no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well...
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land ...
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off...
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore...
- From ‘Home,’ a poem by Warsan Shire
As estimated 138,000 Rohingya were internally displaced and forced to live in unofficial camps for displaced people in Myanmar by 2015. Since August 2017, a fresh round of genocidal violence has been unleashed by the Myanmar military – burning the homes of Rohingyas, raping Rohingya women and massacring people. It is estimated that some four lakh Rohingya people have fled Myanmar due to what the UN has called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. Most of these people, whose homes have been burnt down, are making their way across land mines and muddy river banks on foot, carrying elderly members of their families on their backs, and arriving as refugees in Bangladesh. A small number, some 40000, have been arriving in India as refugees for the past few years. Some have also boarded boats and tried to reach Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia – risking their lives in the process.
The Modi Government, in an affidavit in Court, has branded this desperate refugee population as “illegal migrants” and as a “security threat” to India, to justify its intention to deport the Rohingya people. India’s Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, has claimed that India’s plan to deport the Rohingyas is justified since India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and therefore India is not bound to recognise the refugee status granted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the Rohingyas. But the Indian Government must be reminded that India is bound by the principle of non-refoulement which has time and again been upheld by the Supreme Court of India – which means that refugees must not be deported back if they face danger to their lives in their home country.
India’s own Standard Operating Procedure also allows for India to grant legal status to people escaping religious persecution in other states, and specifically states that such people would be protected from deportation. India has given asylum to Tibetans, and to Tamils from Sri Lanka based on the same principle.
Deportation would mean a death sentence for the Rohingya refugees. The Modi Government’s refusal to recognise the Rohingya as refugees fleeing communal persecution, and its insistence instead on profiling them as breeding ground for terrorism, is consistent with its communal politics.
The Modi Government is on the one hand seeking to amend India’s citizenship laws to allow for Indian citizenship to be granted to refugees from amongst religious minorities in neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh – i.e non-Muslim minorities. On the other hand, Rohingyas who are Muslims and therefore a persecuted minority in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, are being subjected to communal profiling and threatened with deportation by India. Thus, the Rohingya refugees, evicted by genocidal Buddhist racial and communal nationalism from Myanmar, are now being doubly victimised and discriminated at the hands of “Hindu Rashtra” politics of the Modi Government.
The Indian Government, violating all norms of justice and humanity, is seeing the Rohingya crisis as an opportunity to advance its own domestic agenda of hate-mongering and demonisation of Muslims. This is why it has declared Rohingyas a threat to national security – in spite of the fact that so far, not even a single incident of Rohingyas’ involvement in terror is reported anywhere in India.
The 40000 Rohingyas who have been in India since 2012 are living a hellish life in India. They have not been provided with any facilities that refugees merit as per international norms: not even those who have officially been recognised as asylum-seekers by UNHCR. They are living in very inhuman conditions, surviving through rag-picking and other very menial work, since they cannot get proper jobs due to a lack of proper documentation or as a result of stigmatisation of this community inside India.
A little more than a couple of hundred helpless Rohingya refugees in Delhi had been persecuted and even attacked by Sangh outfits in 2012 when they had taken shelter on the open grounds of a mosque in Sultangarhi near Vasant Kunj. JNU students had then gone to their rescue and offered relief (see ‘People With No Country?’ by Sucheta De, Liberation June 2012). Now the same people are living in Madanpur Khadar with the support of a minority charitable institution.
The Sanghi propaganda machinery on social media and among people is demonising the Rohingya refugees with fake images and videos, even as several TV anchors – well-known propagandists of the Modi Government - are amplifying this profiling and demonization (see #RohingyaCrisis: The new low point for TV news, Newslaundry, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEebAzH74PA). This attitude is reflected in Modi government's position on Rohingya refugee crisis when it described those hapless people in Supreme Court as a threat to national security.
The history of the Rohingyas in the Arakan (Rakhine) region of Myanmar goes back to the 15th century. In later centuries the Arakan region has also been ruled by the rulers of the Bengal region. During British colonial rule, too, communal clashes in the region grew. When the Japanese occupied Burma and the British had to flee in 1942 during WWII it caused a shift in the regional balance for a short time, leading to fresh communal clashes and riots between the Burmese races against Muslims and Hindus in many parts of Burma including in the Rakhine province.
