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A Cry for Humanity

Islamophobia or resource constraints cannot excuse inaction in the Rohingya crisis.

It has become a cliché to assert that in much of the world today, Islam has come to be stigmatised as a religion of terror. Buddhism, on the other hand, is projected as peaceful, rational, and scientific, eminently suitable for a modern way of life. The persecution of Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, at the hands of Buddhist extremists with active support of the military establishment, is just one case in the recent history of ethnic violence in South and South-east Asia that disrupts this narrative. Yet, official responses to this humanitarian crisis from many countries, including India, have been characteristically insensitive and Islamophobic.

The recent wave of violence began when militants affiliated to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an army base in the Rakhine state of Myanmar on 25 August 2017. This prompted an immediate military crackdown and renewed ethnic violence, killing and uprooting thousands of ordinary Rohingyas. More than 90,000 of them have reportedly arrived in Bangladesh as refugees since August, with another estimated 20,000 waiting to cross the Myanmar–Bangladesh border. Myanmar has prevented United Nations (UN) aid agencies to reach out to Rohingya survivors within its borders; it has enforced a media black-out, leaving little doubt that the world is now witness to yet another state-sponsored genocide. Despite this, Myanmar’s neighbouring countries have been unwilling to provide shelter to Rohingya refugees. The Indian government has gone so far as to describe them as a potential threat to India’s internal security.

The Rohingya community has faced constant persecution in Myanmar ever since the military coup of 1962, which stripped them of citizenship rights and denied them access to healthcare, education and employment. But the frequency and intensity of violence escalated after 2011, as Myanmar began its so-called transition to democracy. Keen to retain popular support, the military posed as defenders of Buddhism and instigated extremist Buddhist groups to target the Rohingyas with renewed vigour.

The present conflict is a continuation of the violence that erupted in October 2016. A UN fact-finding mission concluded in its February 2017 report that the atrocities committed by security forces against Rohingyas the previous year amounted to “crimes against humanity” and “possibly ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar government rejected the report. When in May 2017, the UN proposed another fact-finding mission to go into Myanmar, the government had the audacity to declare that no member of the mission would be granted a visa. The democratically elected leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that such UN interference would create greater intercommunity hostility. Now, after days of deafening silence following the August violence, she has dismissed reports about the ethnic violence as misinformation that promotes “the interest of the terrorists” and would instigate further antagonism between communities.

The Indian government’s response to this crisis has been shameful. It claims that about 40,000 Rohingyas are living illegally in different parts of the country and plans to deport them back to Myanmar. The Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has justified the government’s stance by pointing out that India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and hence is not bound by the UN’s views on the Rohingya crisis. But on several occasions, both the Supreme Court and the high courts have upheld the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits refugees from being sent back to the country of their origin if they continue to face persecution there. This is now an established precept of customary international law that the present government cannot ignore. The apex court is now hearing a petition against the government’s deportation plan.

Even more alarming is the present government’s attempt to amend the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955, which threatens to institutionalise Islamophobia by actively discriminating against Muslim asylum seekers. The proposed amendment flies in the face of Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees the right to equality, besides being morally indefensible.

The current crisis calls for an intensification of protests to impress upon governments that resource constraints or imagined threats of terrorists sneaking in into a country in the garb of refugees cannot be an excuse to stand and watch genocidal massacres. Providing shelter to people fleeing death and persecution must be of utmost priority, and cannot be made conditional upon their religion, creed, race or ethnicity. Resources must be mobilised on a global scale to enable rehabilitation of uprooted communities either in their home countries, or in the land of their arrival if conditions continue to remain inhospitable back home. Pushing people into the jaws of death by denying succour is unacceptable.

Updated On : 14th Sep, 2017


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