Rohingya’s Escapade for Safety

Suu Kyi meet Modi

Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the de facto leader of Myanmar, has refused to take into account plight of Rohingya whom her government doesn’t recognize as an ethnic minority group

By Mridu Kumari

It is regarded as major humanitarian crisis of South Asia as more than a million Rohingya, fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, entered Bangladesh clutching in their hands whatever belongings they could manage to carry on. After the 1971 War, this is first time such crisis has unfolded in the region. Yet what is shocking is that Aung San Suu Kyi, who championed the cause of democracy and human rights, is mum. Her party is in power, but gutless to stop her country’s military from using all means of persecution against Rohingya, Muslim community members who had staged a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine state on August 24, killing 12 members of the security forces. Weeks have passed since the incident took place in Myanmar, over 300,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh by foot or using boats.  Many of them perished during the migration.

If media reports are to be believed, boats carrying Rohingya capsized in Bangladesh, killing at least 1000 people. A Bangladesh border guard commander was quoted as saying that the bodies of 15 women and children were recovered in Cox’s Bazar after the vessels carrying an unknown number of Rohingya, sank in the Naf River in the last week of August. This has generated wave of protests across the world. India too expressed its concern about the situation in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who recently undertook his first bilateral visit to this Southeast Asian nation (the PM had earlier visited Myanmar to attend ASEAN-India summit in November 2014), expressed his concern at the “casualties of security forces as well as other innocent lives” during a joint press conference with State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. “We would urge the situation in Rakhine state be handled with restraint and maturity focusing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces, it is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the state restored expeditiously,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in its release issued two days after Prime Minister Modi’s arrival from Myanmar.

It showed balancing acts of India which doesn’t want to offend Myanmar’s leadership, keeping in mind the fact that China has a well-entrenched presence across the expanse of the Southeast Asian nation and that New Delhi’s efforts to woo Myanmar away from Beijing’s influence would suffer if it reacts angrily to the situation in Myanmar. This was the apparent reason why an Indian parliamentary delegation led by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan dissociated itself from the ‘Bali Declaration’ adopted at the World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development held in Indonesia. It was an open show of solidarity with Myanmar with which India recently signed a slew of agreements.

But this didn’t stop the world in criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi. South Africa’s human rights activist and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu rather joined the group of influential voices condemning the Myanmar government’s treatment of Rohingya. Begging Aung San Suu Kyi to stop the violence, he wrote an open letter to her saying: “I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.” However, this is not the first time Rohingya have fled Myanmar. Since the 1970s, this Muslim minority of the Southeast Asian nation have fled to Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, UAE and Saudi Arabia. To escape persecution from Myanmar’s junta, according to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from October 2016 to July 2017.  Between 2012 and 2015, more than 112,000 made a dangerous escape to Malaysia by boats across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

As per a data from the UN, prior to violence that erupted in Rakhine state, there were as many as 420,000 Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia. Often described as the world’s most persecuted minority, Rohingya are treated as illegal migrants who came in Myanmar (then Burma) during 100 years of British rule (1842-1948). Living in Myanmar’s western coastal state of Rakhine, this ethnic minority group’s people who live in ghetto-like camps with complete lack of basic services, are not allowed to leave the state without government permission.

In spite of such brute human rights violation, Suu Kyi who is the de facto leader of Myanmar, has refused to take into account plight of Rohingya whom her government doesn’t recognize as an ethnic minority group. Her government was blind to the UN report which in its release in February found the country’s troop very likely committed crimes against humanity since renewed military crackdowns began in October 2016. In April during an interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi strongly refuted reporter’s question on the issue of ethnic cleansing. “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on…I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.” Invariably, she said this in order to keep junta who still wields a sizable influence in the major decision making of the country, in good humour.

 Last year, she entrusted former UN chief Kofi Annan with the task of finding ways for long-term economic development, education and healthcare in Rakhine state. He was not given the mandate to probe human rights abuses of Rohingya. Despite this, the Kofi Annan commission submitted a report in which it urged the government to end the highly militarized crackdown on neighbourhoods where Rohingya live. It also talked about ending restrictions on Rohingya’s movement and granting of citizenship to this minority ethnic group. The government welcomed the commission’s report and also promised to implement it. On the ground, it appears totally farce as persecution of Rohingya is on. Rather those journalists or aid workers who want to go Rakhine to see the situation in the state are denied permission. In fact, some experts have rightly said that Suu Kyi is doing what junta wants her to do; undermining military’s dictates means sacrificing her democratically elected and for which she may not be ready.