Embrace, pray for our grieving long-suffering Rohingya brethren

Just last week, a good friend of mine lost his nephew, whom he treated as his own son, in a road accident. His sister was grief stricken — the young adult had been her only child.

Sep 10, 2017

By Anil Netto
Just last week, a good friend of mine lost his nephew, whom he treated as his own son, in a road accident. His sister was grief stricken — the young adult had been her only child.

Funeral rituals and mourning periods may afford some closure, but the shock and pain of losing a family member under such horrible circumstances will linger long after. It was heart-rending when my friend sobbed on my shoulders, and there was nothing I could say. What can you say to make the pain and grief more bearable?

Now, imagine if we were in a foreign land, and we received word that not just our family members but our entire community had being attacked, chased out of their homes, their villages torched, many massacred as they try to flee. Those that reached the border of a neighbouring country faced another difficulty: getting past border guards. And beyond that, their only refuge lay in squalid camps with little to live on, no passports, no documents, nothing.

How would we feel from far away, cut off from our family members facing such desperate circumstances back home — unable to help or comfort those who had lost everything, let alone attend a funeral service of a loved one.

That is exactly the position Rohingya refugees in places like Malaysia find themselves in, when they received word about what was happening in Rakhine state, where over one million Rohingya live. Some 90,000 people have fled to Bangladesh after the recent spate of violence began last October.

When news of the massacres and violence in their homeland in Myanmar filtered through, the Rohingya in Malaysia, along with local activists, gathered for a demonstration to express their outrage and deliver a memorandum to the Myanmar Embassy. Police arrested 44 of them.

On social media, unsympathetic Malaysians grumbled about the traffic disruption that the Rohingya demonstration caused and criticised the grieving and outraged Rohingya.

Such a callous attitude towards a long-suffering people reveals either ignorance or a lack of compassion for this marginalised community in Malaysia — many of whom survived harrowing journeys at the hand of traffickers to reach Malaysia — and their persecuted kin in Myanmar.

Any temporary minor inconvenience caused by traffic disruption we face is nothing compared to what the Rohingya face in Malaysia.

They are not even legally allowed to work in Malaysia; neither can their children attend normal schools — despite recent expressions of religious solidarity by a couple of major political parties.

While elements among the Rohingya population in Myanmar have also resorted to violence — for instance, armed attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army have reportedly taken place on at least 25 police posts — such militant activity must be viewed in the overall context.

The real problem is one of statelessness and systematic persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1982, a citizenship law left the Rohingya off the list of indigenous people, regarding them as Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

A nine-member commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan said recently Myanmar must abolish restrictions on movement and citizenship for the Rohingya to bring peace in Rakhine state. “Unless current challenges are addressed promptly, further radicalisation within both communities is a real risk,” the commission said in its report. “If the legitimate grievances of local populations are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.”

The government of Myanmar, where the military still plays a major role, has sought to absolve itself of responsibility for the conflict between the Rakhine and the Rohingya, projecting it as sectarian or communal violence, observed Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu a couple of years ago. “I would be more inclined to heed the warnings of eminent scholars and researchers including Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, who say this is a deliberately false narrative to camouflage the slow genocide being committed against the Rohingya people.”

Many concerned observers are disappointed by another Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Granted, the military still wields tremendous power in Myanmar and the new civilian government is still vulnerable. But Suu Kyi could have used her moral authority and position to send a clear message that such persecution and violence of the Rohingya was unacceptable — even if this would have been politically costly.

It doesn’t help that anti-Rohingya sentiments have been fanned by the firebrand Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu.

There could be other factors at work such as corporate land grabs affecting both the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist smallholders, highlighted by Columbia University sociology professor Saskia Sassen. “We must ask whether the sharpened persecution of the Rohingya (and other minority groups) might be partly generated by military-economic interests, rather than by mostly religious/ethnic issues. Expelling Rohingya from their land might well be good for future business.”

Sassen noted that the Myanmar government had allocated 3.1m acres in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development; up sharply from the first formal allocation in 2012 of just 17,000 acres.

A state-owned firm from China is also moving in to build a US$7.3bn port project in Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state in Myanmar that would make it a major gateway to the Indian Ocean. The same firm will also build a $3.2bn industrial park nearby. These projects are part of China’s giant One Belt One Road global infrastructure initiative that includes tentacles snaking their way across Asia.

Meanwhile the Bishop of Rome has appealed for an end to the violent persecution of the Rohingya.

Speaking at St. Peter’s Square on Aug 27, Francis said, “Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, a religious minority.

“I would like to express my full closeness to them — and let all of us ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of good will to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”

“Let us pray for our Rohingya brethren,” he implored.

We. too. in the Malaysian Church, should be constantly praying for our Rohingya brethren and neighbour. Christians who find it difficult to sympathise with refugees and persecuted minorities from a different ethnic or religious background should remember that Jesus and his family themselves were refugees, who were forced to flee to Egypt when their lives were in danger.

We are called to love our neigbour as ourselves. And who is our neighbour? Those who desperately need our help. And surely there can’t be many in a more desperate situation now than the Rohingya in Malaysia.

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