Rohingyas, Taliban and the license to kill

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When the sane majority chooses to remain silent in the face of injustice and tyranny, the fringe begins to speak on their behalf. 

This is just what Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingyas needed – solidarity vows from Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban! The militant group has urged Muslims in Myanmar to “rise up and fight” the country’s rulers, saying their resources and training facilities were available to help them “take up the sword”. The TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan says the Taliban “share the grief” of the beleaguered Muslim minority in Burma. 

This is all very touching of course. Except the concern of the Taliban brothers for the besieged minority in the distant Myanmar would have made more sense if the militants had also shed the milk of human kindness for Pakistan’s own religious minorities. 

Aren’t these the same folks who unleashed unspeakable horror on innocent students and teachers of Peshawar’s Army Public School last year?

Pakistan’s minorities may not face the kind of organised ethnic cleansing that the Rohingyas are undergoing at the hands of the Buddhist majority and the state. But it’s hardly a secret what the minorities have been through in the ‘land of the pure’ in the past few years.

No sensible Pakistani and Muslim would be proud of all that the Shia community, Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis have had to suffer at the hands of assorted extremists and perfectly sane, reasonable people. Mosques, churches, temples, markets, schools and buses – everything and everyone is fair game, all in the name of Islam and Muslims of course. 

And these are the people who ‘share the grief’ of Rohingya Muslims? Really? With friends like these, who needs enemies?

But what do you expect? When the sane majority and the world community with its impressive institutions choose to remain silent in the face of injustice and tyranny, the fringe begins to speak on their behalf. 

The Rohingya tragedy has been in the making for the past many years and decades. And all that the international community has done is offer indifferent silence or insincere platitudes. 

The world pretends not to see what has been going on right before its eyes. Despite being the black hole that is Burma for media and rights groups, there have been enough reports from time to time, offering a peek into the humanitarian disaster and tragedy unravelling in the country. 

Reports of hundreds of mass graves being discovered in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere haven’t shaken the world’s conscience. Neither have the ‘floating coffins’, as the United Nations describes them, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hungry and desperate Rohingya refugees stuck out there for weeks and months at high seas. 

Their ships continue to be turned away from the coast by many member states of the ASEAN, touted as the most successful economic regional grouping around today. Myanmar happens to be a member too. But God forbid if ASEAN should ever broach the issue of Rohingya dispossession. 

For as a matter of policy, we are told, ASEAN does not ‘interfere’ in internal affairs of member states. Which suits Myanmar’s ruthless junta just fine. Just as it suits the rest of the indifferent international community and regional and global powers – all looking for a slice of the tempting, big pie that is post-liberalisation Burma.

Be it China and India next door or the distant United States and Europe, everyone is lusting after the immense business and investment potential offered by the Southeast Asian nation. And true to character when it comes to economic interests, everything else including human rights and humanitarian suffering take a back seat. 

This past week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been in Dhaka proudly celebrating India’s seminal role in the creation of Bangladesh. Modi recalled his own personal ‘association’ with Bangladesh’s liberation war saying the first political rally he attended was a Jan Sangh one supporting the 1971 war: “Like you, my blood boiled at the atrocities heaped on your people.”

The Times of India noted in its Dhaka dispatch, “Modi didn’t lose the opportunity to remind Bangladesh of India’s role in 1971, the blood of Indian soldiers was involved in the creation of Bangladesh.”

I wonder how someone who is so acutely conscious of Indian role in the neighbourhood more than 44 years ago would be so blind to the blazes next door.

Modi opened his UN General Assembly speech last year by reminding the world about India’s philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (all humanity is one family, which incidentally is close to the Islamic belief) that he said has guided the nation ‘since Vedic times.’

Yet Gandhi’s nation with its acclaimed traditions of non-violence and its vibrant and voluble media has yet to wake up to the injustice and all the violence unfolding along its eastern border. 

But how can one complain of India’s indifference when Bangladesh, a Muslim country with historical ties of kinship and culture, heartlessly shuts its doors on Rohingya refugees?

Equally deafening has been the silence of the celebrated democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi whose long and patient struggle also saw many Rohingyas in the forefront of the movement. However, just like the farce of democracy being enacted by the junta, Suu Kyi’s democratic movement has no place for little people called the Rohingyas. 

Deprived of citizenship, voting rights and their very identity as a people with basic rights – the junta insists on calling them ‘Bengalis’ – the Rohingyas are a lost lot with no champions and guardian angels among Hollywood celebrities and world powers. 

They are also hopelessly remote for the Arab and Muslim world which is as ever preoccupied with its endless conflicts and woes. As a result, save for perfunctory statements by Muslim governments and occasional protests, the Rohingyas have practically ceased to exist for the world. 

And the sheer apathy and callous indifference of the world community are interpreted as a licence to kill by Burma’s rulers and the increasingly belligerent Buddhist majority. No wonder the UN views them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. 

It is instructive how an indigenous people with a long history and their own state can be summarily eased and edited out of a country’s political and cultural landscape with the whole world watching. 

Something similar happened to Muslims in Spain after centuries of the fabled Arab and Andalusian civilisation. Except, what happened in Spain took place in the Middle Ages – not in the wired and networked global village of the 21st century with its international institutions, media and watchdogs.

The global ‘war on terror’ and the growing demonisation of all things Muslim also come in handy for countries like Myanmar. The global anti-Muslim sentiment has effectively legitimised attacks and victimisation of soft targets like Myanmar’s marginalised minority. 

In the words of Prof Navine Murshid, the author of The Politics of Refugees in South Asia: Identity, Manipulation, Resistance, Islamophobia has become a global force that has allowed countries like Myanmar (and the democratic voices there) to disregard the lives of Muslims without fear of any repercussion. 

In her opinion piece in The Hindu, Prof Murshid also suggests that a climate of anti-Muslim sentiments in India has excused and normalised repression against Muslims in the entire region. On the other hand, “Muslim-majority countries also prioritize state interests and will not necessarily come to the rescue of Muslim migrants on the basis of humanity or religiosity, as can be seen in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia.”

And no matter what the Pakistani Taliban think of ‘taking up the sword’, not many Rohingya find themselves up to the task. Prof Murshid says that since many of the Rohingya are averse to armed struggle, they are unable to defend themselves when the military sweeps through their villages to clear the areas of “illegal immigrants.” Fleeing becomes the only option, no matter how dangerous that might be, the choice being between certain death and a small chance of survival.

The writer is a Dubai based columnist. He can be reached at: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

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