BY DR. HABIB SIDDIQUI
Burma is a country that has people of many races, ethnicities and religions. Because of lack of reliable census data the exact number of these various communities is not known. There is no question though that the Buddhist population makes up the vast majority in the country, followed by Muslims, Christians, Hindus and animists. According to non-official estimates by various agencies (including those of the US State Department), the Muslim population in Burma is somewhere between 10 to 20%, including the much-discriminated and suffering Rohingya population of Arakan (Rakhaing) state, whose nearly half the population is now living in Diaspora as refugees in many parts of our world as a result of Burma's inhuman, discriminatory Citizenship Law of 1982.
In spite of many hurdles that they faced, the Muslim population, while second to Buddhist population in Burma, has played positive roles in the critical junctures of the history of Burma — from independence movement to nation-building. They have compromised many a times their local aspirations to make Burma more inclusive, federal and united under one flag. Unfortunately, a very alarming proportion of these minority Muslims of Burma, with their distinct religious ethos, has been the worst victims of dispossession, identity-loss, discrimination and inhuman treatment. That is simply unacceptable. It is inhuman, barbarous and criminal.
In my last three decades of human rights activism, I have never seen a people so much discriminated as the Rohingyas of Burma — solely because of their religion. The treatment of other Muslims of Burma is not anything to celebrate either. And the sad thing is all such abuses against Muslims are taking place in this age when the rest of humanity is trying to find common grounds to reach out and make a better future for all.
A feudal state could be excused for its barbarous acts of the past against other peoples, because those practices were often the norms for the state mechanism — creating an aura of fear. There was no Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) back then. It was a pre-modern era. But why do we see the worst forms of abuse today in the 21st century against Muslims in Burma, especially when the country ratified the UDHR?
What pains me most is to see the utter repulsive hypocrisy that emanates from many Burmese so-called democracy leaders when it comes to an important matter like the citizenship rights of all Muslims of Burma – from one end to another. In this 21st century, some 60 years after Burma's Independence, they have no moral qualms to deny citizenship rights to a people that identifies itself as Rohingya Muslims of Burma. What hypocrisy? Are Rohingya Muslims not Burmese? If their so-called similarity with people in Bangladesh makes them aliens in the land of their ancestors, I am sorry to state that one would be hard pressed to find people of one single race, ethnicity, color and creed located and confined to a single state of our time. We have to redefine our understanding of various nations of today and enact laws that will be barbarous and untenable. We have to force all the Hispanics to leave the USA and move to the south – while vast western ter ritories of the current day USA were once their ancestral homes. We have to send the Afro-Americans back to Africa from where they were stolen and enslaved to work and make America beautiful and prosperous. How about the European white immigrants and their families that lived in the USA for the past 500 years? Where do we stop drawing the line of demarcation? How about the native Americans who were the first settlers to what later came to be known as the USA? Should we force them out to Siberia, where they are presumed to have come from? Do we have any moral right to uproot them today because they are a very tiny minority like the "Kala" or "Kula" race of Burma – the ancestors of today's Rohingya people?
The Burmese aspiring democracy leaders have to wake up to the reality of our time and shun feudal, racist, xenophobic and intolerant mindset if they are truly serious about the future of Burma. They cannot just sing: we want democracy and human rights, but in their dictionary there is no place for Burmese Muslims, Rohingya and Karen minorities and other smaller groups. That behavior epitomizes hypocrisy.
What Burma needs today is confidence building amongst all the various races, ethinicities, religious communities whereby everyone is treated equally, equitably, justly and fairly. Big brother attitude of a majority community – dictating terms and conditions of statehood — will not work. The majority must show their sincerity that once the rule of law and democracy is back, under a federal setup, it will not discriminate the minority, and it will revoke all discriminatory laws of the past and compensate for past mistakes. Only when the minority can trust and see a good future for them can they truly become productive forces of the society. Without them it would be like a body without an arm. Burma cannot afford to be limb-less.
My suggestion to Muslims of Burma is to realize that they are living in a very crucial juncture of Burmese history. While they are the worst victims of discrimination under the SPDC regime, they are by nature a peaceful people who like to be recognized as equal citizens in a future Burma. They should reach out to other groups and find common grounds to bring about a positive change in Burma. Being on the receiving end of discrimination and dehumanization, they feel the pains of Burma more than anybody. Their collective suffering should unite them together and enable them to educate and motivate others on the necessity of eradicating such abuses from the Burmese society once and for all time.
The Muslims of Burma are for restoration of democracy, human rights, equality and liberty where all the people of Burma can feel inclusive about their Federal state. They should support the movements of the Buddhist Sangha and any group that is genuinely true to higher human values that foster amity and cooperation and not discrimination and intolerance.