Tuesday, 5 September 2017


The Rohingiya problem at the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar  has all the portents to snowball into a serious conflagaration. Most of the Indians have no idea about the country beyond Guwahati in the east. So it will be too much to expect from people to be aware about who are Rohingiya people and what the problem really is. To most people, it is just a case of Muslims facing oppression by the Myanmarese in the Rakhine state and creating a refugee problem for Bangladesh, who are in turn thwarting the efforts by the refugees to cross over. Juxtaposed with the Syrian refugee crisis, terrorism and in the Islamic connection to strife across the world it becomes a volatile political issue in the context of an increasingly polarised Indian society. While some are busy screaming about the injustice and torment to the Muslims, some are creating a hype about the influx of Muslim refugees into India, particularly in the eastern states. Because as it looks, as of now, these refugees will surely cross borders and reach Bangladesh, which itself contributes to a large number of refugees every year to India. So it is natural and logical to expect that a sizeable number of these refugees will ultimately reach India too.

While many may be feeling something exotic about the word Rakhine and wondering how to pronounce it , please note that the state was earlier known as Arakan , just as Myanmar was known as Burma. It lies in the north western part of Myanmar and borders Chittagong district of Bangladesh which means it is very close to India’s Tripura , Mizoram and Manipur states too. Arakan may seem to be some foreign sounding place now, but actually before the 1940s it was very much a common name to many Indians, especially Bengalis. There are many old storiesand novels in Bengali  which refer to Arakan and particularly the Mog tribe of Arakan, who were portrayed, rightly or wrongly as bloodthirsty and cruel looters. In fact, the great exodus of Bengalis from Burma which took place after Burma was separated from India as a separate country in 1937 has many horror stories of the travails faced by the Bengalis who had to leave their jobs, wealth and honour in Burma at a very short notice and flee the country. All this happened within the last 80 years, not very long ago. And just for reference, the famous writer Saratchandra Chattopadhyay lived in Burma for a few years and has authored some great novels in the backdrop of Burma too. Even Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhutibhushan 

So, the reference of Arakan or Rakhine should ring a bell for many, particularly the Bengalis. The genetic diversity of the Indian subcontinent is large and very much complex. And in the Northeast, it just becomes a profusion of tribes, races, religions mingled in a pot pourri , yet bearing deep seated hostilities against one another. This is a tragedy. Very often, we find the situation turning bad because of all these deep prejudices based on anthropological reasons which can’t be explained at the surface level by a linear or logical manner. It is very difficult to take sides in any conflict if one tries to analyse the situation in depth.   

Rohingiyas are basically the ethnic community who migrated from Bengal to Arakan province of Burma when it was captured by the Muslim rulers of Bengal in the 15th century.  The language spoken by the Rohingiyas  is  derived from Bengali though it sounds entirely different. This should not come as a surprise because people from West Bengal find it difficult to follow the language spoken by those from East Bengal and particularly the dialect of Sylhet and Chittagong will sound entirely alien to someone born and brought up in Kolkata or Burdwan.  They don't use the Bengali scrip but Arabic , Urdu, Burmese and even Roman script to write their language. Before this the province was ruled by Buddhist  and Hindu rulers. Though Rohingiyas are now synonymous with Muslim religion as a community , there are still few Rohingiyas from both Hindu and Buddhist faiths. But the overwhelming majority belongs to the Sunni Muslim sect.

During the World War II , the jungles of Arakan  saw fierce fighting between the Japanese and the Allied forces. During this period the British armed the locals , particularly the Rohingiyas to stall the Japanese and the Azad Hind  Army as the Burmese were by and large aligned to Japanese . The Japanese were ruthless with the people of whichever areas they occupied and committed huge atrocities in the Arakan and other provinces . The Rohingiya Muslims wanted to be a part of East Pakistan and had even approached Jinnah for this but he was not interested to poke into Burmese territory.

Burma received its independence in 1948  and as a British legacy inherited the Rohingiya problem along with Kachin and Naga problems . The Rohingiyas , now in minority felt the heat from the Buddhist dominated Myanmarese  establishment which  refused to integrate them with citizenship. They  now appear to be unleashing a ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingiyas. That the Rohingiyas started a struggle for a separate state, preferably Islamic,  has not helped . With the radicalisation of Islamic belief worldwide and the growth of various  terrorist organisations like ISIS etc. claiming to uphold the Islamic banner the whole problem has now assumed a totally different dimension. An outfit called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)  is presently at the forefront of bloody clashes with the Myanmar government. It was formed   by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia . So the backers can be identified easily. The Myanmarese government labels them as Bengali insurgents , thereby implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Because Myanmar  (what Burma is now named) followed a policy of isolation and also due to our indifference to the Northeast , we along with the western world  have never paid attention to all these conflicts in that country . And all these are happening very near our borders and has the potential to create chaos. Bangladesh itself is grappling with the rise of fundamentalist and jihadi elements . The influx of Rohingiyas is seen as a threat to them demographically . So they are resisting the influx of these refugees who are facing the worst atrocities within Myanmar. It has created a tragic situation of homeless people , maybe less publicised but more miserable.

Behind all this human tragedy, religious conflict and seemingly routine fight for self determination lies a great geo political game . The poor Rohingiyas have got caught in this game .  Situated on the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Kaladan River, lies the port city of Sittwe, also called Akyab earlier by the British .  This port city is very old and though less known has a strong strategic relevance to the control of the Bay of Bengal.  It was  heavily damaged during World War II . The port was rebuilt, and it now handles both coastal and international trade. This port and for that matter the whole state of Rakhine plays an important part in the grandiose OBOR project envisaged by China , as it is an exit to Indian Ocean and the location of planned billion-dollar Chinese projects—a planned economic zone on Ramree Island, and the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port, which has oil and natural gas pipelines linked with Yunnan Province’s Kunming.

Therefore, the stability of Rakhine State is important for this project.  China’s concerns over the situation has made them send a special envoy for holding talks with senior Myanmarese and Bangladeshi government officials and also Mr Kofi Annan. who is the Chairman of the Arakan State Advisory Commission appointed by the UN. Meanwhile it is reported that Israel is arming the Myanmar Army with  its supply of weapons and has refused to stop the supply of arms  though the US and the European Union have already imposed an arms embargo on Myanmar.

So whatever is apparent on the surface is not what is happening under it. There is a geo-political game that is being played by different nations. And the Rohingiyas are just pawns to this. Now don't say it does not bother us . And oh yes, it is reported that Rohingiya refugees affected in previous conflicts have been  settled in Kashmir. That points out to another game . 

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