by Dr Habib Siddiqui
THE Outlook India magazine has recently (July 15 issue) conducted an interview of general Maung Maung Ohn, the chief minister of the Rakhine state of Myanmar. In that, he shared his opinions about the Rohingya people who are recognised as the most persecuted people in our planet. During his tenure in office (since June 2014), we have seen the exodus of tens of thousands of Rohingyas who have fled the country and have become the ‘boat people’ of our time. He has been a major player in implementing the Myanmar government’s genocidal policies that has led to such exodus of the Rohingya people.
General Ohn epitomises racism and bigotry and his replies to various questions show once again his hideous criminal mind and deplorable bias against the persecuted Rohingya people. Here is a sample of his lies:
- He denies that there is any discrimination or persecution of the Rohingya people.
- He says that the term ‘Rohingya’ was not mentioned anywhere before the 1950s or 1960s. And that his objection to the use of the term stems from the perception that granting such special status has other significant implications. It would entitle them to special social, political and even legal benefits. If they are given this privilege, their next step will be to demand separate statehood.
- He claims that in Myanmar, minorities coexist harmoniously.
And here is a sample of half-truth from general Ohn’s mouth:
There has been communal violence in the state. Not just in 2012, but in 1942 they had carried out a genocide in north Rakhine state.
Only a liar or a propagandist can afford to lie like Maung Maung Ohn. Lest we forget, soon after taking office in June in 2014 in Arakan, when the entire world community was highly critical of the Myanmar government’s policy and the lack of supplies and humanitarian aids getting to the Rohingya IDP camps, he audaciously claimed, ‘When we visited IDP camps [for Rohingyas], there were food, good toilets, and good living conditions. But in some ethnic Rakhine villages, there is no toilet, no electricity, and no drinking water.’ He definitely has perfected the art of lying. If the Nazi criminal propagandist Joseph Goebbels had been alive today, he would have been very proud of his brain child!
Maung’s views on the absence of persecution of the Rohingya people and that they are living securely and that the minorities are coexisting in harmony are simply ludicrous. His bloated claims are not shared by any independent observer, international NGO and human rights group, let alone the UNHCR. According to reliable UN estimates, some 150,000 Rohingyas are now living in Nazi-like concentration camps while more than a hundred thousand have fled the country and many have died at sea while trying to do so in recent years since the genocidal activities of 2012.
Contrary to Maung’s claims that the term ‘Rohingya’ is an invention dating back only to the 1950s, facts are that the term was in vogue since at least the days of Bodaw Paya’s rule in the late 18th century and that any curious researcher may find the mention of the term in history books and travelogues of Europeans who had visited the region.
Consider, for instance, the account of Francis Buchanan, a surgeon with the British East India Company, who had travelled to imperial Burma in 1799 and met members of a Muslim ethnic group ‘who have long settled in Arakan [Rakhine], and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.’ This would indicate that there were self-identified Rohingya living in Rakhine at least 25 years before the 1823 cut-off for citizenship of modern day Myanmar [Burma].
Gregory Poling, who is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, writes, ‘Even if the name “Rohingya” is too taboo to be accepted inside Myanmar, the historical record is clear that the ethnic group itself has existed in Arakan, or Rakhine State, for centuries. A significant Muslim population lived in the independent Kingdom of Mrauk-U that ruled modern-day Rakhine State from the mid-fifteenth to late eighteenth centuries. Many of the Buddhist kings of Mrauk-U even took Muslim honorifics. The evidence suggests that this community is the origin of today’s Rohingya. The group likely assimilated later waves of immigrants from Bangladesh during and after British rule, but it did not begin with them.’
Bengali poets and writers of Arakan of the Mrauk-U dynasty that ruled the region since 1430 had called the territory Roshang and Rohang in their literary works. As I have pointed out elsewhere, people in lower Bengal and Arakan add the partial word -iya — at the end of a district or region to identify its people. Thus, the people of Chatga (Chittagong) came to be known as Chatgaiya, and so is the case with the people of Rohang or Roshang who came to be called Rohingya. (Note that in southern Chittagonian dialect, the sound -sha is often transformed into -ha — without the ‘s’; as such, what is Roshang in pure Bangla would sound Rohang.)
Now let me get back to Maung’s half-truth. He fails to provide the full picture about the 1942 pogroms that saw deaths of tens of thousands of Rohingya people. The casualty was almost one-sided and it was the Rohingya and not the Rakhine people that suffered enormously during the Japanese occupation of Burma.
