by Mahboob Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 7, Shawwal, 1433)
Muslims in Myanmar are subjected to terrible persecution and a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide but even the west’s poster girl for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi is silent about their plight.
Myanmar is once again in the news, for the same reasons that had sprung it from obscurity into limelight many times before: human rights violations. This time it is brutal violence inflicted on the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority suffering decades of persecution in Rakhine province. Myanmar’s name is so frequently mentioned with human rights abuses that its recent façade of democracy stirs little hope for real change. Historically, Myanmar has never had long periods of democracy since it gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Living up to its reputation of leaving behind problems in its former colonies, Britain drew up Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) boundaries in such a way that people of different ethnicities were herded into a single state. In the absence of established institutions to mediate ethnic disputes, this uncomfortable situation was waiting to erupt. Secession and autonomy claims have marked the state’s history since its inception. Shaky stability and suspicion toward the numerous other ethnicities nurtured the stranglehold of a closed and predominantly Bamar military junta. Thein Sein, “elected” president last year, is a former general. True democracy still seems to be a far cry amidst the junta’s unaccountability and cautious moves toward fostering relations with the international community. Brutal conflict in Rakhine in May and June that saw hundreds of Rohingya massacred and ejected from their homes and villages stands as proof that the junta is determined to frustrate efforts toward a “peaceful” transition.
Living up to its reputation of leaving behind problems in its former colonies, Britain drew up Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) boundaries in such a way that people of different ethnicities were herded into a single state. In the absence of established institutions to mediate ethnic disputes, this uncomfortable situation was waiting to erupt.
The timing of the atrocities and Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s world tour celebrating her new found freedom is almost comical. When quizzed about the recent spate of violence and her view on the Rohingya, she gave the strange reply that she did not know if they were citizens of Myanmar. On other occasions, she evaded questions with generalities about understanding and notions of citizenship. It is the same San Suu Kyi that has been elevated to poster woman status by the West and its adoring media for standing up to the junta.
Let us consider some of her memorable quotes that are touted by the west in support of her claim to international stardom. “The value systems of those with access to power and of those far removed from such access cannot be the same. The viewpoint of the privileged is unlike that of the underprivileged,” Suu Kyi said when she was under house arrest. She is also reported to have said: “It is often in the name of cultural integrity as well as social stability and national security that democratic reforms based on human rights are resisted by authoritarian governments.” Another of her memorable quotes is: “The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity. It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”
Fine words indeed but the Rohingya are not part of the human family that she talks about so fondly or their “struggle for life and dignity.” Viewed against the background of her stance on the plight of Rohingya, she comes across as another opportunistic politician constantly protecting her own bacon. The Nobel laureate has resorted to diplomatic doublespeak and silence in order not to upset the junta that is closely watching her every move — an indication of her surreal freedom. A little discrepancy immediately provokes criticism from the regime. San Suu Kyi’s repeated usage of the word Burma instead of Myanmar has been met with official disapproval. Acknowledgement of the Rohingya would put her even more in the bad books of the fascist regime and those people that have been brainwashed into believing the Rohingya do not belong.
The Rohingya are a people caught between two states debating their identity. On the one hand, Myanmar refuses to accept the history of the Rohingya as indigenous Muslims and labels them “Bengalis.” On the other hand, Bangladesh refuses to accept the Rohingya as they have been part of Myanmar for centuries. Ethnic tensions between the Rakhine Magh and Rohingya have existed since 1942 and perhaps well beyond. Adding fuel to the fire, the Burmese military is also complicit in inciting prejudice and violence against the Rohingya. It is a classic implementation of the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It needs to be noted that the Rakhine Magh have claimed secession and autonomy in the past until resistance was quelled by the Myanmar regime.
