By Abhishek Dey
Abhishek Dey previously worked as a correspondent for PTI News.
On Tuesday, as university students and human rights activists protested at Jantar Mantar in Delhi against the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Mir Qasim, sporting an unkempt beard, stood quietly in a corner holding a placard that read: “STOP GENOCIDE IN BURMA.”
Qasim, 29, a resident of the Rohingya camp at Madanpur Khadar in the southeastern periphery of Delhi, has been living in India since 2012. He said he has lost his 19-year-old sister, her husband and their baby daughter to the latest spell of ethnic violence that broke out last month in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The violence has forced as many as 1.25 lakh Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and has left an estimated 400 people dead.
Qasim’s mother, who gave him the news on the phone when they last spoke on August 28, his two brothers, and other residents of their village in Rakhine, are among those who have fled. He said that in his last conversation with his mother, she said that she and her companions were hiding in the forests near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border hoping to cross the Naf river – which demarcates the two countries – into Chittagong.
Long history of violence
The Rohingyas are a Bengali-dialect speaking Muslim minority who have for decades been fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Often referred to as boat people – because of the perilous voyages they make on packed boats to escape their homeland – they have settled as refugees in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia among other countries. In India, there are Rohingya camps in Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Jammu.
The latest bout of violence in Rakhine began on August 25 when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an armed group which says it is fighting to regain basic rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, attacked dozens of police posts and an army base.
Qasim said that his mother told him that on August 28 military platoons surrounded several villages around Buthidaung town in Rakhine. He said the Rohingya inhabitants of the villages were accused of being sympathisers of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and were asked to leave their homes, which were then set on fire. The Rohingya were then asked to head towards two vacated buildings in the town.
“While some managed to defy the order and fled to the nearby hills, others were not that lucky,” said Qasim. “Scores of villagers who were packed in those two buildings were asked to line up and later stabbed to death. My sister and her child were among them”
He added: “My brother-in-law, Hasan Ali, had earlier managed to flee. But he returned to check on his wife and daughter. That is when he was shot dead.”
Most members of the persecuted community remember how they first became aware of the existence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Mohammad Salim, who has also lost a family member in the ongoing military offensive in Rakhine, said: “While most Rohingya living in Rakhine came to know about the group during military raids in their villages, when they were accused of being sympathisers, refugees became aware of them either through news articles or brief telephonic conversations with relatives back home.”
Salim said that though his family home in Sawpharag village in Myanmar has not been burnt, his relatives have fled fearing military raids. He said that they sneak back into the village occasionally to take stock of the situation and to pick up food and other essentials.
Though the insurgent group is believed to have been active for the last three years, it shot into prominence last October when it took credit for separate surprise attacks in Myanmar in which nine police officials were killed and a huge cache of arms and ammunition looted.
These attacks triggered a four-month-long counter-offensive by the Burmese military – which the Myanmar government referred to as “clearance operations” – that ended only in February, and led to an exodus of Rohingya from the country.
The insurgents struck again on August 25. According to a statement by the Myanmar government, 10 police officers, one soldier and an immigration officer were killed and several persons were injured when the group launched separate attacks on as many as 30 police outposts in Maungtaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships and the Regiment Headquarters in Taungthazar village.
Myanmar responded with an intensified military offensive which led to the latest spell of violence.
On August 27, the office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement declaring the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as a terrorist organisation. Five days later, via a Twitter account believed to be run by the insurgents, the group declared the Burmese military regime a terrorist organisation too.
Though the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has often been linked to terrorist organisations abroad, even the Islamic State, it has shrugged off the claims as baseless. It admits to having received support from Rohingyas settled abroad but also insists that it is a home-grown movement.
The escalation in the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar comes at a time when Rohingya refugees in India are in a state of anxiety after the Union Home Ministry issued directives to state governments last month asking them to identify and deport all illegal immigrants, including Rohingyas. The letter said the refugees were “illegal immigrants”, a potential security threat and a burden on resources.
Most Rohingya refugees in Delhi this correspondent spoke to said when they first heard about the rebel group, they assumed it was a tactic used by the Burmese military to legitimise its violence against Rohingyas.
“No one knows who the group is,” said Mohammad Salim. “Clearly, the military is indulging in plunder, rape, arson and murder by using the presence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as an excuse. I often asked my relatives about the group and they never told me about any recruitment drive in our village.”
Ali Johar, 22, who lives in the Rohingya camp in Delhi, had somewhat the same view. “Though there are fewer doubts about the existence of the group today, there are a lot of theories about it which make sense,” he said. “Everybody knows that if the Burmese military wants to, it can remove the rebel group in a few days but it shall never do that. The Burmese military needs the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to exist in order to legitimise the persecution of Rohingyas.”
Johar asked how there were rarely any reports of the Burmese military directly confronting the rebel group.
Salim interjected. “There are always reports about rebels attacking the military units and police posts first after which the military raids villages and kills civilians, only to be struck again by the rebels. This seems like a well-formed strategy of the Burmese military.”
Support and resentment
Tuesday’s protest at Jantar Mantar coincided with the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on his first bilateral visit to the country.
At the protest Mir Qasim, who admitted he could not read or write in English and thus could not read the placard he carried, said he was recently sacked from his job as an accountant in a construction material shop for going on leave for a week. He said he took a few days off work after he heard about his family’s plight back home.
“Today, I have a family here – my wife and my two daughters,” he said. “I do not have a job but I am sure I will get one soon. But what about those who have nothing left? They are dead either way. So why would they hesitate to join the rebel army? For those who have nothing left, why would they not fight against injustice?”
He added: “But there will always be an element of resentment as those who have suffered in the name of cleansing operations will also blame rebels for their plight.”
Featured image source: Press Trust of India