Some historical background may suffice here to understand the event. When the Second World War broke out, the territory of Burma was under British occupation. To many Burmese, cooperating with the Japanese fascist army was preferable to living under the British rule. Aung San, father of Suu Kyi, and his group of comrades belonging to the BIA (Burma Independent Army) were at the forefront of that alliance with the fascist Japanese army when Japan entered the war on December 8, 1941. Japan captured Rangoon (Yangon) on March 7, 1942 leading to the exodus of an estimated half a million Indians and Muslims. ‘Thousands are reported to have died of starvation, disease or during sporadic military attacks in one of the darkest but least reported incidents in modern Burmese History,’ writes Syed Ashraf Alam, a Rohingya historian.
Japan dropped bombs in Akyab (the main town of Arakan) on March 23, 24 and 27 leading to the withdrawal of the British administration. Since the Muslim population, in general, and the Rohingya people, in particular, in the Arakan (Rakhine) region were deemed collaborators of the British regime, they were targeted for elimination soon after Japan occupied the region in late March of 1942 by fascist Rakhine Buddhists. A genocide of Muslims followed. According to Alam, ‘The Rakhine communalists in connivance with Burma Independence Army led by Bo Rang Aung brought about a pogrom massacring about 100,000 innocent Rohingya Muslims, driving out [another] 80,000 of them across the border to East Bengal, devastating their settlements and depopulating the Muslims in some parts of Arakan.’
To quote professor Abid Bahar, a foremost authority on the Rohingya people having studied the subject since the mid-1970s, ‘In 1942 Japan occupied Burma and the ultra-nationalist Buddhists jointly massacred the Karens, the Mons and in Arakan the Rohingyas. Feeling the threat of extinction, and certain Rakhines determined to drive out the Muslims of Arakan, Muslim leaders officially took the already existing name for their suffering community as the Rohingyas. However, Rohingyas were conveniently identified by the Rakhine extremists as being the Chittagonians. During the time of Japanese occupation, the number of Rohingya death in Arakan was staggering to be over 100,000. Rohingyas call the event as the “Karbalai Arakan,” the bloodshed in Arakan.’
What happened in Arakan in 1942 was truly ethnic cleansing and nothing short of that. In his speech at the Burmese parliament, Sultan Mahmud, former health minister and member of parliament from Akyab district, said, ‘I refused to accept that there was a communal riot in Arakan in 1942. It was a pre-planned cold-blooded massacre. On March 28, 1942 a group of 37 soldiers who are trekking their way to Burma was intercepted, persuaded and prevailed upon to attack and loot the Moslem villages. The cold-blooded massacre began with an uncontrollable fury in the Moslem village of Letma on the western bank of the Lemro River in Maybon townships. It spread like a conflagration in all directions and the unsophisticated villagers with the prospect of gain joined with guns, dahs, spears and all other conceivable contrivances of destruction. Some high-minded and far-sighted Arakanese gentlemen intervened at the risk of their lives to prevent the deadly onslaught. But all their pious efforts were in vain. There was absolutely no attempt at retaliation even by way of self-defence by the Moslem and it was simply one-sided affair. Not a single Rakhine suffered even a scratch. Maybon Township in Kyaukpru District and the six townships of Minbya, Myohaung, Pauktaw, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun and Rathidaung in Akyab district were depleted of Moslem by murder and massacre and those who escaped evacuated through long tortuous and hazardous routes across mountains to Maungdaw. Twenty two thousand Moslem reached Subirnagar Camp in Rangpur District in India but very large number had stayed behind in Maungdaw owing to lack of facilities, disease and destitution. These refugees in Maungdaw who had lost their dearest one and all their property now turned against the Rakhine and fell upon them in retaliation. This is what exactly happened in 1942 and I leave it to your impartial readers to judge whether it could be term as communal riot. There were Moslem too who saved a good number of Arakanese Buddhists from the wrath of the Moslem and brutality of the Japanese but modesty forbids me from mentioning their names. I give below the number of Moslem villages totally destroyed in the various townships in 1942. They are: (1) Myebon in Kyaukpru District 30 villages; (2) Minbya in Akyab District 27 villages; (3) Pauktaw in Akyab District 25 villages; (4) Myohaung in Akyab District 58 villages; (5) Kyauktaw in Akyab District 78 villages; (6) Ponnagyun in Akyab District 5 villages; (7) Rathedaung in Akyab District 16 villages; and (8) Buthidaung in Akyab District 55 villages. Total 294 villages. All the villages in Buthidaung Township were re-occupied and rehabilitated by the original inhabitants and refugees after the War but not a single one in other townships.’ (Sultan Mahmud, Muslims in Arakan, THE NATION, Rangoon, Sunday, April 12, 1959)
Soon the Rakhine Buddhists were streaming in droves from the north as the Rohingya Muslims were streaming from the south, and Arakan stood divided into two distinct territories, a Muslim north and a Buddhist south one. Since then, the traditional relation between the two sister communities deteriorated.
