Centuries ago, they crossed from Bangladesh to next-door Arakan (now Rakhine) in Myanmar. Labeled pejoratively as “Bengali,” they have never been accepted by the other ethnic groups of that country — because they are Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist land, and because of their dark Indian looks. In 1980 the then-strongman Ne Win stripped them of their citizenship. Military rule, harsh on all Myanmar, is particularly crushing to the Rohingya: they had been shorn not only of their citizenship but also of their worth as human beings.
Hundreds of them have sought refuge in Bangladesh but they’re not wanted there: they’ve also been turned back by the hundreds. As many as 24,000 have found their way to Malaysia. Hundreds more to India, Indonesia and Thailand.
Last month in Australia, the government pushed for legislation allowing an exchange of 800 Rohingya asylum seekers for 4,000 genuine refugees already processed in Malaysia — the so-called “Malaysia solution.” The conservative opposition, committed to a policy of turning back every boatload of asylum seekers from anywhere, shot down the measure. While the Australians were debating the Malaysia solution, two boatloads of asylum seekers sank in waters between Indonesia and Australia’s Christmas Island. In Myanmar a government helicopter fired on three boats crossing over to Bangladesh, killing 50 Rohingya on board.
Meanwhile the Bangladeshi government justified its own heartlessness to Rohingya refugees by arguing that if it allowed them in, it would only be relieving Myanmar of its responsibility.
While Suu Kyi was touring Europe last month, a Buddhist girl was raped and killed by three Muslim men. In retaliation a Buddhist mob attacked a busload of Rohingya, killing 10. A communal war then erupted resulting in 60 dead, according to the government. According to other sources, 6,000 Rohingya were slaughtered, many of them systematically by government forces.
A few days ago Myanmar President Thein Sein urged the United Nations to set up a Rohingya refugee camp in a willing third country. The UN turned down the preposterous idea, but activists of Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy support the plan. After all, they claim, the Rohingya are infiltrators from Bangladesh.
That claim makes no sense: why would any Bangladeshi move from his country where he is safe to where he is sure to be persecuted or killed because he has no rights there?
And poor Suu Kyi: asked in London about the plight of the Rohingya, she could only say she didn’t know whether the Rohingya were “Burmese” or not. That time she did not sound like the democracy and human rights icon that I like to think she still is.
On the other hand if she spoke loud and clear for the human rights of the Rohingya, she risked losing the support of the activists in the NLD who are dripping with hatred for these “non-Burmese.” Therein lies her quandary. So what to do?
I say, Lady, this is no time to quibble on the legal niceties of citizenship. We have a raging humanitarian tragedy. Seize both horns of the dilemma. The Bangladeshis and some NLD activists are washing off their own guilt by citing the guilt of others — don’t play that game. Go back to your models, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. You know in your heart what they would do in your situation.
Lady, you no longer belong only to the NLD or to “Burma.” Speak for all humankind. So that all concerned will be touched by the better angels of our nature.
And tell the world to let the remaining sanctions on Burma stay in place until the government does the decent thing about the Rohingya.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. The views expressed here are his own.