KOLKATA: Do the Rohingya exist at all? If they do, are they human beings?

It is easy to eliminate them completely from the map of mankind because they have no state to live within, no citizenship and no identity card, voters’ or any other.

It is even easier to label them ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’ notwithstanding that the Rohingyas who fled their own habitat approximated a figure of 11 lakh people including women, children, senior citizens, the handicapped and the crippled.

The new round in the process of physical elimination of Rohingyas considered anonymous in their own state began from August 25. Reports and images across the media clearly spell out how old men and women, jawans and even six-year-olds are being slaughtered to death.

Satellite images cast at the behest of the United Nations clearly show how large tracts of land where Rohingyas lived have been razed to the ground. Myanmar has also stopped access to United Nations to supply food, medicine, water and other necessaries to these Rohingyas who have no clue what hit them! Nearly three lakh Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh and other places within a single fortnight.

Are they all ‘terrorists’?

What does Myanmar say? Myanmar states that this entire ‘revolt’ was triggered by Rohingyas themselves when on August 25 this year, an ‘extremist’ organization named Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army reportedly killed several police staff of the district and this led to the counter-attack. But why should the entire population of Rohingyas be held responsible for this attack by just a few of them?

Who are Rohingyas? Rohingyas residing in the eastern side of Bengal (then united), migrated to Rakhine, (then not a part of Myanmar but a part of undivided Bengal) and settled over generations. They created their distinct culture and civil life. However, as a consequence of the reconstructed administration of Myanmar, these hapless people became ‘foreigners’ in their own land because Rakhine (Arakan) officially became one of the 15 states of Myanmar.

The Rohingyas of Burma, an ethnic group existing in a state of national limbo, is one of the severely affected communities living under the quasi-democratic regime where human rights abuse and sufferings are common. Writes Dough Bandow in Forbes.com, “Stripped of their citizenship by the military junta which ruled the country for a half century, the Rohingyas lack political representation, access to adequate education, family planning, health care, justice, public employment, and other benefits and services, as well as the right to move freely.” So, are these ‘terrorists?’

Bengali Muslims now more universally known as Rohingyas can be traced back to the 16th century as living and working in the Arakan. Arakan was a part of Chittangong (now in Bangladesh) from 1666 but at that time it was a part of Bengal. In 1785, the Burmese attacked Arakan and appropriated this, which forced the 35000 inhabitants to flee for refuge to Chittagong.

However, in 1826, after the first Anglo-Burmese War, the diabolic British Government in India brought Arakan within British-ruled India. The idea was to capitalise on the cheap labour the Bengali Muslims would be able and willing to offer. They were skilled and hardworking at the same time and slowly, within one year, the Bengali Rohingyas became influential and powerful in the region and formed a majority of the local population in many parts of Rakhine.

Since there was no strict regulation along the borders, thousands of Bengalis from Chittagong migrated to Arakan. The original inhabitants of Burma and Arakan also took advantage of their skill and their labour.

During the Pakistan Movement or Tehrik Pakistan in 1940, a religious political movement aiming at the creation of Pakistan from the Muslim-majority areas of British India, the Rohingyas of West Burma began a revolutionary movement for inclusion within East Pakistan which went on till 1948 and continued after Burma became independent.

But since Mohammed Ali Jinnah had decided that Burma would not be touched for any reason – political or administrative, the Rohingyas turned to revolt and the military services of Burma rose to suppress their revolution.

Arakan became a part of Burma when the latter became an independent nation in 1948. But the seeds of hate of the Burmese for the Rohingyas were already laid when the latter demanded to become a part of East Pakistan. In 1978, the infamous “Operation King Dragon” led to ruthless and brutal attacks on the Rohingyas launched by the Burmese. Within a little over three months, approximately 200,000 to 250,000 Muslims mostly Rohingyas were forced to flee and take shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.

This was the beginning of ceaseless attacks on the Rohingyas. Officially, the operation was focused on the expulsion of Rohingya insurgents in the area, who have been fighting for an independent Rohingya state in the region for nearly three decades.

“The Rohingyas have experienced difficulties in obtaining citizenship after 1982 Citizenship Law in Burma was enacted. Since the beginning of Burmese independence, their separate identity was recognized by the then democratic government of Premier U Nu (1948-1962). Their situation worsened after the military takeover in 1962 subjected them to humiliating restrictions and harsh treatment backed and initiated by the State.. However, the Rohingya statelessness was institutionalized by the Burmese 1982 Citizenship Law,” writes Md. Mahbubul Haque in 1982 Citizenship Law in Burma and the Arbitrary Deprivation of Rohingyas’ Nationality (SJPG, Vol.35, No.2, December 2014).

He argues that the 1982 Citizenship Law fails to meet international standards and customary practice. He adds that despite human rights standard, Rohingyas have been deprived of Burmese citizenship status due to their ethno-religious identity. At that time, approximately 7,35,000 Rohingyas were residents of Rakhine in Burma. But the Burmese police forced them to flee by destroying their habitats in acts of deliberate and planned arson.

The same year, the Bangladesh Government revised and reformed its Citizenship Law and declared that Rohingyas were not citizens of Bangladesh while the Burmese Government declared that all Bengalis in Burma were foreigners. The following year, Burma officially laid down its borders. From 1990 onwards, the Rohingyas began to rebel only for existence and basic survival. They raised their flag of nationality and demanded that “Arakan is ours and for thousands of years, Arakan was a part of India.”

The saddest part of this story is that contemporary Bengalis in India and Bangladesh are not convinced about the Rohingyas being Bengali because they speak in Rohingya language that bears no similarity with contemporary, modern, spoken Bengali. But a language begins to change after every five kilometres. Besides, the Bengali spoken by the natives of Chittagong, Noakhali and Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) is so distinctly different that a Bengali who has never lived in these places will not understand a word of these dialects.

Every language is versatile and different and changes from one place to another. So, why deny the Rohingyas their original ethnic identity? Is it only because they are Muslim?

There is no universally accepted definition of nationality or citizenship. In general, most countries consider that the acquisition of the nationality can be two ways: first by descent from parents who are nationals (jus sanguinis) and second by territorial location of birth (jus soli). In addition, some may be able to acquire citizenship through naturalization. The state is the highest authority to make the law of citizenship. At the same time, international law repeatedly mentions that no one will be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality. Therefore, nationality or citizenship law should maintain the standard of international human rights law, conventions, customs and practices.

The reaction of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to the violence renders us speechless with shock. She has denied the existence of the Rohingyas’ problem. Like any Burmese nationalist, her response to the latest round of government violence against the Rohingyas including mass rapes and murders of thousands of Rohingyas in the name of “ethnic cleansing” she has claimed that “fake news” was “promoting the interest of the terrorists.” It is not possible to remain democratic by labelling the oppressed, the marginalised, the humiliated and the anonymous by labelling them “terrorists.”

(WritersNote: I am grateful to Krishno Das of Uttarlalpur, Chakdaha, Nadia for the history of the Rohingyas. (Ananda Bazar Patrika, Sunday, 10th September, 2017).