By Dr Habib Siddiqui
Derek Tonkin’s latest article has appeared in his website, Network Myanmar. I had no intention to take a crack at Derek Tonkin’s piece. After all, he is working for the murderous Myanmar regime promoting its cause and advocating for outside investment. His opinion is highly biased. And as I have noted a few times, he does this devil’s job in a sly way abusing history to fit his ulterior motives. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to point out some inconsistencies in his latest article.
I shall pick just a few points of his latest article. [There are plenty more which could have been discussed; but I felt it is unnecessary to waste my time and those of my readers. On the British-era demographic controversy, an interested reader may like to read my detailed analysis of the subject in my book – Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar), which is available in the Amazon.com]
Tonkin is critical of Dr. Maung Zarni’s thesis of the ‘Slow burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’. He claims that Dr. Zarni has claimed in his work, co-authored with Alice Cowley, that the present-day problems of the Rohingya only started in 1978. That would be a misreading of the work.
As I mentioned in some of my speeches, lectures and articles, the persecution of the Muslims of Arakan can at least be traced back to the time of Bodaw Paya’s invasion and conquest of Arakan in 1784 when tens of thousands were killed; some 200,000 fled to Bengal (today’s Bangladesh). As I have noted elsewhere, the tension between Rakhine plus Burman Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan worsened during the Second World War when emboldened by the fascist Japanese occupying forces, Muslims were ethnically cleansed from many parts of Arakan by their Buddhist (mostly Rakhine) exterminators. [Note: Some 600,000 Indians were forcibly evicted from other parts of Burma in the early 1940s; tens of thousands died on their way back to India.] So, surely the pogroms did not start in 1978.
Contrary to overwhelming documentary evidences, Tonkin claims that there was no desire from the Burmese government to push out the Rohingya from Arakan in 1978. He is referring to the Naga-Min (King Dragon) Operation of February 1978-79, which resulted in exodus of some 200,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh, and the death of at least 12,000. This is tantamount to claiming that the Rohingya voluntarily chose to flee to Bangladesh. This is a disingenuous claim, an absurd theory!
In his support of the hated Ne Win regime, Tonkin does not quote any Rohingya refugee that fled to Bangladesh in 1978-79 but a British official,the representative of the same government that had created the mess in the first place when Burma was granted independence while ignoring the precarious matter of this Muslim community that had geographical and historical ties with southern Chittagong (of Bangladesh) and had sided with the British during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Arakan. [As a scheming businessman, he has no qualms today that his friendly Rakhines were on the side of the fascists and killing British soldiers and their supporters during World War Two.]
Dr. Abid Bahar (who submitted his M.A. thesis on the plight of the Rohingya at Chittagong University, and now a professor with Dawson College, Montreal, Canada) did field research work interviewing the refugees who had fled to Bangladesh. His thesis work presents an entirely different picture than what Tonkin would claim in his support of the murderous Ne Win regime. He says, “If Ne Win had really wanted to get rid of 200,000 ‘Rohingya’ said to be illegal immigrants at the time, their unexpected flight to Bangladesh would have been too good an opportunity to miss and he would never have let them back in again. He had after all forced some 300,000 Indians to leave Burma between 1963 and 1967, in the process confiscating all their assets, and this hadn’t exactly improved Indian-Burmese relations. But Indian Government concerns had left him totally unmoved (and no doubt there were many Muslims shopkeepers and small businessmen among those sent packing in 1963-67).” [Note: Tonkin’s remark above tries to give the impression that many of those evicted Muslims were ordinary shopkeepers and small businessmen. Facts are, however, different. Quite a few of those evicted Muslims were very successful, big businessmen who lost everything. I have met a few of those Muslims who were forcibly evicted by Ne Win.]
Well, the case of Indians living in Burma in the 1960s was quite different than that of the indigenous Muslim population of Arakan (irrespective of how Tonkin and his Rakhine criminal buddies like to deny their “R” identity), whose ancestors had settled in Arakan before the Rakhine Buddhists. Most of the Indians living in Rangoon and some other cities like Mandalay were brought in by the British colonial government for a plethora of reasons. Many dockyard coolies were brought in to load and unload ships. Some Muslim businessmen (esp. from Surat and Gujarat) were attracted by the opportunity to expand their business empire in places like Rangoon. Many Hindu clerks, officers, police and soldiers worked for the British Raj. And then there were the much-hated Chettiar money lenders, who were all Hindus. The riots of 1930s and 1940s against the Indians had hardened the Burmese attitude towards them, and Ne Win was able to exploit such national grievances against them when he expelled them en mass, confiscating their properties, much like what President Idi Amin would later do with the British subjects, most of whom were Indians, in Uganda after he had come to power.
