A Long History of Injustice Ignored: Rohingya/Burma/Myanmar
by Sheila Musaji
The Asia News posted an article about the current ethnic violence in Myanmar/Burma in which at least 50 people have died - Burma riots: What the media isn’t telling you by Francis Wade which discusses the current ethnic turmoil in Burma. He says in part
... One thing people seem loath to report is the blatantly racist element to the unrest, which Buddhist Burmese and Arakanese must take the bulk of responsibility for (perhaps however it is because they have greater access to media in which to vent opinions).
This is even apparent among Burma’s pro-democracy leaders, the so-called “forces for change” in the country. Prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi said that the presence of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority which has born the brunt of the rioting, is “infringing on Burma’s sovereignty”. A friend told me today that he’d received an email from a former political prisoner stating that, “if western nations really believed in human rights, they would take the Rohingya from us.”
The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.
Here on TAM we have published articles about the ethnic tensions in Burma since 2005. The terrible ethnic conflict that is now playing out is not new, and has it’s roots in many historic events. Dr. Habib Siddiqui gives an excellent overview of the long history of the peoples of Burma in the article A Long History of Injustice Ignored: Rohingya: The Forgotten People of Our Time.
As Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins noted in an article at the end of last year
The “forgotten Rohingya”, whom the BBC calls “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups”, are the little-publicised Muslim people historically located in the coastal Arakan state of western Burma, dating their ethnic lineage in this region over centuries.
When the military junta under General Ne Win, an ethnic Burmese, came to power in 1962, it implemented a policy of “Burmanisation”. Based on the ultra-nationalist ideology of racial “purity”, it was a crude attempt to bolster the majority Burmese ethnic identity and their religion Buddhism, in order to strip the Rohingya of any legitimacy. They were officially declared foreigners in their own native land and erroneously labelled as illegal Bengali immigrants.
By officially denying them citizenship, the government institutionalised the long-held and unofficial discriminatory practices in the Arakan State. As a result, the Rohingya have no rights to own land or property and are unable to travel outside their villages, repair their decaying places of worship, receive education, or even marry and have children without rarely granted government permission. In addition to the complete denial of their rights, the Rohingya were subjected to modern-day slavery, forced to work on infrastructure projects which include constructing “model villages” to house the Burmese settlers intended to displace them.
Since 1991 the steady flow of refugees in Bangladesh reached an astounding number. The non-governmental organisations from Europe and North America put the number at an estimated 300,000. Only 35,000 of these Rohingya refugees live in registered refugee camps and receive some sort of assistance from NGOs. The remaining, more than 250,000, are in a desperate situation without food and medical assistance. Torrential rain and flooding in each monsoon takes a heavy toll in the unregistered and unprotected makeshift camps with the most deplorable and inhumane conditions. Outbreaks of epidemics of waterborne diseases from the lack of sanitation and flooding in the monsoon in the makeshift camps have shocked NGOs and the international community.
There are many horror stories of the Rohingya who, no longer able to face the utter hopelessness of their lives, set forth on makeshift rafts into the sea. Too many such journeys have been abruptly ended by Thai and Malaysian naval patrols that force these rafts into deeper waters and then leave them to die.
Because the US has targeted Islamic charitable organisations in order to dry up any possible funding for al-Qaida and other such groups it has caused Muslims to become wary of giving to charity. The normal Muslim sources, that may have helped the Rohingya, have therefore been largely absent. Muslim Aid is one of the only organisations allowed to operate in the camp where the young girl was burned, and they provide the only small and overworked clinic and child feeding programme for thousands of refugees.
All the Rohingya want is reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, revoked by the former dictator General Ne Win, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it. Only then can a democratic Burma be legitimate in the eyes of its own people, the south Asian region, and the international community. Perhaps then the suffering of the young Rohingya girl and so many like her will not have been in vain.
Although, for the most part the plight of the Rohingya has been ignored by the mainstream media, that may be changing. An article by Thomas Fuller in the NYT this week gives a much more nuanced description of facts on the ground. Fuller points to recent lifting of government censorship of the internet as one of the dynamics leading to more rather than less ethnic tension. He says in part:
But as the poverty-stricken country of 55 million makes a delicate transition to democracy, hateful comments are also flourishing online about a Muslim ethnic group, the Rohingya, that is embroiled in sectarian clashes in western Myanmar that have left more than two dozen people dead.
