An expulsion from its homeland of an entire community or group in itself smacks of injustice as there is no way in which an entire society can be tarred with the same brush. Every adult individual is responsible for their own thoughts and actions; individuality is the basis of the human condition. And expelling them from their homeland is equivalent to robbing them of their birthright.
And yet, distressingly, this most inhuman practice condemned by most right-thinking citizens, and antithetical to international law, continues to be resorted to by authoritarian and dictatorial governments and leaders. Perpetrated with the excuse of ‘righting a wrong’; the wrong committed results in great emotional pain, physical hardship, disruption and loss of relatives, friends and workmates leading to a disorientation which can become permanent. Loss of life and serious injury are also possible outcomes.
Ominously, for undemocratic governments, perpetration of such a gross violation often then becomes an acceptable method of solving seemingly intractable problems in that country.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, it behooves us to be aware of an egregious expulsion of another group (interestingly, of South Asians from the Indian sub-continent again) which is on-going – I am referring to the expulsion of the Rohingya people from Myanmar. While most of the refugees have fled to Bangladesh a few have managed to reach India, but unfortunately are being refused entry and refuge in this latter destination. This is ironic because Indians for most of Burmese history, suffered bigotry for their ethnicity, and in the 1930s were expelled from Burma (as Myanmar was known then). Allowing Rohingya refugees to stay in India would lead to ‘social unrest’ in the country, the government of India states. The United Nations says: ‘they [the Rohingyas] are among the most persecuted people in the world’.[i]
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim minority who have lived for centuries on the west coast of Myanmar and have an etymological link to the Rakhine and Arakan. The earliest Burmese Indians migrated to Burma in A.D. 1044-1287 when Indian, Persian and Arabian merchants came to Burma. Islam came to the region with 8th century Arab traders, and the presence of Muslims in medieval Arakan is well documented, there is some evidence that Brahmanic people from Bengal may have established an ancient kingdom named Vaishali in north Arakan long before then.
Settled in Rakhine State, Myanmar’s least developed region, with more than 78 per cent of households living below the poverty line, the Rohingyas are ethnically, religiously and culturally different from the mainstream Tibeto-Burman people. Brown skinned and with Bengali features, the Burmese who strangely consider themselves ‘white’ refer to them as ‘kala’, a word which literally means ‘dark, disgusting and inferior’. [ii]
Having won the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, the British set about annexing parts of Burma to add to their Indian Empire and at that time large numbers of Indians streamed into Burma.
By 1931, the Indians made up 7% of Burma’s population. They were also extremely prosperous, controlled large parts of the economy and even served in the Cabinet. They owned so much property that, for example, during the 1930s, they paid 55% of the municipal taxes in Rangoon – the capital of British Burma. The local Burmese, on the other hand, paid only 11%.[iii]
This situation, which was replicated in other parts of Burma, evoked much bitterness amongst the Burmese who now targeted the Indians racially. The animosity was fuelled further by religious differences.
In 1941, the Japanese attacked Burma during World War II and the British began to withdraw. The Indians, fearing attacks from both the Japanese as well as the local Burmese, embarked on a major exodus trekking all the way back to India with many dying on the way.[iv]
In 1948, Burma gained independence from the British, and the xenophobia increased as the newly independent state defined itself in racial terms. This was further accentuated in 1962 when the military took over control of Burma. The dictator Ne Win followed an aggressive racial policy which affected every minority group; Burmese citizenship was now based, not on birth, but on race. All non-Burmese property was nationalised.
In 1982, Burma passed a controversial law that stripped persons of Indian origin, including the Rohingya whom they identified as Bengali, of their citizenship rendering them stateless. As of now it is estimated that 500,000 people of Indian origin (PIOs) living in Myanmar are stateless.
The military government instituted policies designed to force the non-indigenous communities to adopt Burmese language, religion and culture. Hoping to lessen the hostility the PIOs have ‘Burmanised’ themselves. Indian languages have been replaced by the Burmese language, even names have been Burmanised yet the antagonism continues. For example: Hindus and Muslims of Indian origin are not allowed any public celebration of their religions and face racism. The Burmese people believe that the ‘Kala Lumyo’ will take over the country and rule Burma, and that their children will have to convert from Buddhism.
The Rohingya and the Burmese Indians, as well as other non-Burmese ethnic communities, are victims of the same racism practiced by the junta and imbibed by the Burmese population at large. An added factor for the Rohingyas is the fact that in the last decade Hindu nationalists residing in Myanmar have built close relations with many of the Buddhist monks and organisations, thus sharing with them their virulent Islamophobia which is constantly replenished by Modi’s Hindutva policies.
The Rohingya Muslims, thus are the most unpopular community in Myanmar and are the most egregiously brutalized. The UN human rights chief,Zeid Raad Al Hussein, terms their persecution as ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. In 2017, a small group of Rohingyas took up arms against the state; the junta has used this as an excuse to unleash genocide. To date, more than 300,000 Rohingyas have fled the Rakhine state to seek refuge largely in Bangladesh.
A small number have made their way to India but, rather than taking up the cause of the dispossessed, the Indian government is actually considering pushing these Rohingya migrants that have taken shelter in India back to Myanmar – where they would face genocide. The excuse is that India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. However, the principle of not sending refugees back to a place where they face danger is a part of international law.[v] Needless to say, the ‘excuse’ is widely popular in India where the Modi Government’s Hindutva ideology portrays its Muslim minority as a threat to the country’s sovereignty.[vi]
Considerations of class as well as the possibility of foreign intervention seem to play a decisive role in the process of Expulsion. The 1972 Expulsion of the Ugandan Asians was triggered by the military dictator, Idi Amin, essentially as a show of power for the British and for his own people. It did, however, take place against the overall backdrop of a relatively wealthy and easily identifiable ‘outsider’ minority ‘doing well’ while the majority of indigenous Ugandans were struggling to survive.
On the flip side, internationally, countries especially such as the UK and Canada were well aware of the benefits that these well qualified, westernized English-speaking refugees could add to their societies, and welcomed them. Today there is ample evidence of the tremendous contribution that these ‘expelled’ Ugandan Asians have made, and are making, to their adopted countries; not to speak of how prosperous and prominent many of them have become. They have done infinitely better than the thousands of ordinary Ugandans who were tortured, imprisoned and slaughtered by the Idi Amin regime.
Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are hosting Rohingya refugees but the so-called ‘developed’ world has shown no desire to ‘assist’ the Rohingya. And Bangladesh, where most of the Rohingya are fleeing to, is anxious to see them return to Myanmar. The Rohingya are anxious to return to their homes in Myanmar but are reluctant to do so until they can be assured of equal citizenship rights – this, however, is highly unlikely until the junta is overthrown and a democratic government takes power.
Being largely working class or lumpen, the Rohingya pose no economic threat, nor are they a source of envy, to the Burmese people. They are, however, a focus of quite intense hatred. It seems that for the time being, they are a very convenient scapegoat being used by the Myanmar junta to deflect the Burmese people from their struggle for democracy and justice.