By this time, the people of the Arakan/Rakhine region had developed a nationalist movement. The British promised them a separate nation – but this promise was never met. Later, Rohingya Muslims demanded their inclusion in Bangladesh (then Pakistan) but this demand was rejected by the Burmese Parliament.
In the backdrop of systematic and severe racial and communal discrimination and violence, the Rohingya separatist movement developed around 1950, which was finally and brutally crushed by the army by 1954. The highly discriminated national identity of Rohingya Muslims continued to be persecuted more a decade later with a military dictatorship in power.
In 1982, Myanmar enacted an openly racist Citizenship Act which permits only a few races (Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Kaman, or Zerbadee) to be the official citizens. The Rohingyas were thus rendered a people without a country. They were termed "resident foreigners" and are not eligible to take part in politics. They are denied the equal right to education. They are subjected to apartheid and denied the right to free mobility inside Myanmar. They have been subjected to forced labour by local government authorities; they cannot be in civil services and armed forces; and their properties can be confiscated on flimsy grounds. Many international and human rights agencies have been demanding from Myanmar government repeal this racist 1982 Citizenship Act.
Before and since the enactment of the racist Citizenship Act, mainly in 1978 and during the 1990s, Rohingyas continued to be subjected to brutal attacks by the Myanmar Army, forcing them to flee their villages en masse. Then too, the international community of nations failed to make efforts to safeguard the human rights of the Rohingyas.
In a Myanmar ruled for so long by military dictators, the weakened democratic institutions in that country further isolated the Rohingyas, and leaders of the movement against the dictatorship also looked the other way. It is in this backdrop that fundamentalist forces began to take root among the internationally and nationally isolated and desperate Rohingyas who had been let down by the international community also.
The movement for democracy in Myanmar against the military dictatorship led by Aung San Suu Kyi was a ray of hope for Rohingya Muslims too who felt that restoration of democracy might bring an end to their woes. Instead Suu Kyi has succumbed to the politics of majoritarianism and, in collusion with the military powers, is presiding over one of the biggest state-sponsored genocides programme in the world. When such a mass exodus is taking place, burnt, decapitated and tortured dead bodies and being recovered from sea shore, whole villages being burnt to ashes, and horrific tales being told by the defenceless Rohingyas who survived firing from military helicopters and managed to reach Bangladesh, the Myanmar government is shamelessly denying that any atrocities are taking place. Suu Kyi is blaming Rohingya “terrorism” for everything and Myanmar Government sources even tried to show fake videos to international journalists to claim that Rohingyas are burning their own homes!
Indian PM Modi on his recent Myanmar visit, unsurprisingly, endorsed and amplified Suu Kyi’s defence of racism and genocide. Suu Kyi, the erstwhile icon of human rights and a Nobel Peace prize winner, is now reduced to the moral stature of a communal and racist head of state. Suu Kyi’s own Nobel Acceptance Speech (see box) reads today as a shameful example of hypocrisy.
Another Nobel Peace prize winner Bishop Deshmond Tutu said to Suu Kyi, "If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”, and categorically said that discrimination "doesn’t come naturally; it is taught". Malala Yousufzai, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, said “Today we have seen pictures of small children killed by Myanmar’s security forces. These children attacked no one, but still their homes were burned to the ground. If their home is not Myanmar, where they have lived for generations, then where is it? Rohingya people should be given citizenship in Myanmar, the country where they were born.” Malala added that other countries including her own country Pakistan should follow Bangladesh’s example to offer Rohingyas food, shelter and schooling. She ended, “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”
After these rebukes, Suu Kyi finally broke her silence – but her statement failed even to take the name ‘Rohingya’ and only expressed vague and generalised condemnation of “all human rights violations and unlawful violence” without admitting that her own Government forces are involved in violating the rights of Rohingya people. Suu Kyi seems to have taken a leaf from her neighbour Modi’s book – Modi is known to issue belated and generalised sermons against violence taking the name of Gandhi and Buddha, without ever specifically naming Muslims as victims of communal violence, or Sangh outfits as the perpetrators of such violence.
