Aung San Suu Kyi should have visited the Westfield shopping mall in unfashionable east London’s Stratford district last week. There she would have seen a modest little mock-up of the Kutupalong refugee camp -- said to be the world’s biggest -- in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Created by the Red Cross, it might have shamed her into facing up not just to the tragedy of over a million Rohingyas but to the realisation that complete strangers are moved to concern for the refugees’ plight mixed with contempt for her silence on her government’s role in the crisis.
A United Nations official called Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingyas the single biggest group of stateless people in the world. Earlier, the UN had described them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. However, such indictments made little difference to their suffering because the solution is in the hands of those who created the tragedy. The tyranny and oppression of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s all-powerful military -- have driven over 900,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. More than 100,000 are virtual prisoners in camps for the internally displaced. Others have fled to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia. India was the main hope but today’s India is unlikely to set morality above pragmatism or sympathise with Muslim victims of racism.
Myanmar long ago gave the lie to the myth that Buddhists are peaceful and peace-loving. Periodic riots against Indian (mainly Tamil) settlers also demonstrated in British times that skin colour is a major determinant of discrimination. The Indian labourers, clerks, doctors, lawyers and teachers who settled in Burma between 1885 and 1937 when it was an Indian province were driven out after independence. The Rohingyas, mainly Muslims but also including some Hindus, who speak a variant of the Chittagong dialect, remained. In 1948 M. A. Gaffar, a constituent assembly member, wanted them recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality. Statehood was considered for the Arakan division, now renamed Rakhine. Five Rohingyas were elected to parliament, one of the first two female MPs was a Rohingya, and Sultan Mahmud became health minister under Prime Minister U Nu.
Everythinng changed after the 1962 military coup. Under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw controls the government, including the home, defence and border affairs ministries, 25 per cent of seats in parliament and a vice-president. Although Rohingya history can be traced back to the 8th century, most were stripped of citizenship in 1982. Human Rights Watch reckons that the 1982 laws "effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality". They are not one of Myanmar’s "national indigenous races". They can’t move about freely, and are denied access to education and civil service jobs. Their legal subjugation has been compared to South Africa’s abhorrent apartheid.
That is nothing compared to the terrible atrocities on the ground. The military crackdowns in 1978, 1991–1992, 2012, 2015, 2016–2017 and particularly in 2017-2018 prompted human rights activists to speak of ethnic cleansing, genocide and “crimes against humanity". Villages are burned down, men murdered and women subject to gang rape. The UN speaks of "summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment, and forced labour". Yanghee Lee, the UN special investigator, believes Myanmar aims to expel all Rohingyas. Yet, many historians stress that pre-colonial Arakan was an independent kingdom between South-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Rohingya maintain they are indigenous to western Myanmar with a heritage of over a millennium years. Far from being illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, they flourished in Arakan long before Bangladesh was born. But Myanmar’s 2014 census listed Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants. Predictably perhaps, some Rohingya groups have reacted with militancy, drawing on old memories of the Rohingya Jam’iyyat al Ulama founded in Arakan in 1936 and the North Arakan Muslim League playing footsy with the Pakistan movement.
The more recent Arakan Rohingya National Organization demands the right to "self-determination within Myanmar" and a Rohingya rebel attack killed 12 security personnel in 2017, anticipating the Tatmadaw’s brutal "clearance operations" in Rakhine that left over 3,000 dead, many more injured, tortured or raped, and reduced villages to cinders. Ms Aung San has reason to be grateful to Rohingyas. Their leaders supported her 1988 democracy movement. The Rohingya-led National Democratic Party for Human Rights returned four members (Shamsul Anwarul Huq, Chit Lwin Ebrahim, Fazal Ahmed and Nur Ahmed) to parliament in the 1990 general election when her victorious National League for Democracy should have formed the government. But Ms Aung San was placed under house arrest. The NDPR was banned and its leaders arrested, jailed and tortured. Rohingya politicians have been imprisoned since then to prevent them from contesting elections. In 2005, their leader, Shamsul Anwarul Huq, was charged under the controversial 1982 citizenship law and sentenced to 47 years in prison.
In 2015, a ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party MP Shwe Maung was disbarred from the general election on the grounds that his parents were not Burmese citizens under the 1982 law. Myanmar does not now have a single Rohingya MP and Rohingyas have no voting rights.The Westfield mall’s interactive exhibition tells the story of the Rohingya’s 14-day trek to safety through the voices of three refugees. It’s not a very effective display. The mock-up hut is far cleaner and more sanitary than South Asian refugee habitations, there is little sense of the squalor of such places, or the pitiful plight of the inhabitants. But the Red Cross is doing its best, and it is evocative enough to move visitors to make small donations. The exhibition avoids politics and most of the shoppers who strayed in casually didn’t know anything about the crisis. But those who did couldn’t help wondering: what of the future?
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding in November 2017 for the Rohingyas to return home. The first group of refugees did go back in April 2018. But that was all. The refugee’s is usually a one-way trail. It’s not likely to be any different for persecuted Rohingya. That is all the more reason why Aung San Suu Kyi should break her enigmatic silence on what the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, called "the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency ... a humanitarian nightmare.” She announced on 19 September 2017 that she "condemn(ed) all human rights violations and unlawful violence," going on to say, "We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state." She also maintained that Myanmar was "committed to a sustainable solution… for all communities ". But despite such lofty platitudes, she only invites mockery when she denies her government had engaged in any "armed clashes or clearance operations".
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.