In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace
By the Grace of Allah, we have reached the second half of this blessed month of Ramadan. The exacting discipline of fasting has no doubt fortified and revitalized our spiritual resources. However, in addition to the overall goal of spiritual transformation, fasting in Ramadan should inculcate in the spiritual seeker a deep sense of solidarity and compassion with the poor and the marginalized. This social purpose of fasting is clearly indicated in the Qur’anic injunction in surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2, verse 184, in which Allah, the Lord of Compassion proclaims:
وَعَلَى الَّذِينَ يُطِيقُونَهُ فِدْيَةٌ طَعَامُ مِسْكِينٍ
As for those who are unable to fast (due to chronic illness or infirmity) they should pay a ransom of feeding a poor person (for each fasting day that is missed) (Q2:184)
In light of these twin purposes of fasting, namely that of individual spiritual purification and social solidarity, in this khutbah, I would like to draw our attention to one of the most impoverished, oppressed and neglected inhabitants of our world today, namely the Rohingya people of Myanmar (a country that was previously known as Burma). Sadly, the dreadful plight of the Rohingya is not as widely known and acknowledged and has not generated the same level of outrage and activism as has been the case with other contemporary humanitarian crises.[i] However, just prior to Ramadan, in May 2015, the suffering of the Rohingya people gained some prominence after firstly on the 1st of May, 32 shallow graves of Rohingya migrants were discovered on a remote and rugged mountain in Thailand,[ii] then, on the 22nd May, the Myanmar navy rescued 208 Rohingya migrants at sea[iii] and on 25th May Malaysian police discovered 139 graves of Rohingya who are suspected of having fled Myanmar, only to fall foul of human traffickers on the border of Thailand.[iv]
Since 2012, there have been intermittent reports warning about the humanitarian crisis faced by the Rohingya people. An Al-Jazeera documentary film in 2013 described the situation of Rohingya people, also known as ‘boat people’, as “Hidden Genocide”.[v] A Human Rights Watch report published in 2013, titled “All You Can Do is Pray” described the plight of the Rohingya under the Myanmar regime as nothing less than a crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing.[vi] The United Nations (UN) has called the Rohingya of Myanmar one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities.[vii]
In this khutbah I wish to address three interrelated questions:
- Who are the Rohingya people?
- What are the root causes for their oppression and exploitation?
- How can we show solidarity with the Rohingya people?
Who are the Rohingya people?
The Rohingya people are set apart from other inhabitants of South East Asia by language. The majority of the Rohingya speaking people live in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). They constitute about 5% of the population of Myanmar rendering them effectively an ethnic minority in Myanmar. There are about 1.3 million Rohingya in the Arakan (Rakhine) state of Western Myanmar and another million living in neigbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The Rohingya people are almost all Muslims and are mostly farmers by trade. 43.5% of the Rohingya in Myanmar live below the poverty line.
The root causes of the displacement and persecution suffered by the Rohingya people is complex but one of the major contributing factors is the contestation over their ancestral roots and the refusal by the Myanmar government to grant them citizenship. A 1982 Citizenship Law denies the Rohingya of Myanmar citizenship. The government regards them as Bengali Muslims despite the fact that some Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar to over 800 years, others to the British colonial era after 1823, when many Rohingya were brought to work in the rice paddy fields in Burma.
The Rohingya are thus rendered stateless despite their presence in Myanmar going back many generations. The United Nations has offered to assist the Myanmar government to review its 1982 citizenship law and to help bring it in line with international human rights standards, but this has been doggedly refused.
Regarded as non-citizens of Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims are denied basic rights such as education, the freedom of movement, employment, the right to own property and marry without state permission. They are also restricted to only 2 children per family and subjected to forced sterilization and forced labour. Moreover, as an ethnic minority, they face continuous prejudice, racial discrimination and harassment from the nationalist majority of Myanmar.
