|Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait onboard the boat before being transported to shore off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, IndonesiaSyifa/Antara Foto/Reuters|
By Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
July 27, 2016
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all individuals have rights based upon their race, colour, gender, language, religion, property, and others. But, unfortunately, not everyone enjoys all of these privileges; the Rohingya community is a prime example.
Born as a Rohingya in Myanmar is considered as a big mistake, a disgrace, and an abominable sin that must be borne. They face hatred from their fellow countrymen and injustice from their government. The consequence is clear. The Rohingyas have become the butt of all forms of injustice: living in Rakhine state that resemble a ghetto; prohibited from living in their homeland without the government’s permission; not recognised as one of 135 legitimate ethnic groups in Myanmar; not considered citizens of their own country; and expressly forbidden from participating in all forms of politics. The reason for such discrimination is simple; they belong to the Rohingya ethnic minority. Their skins are not as light as other Myanmarese and they are not Buddhist.
While historians continue to argue over the origin of Rohingyas, whether they are indigenous to Rakhine state or migrants from Bengal during British colonialism, it cannot be denied that the Rohingyas have inhabited Myanmar for hundreds of years. This is evidenced by a census conducted by the British in 1891, which reported approximately 58,255 Muslims living in Arakan; known presently as Rakhine state. Nonetheless, the current number of the Rohingya community continues to erode. Even in Aung Mingalar, a ghetto area in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, only 4,000 Rohingyas remain. This population decline is caused by Rakhine state no longer being friendly towards Rohingyas and forcing people to leave their homelands.
Leaving the Rakhine state is essential for the Rohingyas. To resist is to surrender their lives to the Buddhist extremists who target them. History doesn’t lie. Abominations against Rohingyas in 2012, for example, have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Ironically, these inhumane actions were supported and orchestrated by many Buddhist religious leaders through their religious classes that reek of chauvinism. They tell their followers that if ethnic Rohingyas are not crushed, Myanmar will become a Muslim country and their position as a majority will turn into a minority. Of course, all such claims are unfounded.
One Buddhist figure most active in spreading the seeds of hatred against Rohingyas is Ashin Wirathu. Head of the 969 movement, a controversial Buddhist group in Myanmar, he regards Islam as the greatest threat to the country. Therefore, he believes that its development must be suppressed by making the lives of its adherents uncomfortable. Strategies adopted by Wirathu include urging people to boycott Muslim-owned shops, prohibiting interracial marriage, and disseminating the notion that mosques are ‘enemy bases.’ Therefore, it makes sense that Wirathu is considered by many as the ‘Bin Laden of Burma.’
The Myanmar government deliberately helps suppression of the Rohingya community through official policies. For instance, these people are not permittedto have more than two children. Young couples who wish to get married should seek permission from the government.
Efforts to disrupt the lives of Rohingya have troubling consequences. Besides those who have been slaughtered, thousands more have been forced to leave their homes. Many decide to risk their lives crossing the ocean in search of shelter. Unmitigated, the number of ‘boat people’ - a term used to describe Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar by sea - for the first three months of 2015 alone has reached25,000 people. Today, this number continues to rise.
Unfortunately, fleeing suppression in Myanmar does not necessarily end their unfortunate fate as Rohingyas. Stories of their grief continue with different plots. 100 individuals were reportedly killed in Indonesia, and 200 were killed on their way to Malaysia. It is important to note that these figures are those that are known; many more lives have been lost at sea, which are, of course, more difficult to report.
Throughout this time, Rohingya who seek shelter in neighbouring countries have been kicked to and fro by those governments. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand deny these people entry for a variety of reasons. Those who have successfully entered also receive unpleasant welcomes. They are not awarded permanent residency and have to content themselves with remaining in the refugee camps where there are limited water and food supplies.
The return of Myanmar to the system of democracy with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi as the country’s counsellor had not brought fresh wind to the Rohingya community. Even the Nobel Peace Prize receiver still refuses to call the ethnic minority by the name ‘Rohingya’, because they are not considered citizens of Myanmar. Not only that, she was also furious when she found out that the person who interviewed her on BBC Today, Mishal Husain, is a Muslim. Such discriminatory and racist attitudes certainly make many people question the propriety of San Suu Kyi to being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
What happens to Rohingyas in Myanmar is undoubtedly inhumane and unacceptable. It is time for the international community to put pressure on the Myanmar government to stop their suppression of the Rohingyas. Basic human rights, as they are written in the UDHR, must be afforded to everyone, including the Rohingya community.
