As a Bahrain Muslim, I’m concerned at the situation in Myanmar. During the past 65 years of military rule there, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now – again.
Only two-thirds of Myanmar’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military takeover in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1m Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.
The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.
The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Myanmar. Their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies. The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.
The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly-married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91.
The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Myanmar was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century. What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism.
The attacks on the Rohingya have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.
It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on August 25, killing 12 people.
About 300,000 Rohingyas have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of months, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Myanmar, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.
And what about resident saint Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.