Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

MYANMARESE President General Thein Sein is riding high. He is the new darling of the West. On April 22, the International Crisis Group presented him its annual “In Pursuit of Peace” award at a gala dinner in New York, apparently in recognition of democratic reforms he introduced in Myanmar. The same day European Union lifted trade, economic and individual sanctions against Myanmar.

While Thein Sein basked in glory in New York, Human Rights Watch released a 153-page report the same day, stating Myanmar has waged “a campaign of ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims. Rohingyas have faced crimes against humanity including murder, persecution, and deportation. HRW report squarely blamed the Myanmarese government for being responsible for the atrocities and for denying humanitarian aid to the affected people.

Myanmar’s quasi-military regime has been directly involved in anti-Muslim riots and ethnic cleansing in different states of the country. Since June 2012 the indigenous Muslim population in Rakhine state have been facing systematic pogrom at the hands of Buddhists monks and civilians, and Myanmarese forces. More than 200 Muslims were killed in the month long violence that left thousands displaced. The minority Muslim community in Rakhine is known as Rohingyas. They had been robbed of their nationality when the xenophobic dictator General Ne Win promulgated the Citizenship Law in 1982. Burmans call Rohingyas as “Kalars,” a racist word containing deep hatred.

Since the outbreak of murderous riots in Rakhine thousands have fled to neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and other countries seeking refuge. Hundreds have perished at sea while trying to escape from Rakhine in flimsy boats.

On March 20, fierce rioting broke out in the town of Meikhtila in central Myanmar over a trivial argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist couple. The violence left 43 dead, mostly Muslims burnt to death. The government declared local emergency on March 22 to control the situation. BBC video footage released recently shows that police stood by as Buddhist arsonists, including monks, set fire to Muslim shops, mosques, and homes and went on a killing rampage. Several thousand Muslims were displaced.

If one looks at Myanmarese map it becomes clear that central Myanmar — the Irrawaddy basin — is the homeland of Buddhist Burmans (Bamar), who constitute 68% of the country’s population of 60 million. Minority ethnic groups viz. Shan, Kayin, Karen, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingyas and Kachin are spread through the seven bordering states. They have been fighting for independent states since 1948, when Britain gave independence to Myanmar.

Historically, the Burmans have dominated the military, politics and the economy. The military under General Ne Win seized power in 1962, to protect independence and sovereignty. Instead of recognising the demands of the minorities the Burmans have been fighting the insurgents. Five decades of military rule has left the Burmans fiercely inimical and xenophobic towards the minority groups. The stateless Rohingyas are easy targets for the Buddhist Burmans, who control the government.

Thein Sein’s democratic reforms have made some headway after the general elections in November 2010. Political prisoners have been freed though many still remain behind bars. The ban on print media has been lifted recently. In the April 2012 by-elections Aung San Suu Kyi was taken on board the parliament and dubbed as the opposition leader. Suu Kyi’s NLD has 41 seats in the parliament of 440. Interestingly the lower house has 110 unelected seats reserved for the military.

Thein Sein has played the democracy card well, so far. The West has waived Myanmar’s $6 billion debt. Western leaders made a bee-line to visit Yangon. British Prime Minister David Cameron, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe’, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and finally US President Barack Obama all visited Myanmar and encouraged Thein Sein to continue with reforms. Asean has promised to allow Thein Sein to Chair the grouping in 2014. Suu Kyi has been allowed to travel abroad and collect accolades.

Nobel Peace laureate and Myanmarese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to condemn the attacks on Muslims. Indirectly, she has toed the government line on the issue. This is a setback for the democracy she has so long fought for. A devout Buddhist herself, her silence is seen by many to have undermined her image as a moral force. Many feel she has become an unofficial agent of the military to persuade the West to remove the sanctions on Myanmar. Hasn’t Thien Sein said that he would be willing to accept Suu Kyi as president of Myanmar? Besides, given her paltry number in the parliament, there is little she can do.

“She has absolutely nothing to gain by opening her mouth … she is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She is a politician and her eyes are fixed on the majority Buddhist vote at the 2015 election,” said Dr. Maung Zami, a Myanmar expert and visiting fellow at London School of Economics. “To be honest, Aung San Suu Kyi is a prop, not a strategic player,” commented Dr. Zami.

“The Irrawaddy Blog” in a commentary reported: “These days in Rangoon, it is not uncommon to see monks distributing pamphlets labeled ’969′, the name of a newly surfaced campaign against Muslim minorities. The first ’9′ stands for the nine attributes of Buddha; ’6′ for the special attributes of his ‘Dhamma’, and last ’9′ for the nine attributes of Buddhist monks.’ Destroyed mosques, buildings and vehicles have been spray-painted with ’969′ and car stickers were also seen in Pegu Division. It is not unlikely that elements from the army are involved in inciting the violence. One wonders whether Thein Sein is in control of his armed forces.

What is disturbing is that the international community has pulled wool over its eyes. Many feel that US and EU have withdrawn the sanctions against Myanmar prematurely. Their greedy eyes are fixed on the rich natural resources of the country, particularly huge oil and gas reserves. The other strategy of the West is to encircle and weaken China’s growing influence in the region.

What is sad and frustrating is the frightful plight of the Muslims in Myanmar. Muslims today are faced with systematic annihilation. Democracy ensures freedom, security and a just society for all citizens. If citizenship of the Rohingyas is not returned by the Myanmarese government it will destabilise the reform process. More ethnic violence may actually lead to Rwanda-type genocide.

The writer is former ambassador and secretary.