The Rohingya account for approximately 4% of Myanmar’s population although exact numbers cannot be cited owing to the regime’s refusal to allow independent observers and negligence of the Rohingya. Myanmar is a living purgatory for the Rohingya. They are not allowed to travel to other towns without a permit which is rarely approved. Arbitrary arrests are not as arbitrary as they seem. They are calculated and aimed at silencing those who voice opposition to or are seen as a threat to the sadistic Burmese system. Color, ethnicity and Islam are seen as a danger to the Myanmar regime. Forced labor, extortion, eviction, limited access to higher education and even restrictions on marriage are imposed on the Rohingya. They are not allowed to join the armed forces and most are deliberately victimized by a vicious cycle of poverty through systematic oppression. The UN estimates that approximately 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar and about 300,000 as refugees in Bangladesh. There are also scores of refugees in Thailand and Malaysia as well as many scattered around the world that have assimilated into other societies or are in stateless limbo.
Prejudice against the Rohingya is based on how “Burmese” one looks and, one’s religion. Having different facial features than what is considered “Burmese” and practicing a religion other than Buddhism brands one as foreigner. An infamous example of racial hatred was a 2009 letter sent by a Burmese diplomat in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, to other diplomatic missions and newspapers describing the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres” and thus, not “Myanmar people.” Such pretexts are used by successive Myanmar regimes to disqualify the Rohingya.
According to the Burmese Rohingya Organization (UK), about 650 Rohingyas have been massacred in the recent Rakhine conflict with 1,200 missing and more than 80,000 displaced. In contrast, the Myanmar regime has reported only 80 fatalities. Amnesty International has stated that the Rohingya are being targeted by the government and the Rakhine Magh. Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, has been worst affected with a number of houses and masjids razed to the ground. Other places affected by sectarian strife are Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships located in Maungdaw district of Rakhine. Looting of Rohingya-owned businesses and confiscation of properties has also been reported.
Information about casualties and the extent of damage are sketchy as media coverage is restricted to state-run news outlets with their own extreme bias. The Rohingya face an impending annihilation as international aid is prohibited from reaching the affected areas. The UN recently recently said that aid workers in Rakhine had been arrested; some have even been charged. Bias in the Myanmar media is obvious: people interviewed and shown in the news were Rakhine Magh. Also, curfew is selectively enforced by the government; it does not apply on the Rakhine Magh (Buddhists). Absurdly, a video clip broadcast by most mainstream media outlets showed children and adults alike walking alongside the Myanmar military forces deployed in Rakhine and even at times cheering.
A theory that is doing the rounds posits that the Rakhine Magh are influenced by a Zionist-like agenda of “purifying” Rakhine of other ethnicities. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) recently released a statement calling for segregation between the Rohingya and Rakhine Magh in every locality. In a bizarre attempt, it asked the international community and the UN to move the 800,000 Rohingya population to other states. This supposed “solution” was also echoed by President Thein Sein to the UNHCR which seems to have gained followers in the region, even among pro-democracy activists. Thein Sein’s denial of the Rohingya as part of Myanmar and apathy reflects the junta’s obsession with ethnic profiling along with xenophobia. Oddly, the Rohingya were considered citizens before the 1982 law came into effect by the former military dictator Ne Win. It recognizes 135 national races in Myanmar but does not include the Rohingya. The law has come under scrutiny by international observers like Amnesty International and with democracy gradually unfolding in Myanmar, there are expectations that the law might be changed.
An over-populated Bangladesh has refused to take any more Rohingya as refugees. Astonishingly, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed even claimed the Myanmar regime was providing a “congenial atmosphere” for the Rohingya. Increased trade prospects with resource-rich Myanmar after US easing of sanctions have cast a spell of silence on neighboring states. Only leaders like Imam Khamenei of Iran and organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have condemned the Myanmar regime for its atrocities against the Rohingya. The regime however continues to deny that excessive force was used by the military and downplays the role of ethnic and religious bias in the conflict.
With the crisis continuing, it remains to be seen whether Aung San Suu Kyi will decide to break her silence on the issue. If she wants to retain her status as a freedom fighter and become a Mandela-like figure against apartheid, she needs to stand up for equality and acceptance of the Rohingya. Who else can the Rohingya turn to than the person who had been imprisoned by the same regime for decades?