The brutal persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar has forced them to flee in droves as “boat people”, risking their lives on rickety boats on the open seas in order to seek a better life making them easy prey for human traffickers. A Reuters investigation in 2013 found that naval security forces from Thailand were working with people smuggling in Rohingya boat people to third countries. Some Rohingya wind up as slave labour on Thai fishing boats.[viii] Sadly, almost all of the neigbouring countries have refused to provide the fleeing Rohingya with refuge and safety and so some have perished in the sea and others have been forced to return to their life of misery. The reasons are complex but one of the major ones appears to be the economic burden. Malaysia for example is already home to 150 000 foreign migrants of which 45 000 are Rohingya. Malaysia also fears that allowing boats with refugees to land on its luscious beach shores may adversely affect its thriving western tourist industry.[ix]
Religious Legitimation of State Power
Buddhism plays a central role in popular conceptions of Myanmar nationalism. ‘To be Burmese is to be Buddhist’ is a slogan first coined by the early nationalist movement, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, founded in 1906 when the country was a British colony. Moreover, in the absence of a national constitution since 1988 that would otherwise empower the official acts of a secular modern state in Myanmar, the regime has employed Buddhist authority and institutions to legitimate its politics. It is palpable; therefore, that the privileged position accorded to Buddhism by state authorities is reciprocated by some Buddhist monks in their fervent support for state policies, more especially the unwillingness to recognize the Rohingya Muslims as full citizens of Myanmar.[x]
The critical lesson from the tragic context of the Rohingya Muslims is one that I have been consistently advocating for some time now – which is that of the religious legitimation of state power. When religion seeks to aggrandize itself with state power and fails to maintain a critical distance from the state it often morphs into a political theology that serves to buttress and legitimate state violence.
Religion and Violence
In 2012, the raping of a girl allegedly by Rohingya men precipitated a wave of violence against Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist extremists. Beginning in June and again in October 2012 there were brutal reprisal killings against Rohingya Muslims spearheaded by a rightwing Buddhist nationalist movement called the 969 movement led by Buddhist monks. This movement has identified the Rohingya people and particularly their religious affiliation to Islam as anathema to the Burmese way of life, which needs to be exterminated. In the ensuing violence, many Rohingyan villages were destroyed, more than 250 people lost their lives and close to a quarter of a million Rohingya people fled their homes. Even more disconcerting is that three years later this antipathy towards the Rohingya people and Islam continues and seems to be growing in Myanmar.
This is evidenced by the fact that in 2014, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingya” insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as “Bengali.” During the first week of Ramadan 2015, 1300 Buddhist monks attended a conference convened by a group calling itself the “Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion” in which they produced a list of recommendations which included campaigning for a ban of women wearing hijab in public schools and the ritual slaughtering of animals during `Id al-Adha.[xi]
An intriguing question is the complicity of some Buddhist monks in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Conventional wisdom regards Buddhism as a religion relatively more conducive to peace than the Abrahamic faiths. A number of scholars of religion, including the Sri Lankan, Stanley Tambiah, have challenged this assumption as being historically flawed.[xii] Buddhism’s sacred teachings and texts, like all other faith traditions, when interpreted and exploited by religious demagogues in the service of political ideologies, can lead to violence.
The Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi
Yet another question to ponder is the shocking silence from Myanmar’s Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. According to an Al-Jazeera journalist, Mehdi Hasan, “Her silence is inexcusable. Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists, makes her part of the problem, not the solution”. Hasan suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi has transformed from a former prisoner of conscience to a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles; party political advancement ahead of innocent Rohingya lives.”[xiii]
How can we display our solidarity with the Rohingyan Muslims?
First, we can educate ourselves and others on the issue so that we are aware of the precarious circumstances the Rohingya are faced with.
Second, we must call on the South African government to support a United Nations inquiry into the atrocities committed by the Myanmar state against the Rohingya people.
Third, we must call on the media to report on the plight of the Rohingya as rigorously as they do for other violent conflicts in the world.
