Archive for November 2018

There is a trend among some Buddhist monks to rage against Muslims on social media

By Sonia Sarkar

Radical rage: Bodu Bala Sena monks clash with police while calling for the release of Gnanasara Thero

Lately, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been losing their temper a little too often. There was that incident from March this year, when a young monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans. “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go,” he exhorted. In September, when three men bared their bottoms at the sacred Buddhist site of Pidurangala Rock, had pictures taken and posted them on Facebook, the Buddhist clergy erupted. The flashers were eventually arrested. In the first case, the violent message was put out on YouTube and Whats-App. In the second, social media seethed with hate and threats.

Many violent posts by the monks have been reported in the past one year. These related to national politics, loss of Sinhalese lives in the civil war against Tamilians and anti-Muslim rants. The last category is probably the most rampant and robust. (The Sinhalese are the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka.)

One Facebook post said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A photograph of some makeshift weapons against a list of targets was circulated on WhatsApp by a monk. It read: “Thennekumbura mosque and the mosque in Muruthalawa tonight. Tomorrow, supposedly Pilimathalawa and Kandy.” Another YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray. They say this is close to their culture. They want to claim that their faith is like ours…”

Earlier this year, monks also circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilisation pills in food meant for Buddhist customers. Around the same time, a truck driver at Medamahanuwara in Kandy was beaten up over some petty traffic dispute, but monks spread the fake news that Muslims had killed him. Reason cited: apparently it was part of their larger strategy to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

That as many as 25 Buddhist monks are in jail for committing some hate crime or the other is proof that not all is well between Sri Lanka’s communities.

Most of the radical posts have come from monks who believe in the extremist ideology of Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and Mahasohon Balakaya.

Buddhist monks have set out on a mission to “protect” the motherland and they are trying to enlist mostly uneducated and unemployed youth from the lower middle classes into their fold. A senior Sinhalese monk tellsThe Telegraphover phone from Colombo, “Inn ko jawani ka josh hai… These monks are young and hot-blooded.” He does not sound appreciative at all.

In March, soon after violence instigated by social media posts went out of control, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of Emergency and temporarily blocked access to social media platforms. Facebook, which has over 55,00,000 users in Sri Lanka, was also asked to introduce more filters on Sinhalese content and hire Sinhalese-speaking content screeners besides instituting a direct point of contact with local authorities.

Post crackdown, some Facebook pages have become dormant. Messages to the Facebook pages maintained under the BBS name remain unanswered. According to those in the know, BBS is one of the most violent groups.

Amalini De Saryah of the Colombo-based civil society group, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), studies these groups and their activities on social media. She says, “While we can’t be sure which of the dedicated hate pages and groups have been created by the monks themselves, we’ve seen both public profile and personal profile pages in monks’ names, sometimes sharing posts with violence or hate speech and commenting in support of other posts that do the same.”

Researchers who have been studying changes in Sri Lankan society point out that “religious confrontation” has started to supersede ethnic confrontation post-2009 — when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In fact, a paper titled “Self, Religion, Identity and Politics” by the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) states, “What was considered to be ‘radical’ in the 1980s was no longer valid twenty years later. There are also certain kinds of “radicalism”, which the Buddhist public may find acceptable… For some sections of the Buddhist polity, even the actions of the BBS were legitimate and valid, and the BBS activism was a justifiable intervention to prevent what they saw as the erosion of Buddhist values and the place of Buddhists and Buddhism in our country.”

Some regard the involvement of Buddhist monks in hate politics as a recent development and a response to Islamist fundamentalism. These people allege that Muslims are attacking pagodas, destroying Buddhist colonies, cutting their sacred peepal trees and constructing mosques everywhere.

But traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been accommodative and maintained cordial links with Sinhalese Buddhists.

From time to time, Sinhalese Buddhists have argued that they are the majority in Sri Lanka and therefore they must rule. They also say that there is no other country for Sinhalese Buddhists, and hold that they are a minority in the world and must protect their race. It seems, in this fight to protect their kind, some monks are going to extremes and are unprepared to heed saner voices even from within the community.

Social scientist Pathiraja explains, “Earlier, monks played a significant role in the village temples. They were considered leaders of villages. With time, temples have become irrelevant. But the monks wanted to get back their lost recognition in society. How else could they do it other than by using religion as a tool? And that is why they created the notion of an ‘enemy’ by showing people that the growing Muslim population is trying to eliminate the Buddhists from their own land, by extremism.”

YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.
YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.”Image: Facebook

Recalling a conversation he had had with the hardliner, Gnanasara Thero, a professor of Buddhism at Colombo’s Buddhist and Pali University, he says, “When I asked him to change his way of speaking, he used cuss words I have never heard before.” Gnanasara Thero is currently languishing in jail on charges of contempt of court. Adds the professor who does not want to be identified, “They (radical monks) are doing it in the name of nationalism.”

That’s not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, founded Buddhist schools and strengthened the Sinhala language and Buddhism. When the Sri Lankan Constitution was framed in 1972, it said Buddhism has the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. A Sinhala army song, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, goes thus: “Linked by love of the religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers, you should go hand in hand.”

Mario Gomez, executive director at the Colombo-based research group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, talks about how these violent monks enjoyed tacit support of the State under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship — especially between 2009 and 2015. Rajapaksa’s brother and former defence minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is considered close to the BBS monks. He was also the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS, in 2013.

With the political equations fast changing in Sri Lanka, the fear is that radical monks will get a new lease of life. Some reports suggest that an appeal has been submitted to the government by hardline monks to release Gnanasara Thero on bail. “It’s a lull so far as violence by monks is concerned, but it might be unleashed the moment he is out,” says the professor from Pali University.

A young monk, Ratana Nanda Bhante, who has chosen to separate himself from his violent peers, says, “BBS is bringing a bad name to the entire community. People think all Buddhist monks are violent. The problem is some monks apply their intellect to save the nation, some adopt militancy. But in Buddhism, there is no place for militancy.”

Published in The Telegraph, November 25, 2018


Interview of Mario Gomez on State’s relationship with Buddhist monks:

Q.  Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have always participated in the national politics and charted hate politics in Sri Lanka. What are the recent changes noticeable in their conduct?


A. Buddhist monks have always played a role in politics: they were involved in the assassination of a Prime Minister in the 1950s and have been Members of Parliament! Yet, it would be incorrect to say that they have always advocated ‘hate politics’.  There are many political opinions within the Buddhist sangha. Some have been vocal, violent and have advocated strong nationalist positions. Others have been moderate and have advocated for more tolerant views and the celebration of diversity, more in line with the Buddha’s precepts and teachings. Unfortunately, the more extreme views have dominated the public discourse and the media, especially in recent times. In recent times, mainly because of tacit support from the State (especially between 2009 and 2015) the more radical groups have engaged in hate speech and other violent  activities against other ethnic and religious groups. There was impunity till very recently: the Buddhist clergy were seen as being above the law. However, recently the courts have become more independent and robust. There was a particularly important judgement in August 2018 where a well-known radical Buddhist monk was convicted of contempt of court under the Constitution. This is probably a ‘first of its kind’. There was also a recent case (July 2018) where a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) succeeded in a fundamental rights case on the grounds of illegal arrest and the violation of equal protection of the law. One of the problems in Sri Lanka has been the lack of law enforcement, especially in the case of anti-Muslim violence. Police have stood by and let mobs attack Muslims. In some case they have actively participated in the violence. Law enforcement officers need to enforce the law, and the Attorney General’s Department needs to prosecute violations of the law, if ethno-religious relations in Sri Lanka are to improve. 

Q. Are they using social media as a tool to spread hatred as their target is the youth because youth shapes the nation?

A. Radical Sinhala Buddhist groups are increasingly using social media to spread hatred. In the recent riots in Digana, Kandy, social media was used to incite people to commit violence. They are targeting youth and other groups that may subscribe to their ideology of ‘hate’. Building a counter-narrative to hate speech is important, both in the social media and other domains.

Q.  Are  these radical monks taken seriously by the youth of Sri Lanka? Do they have enough followers? What impact do they have on the youth?
A. Some radical monks have a following. It is unclear however, to what extent. In recent times, many of the radical monks received prominence because of tacit support from the State.  While radical monks will continue to advocate for their extreme positions, support from the state exaggerates the influence they have and their importance.  My sense is that most Sri Lankans favour moderation. Yet sometimes the space for moderate voices to speak is missing.  All institutions of the state need to celebrate diversity and promote a culture of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity. The Police and the Attorney-General’s Department need to act impartially and ensure that law and order is maintained, and that perpetrators of hate speech and religious violence are prosecuted, irrespective of whether they are members of the clergy or not. 


