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The Rohingya Conundrum

A few years ago at a Conference I was asked by a diplomat from the United Nations about the Rohingya issue which was also then simmering and my reply was that since this issue is an internal matter of Myanmar it would be better to leave it to them to solve it as per the set norms and conventions. The official then said the issue involved Bangladesh as many of the Rohingyas are said to have crossed over to Myanmar from Bangladesh over a period of time. I then had to say that in this case it is a bilateral issue between both the countries and so they should sit together and find out a solution to this crisis. Politics has its own way of turning things around and when international players get involved due to various reasons which involves economic issues, oil, gas and hydro-carbon reserves, geo-political boundaries, big brothers playing one “upmanship” games then it sure becomes a catastrophe.

The Rohingya crisis has been simmering for a long time now. Migration is a natural phenomenon whether it is of man or animal. It is only the birds that have a free run without any hindrance from the man-made boundaries. The Rohingya issue is also of migration that happened many many years ago when boundaries between nations were porous and loose and more took place when much of these areas were once under the colonial rule where 'the sun never set on the British empire' and human migrations were carried out by them too, to acquire cheap labourers be they for agriculture, for tea gardens, for laying of roads and railway lines, building bridges, construction workers etc. and during the World War II before leaving Burma, they armed the Rohingyas to fight the Japanese and the Arakanese and over a period of time many settled and many more joined later in search of jobs and economic prosperity. This is also one of the many problems created by the British and left behind by them unsolved, unresolved and legitimized.

Most of these Rohingyas are settled in the Rakhine state of Myanmar in the western part which is near to Bangladesh divided by the Bay of Bengal in between. These people speak Bengali but the Chittagonian dialect which is spoken in the Chittagong district of Bangladesh and now many have picked up Burmese who have been living there since centuries.

The Rohingyas are basically Bengali Muslims which the Burmese prefer to call and the term Rohingya was coined to mention people who lived in Ruang area or Akyab hinterland of the Rakhine state as heard from various people. As long as they were peaceful there was no problem with any one. But human tendencies it is to yearn for identity and recognition and the Rohingyas too wanted one for themselves and started a movement to carve out for themselves an area identifying themselves as a separate entity other than that of Myanmar. They even tried to merge the area with that of Bangladesh sometime in the 1940's but their attempt was thwarted. Since then started the animosity between them and the majority Myanmarese people. It was no way a Muslim versus Buddhist animosity. It was always a group of people having allegiance to a particular belief of nationhood versus the State. But when such situations arise there are people with ulterior motives who give colour to this animosity and create a rift in society in which most of the time they are successful. We have to remember that this is not at all a fight between the Muslims and the Buddhists. There are statehood demands in every country like we have in Kashmir and the northeast of India, in southern Thailand, in some parts of Sri Lanka, in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh and all these are against the State and is not a fight against the people of different religious denominations.

The State in its attempt to subvert such attempts use the state machinery of police and the army to quell such unrest and there are bound to happen brutality and barbarism in some cases after which people from the conflict zone to save their lives are forced to flee to neighbouring countries for shelter. It is a human convention that humanitarian aid has to be given at any cost to such people in distress seeking asylum with accommodation, food and first-aid health care until a conducive atmosphere is created back home. In such situations we cannot judge their intention nor their circumstances nor their predicament before attending to their needs and emergencies.

The Myanmar government do have the right to identify their legitimate people and those that came in later through illegitimate means and crying for citizenship rights but for Myanmar today to carry out this exercise of identification is an uphill task as all records are said to have been erased by the successive Military Governments starting from 1962 who have declassified the Rohingyas as Burnese even though the majority of them have been living there since hundreds of years. It went on to such an extent that a law was promulgated, and they were denied legitimate citizenship because the government refuses to recognize them as a distinct Burmese race.