“The lid of authoritarianism has come off, and people finally have the freedom to express themselves,” said U Aung Naing Oo, the author of “Dialogue,” a book about conflict resolution in Myanmar’s fractious society. “All these grievances have come out,” and “the voices of reason are on the sidelines for now.”
When the discovery of a “Rohingya body” was announced Thursday on the Facebook page of the Eleven Media Group, one of the largest private media organizations in Myanmar, one reader, Pyaephyo Aung, wrote that he had been “waiting for this kind of news for a long time.” Another reader, Ko Nyi, used a racial slur and said, “It’s not even enough that he is dead.”
In online forums, Rohingya are referred to as dogs, thieves, terrorists and various expletives. Commenters urge the government to “make them disappear” and seem particularly enraged that Western countries and the United Nations are highlighting their plight.
The violence in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, has left 29 people dead and more than 2,500 houses burned during the past week, according to officials quoted in the Burmese news media. About 30,000 people have been displaced by the violence, according to the United Nations.
Harder to measure has been damage to Myanmar’s complex multiethnic fabric as the government of President Thein Sein tries to steer the country toward reconciliation between the military and the people, and between the Bamar majority and the dozens of smaller ethnic groups.
So far, the violence has been limited to Rakhine, which is relatively isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range. But many among those who have posted angry comments on Internet sites have equated the Rohingya with other Muslims scattered around Myanmar. In Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, worshipers at mosques reported that prayer services left out traditional Friday sermons as a precaution against widening the sectarian conflict.
The issue of the Rohingya is so delicate that even Myanmar’s leading defender of human rights and democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been oblique and evasive about the situation. Asked at a news conference on Thursday whether the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar should be given citizenship, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was equivocal. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” she said in Geneva, which she was visiting as part of a European tour. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”
Defending the Rohingya, who are stateless and are described by the United Nations as one of the most oppressed minorities in Asia, is politically risky for both Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein.
Mr. Thein Sein’s government is trying to rein in the news media to limit violence against the Rohingya. A popular publication called Hlyat Ta Pyet was banned this week for an indefinite period after it published what the government judged to be inflammatory coverage of the violence in Rakhine, said U Maung Myint, president of the Burma Media Association, which advocates media freedom.
The government has also ordered that all Rakhine-related news go through the censorship board, a rollback to the procedures during military rule. “This is the worst moment for media since the ‘civilian’ government assumed power,” Mr. Maung Myint said.
The Internet, however, has remained unfettered — and heavily tilted against the Rohingya. On Facebook and on news sites, there appeared to be very few comments this week defending the Rohingya or calling for reconciliation.
Many Rohingya are attempting to flee Burma, but neighboring Bangladesh has been turning them away. The U.N. is calling for an official probe into the violence, and urging Bangladesh to accept the refugees. Bangladesh, which is also a poor country, already has 30,000 Rohingya refugees. Both ethnic groups are suffering due to this crisis. According to a local news report:
Officials told reporters that 13 ethnic Rakhines and 16 Rohingya Muslims were killed in clashes from last Friday through Wednesday, while the injured included 16 Rakhine and 22 Rohingya.
They also said 31,884 displaced people are being sheltered at monasteries and schools. Of 2,528 houses that were burned down, 1,192 belonged to Rakhines and 1,336 belonged to Rohingyas.
Nine Buddhist monasteries and seven mosques were also burned, they said. Unrest hit eight areas in all, they said: Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Sittwe, Rambree Island, Mrauk Oo, Ponna Kyun , Pauk Taw and Kyauktaw, with the most damage and death in Maungdaw and Sittwe.
