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What if the Rohingya weren’t Muslims?

 | December 2, 2016

Would the Buddhists in Myanmar try to wipe out the Rohingya if they were Buddhists too?

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I met a good friend recently and we settled down for a long conversation over a cup of masala tea. We spoke about many things but mostly about the plight of the Rohingya refugees.

“For people to get killed just because they are Muslims is really inhumane,” said Naveen.

“I don’t think they are killed because of their faith. There are many Muslims living in Myanmar, some in hijabs and burqas. There are even mosques around the country. Muslims in Myanmar live in peace and form communities within the country,” I said, sharing my experience since I have travelled quite frequently to the country.

“Really? I always thought it was about the Buddhists being against the Muslims,” he said.

“I’ve asked a few Myanmar Muslims about why they think their government is so against the Rohingya. While they disagree with the killings, they believe the Rohingya are not Myanmar nationals, and what the government is trying to do is stop Rohingya immigrants from illegally entering Myanmar,” I explained.

“I wonder if they would resort to the same method of prevention if the Rohingya were not Muslims. I mean what if the Rohingya were Buddhists themselves?” Naveen asked.

Well, that got me thinking. Would the Buddhist from Myanmar kill Buddhist Rohingya?

With our own Malaysian government strongly opposed to the violence and massacre, I found myself getting caught up with Naveen’s thoughts:

• Would our government have condemned the actions of the Myanmar government against the Rohingya community if the latter were not Muslims?

• Would our government have considered pulling out of the AFF Suzuki Cup if the brutally massacred Rohingya were not Muslims?

• Would our government have urged for a review of Myanmar’s Asean membership if the Rohingya, who are undergoing a form of ethnic cleansing, were not Muslims?

Naveen smiled when I shared my thoughts.

“Looks like it is a religious affair after all. I doubt the people of Myanmar would have killed the Rohingya if they were Buddhists. And you seem to doubt the Malaysian government championing the Rohingya agenda if they were not Muslims,” he said, finishing his second cup of masala tea and ending our conversation.

Walking back to my car, I kept revisiting our chat, feeling something was not right. These questions nagged me all the way home:

• Over 1.1 million Rohingya living in Rakhine state have been subjected to discrimination, violence and murder for a very long time. Why did it not matter to us to take a stand then?

• In the past few years, a number of countries opted to tow boatloads of Rohingya refugees back to the sea, denying them safety. Why did we not protest and boycott these inhumane friends of ours?

• Early last year, hundreds of Rohingya were stranded in our seas. They were prohibited from setting foot on our soil. Why didn’t we welcome them with open arms?

After years of keeping ourselves blindfolded, only now has our government seen it fit to join the condemnation and champion humanity. Why?

And why now?

Perhaps it’s a good diversion.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that nothing will come out of this sudden humanitarian intervention our government is currently embarking on.

Being humane is not a selective process. You do not get to select whom you exercise it on or when you decide to exercise it. You are either humane or not.

If the Malaysian government were genuinely humane, it should be humane at home and towards everyone, regardless of race or religion.

As of October 2016, there are over 150,000 refugees registered in Malaysia. About 24% of them are children below the age of 18. Do they live in a good and safe environment? Do they have a means of survival? Do they have proper food? Do they have access to healthcare? Do they have access to education?

Perhaps before we exercise our selective humanitarian efforts, we should consider practising it right here and right now in Malaysia.

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