Habibullah N Karim*
Dhaka, December 9, 2016 (Alochonaa): The South Asian nations have had a love-hate relationship with their eastern neighbour Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) for centuries. Despite extensive trade and cultural exchanges between Burma and the eastern territories of British India in the nineteenth century and the early part of the last century, the ethnic intermingling wqw limited to the point where Burmese people were always seen as distinctly different from Indian ethnicities. However, there was never any ostensible hatred or animosity towards each other in the past. In fact the opposite is true in the sense that the ancient kingdom of Arakan in the western part of Burma adjoining the eastern hill districts of Chittagong of Bangladesh has had a history of political and commercial liaison centering round the sea trade emanating from the ancient port city dating back to more than 13 centuries that puts the age of Chittagong as a city at more than twice that of Kolkata or Dhaka.
Because of Islamic Sufi traditions taking root in Chittagong in the earliest evangelical spread of Islam by sea-faring Arab merchants starting in the eighth century, the osmotic expansion of the faith to surrounding territories including Arakan is now part of history. For more than a thousand years the Burmese territories that formed the kingdom of Arakan have been inhabited largely by an ethnic community that practiced the Islamic faith while the rest of Burma adhered largely to Budhism. This multi-faith composition of Burmese polity caused no perturbation for a thousand years until the immediate past military junta in Burma in the late seventies and early nineties swooped down on innocent people of Muslim faith in their Rakhine province (that was once part of the Kingdom of Arakan) and pushed their own citizens into Bangladesh. Those that refused to move were tortured, maimed, raped and even killed. Since then Bangladesh has been playing host to several hundred thousand Burmese minorities forcibly displaced by their armed forces in the last 40 years. The UNHCR recognizes these Rakhine ethnic people as displaced refugees.
In the last five years the military atrocities in the Rakhine province have reached disturbing proportions to the point where many independent international watchdog organizations have categorically called these out as genocidal. This is all the more disconcerting as Myanmar has apparently shed its military garb and ushered into an era of democratic rule earlier this year under the leadership of a Nobel peace laureate who was incarcerated by the military junta for more than two decades.
The word ‘genocide’ brings chills down the spine of any living Bangladeshi. We have witnessed first-hand how the military junta from West Pakistan picked out Hindus (a religious minority) and Muktis (activists and supporters of the independence movement of Bangladesh) for torture and indiscriminate killing in 1971. All the people of Bangladesh, mostly Muslims, were up in arms in protesting this cowardly act of the Pakistani junta and millions of men, women and children joined the liberation movement in clear defiance of the martial law regime governing the country at the time. Our friendly neigbour India also staunchly opposed the ethnic cleansing and ‘selective genocide’ carried out by the Pakistani government in the name of military operation in East Pakistan.
In this backdrop, as a conscientious citizen of Bangladesh, with a proud humanitarian pedigree since our birth as a nation, I find it repulsive that we have failed to call out the inhuman transgressions in our vicinity and have refused to provide shelter to those fleeing wholesale slaughter by the Myanmar military and paramilitary forces.
What I find equally disturbing is that our big-brotherly neighbour India, an upright secular regional power in its own right, have turned a totally deaf ear and a blind eye to this horrendous attack on an ethnic minority in its own backyard. Are we to understand that India is only interested in protecting the rights of a certain religious ethnicity while others are considered merely ‘collateral damage’?
Yes, I can understand that there is outsize fear of so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and the chance that some of the Rakhine refugees may be easy converts to fundamentalism to vent their frustration but to bury our heads in the sand and callously disregard the wholesale uprooting of an ethnic community a stone’s throw away from our borders can never bring peace and harmony in the region even if we pretend it’s not happening.
It is especially poignant that as the Rakhine villages are being burned, plundered and pillaged leading to the deaths of hundreds of innocent men, women and children, we are having the largest celebration of the best in South Asian folk and classical musical traditions where the Rakhine genocide did not merit a single mention from all the social thinkers and intellectuals spending many long evenings to immerse themselves in the transcendent tunes of the musical maestros and parading the stage from time to time to make witty interlocutions.
Our constitution upholds the rights of every human being irrespective of race, caste and ethnicity. All are given equal dignity and importance. Our forefathers enshrined these tenets as inviolable. Those forefathers would be turning in their graves if we fail in our duty to protect our nearest neighbours in the Rakhine province of Myanmar from genocide. History will never forgive us.
*The author is an entrepreneur and policy activist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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Categories: rohingya crisis