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A referendum in Rakhine state?

  • Published at 07:34 pm March 19th, 2014
A referendum in Rakhine state?

A full 42% of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh, is ethnically South Asian and speaks a variant of Bangla. The districts of Sittwe and Muangdaw are nearly 95% so, and their persecution in a xenophobic and oppressive Myanmar is well known. They are not welcome there and are considered foreign. Many thousands have fled and have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Others have been murdered or driven out of their homes.

The Rohingya, as they are called, are among the most vulnerable people in the world and are rapidly becoming a stateless population. Therefore, the recent precedence set by Crimea, of borders being redrawn by referendum, is an exceedingly attractive one and perhaps among the more elegant solutions to the problems caused by arbitrary national boundaries.

It’s incorrect, in fact, to say the precedence has been set by Crimea. The use of referendums as a means to redraw borders is really nothing new, and it could be argued that every other means of map-making is inherently undemocratic and imperial.

In 1995, Quebec nearly separated from Canada following a referendum. South Sudan split from Sudan after a referendum in 2011. Scottish people will vote later this year to decide if Scotland should become an independent country and leave the United Kingdom. Closer to home, in a referendum held on 6 July 1947, the district of Sylhet opted to separate from the state of Assam and join East Pakistan. So the precedence of sub-national entities as small as districts seceding already exists.

The Federation of Russia, instead of absorbing ethnically-Russian Crimeans, which is something they could have done as well, opted to support the secession of Crimea and its admission into the Russian federation, lending considerable weight to the belief that a people living on a territory belong to it, and it to them.

So a solution to the Rohingya issue and the consequential refugee problem that has become taxing for an already over-crowded Bangladesh, can be sought in a referendum to separate Sittwe and Muangdaw from Rakhine state and join them to Chittagong division.

Historical arguments, similar to the ones made by Russia regarding Crimea, can also be made for incorporating parts of Rakhine, once known as Arakan, into Bangladesh. In 1430, the autonomous kingdom of Mrauk U was created in what is now Rakhine state, with military assistance from the independent Sultanate of Bengal. Many Bengalis who fought for this new kingdom, formed their own settlements in the region, and are, by some accounts, the ancestors of the Rohingya.

The king of Mrauk U also ceded some territory to Bengal and remained a vassal of the Sultanate until 1531. After Arakan became fully independent of Bengali authority, parts of it fell prey to Mogh and Portuguese pirates so in 1665, Mughal subhedar Shaista Khan annexed the territory around Chittagong, originally an Arakan possession, releasing thousands of Bengali peasants who had been held captive by the Arakanese.

Therefore, the ceding and incorporating of Rakhine territory into Bengal, especially when a population is being oppressed, is not a new phenomenon, and while annexation is presently out of the question, a free and democratic choice should not be.

The problem, of course, is that the Myanmar government has attempted to pre-empt anything of the sort by a) denying the Rohingya citizenship and democratic franchise, and b) by passing a law that makes it illegal for Muslims, only Muslims, in Rakhine state to have more than two children.

By attempting to alter demographic realities, the Myanmar government has proven sympathetic to the genocidal intentions of non-Rohingya Rakhines, in fact, it is virtually an accomplice in the ethnic-cleansing that is underway. The citizenship issue also pushes the Rohingya further into the margins; making theirs a voice no one in Myanmar, perhaps even the world, cares to hear.

The averting of a humanitarian crisis should not be held hostage to the prejudices of a national government, especially when there are international organisations and indeed international measures that can be used to apply pressure on it. It behoves the international community to attempt a solution to this crisis, and in the absence of a more conciliatory attitude in Rakhine, the only one might be a referendum.

But before one can be conducted the Rohingyas must be restored their full-citizen status, or in the very least be acknowledged as rightful inhabitants of the land they live on, and have done so for hundreds of years. This is a moral obligation and not generosity on the part of Myanmar.

Bangladesh, like Russia, should not be indifferent to the plight of a kindred people living across international boundaries, and while, like Crimeans, they should have the option of forming an independent country between Bangladesh and Myanmar, unfeasible as that might be, its incorporation into Bangladesh should not be taken off the table if such an opportunity ever presents itself.