According to historian Moshe Yegar, ‘When the Japanese advanced into Arakan in 1942, the Buddhists instigated cruel measures against the Muslim population. Thousands of Muslims (their exact number is unknown) were expelled from regions under Japanese rule in which Buddhists constituted a majority. The Muslims fled to eastern Bengal, or to North Arakan, seeking refuge in territories under British military rule. As they fled, many were killed or died of starvation. For their part, Muslims conducted retaliatory raids from British controlled territories where they were the majority, particularly in the vicinity of Maungdaw. In short order, these acts of mutual slaughter caused the Buddhist population of North Arakan to flee just as the Muslims had abandoned the South. In effect, Arakan was divided into Buddhist and Muslim areas. From December 1942 until April 1943, the British waged an unsuccessful counteroffensive, and the Japanese were able to expand their hold over most Muslim regions in Arakan including Maungdaw. The situation continued to deteriorate, and communal strife grew worse impelling more Muslims to abandon their homes.’
As can be seen in much contradistinction to Maung’s assertions, facts are that it was the Rohingya people who were the major victims of 1942 pogroms, and not the Rakhine Buddhists who had collaborated with the fascist forces to drive out and/or kill the Rohingya and other Muslims not just inside the Arakan region but all across Burma.
After the British forces reclaimed the territory in January of 1945, thanks to the sacrifice of the Rohingya Muslims of British Force V to turn the tide of the war, many of the refugees who had fled to Chittagong and other parts of today’s Bangladesh returned only to find their homes and properties occupied by the usurping Rakhine and other Buddhists. This led to a series of lawsuits filed in the courts to establish ownership of ‘disputed’ properties.
In the post-World War II era, due to sensitivity of the situation when Britain had promised to get out of India and Burma and had also been cooperating with Aung San’s group (which just before the fall of the Japanese army had switched the side again being betrayed by the Japanese army, which did not grant the promised independence), the British administration was, however, reluctant to bring back the displaced Rohingya from today’s Bangladesh. (It also betrayed on granting them a ‘Muslim National Area’ in the northern Arakan as a reward for their loyalty.) Some 13,000 Rohingyas were not able to return from refugee camps inside India (and today’s Bangladesh). Nevertheless, some Rohingya refugees did resettle in the Northern Arakan State, later to be called Mayu Frontier Administration Area. Some Rakhine usurpers were forced out of Muslim-majority areas in the north. But the southern Arakan, which saw ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and Muslim population by the hostile Rakhine Buddhists, was off-limits to the returning refugees. Many of them continued to live as refugees in the north. This event has led to permanent souring of the relationship between the two dominant groups of Arakan — the Rakhine and Rohingya.
In the last days of the British rule of Burma, Aung San, who had been negotiating for independence of Burma, tried to bring harmony in a fractured country through dialogue with ethnic and religious minorities. This was unacceptable to Buddhist fascist elements. Soon, before Burma would achieve independence from Britain on January 4, 1948, his entire team of democracy leaders were assassinated by powerful quarters who sought to control Burma by force. Rohingya and other Muslims felt very insecure and severely discriminated, which led to exodus of many to Chittagong district of East Pakistan.
As noted above, Rohingyas began to feel insecure in independent Burma. According to the Pakistan Times (August 26, 1959), some 10,000 refugees had by then taken shelter in East Pakistan. In 1959, Burma agreed with East Pakistan governor Zakir Hossain to take back Rohingya refugees who had taken shelter in Chittagong in 1958. When questioned ‘why refugees were pouring into Pakistan from Burma, the governor replied that the government of Burma had nothing to do with it. Actually the Moghs [ie, Buddhist Rakhines] of Arakan were creating the trouble.’ (Pakistan Times, August 27, 1959) Governor Zakir Hossain’s reply once again underscored the deep hostility of the racist Rakhines against the minority Rohingya people. On October 27, 1960, the Daily Guardian, Rangoon, reported that Burmese ‘Supreme Court quashes expulsion orders against Arakanese Muslims,’ which once again shows that the Arakanese [Rohingya] Muslims faced much problems in their reintegration. (In today’s Myanmar, the Rohingyas are treated as “Bengalis” — or intruders from Bangladesh — denying them the right to self-identify as Rohingya.)
The above brief analysis disproves unproven assertions and claims made by Maung Maung Ohn. His views reflect his deep-seated hostility and racism against the persecuted Rohingya people whom he wants to see totally eliminated. But such views cannot hide the facts of the ongoing genocide against the Rohingyas of Myanmar to which crime he is a party to.
Dr Habib Siddiqui, a peace and rights activist, writes from Pennsylvania.