Is the Theme of 'World Refugee Day' becoming a farce?

June 20 marked the World Refugee Day. It was supposed to raise awareness of the plight of the estimated 42 million displaced people worldwide. A United Nations report released that week showed that 800,000 people were forced to flee across borders last year -- more than any time since 2000. In a message to mark the day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "We must not turn away from those in need. Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help."

The emerging refugee crisis inside Burma (Myanmar) makes a mockery of Ban Ki-moon's statement. His office has failed not only to stop refugee crises in our world from emerging but also in ensuring that the refugees are not turned away. 

According to several human rights groups thousands of unarmed Muslims may already have been killed in the apartheid state of Myanmar. Many Rohingya young men, picked up by the government forces, have simply disappeared, and are now feared death. Many victims - old and young, afraid of being ambushed and tortured to death by the Rakhine extremists and their partners-in-crime -- the government forces, have ventured out to seek asylum as refugees in Bangladesh, where they have been denied entry.

Despite the theme for this year's World Refugee Day being: 'Refugees have no choice. You do,' the international response to the Rohingya crisis has been rather too slow and too safely guarded. 

The Government in Bangladesh has pushed back fleeing Rohingya refugees seeking asylum. "Bangladesh never signed any kind of international act, convention or law for allowing and giving shelter to refugees," said the foreign minister Dipu Moni recently. "That's why we are not bound to provide shelter to the Rohingyas." But how can Bangladesh ignore its obligations - not just islamically, but also under international obligations? Has she forgotten that Bangladesh itself was born in 1971 amid a massive refugee crisis? And now to deny such humanitarian help to suffering Rohingyas is simply inexcusable! 

As noted by investigative journalist Dan Morrison, Bangladeshi officials might have served their case better by condemning the violence while pointing out that Bangladesh is among the world's poorest and most densely populated countries, that in 1978 and 1991 it sheltered Rohingyas fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and that as it struggles to meet the aspirations of its 160 million citizens, it cannot consider another "temporary" influx of refugees. Instead Dr. Dipu Moni's statements came across as callous at a time when images of suffering Rohingyas are being flashed across the world. 

No action has been taken by the world community to either prevent a repeat of genocidal campaigns against the persecuted Rohingya people or punish repeat offenders - those responsible within the Union (of Myanmar), state and local government, and the civilian provocateurs of hatred. Interestingly, while the ultra-racist provocateurs within the Burmese and Rakhine Buddhist community continue to justify the denial of citizenship rights to the Rohingyas of Burma, and preach and provide material aid for extermination campaigns against them, many of these hypocritical monsters have no moral bites to living as naturalized citizens in countries like the UK and the USA. Nothing has been done to stop these neo-Nazi spiritual children of Julius Streicher amongst the Buddhist community of Burma. 

But if the world community is serious to stop the refugee crisis, it is not too late. It can still stop the bleeding process by ensuring that violence against targeted minorities is a crime. It can stop such war crimes by bringing the advocates and perpetrators of crime to justice either through the local government agencies or the World Court in the Hague. And above all, it can pressure its governments to not reward the criminal state. 

Sadly, however, morality is long gone in our world, and is replaced by hypocrisy. And this fact is well known amongst the perpetrators of such war crimes, and thus, there is no end of such crimes in a foreseeable future. Consider, e.g., the governments in the USA and the UK (and there are plenty of such examples). The Obama administration has lately announced that it would waive longstanding sanctions on investment and financial services in Burma. The new policy does not restrict U.S. companies from partnering with Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), Burma's state-owned oil company and the main source of revenue for the previous military government. The decision was timed to coincide with a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Cambodia.

Similar is the case with the UK. Recently, Britain's trade and investment department has opened an office in Rangoon as the latest move by the UK government to increase its presence in Burma. According to a report by The Telegraph, the opening of the new trade office came during a three-day visit last week by a trade delegation that included executives of some of the UK's most influential companies, e.g., Anglo American, BP, British Gas, Ernst & Young, Rolls Royce and Shell. 

