Trapped in a web of violence and hate

March 6, 2018

Freelance journalist Badrul Islam sent this report to describing the horrifying conditions faced by the Rohingyas suffering repression in Myanmar.

THE CRISIS of the Rohingyas reflects the intention of the Myanmar government to forcibly oust Muslims from Rakhine State. The brutal attacks on unarmed civilians, the placing of land mines along the border by the military, in coordination with border guards and armed Rakhine Buddhists--all this is proof of their intentions.

The coastal area of Rakhine State is clearly of strategic importance to both China, with its One Belt One Road strategy, and India, with its Look East policy. The Myanmar government has vested interest in clearing land for development projects that would bring oil and gas revenues and transit fees, as well as jobs for its citizen.

But this strategy to boost economic growth comes with human costs that are terribly high.

The Myanmar military has denied the violence, but it has been exposed. As Tirana Hassan, crisis response director for Amnesty International, states:

Given their ongoing denials, Myanmar authorities may have thought they would literally get away with murder on massive scale. But modern technology coupled with rigorous human rights research have tipped the scale against them.

Refugees await relief aid at the Balukhali Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh
Refugees await relief aid at the Balukhali Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh (Allison Joyce | flickr)

Jonathan Head, the BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent, described being on a government-organized trip for the media last September when, "in the town of Alel Than Kyaw...we heard automatic weapons fire in the distance and saw four large columns of smoke, indicating villages burned.

"Later that same day, we came across the Rohingya village of Gaw Du Thar Ya being set alight by Rakhine Buddhist men, in front of armed policemen and close to a police barracks."

Head concluded that Myannmar's Aung San Suu Kyi--the former dissident and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who now presides over the violence as the country's State Counsellor, the equivalent of prime minister--"may not term these 'clearance' operations, but given the heavy military and police presence in these areas, close to the riverbank, it is difficult to believe they do not have at least tacit approval from the authorities there."

MYANMAR HAS a military-dominated government, with the Bamar Buddhists dominating the government, police and army. In the parliament, the military has 25 percent of seats set aside for them, and no other group among the country's 135 different ethnic groups are represented in any of these positions. The country's elected officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi, play second fiddle to the military regime.

Everything from the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, established in 2008, through to various laws--including the Land Acquisition Act (1894), the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Act (2012), the Economic Zone Law (2011), the Farm Act (2012) and the Foreign Investment Act (2012)--give the government full authority to: one, carry out "Burmanization" designed to enshrine Bamar Buddhist dominance; and two, control and exploit the country's natural resources.

Members of the other ethnic groups left out of power in this set-up have been in conflict with the ruling regime. But they are in a different status from the Rohingyas, who are Muslim and were stripped of citizenship and the right to vote under the Citizen Law of 1982.

Rohingyas are eyed with particular suspicion, and since the military junta came to power under Gen. Ne Win in 1962, it has been state policy to force Rohingyas into squalid ghettos, living under apartheid conditions, with severe restrictions on movement, family life, employment, health care and education.

Discriminated against and persecuted, the Rohingyas have also become the victim of religious hatred, led by the likes of Ashin Wirathu, a monk who was branded by Time magazine in 2013 as the "Face of Buddhist Terror."

The year before, Ashin led a rally of monks to promote former President Thein Sein's plan to expel Rohingya Muslims to other countries. His nationalist 969 Movement promotes boycotts of Muslim-owned business.

He also perpetuates the propaganda that Muslims aim to overtake, dominate and get rid of Buddhists--though there is no such evidence of this charge, and it makes no sense in a country where Muslims are 4 percent of the population, while Bamar Buddhists are 89 percent.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have exposed the treatment of Rohingyas to the world, prompting some action by the UN Security Council and other agencies, as well various governments, including the European Union and the U.S.

These efforts have brought about some positive results. Larger supplies of food, essential medicine, emergency shelter, blankets and other essentials are reaching Rohingya refugees. Different organizations and governments have pledged $434 million for continued relief operations to support the Rohingyas and communities in Bangladesh, where many refugees have fled. As host country, Bangladesh and its premier have received accolades for their humanitarian role in admitting Rohingya refugees and shouldering an increased socioeconomic and environmental burden.

The Myanmar military has been condemned for its violence and forced to allow a UN fact-finding team to visit Rakhine State, and it is under pressure to implement the recommendations of a commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, including the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh under UN supervision; (E) to allow a UN Fact Finding Team to visit Rakhine state.

But criticism alone and even UN actions such as establishing a "safe zone" won't solve the crisis or guarantee repatriation because the military and Bamar Buddhist leaders are relentless in their opposition to the Rohingyas. This attitude must change.

In January 2017, Ko Ni--a constitutional expert and legal adviser of the State Counsellor who had initiated a dialogue with the military in pursuit of some amendments to the constitution that would grant Rohingyas citizenship--was assassinated at Yangon International Airport.

Aung San Suu Kyi should be to reminded of some of the lines from her lecture when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012:

[F]or me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights...War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.

There are more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar--with more still leaving--because of the atrocities by the military, and they are suffering terribly in different refugee camps in Bangladesh.

What can the Nobel Prize laureate do to alleviate their suffering? Will the Myanmar government act to solve this humanitarian crisis? The world is waiting to see.

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