It is the responsibility of the host nations and bigger neighbours to use their persuasive powers and global reach to reason with the country of conflict to come to a solution and take back their people who were forced to flee to other countries. International pressure has to be mounted to settle the issue and stop the persecution on its nationals. But refugees cannot be denied entry, nor they can be denied facilities as long as the need be and cannot be driven away knowing that persecution has not stopped and is still in continuation. At the same time asylum seekers should be content with the refugee status in countries where they have been given refuge and stop demanding citizenship rights as long as their problem in their country of origin is settled. This issue today is becoming a bigger issue in every country of the world as insecurity felt by the local populace from the refugees are forcing them to oppose them tooth and nail.

The Rohingyas and some fringe elements should also understand that their problem is with the Government of Myanmar and not with the Buddhist people as such. There may be some extremist elements in every religious denomination who try to exert pressure on the Government and sometimes the Government also tries to use them to serve their purpose. The Rohingyas should be grateful to the Government of Bangladesh and India that they have been given humanitarian aid and shelter at all times whenever the need arose. They should not heed to the nefarious designs of anti-social elements and create a rift between Buddhists and Muslims or Hindus and Muslims or Muslims and Christians.

It is sad that in 2013 many Buddhists Viharas were vandalized, burnt down, desecrated in Bangladesh which should not have happened. These were the cultural heritage of that country which were destroyed in one nights mayhem. Luckily no lives were lost. Prompt response from the Government of Bangladesh led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed led to the tension to be diffused and she deserves a word of praise from the international community for rebuilding all the Viharas within a span of one year refreshing in turn our memory that 'religious beliefs are personal but country is for all'. The Muslim intellectuals and society also deserve praise by the way they stood up shoulder to shoulder with the Buddhists of Bangladesh during that time to quell discord and disunity which succeeded in proving right the saying 'Live and Let Live'. Today after the fresh influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh the atmosphere there has again become tense and the Buddhists have been living in perpetual fear but the Government and administration are out in full support reassuring the people of safety and tranquility. The Buddhists have been unwavering in their support to provide humanitarian help to the suffering Rohingyas and have appealed to the Government of Myanmar to solve this problem in a humanitarian way.

Aung San Su Kyi has to act as a mother figure and cannot tow the line of the powerful military junta in every word and deed. She will have to subtly coerce the Government to settle the legitimate Rohingyas and give them their rights of citizenship. The other day read this which sums up her predicament, "I think this is what called being caught between a rock and a hard place. Nationalism impacting, balancing while military still holds tremendous power and humans struggling in complexity... not always as easy as might be thought!"

Time has also come for the Muslim world to redefine their terms of engagement with the world. For 10 percent of their population which believes in negative propaganda and mindless aggression why should the other 90 percent suffer the indignation. The world still has hopes on them. That is why there is a groundswell of support for the Rohingyas around the world.

The Government of India has a more important role to play being a regional power, to use its persuasive powers on Myanmar and settle this issue instead of looking at this problem on a Muslim versus others perspective. India has experience in dealing with such crises in the past when through its intervention Bangladesh was formed just to help the people of Bangladesh be free and safe from the onslaught of the marauding and savage Pakistan army. At that time the polity did not differentiate between a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian but responded to humanity in distress. It may be true that some elements within the Rohingyas have connections to the extremist movements but not all Rohingyas are extremists but at this moment it is a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions and needs to be tackled in a humane way because these people have nowhere to go for they are in a no man's land, no home to call their own and are being subjected to become slave labourers in the nearby South-East Asian countries.

But India will have to stand up to humanity as this is where the Mahavira and the Buddha were born, this is the place where Democracy was born and it flourished, this is where Mahatma Gandhi successfully experimented a non-violent movement to be emulated by the world. India, this is the 21st century and it is your century. Live it.

*Bhikkhu Bodhipala is a Buddhist monk hailing from a traditional Buddhist family. He comes from a lineage of monks who started the revival of Buddhism in India in 1892 starting with the Most Venerable Kripasaran Mahasthavir of the Bengal Buddhist Association. He was the Chief Priest of the Mahabodhi Mahavihara, Bodhgaya, Bihar. It was during his tenure that the Mahabodhi Mahavihara was declared as a World Heritage centre. He could be contacted at

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