Mo Farah is a British athletics hero. Last Saturday, he stood holding the Union Jack flag, while the British national anthem was sung and he received a gold medal for Great Britain after winning the 10,000 metres race in the Olympic Games. As he ran, Mo was cheered on by British crowds, and when he won, the crowds went wild with patriotic pride and delight.
Mo, a Muslim, was born in Somalia, and did not come to Britain until he was eight years old, when his family fled his war-torn country. The Somali community are among the poorest, most marginalised ethnic groups in Britain, and are often associated in the media with violence, crime and terrorism.
No one in Britain would describe Mo as indigenous Anglo-Saxon. Yet no one today would deny that he is British.
Similarly, many of our Olympics team are Afro-Caribbean. We have one Cuban-born athlete. Jessica Ennis, face of the 2012 Olympics and winner of the 800 metre race, is of mixed ethnicity. As The Times newspaper wrote in an editorial yesterday, “the face that Britain is showing the world is tolerant, diverse and at ease.” Britain has not always been so – we have our own history of racial intolerance in the not-too-distant past – but we have learned, by and large, to value our multi-cultural society, while at the same time celebrating, as the Olympics opening ceremony showed, our own distinct history and heritage.
If we can salute as a British legend an athlete from a 250,000-strong Somali immigrant community on the greatest ever night in British athletics history, why is Burma so unwilling to recognise as citizens 800,000 Rohingyas who have lived there for generations?
The levels of violence over the past two months in Arakan state have been horrifying. Perhaps even more shocking have been the attitudes expressed by people who should know better. The levels of irrationality have been staggering. I have received several abusive messages, simply because I have spoken out for human rights and against intolerance. In one message, I was asked why I “hate” Burmese people, a question stemming from the fact that I had said the Rohingyas should be treated as human beings, even though I have spoken up clearly for Rakhine victims of violence too.
To be absolutely clear, it is because I love Burma and all Burmese people that I am speaking out so strongly – not in favour or against any one particular community, but against this spiralling atmosphere of hatred and violence.
In addition to the sheer humanitarian and human rights catastrophe unfolding, the anti-Rohingya pogroms have sparked, predictably, calls for jihad from Islamist extremists from Indonesia, Pakistan and across the Muslim world. There is a high risk that the Rohingyas themselves could be radicalised, if they feel they have nowhere else to turn. More worryingly, the Rohingya plight could be hijacked by radical Islamists and used as a cause celebre and a recruiting instrument. The Rohingyas could become the new Bosnia, Kashmir or Palestine.
Indeed, there are signs that it is already happening.
The last thing Burma needs is jihadis causing devastation, on top of all its existing challenges. I have seen radical Islamism up-close, in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Maldives and on the streets of London. I have friends who have been assassinated by radical Islamists. For that reason, I plead with my Burmese friends to pull back from the brink, for their failure to do so will bring further misery for Burma for years to come.
The west’s silence is not helping. It may be that the UK, the European Union and the United States are expressing concern about this crisis behind the scenes. But the perception in the Muslim world is that the west is turning a blind eye. All the running has been made, worryingly, by the likes of Iran and the Taliban, as well as by more secular Muslim states such as Turkey and Indonesia, and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). This is dangerous, as it plays into the narrative of the Islamists, that when Muslims are persecuted the rest of the world looks away.
It is not too late to act. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, released a report last week following his visit, in which he called for an independent, international investigation into the crisis in Arakan state. This is crucial. The levels of misinformation are staggering. Photographs and videos circulating on the Internet which have clearly been doctored, claims and counter-claims of violence perpetrated by Rakhines against Rohingyas and by Rohingyas against Rakhines, are widespread.
Just yesterday, news emerged of the destruction of four Rohingya villages in Kyauktaw Township, reports of several deaths, claims from Rohingya sources that they were attacked by Rakhines with poisoned arrows and that in at least one case, a Rohingya was brutally mutilated and decapitated: all with the security forces looking on or supporting. No doubt counter-claims will come from Rakhine sources soon, if they have not already.
Without an independent, international inquiry and international monitors on the ground, it will be impossible to establish the truth and, as Mr Quintana has said, hold the perpetrators accountable. There is no doubt that both communities have suffered, and perpetrators of violence on both sides must be brought to justice.
Human Rights Watch published a report calling for unhindered access to all parts of Arakan state for international humanitarian aid agencies and human rights monitors, an end to the violence and the mass arrests of Rohingyas by security forces, and a sustained effort to promote inter-racial and inter-religious tolerance and reconciliation. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to help the 90,000-plus people internally displaced as a result of the conflict – and it must be properly monitored to ensure that aid reaches people on the basis of need, regardless of race or religion.
Longer-term, there is a need to have a sober, considered discussion about the 1982 Citizenship Act. There is a common misperception in Burma that citizenship equals ethnic nationality which equals specific territory with a demand for autonomy. That is a painful misunderstanding. The Rohingyas are not demanding their own land, and if the term ‘ethnic nationality’ is too controversial for today it could be put aside. The history of the Rohingyas and when they came to inhabit northern Arakan is a subject that should inspire historical exploration, not incite racial violence.
What should not be up for negotiation is that people who have been born in a country should be recognised as citizens of that country. The Rohingyas’ statelessness, where their citizenship in Burma has been stripped from them and they are not accepted by Bangladesh when they seek refuge, is unsustainable and intolerable.
Some people claim the issue is about illegal immigration. For most Rohingyas, that is not so, as the history books show. Even Thein Sein acknowledged that the Rohingyas have been in Burma since before independence, although he then declared a policy of ethnic cleansing by inviting the UN to resettle the entire Rohingya population to third countries. But even if, hypothetically, some are illegal immigrants who have entered Burma in recent years, the solution is not mass pogroms bordering on genocide.
The answer is to establish a functioning immigration system that can determine who was born in Burma, who is an illegal immigrant, and then to process people accordingly. And in that process, even illegal immigrants must be treated as human beings with basic human rights. Either they should be welcomed and integrated, or returned to their country of origin in a way that respects human dignity, due process and the rule of law.
Burma has come a long way in the past year, since Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic meeting with President Thein Sein. Several steps which would have seemed inconceivable a year ago have now become a reality. The National League for Democracy (NLD) is in Parliament, Daw Suu has travelled abroad, 88 Generation leaders have been freed from jail and preliminary ceasefires with most of the ethnic nationalities have been negotiated. There is still a very long way to go, and the next steps must include the release of all remaining prisoners of conscience, an end to war in Kachin state and a genuine peace process with all the ethnic nationalities, but Thein Sein has started down a path few predicted he would take, and that deserves some recognition.
Yet for Burma to become truly democratic, it must not only recognise but celebrate its diversity. When Rohingyas represent Burma on the world stage, alongside Burmans, Karens, Kachins, Chins, Shans, Mons, Karenni, Rakhine and other minorities, carrying the Burmese flag, singing the Burmese anthem, cheered on by Burmese crowds the way British people roared support for Mo Farah, then we can say Burma is a free and peaceful nation at ease with itself.
-Benedict Rogers is Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is the author of three books on Burma, including his new book “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads” (Random House. June 2012).