The European Union, Australia and other countries have also eased sanctions against Myanmar. By lifting the investment ban, the West has lost the leverage necessary to bring about reform, while people inside are still suffering from human rights abuses and mass atrocities. When we reward a criminal for its crime, how can we expect it to reform?

Remember the June 30 dateline set by the Thein Sein government for an inquiry report on current violence in the Arakan (Rakhine) state, triggered by the lynching of ten tablighi Muslims (visiting from Rangoon) on June 3? It came and went. No one has heard anything about that report. 

Instead, what the world community heard lately is simply bizarre! Myanmar presidential office released a statement last week citing that it would not recognize the Rohingya and would hand over responsibility for them to the UN's refugee agency in Arakan State, adding that it was also "willing to send the Rohingyas to any third country that will accept them." How wonderful! So, just like that a minority Muslim community that has known no other home outside the Buddhist-majority country is now treated as if they are outsiders, thus, ducking responsibility of the Myanmar government, which not only has failed to prevent the crisis but also has been a partner-in-crime in what appears to be a well-orchestrated pogrom against the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan. It has neither allowed foreign journalists to get to the troubled area, nor has it allowed foreign NGOs to come to the aid of the internally displaced minorities. What a travesty! This behavior is typical of a lawless 'Mogher Mulluk' with no accountability, no justice and no fair play. It is simply disgusting!

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are seen on a boat while they try to get into Bangladesh, as members of the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) try to push them back out in Teknaf on June 13, 2012.

The Rohingyas are being targeted for this horrendous crime simply because of their race and religion. Looking darker and closer to the South Asian race (found in Bangladesh and India) as opposed to the more oriental (Mongoloid) looking majority - the Rakhines in the Arakan state and the majority Bamar inside Myanmar, and being Muslims as opposed to Buddhist, the Rohingya have been targets of state sponsored ethnic cleansing.

Of course, the denial of citizenship rights of the indigenous Rohingyas of Arakan is nothing new, and did not start with Thein Sein's statement last week; it started full-blown from the Ne Win era. A series of ethnic cleansing drives has since been launched by the military regime, in full cooperation of the racist Buddhist elements within the Arakan state and Burma. Thus, before the 1982 Citizenship Law was enacted, there were Shwe Kyi Operation (1959), Kyi Gan Operation (1966), Ngazinka Operation (1967-69), Myat Mon Operation (1969-71), Major Aung Than Operation (1973), Sabe Operation (1974-78), Naga Min (King Dragon) Operation (1978-79) - which alone saw the forced exodus of some 300,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, Shwe Hintha Operation (1978-80), and Galone Operation (1979). Lest we forget, after 1982, there was the infamous Pyi Thaya Operation of 1991-92, which again saw the forced exodus of some 268,000 Rohingyas out of Burma. The aim of all these genocidal campaigns has been crystal clear: deny all the rights to the Rohingyas; falsely claim that they are outsiders from Bangladesh, or more specifically from Chittagong; continue periodic extermination campaigns with support from the local Rakhine Buddhist community; drive them out of the apartheid state of Burma by making their lives simply unbearable and miserable.
While this slow but steady genocidal campaign has been going on inside apartheid Burma for more than half a century, with little notice from the outside world (after all, the country still remains closed to most foreign journalists and international monitoring agencies), draconian measures violating each one of the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were taken to ensure that the remaining Rohingyas opt out. And surely the evil strategy has been working: majority of the Rohingyas are now refugees outside Burma. Those daring to stay within remain the most persecuted people on earth. They have no freedom of any kind, in much contrast to most of us living outside who take such privileges for granted. 