Pic — Kamalasagar

His dark skinny fingers clutch the barbed wires. The tips of his fingers move up and down, as if to some inaudible melody. His body swings left, and then right, and left again, but his eyes remain fixed on me. In his accented Bengali, Mohammed Joy tries to convince me that he has mastered some lessons in astrology from his kabiraj (ayurvedic practitioner) father.

He tells me, “You are an Aquarian. You are very close to getting a new opportunity but there are hurdles. To clear the hurdles, stop eating eggs. To know more, you must call up my father.” He insists I take his father’s phone number, accept his visiting card. But our man in uniform stops me. “Nahin, Madam, yeh allowed nahin hai… This is not allowed, Madam.”

We are on the zero line in Kamalasagar, 28 kilometres from Agartala town. The BSF jawan with the prominent Adam’s apple keeps a firm gaze on me to ensure I don’t walk up to Joy. But Joy, who is from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, is not ready to give up. “My father solves problems of many Indians. He can help you too,” he boasts. Joy’s words make me laugh out loud. In India, the government would have us believe that Bangladeshis are the real problem today.

Here, in Kamalasagar, Indians and Bangladeshis meet every Sunday “officially” to buy and sell sarees, cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and more. (For some, this border haat or bazaar is also a place for reunion with relatives from across the border.)

The small restaurants on the Sonamura border serve ilish from Bangladesh Image: Sonia Sarkar

A common grievance of the locals is that the much-raved-about ilish, or hilsa, of Bangladesh is not available in this weekend bazaar. That, however, doesn’t mean you cannot savour the delicately flavoured ilish of Bangladesh elsewhere and anywhere in Tripura. The small restaurants on the Sonamura border claim they get their ilish from Comilla in Bangladesh, only seven kilometers away. The waiter at Hotel Shankar in Agartala, in his accented Bengali reminiscent of Joy’s, says the restaurant sources its ilish from river Padma, the pride of Bangladesh.

The ilish has made me digress. The moot point I am making is this — Tripura’s connect with Bangladesh goes beyond fish.

Apparently, the idol of Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the state, has come from Chittagong, also in Bangladesh. During the 2018 Tripura Assembly elections, local BJP leaders appropriated Tripura Sundari to garner Hindu votes. After winning the elections, they attributed their victory to the goddess. (Mind you, Bangladeshi migrants were dubbed termites by party president Amit Shah.) And this Diwali, the state government organised a two-day religious extravaganza at the Tripura Sundari temple, apparently to “restore” the cultural identity of the state.

The new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, too has a Bangladesh connect — his parents belonged to Chandpur in Chittagong, though he was born in Tripura. The newly-built museum at Ujjyanta Palace, one of the former abodes of Tripura’s Manikya kings, has a separate section on the 1971 Liberation War with special emphasis on the contribution of the people of Tripura to the movement.

Food and culture, people and gods, history and heritage, there is more than one thing enforcing the India-Bangladesh connect in general and the Tripura-Bangladesh connect in particular. In fact, so closely connected are we that at the Agartala-Akhaura border, barely six kilometers away from the palace, the filth of our swachh Bharat flows into Bangladesh through a canal.

Agartala–Akhaur border

After a three-day tour of this northeastern state, I am sitting at the departure lounge of the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, waiting for my flight. At this point, India’s fastest mobile network has given up and my phone picks up signals of Robi Axiata — the cellular network of Bangladesh. It reminds me how the moment I stepped on the zero line at Kamlasagar, my smartphone had flashed: “Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Once again, I remember Joy’s words — opportunity, obstacles, no eggs. And that’s when it occurs to me that he was bluffing all along. How do I know? Because to begin with I am no Aquarian. The realisation and the subsequent relief sweeps over me. I won’t have to deprive myself of my routine fix of sunny side up, after all.


Link —

By Sonia Sarkar

Maneesh Kasera was a smoker for 28 years. Two years ago, he made the first attempt to quit smoking. He tried nicotine gums — a kind of chewing gum that delivers nicotine to the body — for a day or two but nothing could wean him away from cigarettes. Finally, he tried e-cigarettes.

