Rohingyas and the realities of nation-states

DECEMBER 4 — This morning, thousands of Malaysian Muslims are expected to converge on the Titiwangsa Stadium in the country’s capital to show their dissatisfaction and anger towards Myanmar for its atrocious treatment of the Rohingya minority.

The anger undoubtedly has its roots in the fact that the Rohingyas are Muslims rather than their proximity in South-east Asia — not to mention that the group is being persecuted by militant Buddhists, which must have been a welcome change from the widespread image of militant Muslims.

Despite that, their opposition is valid. Violence against the Rohingyas has recently flared up in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, with security forces attacking under the pretext of rooting out so-called radicalised Rohingya jihadists linked to overseas militants.

Up to 30,000 of the ethnic group have fled the strife-torn area, and Human Rights Watch has since released satellite images claiming that hundreds of buildings in three Rohingya villages have been torched.

And yet, the Myanmar government led by internationally acclaimed de facto head Aung San Suu Kyi has remained unmoved by the fate of the ethnic group that it officially refuses to recognise as anything but Bangladeshi illegal immigrants.

Therein lies one of the biggest challenges facing modern nation-states.

Putrajaya, for all its strong protest, can only resort to summoning the Myanmar envoy for a stern talking to while the Cabinet issued a statement through Wisma Putra demanding Myanmar “take all the necessary actions to address the alleged ethnic cleansing.”

Rohingya Muslim children in U Shey Kya village outside Maungdaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar October 27, 2016. — Reuters pic
Rohingya Muslim children in U Shey Kya village outside Maungdaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar October 27, 2016. — Reuters pic

In a symbolic gesture, the Malaysian football team cancelled two friendly matches with Myanmar involving its under-22 squad next month. Yet Harimau Malaysia played in the AFF Suzuki Cup last month as fans lobbied for it to humiliate co-host Myanmar — only for the team to crash out of the group stage after Myanmar beat them 1-0.

Meanwhile, regional bloc Asean itself has its hands tied by its founding principle of non-interference — missing a chance to demonstrate its resolve, even as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak insisted this week that Malaysia cannot go it alone to solve this crisis.

Perdana Global Peace Foundation — spearheaded by veteran statesman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — released a harsh statement on Friday calling for Malaysia to break diplomatic ties with Myanmar. It has even offered to undertake an independent assessment of the Rakhine situation, but even that is contingent on the goodwill offered by Myanmar.

The situation involving ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas is one that is faced by many across the world.

Historians believe that the group were Bengali Muslims who had settled in the area, also called Arakan, since the 15th century — but its population exploded during British rule in the early 20th century, from migration facilitated by the British colonials’ need for cheap labour.

As Lower Burma — the area that had encompassed among others the Rakhine state — was assimilated into the country following its independence from the British in 1948, the Rohingyas became settlers of Myanmar whether they liked it or not, thus sparking the decades-long strife.

The notion of state-imposed borders is a curious one. Nearer to home and just recently, the concept of borders was used to redirect anger towards the arrest of Temiar Orang Asli activists in PAS-led Kelantan after they erected a blockade to thwart uncontrolled logging and land clearing near Gua Musang.

After blaming third parties for allegedly manipulating the Orang Asli, PAS online mouthpiece HarakahDaily ran a piece claiming that those arrested had allegedly came from outside the state, like bordering Perak, to stir trouble.

The Kelantan Forestry Department even said that in erecting the blockade against loggers, the Orang Asli were trespassing in the forests.

Imagine that: with all the talk about the Malays being the sons of the soil, we tend to forget that the Orang Asal had inhabited the land long before Malay monarchs claimed the land to be their kingdoms, way before there was Kelantan, or even Perak.

But nonetheless, borders we still have. And to some Muslims, that national border is a huge barricade stopping them from standing with their Rohingya brethren.

On Friday, hundreds from the local chapter of Islamist hardliner group Hizbut Tahrir had marched to the Defence Ministry, calling for the army to mobilise its machinery to Myanmar for a jihad.

“There is no other solution to save Rohingyan Muslims except mobilising the army to Myanmar, because the reality is the Arakan Muslims are being pummelled by Myanmar’s infidel army.

“The Armed Forces is obliged to help the Rohingyan Muslim by accepting the Allah’s call for jihad at the kafir harbi country,” said its statement, using the term for infidels considered enemies of Muslims.

Regardless of the logistical trouble and the simple truth that the army belongs to the nation and not to any religion, sending our armed forces there would be a clear act of war.

Unfortunately, our reluctance to do so in the face of persecution against Muslims would just lend support to the notion that modern nation-states have failed in protecting the adherents. These Islamists would then look to a worldwide Caliphate, where borders are non-existent, and all Muslims are one indivisible ummah, or community.

These are all points to ponder, as the Rohingyas find themselves at the centre of the local political arena this week.

Prayers and laments for the Rohingyas rang loud and clear during the Umno general assembly which ended yesterday. And of course, there is the solidarity rally today.

Although said to be organised by Muslim NGOs, the promotion for the protest made it clear who are behind it — posters showed Najib and Islamist party PAS president  Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang side-by-side, as the duo’s parties play a game of bluff with race and religion on the table.

Will the protest affect Suu Kyi and Myanmar one bit? Unlikely, with its President’s Office deputy director-general U Zaw Htay warning Malaysia in advance to “follow and respect” Asean’s non-interference policy.

Similarly, the protest will not solve the problems afflicting the Rohingyas overnight. There is much to be done to resettle the refugees and reprimand Myanmar. More than ever, the solution lies beyond and across national borders.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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