We can only pray for sane voices to prevail, and for solutions to be found that will calm the violence for the sake of all of the people of Burma. Sadly, here in the U.S., the voices of Islamophobes are adding to the tension by publishing inflammatory comments and articles. Pamela Geller, for example call this unrest “jihad”, places the blame fully on the Rohingya, and says this is an example of “The Islamic pattern of inevitable conflict as a result of Muslim immigration.” She also said “Anywhere Muslims immigrate, conflict follows. And so it goes in Burma. More on the effects of Muslim immigration here. When tolerant and culturally diverse societies agree to Muslim demands for their religious privileges, so begins the process of islamization. As long as the Muslim population remains around or under 2% in any given country, they will be for the most part be regarded as a peace-loving minority, and not as a threat to other citizens. At 2% to 5%, they begin to proselytize from other ethnic minorities and disaffected groups, often with major recruiting from the jails and among street gangs.” Absolutely disgusting and ghoulish comments. Robert Spencer, her partner in hate added his own bit to make certain people are clear that everything is the fault of the Muslims.
In the past 6 months, the violence has sadly continued. However, in the past month, there have been an encouraging developments Buddhist Leaders Respond To Violence Against Muslims In Myanmar
Below is a letter, provided to The Huffington Post by Jack Kornfield, convener of the Western Buddhist Teachers Council, and co-written and signed by some of the world’s foremost Buddhist leaders to express their concern about the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
To Our Brother and Sister Buddhists in Myanmar, As world Buddhist leaders we send our lovingkindess and concern for the difficulties the people of Myanmar are faced with at this time. While it is a time of great positive change in Myanmar we are concerned about the growing ethnic violence and the targeting of Muslims in Rakhine State and the violence against Muslims and others across the country. The Burmese are a noble people, and Burmese Buddhists carry a long and profound history of upholding the Dharma.
We wish to reaffirm to the world and to support you in practicing the most fundamental Buddhist principles of non-harming, mutual respect and compassion.
These fundamental principles taught by the Buddha are at the core of Buddhist practice:
•Buddhist teaching is based on the precepts of refraining from killing and causing harm.
•Buddhist teaching is based on compassion and mutual care.
•Buddhist teaching offers respect to all, regardless of class, caste, race or creed.
We are with you for courageously standing up for these Buddhist principles even when others would demonize or harm Muslims or other ethnic groups. It is only through mutual respect, harmony and tolerance that Myanmar can become a modern great nation benefiting all her people and a shining example to the world.
Whether you are a Sayadaw or young monk or nun, or whether you are a lay Buddhist, please, speak out, stand up, reaffirm these Buddhist truths, and support all in Myanmar with the compassion, dignity and respect offered by the Buddha.
We stand with you in the Dharma,
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
President Buddhist Global Relief
(world’s foremost translator of the Pali Canon)
Sri Lanka / USA
Dr. A T Ariyaratne
Founder Nationwide Sarvodaya Movement
Gandhi Peace Prize Laureate
Ven. Chao Khun Raja Sumedhajahn
Elder, Ajahn Chah Monastaries
Wat Ratanavan, Thailand
Ven. Phra Paisal Visalo
Chair Buddhika Network Buddhism and Society
Ven. Arija Rinpoche VIII
Abbot Tibetan Mongolian Cultural Center
Mongolia / USA
Ven. Shodo Harada Roshi.
Abbot Sogenji Rinzai Zen Monastery
Achariya Professor J Simmer Brown
Chairperson Buddhist Studies
Naropa Buddhist University
Ven. Ajahn Amaro Mahathera
Abbot Amaravati Vihara
Ven. Hozan A Senauke
International Network of Engaged Buddhists
Ven. Sr. Thich Nu Chan Kong
President Plum Village Zen temples
France / Vietnam
Dr. Jack Kornfield Vipassana Achariya
Convener Western Buddhist Teachers Council
Lama Surya Das
Dzogchen Foundation International
Vajrayana Tibet / USA
Ven. Zoketsu N. Fischer Soto Roshi
Fmr. Abbot largest Zen community In the West
USA / Japan
Tulku Sherdor Rinpoche
Director BI. Wisdom Institute
HH the XIV Dalai Lama*
Nobel Laureate Tibet/India
*Though not able to be reached in time to sign this letter H H the Dalai Lama has publicly and repeatedly stated his concern about the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He urges everyone to continue to practice non-violence and retain the religious harmony that is central to our ancient and revered culture.
