THE POWER OF ETHNICITY – THE ROHINGYA PEOPLE


The spectacle of a Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, a world renowned fighter for human rights, and former political prisoner, denying genocide during last week at the World Court is sobering. Let there be no doubt, there is no objective reason, no political rationale, no need to maintain any democratic opening in Myanmar, that motivates Aung San Suu Kyi. It is naked ethnic hatred.

In June this year, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner found common cause with Victor Orban, the far right Hungarian autocrat, as they lamented the increasing migration and the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.” Aung San Suu Kyi has been so caught up in the vortex of ethnic hatred of the Rohingya Muslims that she prefers to endure worldwide condemnation rather than use her considerable influence to protect the Rohingya people from the genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State in the northwest region of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s degeneracy from a star in the firmament of the struggle for human rights into a defender of the killing and expulsion of the Rohingya people is confirmation of the potency of ethnicity for those, as in Guyana, who struggle with its political manifestations. It demonstrates ethnicity’s grip and power, even on educated people who might be otherwise progressively inclined in matters of human rights.

The Rohingya population occupy the coastal area of Myanmar, originally known as Arakan, now known as the Rakhine State, after its original inhabitants who, it is believed, have occupied the area since 3000 BCE. The area became an Indianised kingdom in the 4th century and the Rohingya people trace their direct history form this period. In the 8th century Arab traders and missionaries began converting the Buddhist population to Islam. Many married local women and settled in the area. As a result, the Muslim population expanded. Bengalis later began to migrate to the area. In the later 18th century Burma conquered the area and killed and dispersed the Muslim Rohingya people.

During British colonial rule, the British encouraged migration to the area, creating conflict with the indigenous Arakanese population. Thousands of Muslim Bengalis eventually migrated and even though the population grew by the 1930s to only about half a million, as against 14 million Buddhist Burmese, serious ethnic disturbances against the Rohnigyas took place. During the Second World War there was continuous violence between the Rohingyas and Buddhist Arakanese. However, from the time Burma gained independence from Britain, a few Rohingyas were always elected to the Burmese parliament, even though in 1954 Prime Minister U Nu questioned their loyalty to Buddhist Burma. The 1962 coup d’etat terminated Westminster style politics and the Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship. They were thereafter known as illegal immigrants.

The Rohingyas, whose name is not now even recognized, have always been politically active in organized, democratic political parties, during the period of democratic rule. They have also resisted Burmese military rule as one of the principal victims of oppression, violence, deportations to Bengal, imprisonment and other forms of harassment. Heightened tensions in Rakhine State between Muslim Royingyas and ethnic Rakhines, insecure because of their minority status, have resulted in riots and violence against Rohingyas resulting in many deaths among them, displacements and expulsions.

By 2015 the killing of Rohingyas continued, which resulted in a severe refugee crisis, with thousands of Rohingyas escaping to Bangladesh to save their lives. Several armed groups of Rohingyas emerged, in particular, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which began to consistently engage the Myanmar military. It was, however, a one-sided military conflict, which saw few military deaths and disproportionate losses among the Rohingyas. This did not stop the Myanmar military and Rakhine Buddhists in 2017 from using the opportunity to launch ‘large scale clearance operations,’ attacking Rohingya villages throughout northern Rakhine State. Of a population of 1.3 million, 24,000 have been killed, 18,000 raped, 116,000 beaten and 700,000 expelled or forced to leave.

The Rohingya People have been subjected to historic hatreds which escalated into large scale oppression continuously since the 1970s. They are without rights, cannot be citizens, cannot travel, cannot be educated and have no essential services or support. Heads of governments have referred to the current atrocities as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide.’ This is the history and these are the sentiments in Myanmar, that the Rohingyas are sub-human, that have driven Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the oppression of a people who are ‘among the world’s least wanted’ and ‘one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Ethnic hatred, once it permeates a society over time, develops as part of the consciousness of that society. Having taken hold, the members of that society cannot purge their conscience, no matter how compelling the circumstances or gross the atrocities. That is why Aung San Suu Kyi, gripped by ethnic hatred, feels compelled to defend genocide of the Rohingyas.

The power of ethnicity, though different in intensity and history from Myanmar, is deeply felt in Guyana. For 60 years it has driven political allegiance and created political instability. Everyone bemoans it, the leading politicians promise to resolve it, but when the have the chance, they abandon the promise. The power of ethnic dominance is too strong and that is why people of goodwill must never give up.

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