakhine kings for 350 years. They often traced the origin of Rohingyas to Arab seafarers. On the other side, these claims have been rejected as "newly invented myths" in academic circles. Some Rohingya politicians have labelled Burmese and international historians as "Rakhine sympathizers" for rejecting these purported historical origins. Comparatively, during a research trip to Andalusian Spain, some scholars argued that Spain under Muslim rule allowed for a culture of co-existence amongst its Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities leading to a ‘Golden Age’ of high civilization, while others, supporting anti-immigration policies and more hostile attitudes towards Moroccan immigrants argue that this is merely a fanciful ‘construction’ and ‘a myth.’ Rohingya politicians and scholars maintain that if citizenship is provided it must allow for an alternative identity that is neither "Bengali" nor has the connotations that the term "Rohingya" now has, but something like, "Rakhine Muslims", "Myanmar Muslims" or simply "Myanmar". Nowhere to Go!


According to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR; receivers of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007), the Burmese refugee population in Bangladesh is estimated at 200,000 to 400,000 . The Government of Bangladesh with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) jointly administer two “official” camps with a combined population of just 28,000 registered refugees. The remaining “unregistered” refugees who arrived after 1993, when genocide began, are currently not protected by UNHCR – after this year, the Bangladeshi government had ceased to confer refugee status to any Rohingya escaping Burma. According to the reports of PHR, recently Bangladeshi authorities have waged “an unprecedented campaign of arbitrary arrest, illegal expulsion, and forced internment against Burmese refugees”– this has led to restriction of all movement outside the unofficial camp. As a result, thousands of refugees are trapped in what PHR in their report calls, “an open-air prison”. Despite fears of leaving the camp, some refugees venture out to beg for money to buy food. What is worrying to read in the report is that local Bangladeshi media put out anti-Rohingya hate messages leading some Bangladeshis to form “resistance committees” that demand the expulsion of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh. Furthermore, the government refuses to allow aid-workers to reach the refugees to gain access to food aid. This means the traumatized impoverished jobless refugees are left to die from starvation. “The Rohingya have a well-founded fear of persecution if forcibly returned to Burma” the report says.


PHR suggests ways to resolve the crises by appealing to the Burmese government to condemn and prevent ethnic hatred and human rights’ violations against Rohingyas and to the Bangladeshi government to desist arbitrary arrests and forcible expulsions who have well-founded fears of persecution; to help and allow aid organizations to reach the refugees; to the UN, to launch a coordinated appeal to regional and other donor nations for humanitarian relief and protection to this unrecognized and unassisted population in Bangladesh and elsewhere.


Fear of the Other Leads to Brutal Violence and Genocide

The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims who are a majority in the northern Rakhine; and ethnic Rakhines who are a majority in the south. Before the riots, there were widespread and strongly held fears circulating among Buddhist Rakhines that they would soon become a minority in their ancestral state. According to the Burmese authorities, the violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and up to 140,000 people displaced. The government responded by imposing curfews and by deploying troops in the region. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in the administration of the region. Rohingya NGOs overseas accused the Burmese army and police of targeting Rohingya Muslims through arrests and violence.


In July 2012, the Burmese Government did not include the Rohingya minority group in the census — classified as stateless Bengali Muslims. About 140,000 Rohingya in Burma remain confined in IDP camps. On January 13, 2014, Rakhine mobs and security forces entered Du Chee Yar Tan, Maungdaw Township, and slaughtered over 40 Rohingya. The UN confirms the gruesome killings– severed heads of at least 10 Rohingya, some of them children, were found bobbing in a water tank. Brutal and savage ways of hating and killing Rohingya men, women and children are shown on the internet. You only have to google “Rohingya images” and scroll down to be horrified: children as small as two years have their intestines spilling out and Muslim men with beards have their heads cut off in extreme acts of brutality! One may ask, how can one human being do this to another? At what point do people begin to stop seeing the other as human and start demonizing them? Thinking that they are ‘different’, they are not ‘us’, they are ‘the other’, they are not ‘human’ and, therefore, it is ok to kill – not just kill, but kill with maximum damage and cruelty. This is against the nature of every religion and of human rights.


Rakhine Buddhist communities formulated vigilante mobs, surrounding homes and razing them to flames. Escaping the terror, many Rohingyas have fled to refugee camps and even ghettos in neighbouring Bangladesh and along the border with Thailand. A 100,000 plus Rohingyas in Burma continue to live in camps as internationally displaced people; they are not allowed by the authorities to leave. After the 2012 Rakhine State riots, Rohingyas received international attention due to their attempted bid for life – they tried to reach any country in South East Asia to live a life in dignity. Malaysia and Indonesia said that they would only allow 7000 Rohingyas to come to their shores temporarily. Both countries set up temporary shelters to house the migrants, but Thailand, the traditional transit point for those trying to reach Malaysia for work, said it would not follow suit. Hundreds of people died on the way and others have been stranded at sea without food and water. The crisis has been made worse by smugglers.