Fourth, we can support the relief efforts of South African organisations, such as Muslim Hands, Islamic Relief and others, in assisting the thousands of Rohingya people living in refugee camps.
Last but not least, we can remember the Rohingya Muslims in our supplications. We should never underestimate the power of prayer. We believe that prayer draws human attention to things that need our attention, and that God hears our prayers, which can work to change human events and history. Moreover, supplication and prayer is an integral part of the etiquette (adāb) of fasting. This connection is supported by the example of the noble Prophet (pbuh), who identified the fasting individual as one of three blessed categories of people whose supplications and prayers will not be rejected (Tirmidhi).
Please join me at this blessed time of Ramadan in praying for the oppressed and marginalized people of Rohingya:
O Allah You are the Lord of the East and the West
And the Sustainer of the Weak and the Oppressed;
The Rohingya people are in urgent need of
your Protection and Mercy,
Grant them sanctuary through your Compassion and Mercy
O One who is All-Strong and Irresistible in Might
Grant then liberation from their oppressors
Guide the leaders of Myanmar to use their power to serve the good of all and to fashion a more just and caring world.
] For a useful introduction to the situation of the Rohingya people see: Rohingya: Burma’s Forgotten Minority. Refugees International Field Report by Sean Garcia & Carmilla Olsen (December 19, 2008). http://refugeesinternational.org/policy/field-report/rohingya-burma%E2%80%99s-forgotten-minority accessed 1 July 2015.
[ii] Star Online Report. “Bangladeshi Migrants’ Mass Grave in Thailand.” The Daily Star (May 2, 2015). http://www.thedailystar.net/country/mass-grave-bangladeshi-myanmar-migrants-found-thailand-80115 accessed 1 July 2015.
[iii] “The Latest on Rohingya: US Envoy Says Address the Root Causes.” The Associated Press (May 22, 2015). See: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/2e6a0794e10b4b558448b7a71762bd05/latest-rohingya-myanmar-rescues-over-200-boat-people accessed 1 July 2015
[v] Al-Jazeerah Documentary Film. The Hidden Genocide, 16 January 2013. See: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeerainvestigates/2012/12/2012125122215836351.html accessed 30 June 2015.
[vi] Human Rights Watch Report; “All You Can Do Is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya’s Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State”, April 22, 2013. See: http://www.hrw.org/report/2013/04/22/all-you-can-do-pray/crimes-against-humanity-and-ethnic-cleansing-rohingya-muslims accessed 30 June 2015.
[vii] Un News Center, ‘Myanmar Government Must Do More to Protect Rohingya” 11 June 2013. See http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45142#.VZIyu-cxXsE accessed 30 June 2015.
[viii] Reuters Special Report 2013, Preying on the Rohingya, by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings. For full report see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/17/us-myanmar-exodus-specialreport-idUSBRE96G02520130717 accessed 30 June 2015. This investigative report was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
[ix] The Guardian 14 May 2015, Southeast Asia Faces its Own Migrant Crisis as States play Ping Pong. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/14/migrant-crisis-south-east-asia-rohingya-malaysia-thailand accessed 30 June 2015
[x] Juliane Schober, Buddhism Violence and the State in Myanmar (Burma and Sri Lanka.See:http://www.phil.unipassau.de/fileadmin/group_upload/45/pdf/conferences/paper_j._schober.pdf accessed 30 June 2015.
[xi] Voice of the Cape Website June 23, 2015. Myamnmar Proposes Ban on Hijab. See http://www.vocfm.co.za/buddhist-monks-propose-hijab-ban-on-myanmar-schoolgirls/ accessed 30 June 2015.
[xii] Stanley Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethno-nationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (University of California Press, 1997).
[xiii] The World Post (25 May 2015) Why Augung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on the Rohingya is Inexcusablehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/mehdi-hasan/aung-san-suu-kyi-silence-rohingya_b_7451776.html accessed 1 July 2015.