The Dalai Lama asked Suu Kyi to intervene in Rohingya issue
Dharamsala: Following the intermittent communal clashes in western Rakhine state involving predominant Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya, a state of emergency has been observed in that part of the country. Many Burmese regard Muslims as foreigners from across the Bangladesh border and this has led the two communities to indulge in deadly violence to prove their hegemony over other.
Expressing concern over the alleged hardships faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Dalai Lama has written twice to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi asking her to use her influence to bring about a peaceful solution to the issue.
Lobsang Choedak, Press Officer of Tibetan Government in Exile said in Dharamsala that the Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi has also tried to seek an appointment with the Myanmar embassy to convey his views about this serious human rights’ problem.
It is not the first time that the Dalai Lama has expressed such concern, he had also appealed the Sri Lankan authorities to find a peaceful solution during the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
A life of fear with no refuge: the Rohingya’s struggle for survival and dignity http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/fromthefield/MSFIntl/123555724325.htm
A Long History of Injustice Ignored: The Muslims of Myanmar (Burma), Harun Yahya http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_long_history_of_injustice_ignored_the_muslims_of_myanmar_burma/
A Long History of Injustice Ignored: Rohingya: The Forgotten People of Our Time, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_long_history_of_injustice_ignored_rohningya_the_forgotten_people_of_our_t/
ANC Policy Statement on the Peoples of Arakan shows lack of Foresightedness , Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/anc_policy_statement_on_the_peoples_of_arakan_shows_lack_of_foresightedness/
Burma Is Not Iraq, Ramzy Baroud http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/burma_is_not_iraq/
Burma’s forgotten Rohingya, Mike Thompson http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4793924.stm
Burma’s Monks: Ethics is not confined to Books and Temples, Farish A Noor http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/burmas_monks_ethics_is_not_confined_to_books_and_temples/
Burma’s Muslim Rohingyas - The New Boat People, Marwaan Macan-Markar http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45850
Burma’s struggle for democracy - What needs to be done?, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/burmas_struggle_for_democracy_what_needs_to_be_done
Daw Suu Kyi and movement for democracy, freedom and human rights in Burma, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/daw_suu_kyi_and_movement_for_democracy_freedom_and_human_rights_in_burma/
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya of Burma and the challenge of faith, Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/aung-san-suu-kyi-the-rohingya-of-burma-and-the-challenge-of-faith
Democracy and killings in Burma: Gold rush overrides human rights, Ramzy Baroud http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/democracy-and-killings-in-burma-gold-rush-overrides-human-rights
Get Chevron Oil Out of Burma, Rabbi Arthur Waskow http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/get_chevron_oil_out_of_burma/
Internet Unshackled, Burmese Aim Venom at Ethnic Minority, Thomas Fuller http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/world/asia/new-freedom-in-myanmar-lets-burmese-air-venom-toward-rohingya-muslim-group.html?pagewanted=all
Just Imagine This—You Are a Rohingya!, Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/just_imagine_this_you_are_a_rohingya/
“The Killing Fields” and the Rohingya of Burma, Muhamed Sacirbey http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_killing_fields_and_the_rohingya_of_burma
Suu Kyi faces balancing act over Myanmar unrest http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=133202&date=2012-06-16
Little help for the persecuted Rohingya of Burma, Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/little-help-for-the-persecuted-rohingya-of-burma
Rohingya are Muslim outcasts, not welcome anywhere http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gPW6vtdfI0ip4z9X2iqfVibBao8gD96BFKV81
Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Recent Riots, Asghar Ali Engineer http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/rohingya-muslims-in-myanmar-and-the-recent-riots
The Rohingya question, Ashfaqur Rahman http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=238435
Statement of the Arakan-Burma Research Institute, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/statement_of_the
Thailand to Crack Down on Trafficking of Rohingyas http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=auljtaVqW914&refer=asia
UN: Food Shortages, Poverty Forcing Rohingya to Flee Burma, Ron Corben http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-02-20-voa18.cfm
U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report: Burma, Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/us_state_department_international_religious_freedom_report_burma/
What to Do With the War Criminals of the Myanmar’s SPDC Regime, Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/what_to_do_with_the_war_criminals_of_the_myanmars_spdc_regime
For more on the Rohingya: http://www.rohingya.org/
Originally published 6/2012