To the Rescue?

As in Bosnia, the concentration camps in Germany and elsewhere, the ‘good cops’ in America may just come to the rescue. The House of Representatives passed a Resolution (no. 418) on 7th May 2014 urging the Burmese government to end the persecution of ethnic minority – Rohingya Muslims. Additionally, the international community has called on the Burmese government to commission an independent investigation that the Burmese President challenged, calling them “accusations”. The government also vehemently refused the US’ request to allow international officials to sit on an investigation into the incidents at Du Chee Yar Tan village where many Rohingya were savagely killed. The government as a result agreed to commission two internal investigations, which were severely biased and concluded that no massacre had taken place whatsoever. The government’s insistence that there were no Rohingya deaths in Du Chee Yar Tan in January 2014 is just one recent example of the government’s complicity in religious violence. Publicly rejecting the US and UN’s calls for justice, the government refused to hold perpetrators to account or provide legal redress to the displaced, imprisoned, and murdered Muslims.


Where is ‘the Ummah’?

I wondered how aware my own Muslim friends and acquaintances were – a substantial network of people – I whatsapped them saying, “do you know what’s happening to the Rohingya?” A few were aware of the situation and said they were following news carefully, another caring friend, Fatima Azzam, leading the Islamic Text Society in Cambridge said her family and friends were donating their zakat to charities helping the Rohingya, like Muslim Aid. Others to my surprise and horror, revealed complete complacent ignorance. Not even knowing the word ‘Rohingya’. One smartly dressed middle aged married woman with a series of Louis Vuitton bags who had studied in an English-medium school till just before O Levels and was from an elite family replied, “Didn’t understand, sorry”. Another Pakistani Islamabad-based woman – a relatively young woman fully clad in a black niqab and abaya – a medical doctor and training to become an alima (a scholar of Islam) sent back a text saying, “wrong window”. Like the previous woman, she had not even understood the word ‘Rohingya’, or what it meant. I explained the genocide briefly. To this the future alima replied, “Ok. JazakAllah for informing…Its Allah Subhanahu wa T’ala’s dastoor: He doesn’t change people’s conditions until they change themselves for His Raza.” This statement coupled with her lack of awareness showed both ignorance and arrogance of the situation, and more so from a lady training to become a ‘religious scholar’ to lead many other young Muslims. This was worrying. A third young girl – a primary school teacher in a private elite school in Islamabad – who had just returned from America spending thousands of US dollars on buying designer bags and shoes blatantly said, “I don’t care!” I was horrified at her level of understanding and her lack of feelings for her own community and repeated, thinking I may have misunderstood her, “What/who don’t you care about! The Rohingya?”, “Yes” she replied with ignorant confident defiance. Without compassion and empathy (the core principle of all world religions), the world is a jungle with beasts preying upon beasts. Moreover, the worst of beast, perhaps, are those who are ignorant, and then display thoughtless arrogance about their ignorance. Conclusion


Extreme marginalization and violence with no educational opportunities for the Rohingyas or recognition as citizens and the Buddhist fear of being overtaken by a Muslim majority will drive these communities to further violence. The answer is in acceptance of the ‘Other’ first as human beings – restoring human dignity to the Rohingyas; and second as neighbours – mutual respect and understanding is key, and finally seeing strength, not weakness, in diversity is important.


Both Islam and Buddhism preach tolerance in their ideal forms, it is the extreme political situation that pushes human beings to act like animals towards each other – hating and killing one another. When persecuted children, women and men seek refuge and not one country is open to welcome them – one asks where is our common humanity? Where is empathy? What if this happened to us – roaming the seas and land simply to survive and not a single place wanting or welcoming you. Human beings as vicegerents of God are meant to reflect and embody ideas of acceptance, tolerance, kindness and allow for peaceful harmonious living. Both Buddhism and Islam are rooted in the region of Pakistan. Notions of mercy, kindness and justice are strong in Islam. In Buddhism, the concept of ‘Ahisma’ is non-violence: Buddha said, “Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone.” And “All fear violence, all are afraid of death. Seeing the similarity to oneself, one should not use violence or have it used.” I want to emphasize that ideas of empathy and acceptance must play a much bigger part in global politics and policymaking. I pray that this happens worldwide, and especially in Burma and elsewhere. The on-going heart-breaking case of the Rohingya reflects badly on humanity’s collective conscience and must give us all food for thought: How do we treat our fellow-neighbours? How do we treat humanity? At a national level? At an individual level? How do we get our young people, especially our teachers, to care about and feel for the ‘Other’? Finally, how do we treat minority communities amongst us? Mustn’t we use the desirable tools of empathy and understanding when we deal with the religious, ethnic and gendered ‘Other’?

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK. 

1 2, Afghanistan is the leading country of origin of refugees with 2.8 million; Iraqis are the second largest group with 1.9 million refugees. UNHCR. 2008 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, June 16, 2009 3

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