Nicotine is the stimulant drug in regular cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. E-cigarettes, which are also called e-cigs, vapes, e-hookahs, vape pens, and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), run on vape juice or e-liquids, which are a mix of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, flavour compounds and nicotine. Says Kasera, “Here, you just make clouds of vapour; there is no smoke. When I tried these e-cigarettes, I didn’t feel the burn as I used to while smoking cigarettes. I got hooked to them.”

Like Kasera, many Indians are vaping — the term for using e-cigarettes. But the recent advisory from the Indian government to ban e-cigarettes has thrown vapers or e-cigarette smokers into a tizzy.

The international lobby of vapers is also worried. And why not? After all, India is the third largest tobacco producer and the second largest consumer of tobacco worldwide. With 12 crore smokers in India, the vaping industry does have a promising future here. While the global e-cigarette industry is worth $10 billion, according to data and analytics company, Global Data, India’s e-cigarette market is poised to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent from Rs 4.1 billion in 2017 to Rs 7.4 billion in 2019.

Recently, a group of doctors and lawyers from the West came to India to understand the growth possibilities of the vaping industry, the new advisory notwithstanding. They also sought meetings with medical practitioners, public health policy advocates, e-cigarette dealers and media to popularise the idea that e-cigarette is a safer alternative as this is only a method of “harm reduction” for nicotine addicts.

Vapers say that post the big switch, a lot of health issues usually brought on by smoking — such as the morning cough, breathing problems, sleep disorders and loss of appetite — disappear.

They blame the anti e-cigarette advisory on the strong tobacco lobby, calling it the handiwork of prominent politicians from Andhra Pradesh — one of the top tobacco-producing states — who represent tobacco farmers. This lobby, it seems, has stalled many reforms and policies at a nascent stage.

In 2014, a government committee had recommended plain packaging of cigarettes, which aims to remove association of brands and in the process, discourages brand advertising; it invited feedback from people on it but nothing happened. And now the government is up in arms against e-cigarettes. It alleges that schoolchildren are getting hooked to e-cigarettes to look “cool”, but thereafter it becomes an addiction. In the United States, vaping has graduated from being a trend to a social phenomenon among school and college students, the government argues.

Delhi-based Abhimanyoo Khatri says, “It isn’t an addiction. I’ve restricted myself to no nicotine liquids. I can comfortably live without vaping for 10 days, this after vaping for three years.”

But doctors involved in tobacco control programmes in India feel the nicotine content in e-cigarettes is equally or more harmful. According to S.K. Arora, the tobacco control officer of the Delhi government, the average nicotine content of a cigarette is around 5-7 milligram, while in e-liquids, the nicotine content is between 32 and 59 mg per millilitre, depending on the brand. “How can one advocate a product like this?” he asks.

Arora clarifies that he is no advocate of tobacco smoking but is comparing the two products in order to give an idea of the extent of harm each can cause.

The vaping lobby argues that in cigarettes, it is combustion and not the nicotine that causes harm. Canada-based public health policy lawyer David Sweanor, who has been working for 35 years in anti-smoking campaigns, says, “Over 20,000 people die every day worldwide from smoking cigarettes. We know what’s causing the disease in the case of cigarettes but it’s not present in vaping. The nicotine is not the problem, the drug delivery system is. And now we have technology wherein nicotine can be delivered without smoke. In a country like India, where there are so many tobacco users, there is an enormous potential for risk reduction by substituting cigarettes with less hazardous products,” he says.

The Royal College of Physicians in the UK, in its 2016 report titled “Nicotine without smoke: tobacco harm reduction”, concludes: “Experience to date suggests that, as predicted in principle in the 2007 report, the availability of e-cigarettes has been beneficial to UK public health.”

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has a counter-argument. It says e-cigarettes produce aerosol by heating a liquid that contains nicotine along with flavourings and other chemicals. It argues that acute nicotine exposure can be toxic to non-smokers. Nicotine from the aerosol or the liquid can remain on all surfaces for weeks and months, and may react with ambient nitrous acid to produce potent carcinogens — leading to inhalation or ingestion of and dermal exposure to carcinogens.

Vapers in India have been talking about the need for consumer awareness about e-liquids. There are over 100 small and medium e-liquid dealers in India who sell high-end imported devices and consumables from China, Malaysia, the US. Vape juice varieties such as Naked, Vape Dinner Lady and Nasty are available online for Rs 400 to Rs 1,500 for a 60/100ml bottle depending on flavour and brand. Certain desi vape juices are available at Rs 40 for 10ml.