This piece is co-authored with Muhammad Beni Saputra, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester.
|Htin Lynn speaks during the opening ceremony of the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, May 29, 2015. (Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters)|
July 27, 2016
RANGOON — Burma has appointed Htin Lynn as the permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations, according to a statement issued by the foreign affairs ministry on Wednesday.
Previously acting as a director-general of the ministry’s international organizations and economic department and deputy permanent representative to the UN, he has served with the ministry for more than three decades, Aye Aye Soe, ministry spokesperson and member of the consular and legal affairs department, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
In May of last year, he joined the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, in Bangkok, Thailand, as Burma’s special representative. At the meeting, he rejected Burma being “singled out” by the UN when addressing the issue of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants attempting to reach Malaysia and Indonesia by boat.
Htin Lynn has been recognized as a staunch defender of the previous administration’s stance on the Rohingya. According to a report issued by the state-run daily Global New Light of Myanmar last January, he said that Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law would decide their citizenship eligibility.
He has denied accusations of discriminatory policies in the country toward the Rohingya, while recognizing that some ethnic groups were left behind due to geographical difficulties and poor infrastructural development.
Recently, he represented Burma at the World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in Istanbul on March 24.
July 27, 2016
Despite somewhat confusing attempts to suspend it, Myanmar’s Ethnic Youth Conference in Shan State went ahead on Tuesday in Panlong Town, the historic site of the 1947 peace deal between independence leader Aung San and ethnic rebel groups.
But amid the last-minute questions of whether the conference, involving hundreds of young people from a number of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, would proceed or not, another depressing drama was playing out behind the scenes.
Two Muslims attached to the ethnic Burmese delegation were being pushed out.
The trouble, according to interviews with the two, started when the Burmese (or Bamar, the largest ethnic group in Myanmar) delegation arrived at a guesthouse in Panlong.
In the group there were 30 people, including the two Muslims, a man named Hlwan Moe Aung, 33, and a woman named Thet Suu Yee, 34. Both are from Bago region.
Hlwan Moe Aung said his National Registration Card identifies him as Muslim, and he was told after arriving by the coordination committee for the National Ethnic Youth Conference that he could not participate, only observe. He left in frustration.
“They told me I am not a member of an ethnic group and they want pure Bamar [Burmese],” he told Coconuts Yangon in an interview on Wednesday.
To understand what happened, you have to understand the composition of a National Registration Card.
There is one space for “Ethnicity/Religion.”
Hlwan Moe Aung said that this space on his card lists him as “Myanmar Muslim/Islam.”
That would seemingly explain the committee’s decision, but he said that in the past, a man named U Phay Khin attended the original conference in 1947 as a “Bamar Muslim."
The same should be applied to him, his reasoning suggested, and he believed he had a right to a seat at the table.
“This conference was done by a lot of Civil Society Organizations and I am feeling so sad about this,” he said. “My dad was a political prisoner and he died in prison because of a hunger strike. We also sacrificed for the better future. I want to ask them, who loves the country more, us or them?”
The committee also started worrying about Thet Suu Yee, who is of South Asian heritage, a fact reflected on her card in the ethnicity and religion section. It says: “India+Bamar/Islam.”
Responding to the issue, the Burmese delegation was split over what to do, but ultimately agreed not to put up a fight for either of them, according to interviews.
Both believe it had little to do with splitting hairs over ethnic affiliation and more to do with religious prejudice and fears that Buddhist nationalists would react angrily to the inclusion of Muslims.
Thet Suu Yee also left in frustration, speaking by phone on the road back.
“They shouldn’t do this. This is discrimination not only on the religion but also the ethnicity. I am feeling sad. They shouldn’t do this because our country is now on the way to a federal state," she said.
Around 600 people are attending the five-day conference, whose discussions are of a nonbinding, brainstorming nature.
These aren’t official talks, but they are happening at the same time as ethnic rebel leaders are meeting in Kachin state, and as Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to meet with a handful of holdout rebel groups in Naypyitaw.
Min Hnaung Htaw, the 31-year-old spokesman for the conference and a member of the coordination committee, confirmed that the two left, but said they were not pushed out.
"Actually, we didn’t ask them to leave. They just left when we talked about representation. We told them that this is prioritized for the ethnic [groups] in Myanmar,” he said in an interview.
“We let them attend as observers [not as participants]. If they have an ethnic base, it is fine,” he said. “We’re not inviting individuals. We just invited Bamars so Bamars have to explain about this.”
Members of the delegation could not immediately be reached for comment.