Tonkin sounds as if the fleeing Rohingyas took refuge in Bangladesh by dint of their own volition and were not forced to do so. He is either a pathetic liar or an ignorant person. I am not aware of any group of human beings who had left en mass their ancestral home without any pressure. [Here we are not talking about individual migrations but of a group migration numbering more than a quarter million people in a short duration.] During the Naga Min operation, many Muslims of Arakan were murdered and many Rohingya women and girls were raped by Ne Win’s security forces, terrorizing the entire community, thus setting the scenario for their exodus. And yet in his disingenuous attempt to whitewash Ne Win’s crime, Tonkin says, “The Arakan Muslims, on the other hand, were not a threat to his [Ne Win’s] Burmese Road to Socialism, and as they were mainly farmers were in a very real sense ‘sons of the soil’.”
True, the Rohingyas were not a threat to Ne Win’s socialism, and yet his hostile policies led to the Naga Min operation that created the exodus of the Rohingya people. In a military-run government, it would be preposterous to suggest that President Ne Win was not accountable for the pogrom that led to the death of over 12,000 Rohingya. It was the world opinion and international pressure, esp. those from the UN, which motivated Ne Win to take back the refugees. Many Rohingya, however, did not want to go back because of the discrimination that they had faced in Burma since her independence. The once prosperous Muslim community had found itself increasingly marginalized. They lost their jobs, businesses, land and much of personal properties, and were being treated as ‘unwanted’ in the land of their birth. As Tonkin himself quoted soon after Burma’s independence many Rohingyas were “compelled to leave their ancestral homes as a result of a deliberate Burmese policy to remove them. Massacres by armed forces occurred on 10 and 11 November 1948, and the military told surviving ‘Rwangyas that unless they vacated Maungdaw and Buthidaung they would be tortured and butchered like animals and that they were appointed to wipe out the Rwangyas from Maungdaw and Buthidaung’.” [Reference: Confidential Records Branch CRiV-10/51 in the National Archives of Bangladesh.]
Interestingly, however, almost in a confessional way, Tonkin says that the Rohingyas driven away from their home in 1978 were truly the ‘sons of the soil’ of Arakan. Is he not the same person who does not mind lecturing the whole world that the Rohingya are outsiders from Bangladesh? Is he not the same person whose website promotes anti-Rohingya polemics by the regime supporters like him? Which Derek Tonkin to believe who has mastered the art of hypocrisy, half-truths and lies?
Tonkin tries to justify Ne Win era crimes on citizenship by saying: “That those Rohingya, possibly as many as two-thirds of their Arakan Muslim communities who enjoyed full citizenship under 1948 legislation, did not receive new IDs was in my analysis due to the recalcitrance and corruption of Rakhine State officials, though central government did nothing to resolve this gross injustice. That is, it was State inaction rather than State action which was to blame, not the provisions of the 1982 Act.”
Interesting observation! I don’t know how Tonkin came about the figure that two-thirds of Arakanese Muslims comprised the Rohingya population. What comprised the remainder 1/3? Is he implying that the remainder had moved from Bangladesh? If he did, he is mistaken or spreading lies. There is no proof of any influx from Bangladesh in the post-liberation period, let alone during the Pakistan era (pre-1971). Aside from that false allegation, does not the central government under a military dictator owe the sole responsibility for why the ‘sons of the soil’ were not issued ID cards in spite of their ‘enjoying’ ‘full citizenship’ under 1948 legislation?