A vape juice dealer, who did not want to be identified, tells The Telegraph that Indian suppliers are not equipped to meet the growing domestic demand. “When I started the business two years ago, we used to get an order or two. Now it has increased to at least six a day. The annual turnover is close to Rs 90 lakh.” 

Spotting the growing demand, domestic tobacco players such as ITC Ltd and GPI Ltd have also jumped into the fray.

Bangalore-based Imran Saleem, who produces the e-liquid in his lab in Hyderabad, has an annual turnover of over Rs 1.3 crore. Some of the popular flavours are tobacco, strawberry, mango, mint and cheesecake.

Calcutta-based Kasera, who is also an e-cigarette dealer, complains that one cannot advertise these products openly because there is a fear of being harassed by government agencies. The Delhi government withheld permission to the Vape Expo India 2017.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2017, since 2010, there has been a comparative reduction of 33 per cent in tobacco consumption among 15 to 24-year-olds and a 54 per cent reduction among 15 to 17-year olds. Doctors, however, are far from convinced.

Says Arora, “Even after such a long-driven anti-tobacco programme in India, we couldn’t achieve the desired results because of tobacco industry interference backed by influential people at various levels. We don’t want a market for e-cigarettes now.”

There are others who believe the anti-tobacco lobbyists, including NGOs and state agencies, who receive funds from places such as the US-based Bloomberg Philanthropies, are only creating a myth around e-cigarettes for vested interests.

Vapers, in the meantime, want regulated sales of ENDS to ensure that quality products are sold in India. Says Kasera, “No quality control is bad as the market for genuine e-liquid sellers is being affected. Low-quality products are now available even in a paan shop.” He adds, “It is important to regulate in terms of quality, nicotine content, expiry dates, etc. Complete ban is not the solution.”

The Telegraph, November 10, 2018

Villages lie under the shadow of violence unleashed not only by Maoists but also by the state forces 

By Sonia Sarkar

  • Published 8.11.18, 7:39 AMBastar goes to polls this autumn, untouched by chief minister Raman Singh's promises.

Autumn is the most fascinating time of the year in Bastar. The earthy smell in the soft morning breeze instils a sense of belonging to the forest. The sound of the soft crunch of dry sal leaves beneath the shoes breaks the silence in the woods and entices one to walk a few more miles into the dense jungle. The sunlight piercing through the tall teak trees gives a ray of hope, as if promising a brighter day ahead.

Even as Bastar goes to polls this autumn, the chief minister, Raman Singh, is busy making new promises. At election rallies, in a self-aggrandizing tone, he roars,“Vikas kiya hai, Vikas karenge (I have done developmental work, I will continue to do so).” He claims that development will bring people closer to the mainstream, especially in the Maoist-dominated districts of Dantewada, Kanker, Bastar, Bijapur, Kondagaon, Narayanpur and Sukma.

Development is, of course, visible in his state. Highways have been constructed. Fancy bus stops that flaunt stainless steel seats have been built on the highways with gigantic photographs of Narendra Modi and Raman Singh on display. Townships have been coming up. Private steel and thermal power plants have been allotted tribal land to set up production units. Electricity poles are standing tall in most parts of the state. But how much of this development has touched the lives of the populace of the benighted Bastar heartland scalded by a rogue conflict between Maoists and the State? This is the big question.

Raman Singh claims that development will bring people closer to the mainstream, especially in the Maoist-dominated districts.

Raman Singh claims that development will bring people closer to the mainstream, especially in the Maoist-dominated districts. The Telegraph file picture

You will find the answer only when you travel into the interiors of villages, crossing undulating jungles and trekking on the kutcha roads. The words, ‘development’ and ‘welfare’, have no meaning for these people living on the margins. For example, the government has started ‘Dial 108’ for emergency ambulance service but the people of Palnar in Bijapur still have to walk over 10 kilometres to reach the nearest government hospital in Gangaloor for medical aid. Primary schools in most villages are lying vacant after getting embroiled in the State versus Maoist violence. Some of them have been reopened in dilapidated buildings but the teachers — they come from other parts of state — do not understand Halbi or Gondi, the languages spoken by the local students. Panchayat heads are missing from most villages; they live in nearby towns fearing Maoist attacks. Villagers of Handawada in Abujmarh walk through broken roads covering 45 kilometres for two days to reach the weekly market in Orchha.