What is the way forward? Even as there is widespread condemnation of Rohingyas' persecution worldwide, the community of nations is yet to put effective pressure on the Myanmar government to recognise Rohingyas as citizens and stop the genocide, and also ensure that Rohingya refugees are treated with dignity in all the parts of the world where they sought refuge.
Colonialism and US imperialism had intimate links with fascism. Hitler modelled his anti-Jewish policies on the racist immigration policies of 1920s USA. Looking at those imperialist and fascist policies today, we cannot help but be struck by their striking similarities to Trump’s policies towards immigrants and Modi’s towards refugees.
Reviewing Yale law professor James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law in Haaretz, Rafael Medoff writes, of “the way in which the U.S. immigration quotas, adopted by Congress in 1921 and tightened in 1924, were structured to heavily favor what were considered “racially desirable” people in northern and western Europe, and severely reduce the number admitted from eastern and southern Europe (primarily Jews and Catholics) and from Asia. Although the U.S. was by no means the only country to decide immigration based on racist ideas, Whitman notes, it had become “the leader in developing explicitly racist policies of nationality and immigration.”
Medoff continues, “The Nazi jurists were also keenly interested in America’s development of a type of second-class citizenship for residents of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the territories that the U.S. captured and occupied in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Supreme Court upheld the conquered peoples’ status as “non-citizen nationals.” German legal scholars created an extensive body of literature on the subject, which the Nazis utilized. “America, in the eyes of this German literature, was a laboratory for experimentation in diminished citizenship rights,” Whitman notes.”
Further “the Nazis looked closely at the laws in 30 (US) states prohibiting marriage between whites and blacks, the last of which (Virginia) was abolished only in 1967. In defining who could marry and who could not, these American precedents included helpful (to the Nazis) ways for deciding the status of persons of mixed-race.”
Trump’s bid to “make America great again” is a throwback to that openly racist era, which is why it is welcomed by fascist forces in the US and the world over today. As soon as he became President, Trump tried to halt the US refugee programme for 120 days, bar Syrian refugees indefinitely, and impose a 90-day travel ban on people from six (predominantly Muslim) countries. Although prevented by the US Supreme Court from implementing the travel ban, Trump continues to repeat his idea that USA and Europe should ban entry to immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries, profiling such refugees and immigrants as terrorists.
Modi and his party and Government too are discriminating between refugees on the basis of faith – and by so doing, are seeking to strengthen their rationale for a fascist Hindu Nation. Like the Nazis and the US white supremacists, the BJP and RSS too are invested in controlling who can marry whom: their campaign against ‘love jehad’ is basically organised violence against inter-faith marriage, and they also support – and draw support from – forces that prohibit inter-caste marriage.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Aung San Suu Kyi had extolled the “Burmese concept of peace,” translating it as “the beneficial coolness that comes when a fire is extinguished.” Why is she, today, allowing her country’s military and members of her own dominant community to set Rohingya homes on fire?
In that speech, Suu Kyi said, “War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” Why is she today branding the Rohingyas as terrorists? By ignoring and refusing to acknowledge Rohingya suffering and therefore extinguishing Rohingya home in Myanmar democracy, is she herself not complicit in sowing the seeds of organisations like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army? Is the ARSA not born of the decades-long Rohingya suffering that “degrades and embitters and enrages”?
Suu Kyi’s Nobel speech was eloquent on the plight of refugees: “There are refugees in all parts of the world. When I was at the Maela refugee camp in Thailand recently, I met dedicated people who were striving daily to make the lives of the inmates as free from hardship as possible. They spoke of their concern over ‘donor fatigue,’ which could also translate as ‘compassion fatigue.’ ‘Donor fatigue’ expresses itself precisely in the reduction of funding. ‘Compassion fatigue’ expresses itself less obviously in the reduction of concern. One is the consequence of the other. Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue? Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfill the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge.”
The world must ask Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – why are you turning a blind eye to the Rohingyas’ vain search for refuge – a plight to which they are driven by your Government’s refusal to recognise them as citizens?