While Tonkin is dismissive about the obvious discriminatory nature of the 1982 Citizenship Law, and criticizes Dr. Zarni for his thesis that the Law had led to the creation of the security-legal framework built around the statelessness of the Rohingya people, he fails to tell us that if the Law was so benign then why are the Rohingyas today stateless? It is difficult to excuse Tonkin’s nonchalant attitude on this crucial issue. Does not he realize that Ne Win’s statement where he said, “Racially, only pure-blooded nationals will be called citizens” is racism in its worst form? In his speech, Ne Win calls the Rohingya and other racially Indian Muslims and Hindus ‘kalas’, which is a very disrespectful term akin to ‘niggers’ in the English language. And I need not quote Ne Win’s offensive statement about them to show his hatred of them. A student of history would concur that the British had epitomized racism; it is no accident that Tonkin sees no problem with Ne Win’s racism!
As an ex-British government servant, Tonkin is always very generous in his comments about the British era statistics and records. He says, “The degree of detail is impressive, the training of the enumerators detailed, the concern to record every possible variation found in ethno-linguistic analysis truly remarkable.” The facts about the census are just the opposite. It is unreliable and highly flawed (my book discussing the British era demography vis-à-vis the so-called Baxter Report points this problem), which has been well recognized and discussed by many unbiased area historians. The census data not only failed in providing accurate estimates of population, but its categorization of people by so-called ethnicity is highly controversial. They are not consistent either. As I have mentioned during my talk at Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, during the British colonial period, its Military Command recorded the Muslim Rohingyas as “Arakanese” and catalogued the Rakhine Buddhists as “Maghs”.
But more problematic is Tonkin’s inability to understand that denial of the right of a group to self-identity constitutes a serious crime. If the so-called Mohamedans or Arakanese Muslims, or Chittagonians of Arakan choose to call themselves as Rohingya, they have every right to do so. I am not sure, if in his delusional mind and despicable arrogance, Tonkin has forgotten the simple fact that Muslims are not Mohamedans [again a term concocted by the missionary English Christians who falsely believed that Muslims worship Prophet Muhammad (S)].
Tonkin also forgets or is ignorant of the fact that Muslim identity has always been more important than the so-called linguistic and ethnic identity. During, before and after the British era that is why none of the so-called Dhakaiyas and other Bengalis who spoke colloquial dialects (much like the so-called Chittagonians) identified themselves as such. So, if the British-era records did not mention Rohingyas as a distinct ethnicity, it does not show any unusual pattern but is part of the general Muslim psyche that has been pervasive for centuries. Lest we forget, no Muslim ever called him/her as Mohamedan, and yet the British record depicts them as such.
As hinted above, Tonkin does not tell his audience that the British record does not mention Rakhine as a people, but only as Maghs or Buddhists. So, Tonkin’s hostility to the Rohingya term depicts his deplorable bias.
Another problematic feature of his article is the condescending advice he gives towards a balanced discussion on Arakan. He should be reminded that his Rakhine genocidal maniac friends were invited to come and share the same podium with us in Tokyo and Bangkok, and they chose not to attend. For years, even to this day, these criminal inciters of genocide have refused to include Rohingya people in any discussion about the future of Arakan state. I don’t recall Tonkin about reminding them that the Rohingya who comprise slightly less than half the population in Arakan are a legitimate group to have such a dialogue. Instead, his Rakhine-appeasing writings show that he is more interested in his silly, and often self-conflicting, way to disprove the very existence of the Rohingya people. He is delusional and in his unfathomable denial, he is oblivious of the pre-British 17th century Bengali literature that talks about the ancestors of today’s Rohingya people. I am sure no argument of mine would cure his serious mental sickness. He has to find his own cure.
Obviously, Tonkin is irate about Maung Zarni and other right activists and researchers for poking his blurry eyes to open up and see the Rohingya problem from the eyes of the suffering people, who are termed by the UN as the most persecuted people on earth. And no matter how Tonkin may try to hide the crime of his patrons in Myanmar, the world now knows better that the Rohingya people are facing genocide, and need our help to stop their extinction. The Oslo Conference is a much desired event to bring this tragedy to an end.
I can see why Tonkin is upset. He is in the losing side – the side of mass murderers, the holocaust deniers. His delusional remark – In the last 100 years, the wheel has indeed turned full circle. It is no longer the Buddhist Rakhine who are threatened with extinction, but the “Mahomedans” – says it all. [Much in contradistinction to his false accusation 100 years ago Rakhines did not feel threatened by Muslims.] One can only pity an old greedy clown like Derek Tonkin who has not learned when to call it quits. His falsity is simply mind boggling! It is inexcusable and pathetic!