In my years in Bangladesh, the great narrative that needed to be understood was that of the country’s independence. What I learnt is seared into my memory. Also indelibly burnt into it are images of the ghetto in which the hapless Urdu-speaking people termed ‘Biharis’ lived and, even worse, of Rohingya refugees from Arakan (Rakhine). A fresh wave of violence that erupted in Arakan in May and June this year has revived fears that this minority living in Myanmar (Burma) is in perpetual peril.
Burma shared a common border with Pakistan from 1947 to 1970 and maintained friendly bilateral relations. Pakistan is mindful of this past. Its Foreign Office is well aware that the best way to help Arakan’s Muslims in their current distress is through quiet diplomacy undertaken in consultation with Arab and Muslim states.
Unfortunately, in the vexed political climate of Pakistan, a bizarre public argument has sprung up. Pakistan can help save Rohingyas only within the four walls of humanitarian law and contemporary concern for human rights and not by articulating the issue in religious terms. Nevertheless, the tragedy is becoming yet another pretext for rekindling a useless, irrelevant and largely unnecessary internal debate between secularists and Islamists, between liberals and conservatives. As a human rights issue, the Rohingya question transcends the parochial passions of some Pakistani groups fighting phantom battles for and against religion. The reductio ad absurdum of this debate was reached when the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, its hands dripping with the blood of innocent Muslims, threatened reprisals if Pakistan were to maintain diplomatic relations with Myanmar (Burma).
Amongst poorly considered observations from the ‘liberals’, the following stood out: Pakistan has forfeited the right to speak about the terror in Arakan because of its own endemic violence and discriminatory practices against minorities; Rohingya were separatists; and thousands of Rohingya children had studied in madrasas in Pakistan. The insinuation about students egregiously ignored the fact that access to education was all but denied to the stateless non-citizens of Burma, and that Rohingyas desperately seized opportunities to make their new generation literate.
Arakan’s history has often been determined by its geography. It’s beautiful coast behind which lay fertile lands has attracted immigrants from the 8th century sea-faring Arab traders to people from the Chittagong Hill tracts in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mountains rising to more than 3,000 meters kept this region of great antiquity somewhat separate from the rest of Burma. Rulers of Bengal —independent or agents of Delhi Durbars — looked at Arakan as a virtual extension of Bengal’s s coastline. Burma was a part of the British Indian Empire till 1937 and then a separate colony. During this period, the British encouraged free movement across the international border established by the annexation of Arakan by a Burmese dynasty in 1784.
Insurgencies have raged in Myanmar ever since 1949 partly because the Burmese state rejected a federal system and partly because of external interference. The longest was by Karen tribes of lower Burma that constitute 7 per cent of Burmese population. The Rohingayas are alienated but they have hardly ever had the numbers or the organisation to stage a rebellion.
It is a perilous time for them. Burma is stepping out of its self-imposed isolation after decades and is ready to participate in global economics. Hillary Clinton’s three-day visit to Naypyitaw, the remote new capital of this resource-rich country and Rangoon, beginning November 30, 2011, showed that the US would not jeopardise this opening by raising human rights issues; the last of Western sanctions have been eased. There is hope that Aung San Suu Kyi, free only since November 14, 2010, would initiate democratisation of the country. She has so far not spoken about the human rights situation in Arakan; what we hear mostly is a story of collusion between Buddhist monks and the army to impose a ‘final solution’ on Arakan under the present martial law.
The best way for Pakistan is to try to give substance to a nascent OIC initiative on the issue. Playing up the religious card would be counter-productive. The short-term objectives should be restoration of law and order and acceptance by Burma of assistance for rehabilitation. A possible medium-term effort could aim at persuading the Burmese government to provide Rohingayas — a mere 800, 000 in a total population of approximately 55 million — with cards of interim special citizenship that entitle them to basic rights enshrined in international law. It should be backed by mutually profitable schemes for such investment in Arakan as are acceptable to Burma. The OIC can encourage Arab-Muslim entrepreneurs — many of whom are philanthropists — to make this investment in agriculture and agro-based industries. This would reduce economic tensions that aggravate the situation.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2012.