Even though the state’s development initiatives have not reached these villages, its brutal forces have. In these Maoist-dominated areas, homes are looted, villages burnt down, women raped and killed and men tortured, not just by the Maoists but also by the State forces suspecting tribals to be loyal towards the rebels. Instances of security forces dragging men out of their hamlets and crucifying them to trees before shooting them are apparently not rare. Jails in Jagdalpur and Kanker are overcrowded with tribal people, slapped with false charges of aiding the Maoists. The government has also formed civil society groups such as Tangiya and Jai Bastar Vikas Sangharsh Samiti in order to pit tribals against one another. Villagers who had left rebel ranks long ago to live a ‘normal’ life are randomly caught and allegedly forced to surrender as ‘Maoists’ by the police to claim ‘success in anti-Maoist operations’. In many cases, while conducting search operations, the police make the men stand in line and ask, ‘Are you with us or with them [Maoists]?’ The tribal people wonder if the government is fighting the Maoists or the indigenous people of the state.

In the last phase of his 15-year rule, Singh claims he has largely focused on the “growth” of the youth comprising 65 per cent of the electorate in the state. He has opened livelihood colleges and made skill development an enforceable entitlement for youths under the Chhattisgarh Right of Youth to Skill Development Act, 2013. But his idea of youth development is perhaps also intended to bring them into the government fold. Young tribals are recruited into local police by coercion so that the security forces get easy access into their villages for anti-Maoist operations as they know the terrain and topography well.

Polling day is fast approaching and this time, once again, the rebels don’t want the villagers to have the indelible ink mark on their fingers. Security forces, however, are using drones to keep the troublemakers at bay and bring in more villagers to the polling booth. But the villagers, caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists, are still trying to fathom whether the previous elections have brought change to their lives.

Rohingya diaspora throws refugees a lifeline

Activists rally around their persecuted community in Bangladesh, work on repatriation, permanent solution

By Sonia Sarkar

The Telegraph

  • Published 3.11.18, 10:59 PM

Ambia Perveen was only five years old when she left Myanmar. She belongs to a family of Rohingyas, Muslim natives of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The 38-year-old tells The Telegraph over email, “I was labelled a ‘kalar’ [a Myanmarese racial slur used for immigrants] even by my teachers.” 

“Kalar” is a term equivalent to nigger, says Ro Nay San Lwin, who was born in the Buthidaung township of Rakhine and raised in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Lwin is a Rohingya too and lived in Myanmar till 2001. He is 40. His experience is not very different from Perveen’s. “We were subjected to humiliation. Even the neighbourhoods and streets were not safe for us,” he says.

Ambia Perveen was only five years old when she left Myanmar

Ambia Perveen was only five years old when she left Myanmar Image: The Telegraph 

Perveen is based in Schleswig in Germany. Likewise Lwin, though he does not reveal his location for security reasons. Both have been lucky to get a new lease of life after escaping discrimination and atrocity in the country of their birth. And now, by way of payback, they are trying to help over 10 lakh displaced Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh.

Lwin, who is a full-time activist, has been campaigning for the Protected Return to Protected Homeland plan — an initiative floated by Rohingya activists across the globe. Perveen, a paediatrician and child psychiatrist, has been urging the European Council for “a clear and unequivocal response” on the atrocities on Rohingyas by recognising it officially as genocide. She also wants the European Union (EU) to bring in a trade embargo and temporarily freeze all EU projects in Myanmar until the Aung San Suu Kyi government accepts Rohingyas as citizens.

“We have been knocking at the door of the United Nations (UN) and the western world. Even the UN Security Council has an abundance of evidence [to prove] that the Myanmar government has been persecuting Rohingyas,” says Perveen, who is vice-chairperson of the European Rohingya Council, an organisation established in Denmark in 2012.

London-based Tun Khin, who was born and brought up in the Rohingya-dominated Arakan state, and has witnessed atrocities, set up the Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the United Kingdom along with others way back in 2005. Its goal: to tell the world about the human rights violations in Myanmar. He has since briefed the US Congress, the Swedish Parliament, the European Commission and the UN Human Rights Council about the misery of his community. “Our focus is to find a permanent solution… instead of just talking about repatriation,” says Khin, who was forced to leave Myanmar in 1997.

