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The Rohingya and Pakistan

Published Jul 30, 2012 12:20am


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RECENT clashes in western Myanmar between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya have polarised Pakistan’s public sphere.

The debate about how Pakistanis should react to the violence has pitted liberals against conservatives in a way that says far more about Pakistani society and the appalling state of national discourse than it does about the plight of the Rohingya.

On the right end of the religio-political spectrum, there are those who are expressing outrage at the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim community, calling for Pakistanis to widely condemn the atrocities and pressurising the state to join hands with the ummah and intervene on behalf of the Rohingya.

On the left, there are those who object to this histrionic empathy with the Rohingya and point out that multiple atrocities committed within Pakistan’s borders — especially widespread violence and discrimination against religious minorities — rarely provoke the same outcry. For example, when the Karachi Bar Association raised its voice against the killing of dozens of Rohingya, many people responded with a flurry of blogs and tweets asking why the city’s prolonged ethno-political violence didn’t inspire similar mobilisation.

The body of writing about this polarised debate has tried to answer the question of whether Pakistanis are justified in their outcry against violence in Myanmar, and therefore completely misses the point. Whether or not we should care about the Rohingya is not the question we should be asking. News of a tragedy of this nature will inevitably provoke some kind of shock, horror or outrage. The extent of the reaction is determined by many factors that people have little control over, primarily the international media’s treatment of an issue.

The stateless Rohingya have been denied basic rights by the Myanmar state, which does not recognise them as citizens, for decades. Their plight is now making headlines because recent violence comes at the heels of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s summer tour of Europe. After wowing western audiences, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has disappointed the international community with her silence on this human rights crisis.

The issue is also politically relevant in an American election year. Many had criticised US President Barack Obama for not pressing Myanmar on human rights issues during the recent rapprochement between the two states. The current wave of violence reflects poorly on his foreign policy credentials. As such, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar lends itself well to simplified, emotional media coverage as compared to the complex and slow-moving conflicts in Syria and Mali, which also include Muslim victims but have provoked less of a local response.

In other words, the right-wing outcry against the Rohingya is not problematic per se, but the way in which it has been deployed in a local socio-political context might be. The question Pakistani liberals should be asking is not whether the Rohingya deserve more or less sympathy than Pakistan’s persecuted minorities, but what this sympathy says about our local politics, ideology and discourse.

First and foremost, the quick appropriation of an ‘us versus them’ narrative of Muslim victimisation betrays the political opportunism of Pakistan’s right-wing parties and the easy use of religion as a way to claim moral high ground — and more votes. It is not surprising that the issue has been seized most vehemently by Pakistan’s religious political parties and the increasingly conservative Imran Khan, who has termed the Rohingya killings genocide and called for the government to take diplomatic action against Myanmar.

Certain religious parties have gone as far as to doctor and misappropriate photographs of mass casualty incidents in China and Thailand and pass them off as ‘evidence’ of the injustices meted out to the Rohingya. This photoshopped history serves a particular purpose in a Pakistani context — to enhance the narrative of Muslim victimisation and give right-wing actors a political fillip — and bears little relation with the facts. As Dr Ayesha Siddiqa has written, no one is willing to remember that tensions between the Rohingya and the Burmese state are not founded on religious differences but on questions of statehood and territory, and were therefore only relevant to Pakistan until 1971 owing to domestic fears of Rohingya incursions into East Pakistan.

More troubling than the clever politicking of religious political parties is the fact that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued a statement about the Rohingya many days after the issue had been debated in the social and mainstream media and taken up by politicians. The fact that everyone beat the TTP to the defence of the Rohingya shows the extent to which a particular narrative of Muslim victimisation at the hands of non-Muslims has been mainstreamed. Outrage at the persecution of obscure Muslim communities in far-off lands used to be the stuff of extremist pamphleteering and radical sermonising; it now forms part of everyday discourse in Pakistan.

It is also worth noting that it is now the conservative elements of Pakistani society, rather than the militant groups themselves, that perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations narrative. Rather than lament Muslim persecution, the TTP’s statement last week served to further its own agenda of attacking the Pakistani state: despite vowing to avenge the Rohingya, the TTP threatened to attack Pakistani officials if the government does not shut down Myanmar’s Islamabad embassy.

In this polarised and politically expedient context, how can national conversations about the persecution of Muslim communities abroad be had more productively? Across the world, violence against religious groups is often spurred by other local factors: postcolonial histories, ethnicity, patronage politics, weak governance, lack of resources, etc. Rather than seize reductivist ‘us versus them’ positions, Pakistanis would do well to learn about the particulars of each situation. The ability to understand the complex dynamics that drive religious violence elsewhere may yet give us better insight into the numerous conflicts we face at home.

