Rohingyas of northern Arakan are facing yet another round of armed atrocities. Not only are they at the receiving end of indiscriminate use of bullets, bayonets and firing from helicopter gunships; their homes, hearths, livestock, crops and businesses are being consumed by bellowing fire deliberately lit by the Burmese security forces and their Rakhine cohorts. Satellite images validate witness accounts and provide correlation with some reported incidents where residences have allegedly been deliberately torched. The carnage follows a series of coordinated attacks by ethnic Rohingya militants on August 25, 2017 against 25 security posts.
The attack of the Rohingya militant group has been condemned by many states (USA, France, UK and India included) as an effort to “undermine” implementation of Kofi Annan's peace and mediation initiatives. Implicit in the denunciation is that Annan Commission's report in all likelihood would contribute to addressing the Rohingya question and the militants have thwarted a golden opportunity for peace (and subsequently, prosperity) to return to the Arakan region. In addition, the militants are being portrayed as armed religious bigots bent on turning Arakan into an independent Islamic state. The recent Bangladesh proposal to Burma to conduct a joint operation has raised questions as to whether Bangladesh also subscribes to this dominant narrative.
This storyline, brilliantly crafted, presumably by the Burmese intelligence agencies, has worked as a diversionary tactic as it shifted the blame for events that are unfolding in the northern Arakan region on the militants. The facts are markedly different.
The Burmese army through its nominated military MPs along with former ruling party USDP and Rakhine nationalist Arakan National Party tried their best to scuttle the establishment of Annan Commission. They did not succeed but continued their moves to undermine the initiative. Ma Ba Tha, the virulent anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim Buddhist monk, severely opposed the Commission and was instrumental in garnering public opinion against it. The Burmese military commander's Facebook post after his meeting with Kofi Annan in the morning of the day of the Final Report's release made it clear he did not agree with its findings. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that powerful forces within the Burmese establishment opposed the Annan Commission and it was they who prepared the blueprint to provoke Rohingya militants to act.
Again, facts speak for themselves. Weeks before Annan Commission released its final report, the Burmese high command was busy shoring up the Light Infantry Division 33, "notorious for its merciless and indiscriminate killings of civilians in any urban unrest" to the Arakan region. The military had also trained and armed anti-Rohingya Rakhine villagers in firearms and fighting, blockading the predominantly Rohingya region of north Arakan from accessing food and jobs, and spreading fears of attacks on the INGOs and UN agencies providing humanitarian support. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma raised the alarm as early as August 10, expressing her concerns about beefing up of security apparatus in Arakan and calling on the security forces to be restrained and respectful to human rights. There is little scope to disregard the claims made by the leader of the Arakan Salvation Army that the attack on the police barracks was essentially an act of "self defence" as they were left with no other option.
The misframing of Rohingya militants as "Jihadists" is also a ploy to favour the Burmese perpetrators. Such framing with a religious fervour is to render Rohingya militants as the dreaded and hated ISIS fighters. There is little evidence that these militants are imbibed in extremist interpretations of Islam. From their statements it is clear that they no longer wish to continue in ghetto-like conditions that they have been subjected to for generations without any identity and future, and what they simply want is “equality before the law, freedom to live in peace, freedom to move about so that they can work, earn a living and feed their children, recognition that they are citizens and they belong in Burma, not in Bangladesh”. They have made it amply clear that their goals “are not creating an Islamic state in the predominant Buddhist country, nor independence from Burma”. Are not those aspirations reasonable and legitimate?
Calling the militants an organised force is also a clever ploy. It provides the rationale for the Burmese army to mete out excessive use of force. The fact is "these militants are armed with most primitive machetes and farm tools, equipped with some mobile phones and use of the most primitive type of explosives". There has not been an iota of evidence furnished by quarters including the high-tech western intelligence agencies to support the claims that these militants are receiving AK-47s and Arab money. The mainstream media only cites "un-named intelligence sources"—whatever that means.
Thus for any discerning observer it is not the militants that have waged the war; it is a war that both the Burmese army and Suu Kyi's government “are waging against the Rohingyas to further demonise and criminalise them while maintaining the ghettoised conditions on the ground for more than one million Rohingyas”. As the Buddhist Burmese scholar and activist Maung Zarni, a specialist on Rohingyas, reminds us “These Rohingya men, primitively armed, are not fighting to go to heaven as martyrs, they are fighting back because they and their communities are sitting ducks awaiting the next round of slaughter”.
It is naïve to view that laws of the land should always be respected as sacrosanct and violence in all forms should be shunned. When the State systematically abuses its authority, represses its own people and engages in excessive violence, the laws lose their sanctity and people are freed from such compulsion. In fact, the onus lies on the people to challenge the State and under such circumstances any form of resistance, including resorting to violence, is legitimate. Bangladesh's own armed struggle is a fitting testimony.
The stark reality that members of Rohingya community face in northern Arakan today obligates all countries including Bangladesh to allow those fleeing persecution to enter their territories. All should respect and honour international customary law and the principle of non-refoulement and thus refrain from rejecting asylum seekers from their borders. The Bangladesh government should immediately rescind the offer of joint collaboration with the Burmese government. Such a move will only amount to Bangladesh being an abettor of the acts of a State that is engaged in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and in all likelihood, of genocide. Surely, the people of Bangladesh, proud survivors of the 1971 genocide, champions of self-determination and freedom against oppression, do not deserve to be labelled as such.
C R Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He acknowledges insights gained from the works of Dr. Maung Zarni.