Tun Khin with Rohingya leaders at a refugee camp in Bangladesh

Tun Khin with Rohingya leaders at a refugee camp in Bangladesh Image: The Telegraph

Human rights violations against Rohingyas began in the mid-1970s. They suffered crackdowns, rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces. In 1982, lakhs were rendered stateless when a nationality law excluded them from the list of communities considered “indigenous”. This move restricted their access to education and health services. They lost their right to vote and practice their religion freely. Subsequently, many fled to Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia.

Perveen argues that there is historical evidence aplenty that Rohingyas are ancient inhabitants of Arakan. Their existence can be traced back to 700-800 AD. She is trying to hold up that history before the rest of the world.

History says many Arab ships were wrecked near Ramree island in the Rakhine state — the early name for the Arakan province in western Myanmar — during the rule of Mahataing Sanda (788-810 AD). The crew and traders were Muslims and they were sent to Arakan, where they settled down eventually. As per The British-Burma Gazetteers of 1879, many dargahs were found along the Arakan coast. There was other evidence to show that the Muslims of Arakan were mostly descendants of slaves captured by Arakanese kings. Muslim prisoners and slaves from Bengal and north India were also brought to Arakan to serve as mercenaries in the Arakanese Army.

The term “Rohingya” can be found in a 1779 research carried out by Francis Buchanan, a British medical doctor, researcher and traveller.

Till the early 1970s, some Rohingyas held important posts in the Myanmar legislature. Lwin’s great-grandfather was a member of the Constituent Assembly and Khin’s grandfather was parliamentary secretary. According to Perveen, there used to be radio programmes in the Rohingya language till the mid-1960s.

Perveen’s family used to live in Yangon, where her father worked in a government-owned factory. She recalls, “Once we went to visit my grandmother in the Arakan state, the government never allowed us to go back to Yangon. They did not allow my father to continue his job. We were forced to leave the country. We went to Bangladesh first and then Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and then Germany.” Lwin’s parents worked in the education department. “There were no promotions for Rohingyas in government jobs. Sometimes, teachers boycotted the children. We were strangers in our own land,” says Lwin. Rohingya activists claim that over 3.5 lakh Rohingyas are still living in camps in the Arakan state.

As life became difficult in Myanmar, Lwin’s father shifted to Saudi Arabia in 1993. In 2001, Lwin started working in Saudi Arabia. In 2007, his Myanmarese citizenship was scrapped. In 2011, he got political asylum in Germany. Today, he is a co-ordinator of the international group, Free Rohingya Coalition.

Lwin visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh earlier this year. He says, “We are trying to facilitate formal education for the children; they must not languish in camps forever.” Perveen and her two sisters, Anita and Yasmin, both doctors, are all set to visit the Rohingya camps soon.

Over 10 lakh Rohingyas, driven out of the land of their birth by the Myanmar Army between 2012 and 2017, are living in camps in Bangladesh. Facing international pressure, Myanmar signed a repatriation pact with Bangladesh, but the process that was supposed to begin in January is yet to take off.

In April, one Rohingya family was taken back by the Myanmar Army but there were allegations that the family worked as spies for the armed forces in the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Now, Rohingyas are being offered national verification cards — meant for foreigners.

When Myanmar social welfare minister Win Myat Aye visited the Rohingyas at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, their leaders there handed him a 13-point charter of demands. This included, among other things, abolition of the National Verification Card, citizenship and closure of all camps for internally displaced people at Arakan and Sittwe.

Saudi Arabia-based computer network engineer Soe Thu Moe, who runs the site along with Arakan-based blogger, Aung Aung, has extended family in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. These days he is using his website to publish news stories related to the Rohingyas. “The idea is to make Myanmar a multi-cultural country. We don’t want persecution of people based on race and religion,” says Moe, who left Sittwe town in 2002.

It seems, despite being thousands of miles away from Myanmar, Rohingyas abroad continue to live in fear. Lwin says he does not like to use his Muslim name for fear of being mistaken for a Bengali from Bangladesh. He has been facing threats from Burmese Buddhists.

But nothing can stop the diaspora from working for their displaced people. “Our people must stand on their feet, that’s the goal,” says Lwin. Perveen agrees. “We want to empower our youth so that the next generation is not lost in transition camps.”