The writer is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @humayusuf


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (42) Closed

Indian Jul 30, 2012 08:01am
I totally agree with you. sometimes I feel ashamed as to how much leeway we have allowed the invaders by following non violence. Violence has to be met with violence. If these people didnot understand in 60 years what to expect from them now?
Karim Jul 30, 2012 08:00am
From where did Rohingyas suddenly come into the debate ?! I can't remember a single Pakistani discussion about Burma in last 20 years. Pakistani public is completely lost and confused.
Keenobserver Jul 30, 2012 10:01am
Same can be said about anyone else. May be even you. How can you be offended by protest against what is happening in Myanmar ?
Keenobserver Jul 30, 2012 09:59am
Lame reasoning. You have to be immoral to not speak up for this irrespective of what is happening in your own backyard. Don't get me started on Kashmir and Assam and Gujrat. No way does that mean that I don't speak and stand for my Hindu and Christian friends in Pakistan. you draw boundaries to defend humanity, than you are selfish and immoral.
NN Ojha Jul 30, 2012 01:27pm
Huma Yusuf's writeup is totally balanced as it recounts both the extreme views prevailing in Pakistani society and advocates a reasonable middle path. Civil society in Pakistan must prevail over the extremist opinions out to destroy the social fabric in their country. It is only saner elements like Huma Yusuf who can perhaps tell their countrtymen politely but firmly that they before any talk of the Rohingiyas it is their moral duty to persuade their own state (Pakistan) to own up the bihari muslims held up in bangladesh as their own citizens from the East pakistan days. The civil society must also assert itself firmly to say that it doesn't lie in the mouth of a people in whose country murderers are showered with rose petals and a spectacle is made of the televised conversion of a young man from the minority community to talk about the rohingiyas. It should also be noted that in the 21st century and thereafter you can't talk of secularism where you are in a minority and of Nizam e Mustafa the moment you think others are in minority.
jahangir gani Jul 30, 2012 01:46pm
voilance is voilance shall be condamned by every one weather it is aganist rohingia muslims kashmiri muslims are palistenian muslims as muslims every one should get concerned they are their brathers but what agout muslims being killed by muslims in gods land of pakistan in syria afganistan iraq and other countries why dont any one cry
Afridi Jul 30, 2012 01:50pm
well those who are dearly concern abt attrocities carried by Burmese athorities against muslims ,should have a cursey glance at the situation in tribals areas ,where people are suffering both at the hands of taliban and military.
Keenobserver Jul 30, 2012 09:54am
I disagree. Not speaking about atrocities is immoral. Be it be of Hindus or Muslims, in our own country or far away land. What is happening in Myanmar is genocide. If other nations don't protest that in loud voice, than we have learned nothing from history.
FM1 Jul 30, 2012 09:56am
Useless debate of no relevance to Pakistan. We love creating controversies even if it has nothing to do with us...move on.
rk singh Jul 30, 2012 01:59pm
where were you when Ahmedis, christians and Hindus get killed in Pakistan?
dr ghulam Jul 30, 2012 02:00pm
anybody weaker being tortured is condemnable. regarding PAKISTAN i must say that nobody should discriminate between mohajir or sindhi or punjabi or baloch. it is a shame for us if we discriminate . WE ARE ALL ONE NATION WITH ONE QURAN ONE ALLAH ONE COUNTRY AND ONE DEVELOPMENT OF PAKISTAN , we must help our homeland and so please our lord ALLAH.
Nut Case Jul 30, 2012 10:24am
I hope that you share the same feelings for minorities ( including Ahmadiyya , Shia , Hindu , Christians) with in geographical boundaries of Pakistan as well
Taimur Afzal Khan Jul 30, 2012 10:25am
It is only logical, human and moral to feel the anguish of any oppressed community in any part of the world! But as Pakistanis, our foremost concern should be to help prevent and eliminate discrimination and violence against religious minorities in our own country. What all is happening in the name of religion in Pakistan is well known to all of us and more than mere protests and censure, it needs strong and if warranted, ruthless measures to eradicate this menace. Any sensible citizen would like to urge both political parties as well as the government to pay assiduous attention to these issues.
israr ahmed khan Jul 30, 2012 11:34am
i do agree with you 101%
MKB Jul 30, 2012 11:33am
You mean whole world?
Keenobserver Jul 30, 2012 09:50am
This is an exaggeration. Cursing and genocide are not comparable, otherwise you will be in the same line up of Hippocrates.
TURAB KHAN KHATTAK Jul 30, 2012 09:15am
At least we all can condemn it it. It is not the matter of debate that who is wrong and who is right.
sameer Jul 30, 2012 05:58pm
Why does not liberal take time to understand complexities of violence and terrorism unfolding in Pakistan instead of asking so called right wing to understand complexities of Burmese situation
Omer bin Abdulaziz Jul 30, 2012 05:50am
Nothing, but an anti-Islamist parties rant!!!
Girish Jul 30, 2012 03:14am
A good article. Burma does not accept them; will Pakistan give them a place amongst themselves ?! It should be understood that not everything can/should be seen through the religion-prism.
Falcon Jul 30, 2012 03:17am