With the so-called reforms initiated by the new regime of Thein Sein (a former military general) since last year, our hopes have been rather high imagining that his is a departure from the feudal past, and that he understands what it would take for his most impoverished country of Southeast Asia to survive and prosper in the 21st century. No, we are wrong. Nothing truly has changed inside Myanmar. It remains locked in its savage, feudal/imperial past. Racism and bigotry remain the apartheid character of this Buddhist majority country to drive out others, making the country exclusively for the majority race and religion. 

It is not difficult to understand why Suu Kyi, the so-called democracy icon, remained noticeably silent on the subject of anti-Rohingya prejudice. Through her silence to condemn gross violations of human rights of a persecuted community, she has proven to be another immoral politician that cannot be trusted as a leader. Many of her supporters within the Rakhine and Burmese Buddhist communities are part of the country's 'pro-democracy' movement. They are outright hostile to non-Buddhists and Rohingyas of Burma.

Thus, there is no camouflaging any more. The so-called democracy movement has been a farce; its leaders have proven that they are nothing more than neo-fascists of our time. Their brand of democracy is for their particular race and religion only. It is not of inclusion but only of exclusion. There is no place for a Shan, a Kachin, a Karen, and of course, a Rohingya, and countless nameless ethnic and minority groups in that equation. There is no place for a non-Buddhist in Myanmar. Period! Thus, the state remains at war everywhere inside. 

More than 70,000 people have been displaced in the north by the on-going conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Army. On 6 July, nearly 1,500 residents in Panghsai township, near the border with China, attempted to cross into China after being ordered to evacuate their villages by the Burmese army. The refugees were then driven back into Burma by Chinese border guards. The displaced communities are now living in makeshift tents on the Burmese side, near the Chinese border and in Myitkyina, while others continue to hide in the jungle. In spite of a recent peace agreement with the Karens, some 60,000 officially recognized refugees still live in camps along the Thailand-Burma border. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) the total number of refugees (including the Rohingyas) living in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border is 150,000. There are some 50,000 refugees (of various ethnic groups) that live in Northeast India and another 12,000 living in temporary settlements inside Malaysia. And as to the Rohingyas, more than a million are now living as refugees in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and elsewhere. The UNHCR estimates that some 91,000 people (mostly Rohingyas) have been affected by the latest extermination campaign against the Rohingyas of Arakan.

On July 11, Antonio Guterres, the UNHCR chief, met Thein Sein in Naypyidaw. He told reporters at a press conference in Rangoon the following day that the Rohingyas are an internally displaced people. He said, "The resettlement programs organized by UNHCR are for refugees who are fleeing a country to another, in very specific circumstances. Obviously, it's not related to this situation." 

The latest salvo from Thein Sein once again shows that the Rohingya community is in a perilous situation. In recent weeks, villages belonging to the Rohingya have been burnt to the ground, whilst refugees fleeing to other countries have been refused entry and left to fend for themselves onboard rickety boats on rough seas. The Myanmar Government refuses to accept the Rohingya people as citizens, who as such have no rights in a country they call their motherland. This treatment of its inhabitants is in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles 3, 6, 13, 15, and 16. Reports covered by the Guardian of UK have suggested mass burning, looting and murder of Rohingya men, women and children. Anti-Muslim prejudice is endemic in Burmese society.

It's a shame to think that many Burmese, who suffered for so long under military dictatorship, harbor such racism and bigotry. 

As noted by human rights group, this issue is much larger than a Myanmar-only problem; it is fast becoming one of the worst cases of ethnic cleansing alongside the likes of Rwanda and Bosnia. Can the world community afford to witness another such crisis in our time? If not, what should it do to stop the massacre of the Rohingyas of Burma?


Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Older Comments:
Dr Siddiqqui:

Such a long article about World Refugee Day, but then only concentrate on only one small group in Burma (even though there are 42 million refugees in the world). May be that is the world Dr Siddiqui lives in.

My advice -- write a little, say a lot. Hard to do for most people. People are not interested in your literary capabilities, only in the subject. They don't have time to read long articles; they have other things to do. So, if you want to be effective, then Write a little, Say a lot.