By Ashis Biswas
In normal circumstances, the recent announcement by the new National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar that the displaced Rohingyas will be accepted as Burmese citizens once the army rule ends, would have been the best news in years for the world’s most harried, persecuted community. As it happens, the response from the average Rohingya, whether stranded in Bangladesh or elsewhere, is hardly jubilant.
It is nonetheless a big relief for the Rohingyas that there is now a clear indication that broad sections of the Myanmar people are willing to consider/treat them as fellow citizens. It is certainly a breakthrough of sorts. No less significant is that NUG spokespersons have made a public statement on such an emotive issue. For the record the NUG is a coalition comprising pro democracy people in Myanmar who are actively opposing the ruling army Junta, along with various ethnic groups who have been struggling for greater autonomy for years, some students’ and youth organisations. There is a large segment of supporters and followers of National League of Democracy (NLD) party and its supreme leader, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel laureate leader is currently under house arrest. While her party had swept the last national elections, the army ended civilian rule alleging huge corruption and poll rigging against the NLD last February.
Since the coup began, there have been strong civilian protests which the army has tried to put down with increasing violence in recent weeks. The number of people killed by the army is officially given as 850, but unofficial estimates put the figure much higher. There has been bombing from the air in some places and the use of armoured cars. Around 200,000 people are feared to have been displaced, to escape the rising spiral of violence. They are known to be in acute distress as the monsoon set in recently.
What makes the task of Gen Min Hlaing, who heads the ruling Junta difficult as he seeks to stamp out democratic protests, is the significantly large native majority Burmese element within the NUG and its leadership. Also the strong Western condemnation, a virtual boycott of the country in various international fora and worldwide liberal political support for the pro democracy protestors, are not factors the army can ignore.
As expected, the prominent stand-outs have been China and Russia. There has been no support from China for the pro-dems and even partial support from Russia — but for Naypitaw , even as the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) engages in a discussion with Moscow over possible arms purchase. Both sides are ignoring UN concerns and criticism on the matter.
Leaders of the nearly million -strong Rohingya community mainly settled in Bangladesh at Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong, have expressed ‘cautious optimism’ to local mediapersons, when pressed for their opinion on the present situation.. Intriguingly, some of them had been earlier contacted by NUG representatives, before the appeal for a broad more inclusive political arrangement to accommodate the Rohingyas was made public. NUG leaders went so far as to assure displaced Rohingyas that they would not tolerate any ethnic discrimination and annul the controversial Citizenship law of 1982 as introduced by the then Army authorities.
Members of the Rohingya community in London, according to Bangladeshi media reports shared the wariness among their compatriots settled elsewhere. Their leaders said that the total lack of any response from the Myanmar rulers to their legitimate demand for repatriation to the Rakhine province where they came from, for years had naturally left them less than hopeful about securing any significant concessions from Myanmar. Even more shocking was the universal apathy among the larger world community about possibly the worst kind of oppression that any ethnic group had to face during the last century and in the new millennium.
Lakhs of people had been forced to barely exist at subsistence levels in squalid refugee camps and settlements in Bangladesh, where local authorities themselves were hard pressed both financially and in terms of other material resources. Occasional financial help in the form of doles was no solution to their problems.
In any case anti-Rohingya sentiments in Myanmar were not restricted to only the army or the police, according to Rohingya spokesmen. The majority Buddhist population was equally harsh in its attitudes, behavior and administrative policies towards the minority Muslim community in Rakhine and elsewhere. So were the bulk of political and community leaders, who had not put up any protests or showed much sympathy for the systematic stripping of the community of even its minimal civil rights. There was hardly any condemnation or reaction year after year as occasional pogroms and genocidal attacks against the community were carried out by the state and its various agencies.
The general feeling was that there was much to be done urgently to restore Rohingya confidence in the words and new proposals from Myanmar authorities or even the opposition parties. To give only one example of the kind of difficulties involved in the situation: While the NUG now seemed to favour the idea of a Rohingya repatriation to the Rakhine province, there was no guarantee that it would receive approval among other local people and groups. The primarily Buddhist Arakan Army (AA) was strong in the region and had often engaged in skirmishes with the army. But the AA too like the army, did not regard the Rohingyas as a native ethnic group. They also claimed that Rohingyas were essentially Bangladeshis, a claim which Dhaka resents and rejects strongly.
Bangladeshi diplomats too did not think much of the NUG ‘statement’ which they pointed out was neither a policy declaration nor a formal statement of serious intent. It was merely a message through the media, probably seeking to garner stronger liberal support worldwide. They were not surprised over the lack of any overt enthusiasm among displaced Burmese Muslims over the NUG’s proposal.
Only recently, they pointed out, when Dhaka along with UN and other concerned authorities had tried to persuade Rohingyas to return to the Rakhines after Naypitaw agreed to take back a few people, no one volunteered to leave their makeshift Bangladeshi camps! They had little faith in Burmese assurances.
Further the present situation reports from the Rakhines, where around 500,000 Rohingyas continue to live now, are not hopeful either. The once frequent army/police attacks, the torching of villages, the killing of innocent civilians of all ages may have stopped. But their minimum civil rights have not been restored.
Bottom line: NUG or not, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the Rohingyas in Bangladesh — not just yet! (IPA Service)