Huma - Good article. I think you have captured it well that we the Muslims in Pakistan tend to take a reductionist view of things by citing it as evidence of Muslim victimization. However, I think you fell short of criticizing the liberals in Pakistan who consider the discussion to be less relevant because Pakistanis are not paying attention to aggression against weaker segments of the society within their own borders. I think our foremost commitment should be to humanity and we should raise voice against oppression in whatever part of the world it be; regardless of the ethnic or religious identity of victims.
Indian Jul 30, 2012 03:38am
you summerized it well what happening in pakistani society.. people are just driven emotions.. no one bothers to check facts or understand the reason behind it.
Hitesh Jul 30, 2012 03:46am
" As per my understanding the criminal should not be blamed for committing the crime, but the society who allowe/facilitate the criminal to commit crime." There are two situations right now taking shape in the same geographical area. In Assam the local Bodo tribal Vs. Bangladeshi illegal immigrants and in Myanammar the local tribal Vs. Bangaladeshi. We can observe the ripples of it in Pakistan which has nothing to do with any of them. If they are talking about Ummah they should first protect their own Muslim then talk about Bangladeshi or Rohingya. But more surprising and depressing is the response in India and particularly of Hindus. They are indifferent to all of this be it persecution of Hindus in Pakistan or encroachment in Bodoland by Bangladeshi Muslim.
Jim Jul 30, 2012 03:58am
Seriously the Rohingya issue is being addressed and there are no more riots or killings going on in Myanmar any more. The few days of rioting there was not much different from what happens in many developing nations, for example what happened in Assam recently before the authorities got the situation under control. Same thing happened in Myanmar. Really, the people need to move on now.
desiman Jul 30, 2012 04:15am
If our own house is not in order how can we support anyone outside our country. What is happening in Myanmar should be condemned with strongest words but how words can be effective if we are killing our countryman based on their faith and ethnicity? Pakistan was once a voice usually heard whenever there were atrocities in our neighbor or elsewhere but no more is the case now. We have lost the dignity and strength to support the oppressed because it seems like our own people are more oppressed and the oppressor is no other than our own elite!
Indian Jul 30, 2012 04:29am
It is not a recent phenomenon. This madness started on the ' Direct Action Day" Labelling it as random madness and violence is a mistake.
rightwing Jul 30, 2012 04:31am
im sure that your pay cheque from CIA will be a heavy one this time
Jay k Raman Jul 30, 2012 04:33am
Religion based violence should be condemned in any part of the world. Does Pakistan has any moral right to criticize others?
Cyrus Howell Jul 30, 2012 05:38am
rama Jul 30, 2012 05:40am
Why don't Pak look at how it treats the Amadi, Shia and other minorities before even thinking about the political volience in other country?
kamruddeen kambatty Jul 30, 2012 05:52am
after cursing an ahmedi on the street , the maulana goes to the mosque and demands protection of rohingyas living thousands of miles away
suresh Jul 30, 2012 06:05am
Respected Ma'am, Good article - informed and balanced, and lucidly written. It's about time that Imran and his buddies first address their energies to stopping Muslims-killings-Muslins all over the Ummah world, and more urgently saving the Pakistan State from imploding from this self-same malady? Regards. suresh jindal
Rats Jul 30, 2012 06:14am
Regardless of what the left or the rightiwing say, persecution of a weaker and of a minority is wrong ; weather it is in Pakistan or Myanmar or for that matter on Mars.
citizen Jul 30, 2012 06:24am
killing of any human life any where in the world is highly condemnable but as muslims v should raise our voices and show our support and concern to our brothers and sisters in this distress in a rightful manner rather than politicize it
Shafi Jul 30, 2012 10:28am
What about Muslims killing Muslims all over the world.?
James Jul 30, 2012 06:46am
Those who lives in glass house should not throw stones on to others.............
Alan Olivier Jul 30, 2012 07:05pm
Many Pakistanis just want to reduce all problems down to religion. Is this an addiction?
zeeshan Jul 30, 2012 07:17pm
MR rama for your kind information Shias are not a minority, they are a part of Muslim majority.
Sumit Jul 31, 2012 06:43am
Guys.....guys......please don't write "Hippocrates" when you mean "hypocrites". Please don't denigrate one of the greatest scholars of ancient Greece in your meaningless comments!
dixieforever Jul 31, 2012 07:20am
When a pakistani casually and so coldly shrugs off the misery of a fellow Muslim as "no relevance to Pakistan...move on" it speaks volumes of that country's moral bankruptcy indicating also the main cause of its current malaise: selfishness. Many here have said that Pakistan must clean its own house first. First? Is there an order here? Can't you people do all simultaneously? The fact that there is not a unanimous consensus on such basic a question shows what a fragmented society you have become.
Cyrus Howell Jul 31, 2012 04:02pm
He who breathes must suffer and he who lives must morn, And he alone is blessed who ne'er was born. Alexander Pope
Cyrus Howell Jul 31, 2012 04:05pm
It is always a matter of debate in Pakistan who is right and who is wrong, and what is permitted and what is forbidden.