Are the Rohingyas the new Palestinians? They share the following descriptors: The disinherited, the dispossessed and the damned. And the world has begun to use the same adjectives for both groups.
For example, UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres this week called the Rohingyas’ plight a “tragedy.” In August, he described the Palestinian situation as “tragic.” The Rohingyas, a stateless minority in Myanmar, are on course to becoming like the Palestinians, a cause celebre for the Muslim world.
Consider the official response from countries in the Middle East and North Africa region to the three-week-old “clearance operations” of Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s army.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Muslim governments to apply political and economic pressure on Myanmar to stop the crackdown on the Rohingyas.
On the sidelines of last week’s Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit on science and technology in Astana, the Turkish and Iranian presidents called for cooperation in offering aid to the Rohingyas.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rohani, placed the Rohingyas’ pitiable situation alongside other gaping wounds in the Muslim world, not least Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine. They show the need for unity, he said, especially in terms of forcing governments that adhere to “American and European human rights.” It was an unsubtle dig at alleged Western double standards on human rights issues.
And Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made an urgent phone call to Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to express the Muslim world’s concern over increased violations of Rohingyas’ human rights.
The Muslim world’s official reaction to the Rohingyas’ persecution and displacement — nearly 400,000 have been forced to flee to Bangladesh since late August — goes beyond the MENA region. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov used his official Instagram account to label the attacks a “genocide.” Malaysia’s foreign minister summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express concern. His Indonesian counterpart flew to Myanmar for talks with Suu Kyi. And Pakistan’s foreign minister recorded his “deep anguish” at the “deplorable” violence.
Alarmingly, extremists’ reactions have somewhat upstaged that of governments. Al-Qaeda has warned of retaliatory attacks against Myanmar for its “savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers.” A senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has called on “mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines to set out for Burma,” referring to Myanmar’s former name. The Afghan Taliban has issued a statement calling “on Muslims worldwide to not forget these oppressed brothers of yours.”
Extremist expressions of solidarity with the Rohingyas are the last thing they need. It may embolden the Myanmar authorities in their crackdown on people they already call “terrorists.” And it’s obvious that the jihadist groups patently seek only to capitalise on this most recent example of injustice to Muslims.
Some might say that the exaggerated concern shown by Erdogan and Kadyrov are similarly self-serving. Grandstanding on human rights violations may help position them as global Muslim leaders but it sits oddly with strong-arm tactics at home.
That said, the Rohingyas’ distress has undoubtedly struck a chord among people from Iran to Chechnya. In the Chechen capital, Grozy, tens of thousands took to the streets in solidarity with the Rohingyas. Smaller protests occurred outside Myanmar embassies around the world, including in Indonesia, Pakistan, Germany and Australia. In the absence of a Myanmar embassy in Tehran, Iranian students protested at the UN office.
For all intents and purposes, the Rohingyas are acquiring a status so far only given to the Palestinians. They are becoming a symbol of global injustice to Muslims. Once the Palestinians were, in the words of former US State Department official Jared Cohen, the crucial “winning issue” that extremists employed to recruit and inflame. Now, it may be the Rohingyas too.
Cohen, senior adviser to two US secretaries of state, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, has memorably described the Palestinian issue’s ability to outrage and oppress Muslims around the world. “Why do young people in Algeria, unemployed and living in poverty, tell me that their primary grievance in life is the fact that the Palestinians do not have a state? What makes 10,000 Indonesians march against violence in Gaza, but not Indonesian casualties at the hands of Jamaat Islamiya or al-Qaeda?”
For the moment, the Rohingyas are the focus of a globally amplified storyline that only ever had Palestinians in starring roles. It may not last long but it is powerful while it lasts.