While there has been enormous focus on Myanmar, which before gaining independence from the British in 1948, was referred to as Burma, a disproportionate attention has been given to the present refugee crisis without considering the historical aspects of a looming conflict in the country.
The present refugee crisis resulting in nearly half a million fleeing the Rakhine state in Myanmar, supposedly the poorest state in the country, to Bangladesh, has raised unanswered questions.
What sparked the present conflict? Why is this conflict happening between “Rohingyas” and the primarily Buddhist community of Myanmar, and what happened to the other minorities like the Hindus living in the Rakhine State? These are a few pressing questions that face the international community, which wants to put an end to the refugee crisis, during which half a million Rohingya refugees are now temporarily stationed in shelters in Bangladesh.
It is assumed that on 25th August, the Arakan Rohingya Salvations Army (ARSA), an insurgent group fighting for self-determination, attacked and killed several Hindu families and simultaneously attacked 30 police posts, killing many members of the security forces. They retreated into the villages, having acquired ammunition from the police, thereby becoming a dangerous force.
ARSA fighters do no fight in a military uniform but mingle with villagers and dress like the rest of the civilian population. This is a sophisticated guerilla tactic, making it extremely difficult for the security forces in Myanmar to distinguish between an ordinary villager and an insurgent. The military in Myanmar claim that they have recovered a mass grave of Hindus with 28 bodies. Nearly 100 other Hindus have been found butchered by the insurgents as they penetrated the villages, killing primarily Hindu men, taking their wives as hostages and later converting them to Islam.
India Today journalists have visited the refugee camps and interviewed Hindu women who have narrated the horrendous story of how their men were killed in front of them. They were then forced to break their bangles and remove their vermillion (sindur – a symbol of a married Hindu women), to show their new alliance to the Muslim community of the Rakhine state.
It is assumed that ARSA´s military capacity can easily be nullified by the powerful military of Myanmar, but the group has extensive social media coverage, which amplifies the conflict, demanding a stronger reaction, especially from the Islamic countries. Even though it tries to project itself as a moderate group, it is highly probable that they have links to Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e-toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and other such Islamic terrorist groups.
ARSA´s leader, Ataullah Abu, was born in Karachi, has received training in madrassas in Saudi Arabia, and is considered an expert in guerilla warfare techniques. It is highly likely that the group wanted to provoke an over-reaction from the military forces in Myanmar, fueling a refugee crisis and thereby calling for international intervention.
They almost succeeded in their effort. The military crackdown against the Rohingya ethnic group has resulted in one of the worst refugee crisis in modern times. Countries which are members of the ASEAN organization are in total disagreement as to how to tackle the crisis, and there is a ferocious political debate in India, Malaysia and Indonesia on the issue.
The Rohingyas are referred to by the Burmese population as the “Bengalis”, as during partition where Burma acquired independence from the British Raj, the Muslim community there wanted to join Pakistan. During the Second World War, they sided with the British whereas the majority of the Buddhist population were against the British forces. These historical facts have not been reconciled. The Buddhists of Myanmar feel that Hindus have integrated well into their country and do not fear that they will demand a separate country.
It is this fear based on historical memory that makes the Burmese population skeptical about the future role of the Rohingya Muslims in sustaining the concept of one undivided Myanmar. Sooner or later, a demand for a separate state will emerge. This happened in the case of Pakistan, which is a stark reminder to Buddhists in Myanmar that they must drastically reduce the numbers of Muslims in the Rakhine state to suppress the separatist movement.
Therefore, we will not witness the return of the entire refugee population from Bangladesh. Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi will press for the return of as many refugees as possible, but it is the military junta that makes the final decision. Hopefully the Hindu refugees would also be allowed back into regions where they do not risk ethnic cleansing at the hands of terrorists groups.
The refugee crisis in Bangladesh is deeply embedded in the understanding of the historical past and the lack of reconciliation, which could have paved the road for citizenship rights. The partition of the sub-continent in that sense is incomplete, and it is important that different religious minorities should settle this troubling past to create a better future for all ethnic minorities in South and South-East Asia.