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Voices of conscience must speak up for the persecuted Rohingya people

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted September 17th. 2017

The world looks on as the persecuted Rohingya people in Myanmar (known as Burma up to 1989) are systematically chased, brutalized and killed. More than 400,000 have fled as refugees across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. World leaders and regional groupings, especially at the UN General Assembly, must firmly demand that the Myanmar government cease its atrocities and restore and respect the citizenship and human rights of these brutalized people.

The early Indian ancestors of the Rohingyas originated from the region now known as Bangladesh from nearly thirteen centuries ago at a time when borders were largely non-existent and when Burma was not yet a nation state with carved-out national boundaries. Thus, over time, these people have intrinsically formed part of the general Burmese population, and under British rule (1824-1948), and even for a while after Burma achieved independence, some Rohingya leaders were elected to the national legislature. It must be firmly emphasized that the Rohingyas are Burmese and are not nationals of Bangladesh.

However, as Burma achieved independence, discrimination against minorities increased after a military coup in the country in 1962. Then in 1982, the military government enacted a nationality law derecognizing the Rohingya as a "national race" and denying that entire section of the population of citizenship rights. The military junta launched a brutal offensive against the Rohingyas in 1991-1992, which caused 250,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh and escalated tensions between the two countries.

Before the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis and the military outrages 2016 and 2017, the Rohingya population in Myanmar was around 1.3 million. The majority are Muslims while a small minority are Hindus. Described by the UN in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, they are restricted from freedom of movement, voting rights, state education and civil service jobs. The legal conditions faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar have been compared with apartheid. The UN officials has described the persecution of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing and Yanghee Lee, the UN special investigator on Myanmar, believes the country wants to expel its entire Rohingya population.

Investigations by the UN have found evidence of increasing incitement of hatred and religious intolerance by ultra-nationalist Buddhists against Rohingyas while the Burmese security forces have been conducting unprovoked executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, burning of Rohingya villages, detentions, torture and ill-treatment and forced labor. (More than 87 percent of Burmese identify themselves as Buddhist.)

In 1990, the military junta allowed an election which was won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was immediately placed under house arrest by the military leaders and not permitted to become prime minister.

In the aftermath, supporters of Aung San lobbied foreign governments to seek her release and to pressure the Myanmar regime to allow free elections. There was the existing feeling that the return to democratic governance would give recognition to the Rohingya people, a tenet that the world felt that Aung San Suu Kyi would embrace. I recall numerous instances when on the sidelines of international conferences at the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement, and also the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), I, as well as many other ambassadors, met with some of these lobbyists and discussed the plight of Myanmar under the military dictatorship. And during discussions on the draft final declarations at conferences of the OIC in Iran, Burkina Faso, Malaysia, Mali, Sudan, Qatar, Egypt, Djibouti, and the UN, on behalf of Guyana, I spoke in support of the Rohingyas' struggle for citizenship and the recognition of their rights in their own country.

When Aung San's party overwhelmingly won the election in 2015 and she became the de facto leader of the country, the Rohingyas hoped that their future would see brighter days. But they were sorely disappointed when violent attacks carried out by the military and Buddhists, including ultra-nationalist monks, continued unabated. These attacks continue to this day.

Sadly, Aung San has refused to condemn the attacks on the Rohingyas, and despite being the leader of the country, has turned a blind eye on the military's atrocities on these beleaguered people. She has also refused to accept that the Rohingyas are part of the citizenry of the country.

During the years of her house arrest, she was a voice of conscience, speaking out against atrocities carried out in various parts of the world. She was revered for her humility and compassion and the world applauded when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

But today she has not exhibited that compassion to the most downtrodden people in her own country. She sees nothing wrong in the oppression, claiming that the military is suppressing a Rohingya "terrorist" group, formed as a result of the brutal actions of the state agencies.

Even if the military is battling a terrorist group, does that give it the right to murder, rape, burn and expel and entire population? Surely, that small terrorist group does not encompass over a million people! The military atrocity amounts to collective punishment, akin to that used against the Palestinians-something that Aung San herself condemned when she was not in power.

Ironically, in her acceptance speech in 2012 for her Nobel Peace Prize, she commented on the problems faced by refugees: "Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering?" Now that her own government is creating a huge refugee flow, her words now seem to be highly hypocritical.

The voices of conscience across the world, including some other Nobel laureates, are urging Aung San to come to the defense of the Rohingya people. Unfortunately, she still remains indifferent and she should know that the flowing tears of these unfortunate people will leave an indelible stain on whatever legacy she leaves for the world.

September 17, 2017

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003), Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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