Buddhist-Muslim tensions have been running high since 2012 clashes in Rakhine State that left scores dead.
In the run-up to last year’s election, Myanmar’s ultimately victorious National League for Democracy came under fire from rights groups for not fielding a single Muslim candidate, something that many believed happened out of fear of angering Buddhist nationalists.
The situation has left Muslims, who make up about 4 percent of the population, feeling left out of the discussion for the new Myanmar.
When the election was over and parliament convened in February, it was said to be the first time in Myanmar’s history that Muslims had no seats.
The same might be said for the Ethnic Youth Conference.
|French aid worker Moussa Tchantchiung was arrested on December 22, 2015 [Photo provided by Rachid Boulsane]|
July 26, 2016
Charges against the French aid worker held in Bangladesh since December have been dropped. But how did he end up there?
Paris, France - Kamdem Tchantchuing was taking his mother's car to a mechanic in Paris when he received a phone call from his brother Georges. Their younger brother, Moussa Tchantchuing, had been arrested in Bangladesh, where he frequently travels as a humanitarian working with Rohingya refugees in the region.
"I thought it was impossible," said Kamdem, 31. "I had just spoken to [Moussa] two days before and he was fine."
But social media posts by the NGO Moussa worked for, Barakacity, confirmed the arrest. News began to spread that the Bangladeshi authorities were investigating Moussa over alleged links to "terrorism".
It was 18 days later, after his family and Barakacity had launched a massive #FreeMoussa campaign, that Kamdem was able to travel to Bangladesh, arriving in the capital, Dhaka, and then travelling 360km south to the city of Cox Bazaar, where Moussa was being held in solitary confinement.
The #FreeMoussa campaign helped to raise the funds Kamdem and a close friend of Moussa's, Rachid Boulsane, needed to pay for the journey.
"It took days of going back and forth between the prison authority and the French embassy before we were finally able to see him," Kamdem recalled. "He had lost so much weight and was wearing the same clothes for weeks."
Fear of the unknown dominated their 45-minute reunion, during which Kamdem says they were surrounded by six policemen, including the prison chief, and a Bangladeshi intelligence agent.
"We spoke about how he got arrested, [and] the conditions he was kept in, in prison. We also had some letters from many friends for him to read. He had to read them during our visit because he was not allowed to keep them," Kamdem said.
'A sensitive soul'
Rachid, a 28-year-old engineer and volunteer aid worker, described Moussa as "a sensitive soul".
The two have been friends since they met in Paris in 2009 while distributing food to the homeless. They launched their own humanitarian organisation, Au Coeur de la Precarite (At the Heart of Precarity), in the same year. But it was two years later that it really began to take off.
Rachid recalled how, on a cold evening in January 2011, he received a concerned phone call from Moussa. He'd just seen an 80-year-old couple sitting on the floor of a train station in Paris with all their belongings scattered in front of them. They had been evicted from their apartment and their French visas had expired after they'd returned to Morocco for a prolonged visit to take care of their recently orphaned grandchildren.
Moussa and Rachid decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign that would allow them to put the elderly couple up in a hotel for a few months while they took care of the paperwork to renew their visas and social security numbers. Eventually, when the couple decided to return to Morocco to take care of their grandchildren, Moussa and Rachid raised the funds for that too.
The two continued their work helping members of the Roma community, drug addicts and the homeless in Paris - donating food and clothes, organising medical care and, sometimes, simply providing friendship.
Moussa's mother, Justine Tchantchuing, recalled returning home one day to find their apartment, storage room and even their small bike garage packed to the brim with food. It was intended for the Roma, Moussa told her.
"To tell you the truth," the 56-year-old nurse reflected, "I have raised my kids practically on my own and I am someone who always gives without looking. I think Moussa took this from me and took it to another level."
But it was only after his arrest, she said, that she really came to understand just how much Moussa had helped people.
"I began receiving dozens of letters and social media messages, and was even being stopped on the streets by people and families telling me stories about how Moussa helped them.
"I met this girl who told me that Moussa had been paying her regular visits in the hospital for over a month. Another person, a homeless man, would tell me how Moussa had given him food. I even received a phone call once from someone trying to explain how Moussa had helped them, but they didn't speak French well so I couldn't properly understand," Justine said.
"It was after these letters, these videos and messages of support posted online began pouring in that I saw the extent to which he touched people's hearts. They told me to be proud of my son."
In 2013, Moussa and his fellow volunteers with Au Coeur de la Precarite decided to visit different countries during the month of Ramadan to partake in volunteer work. They gave food to homeless people in the UK, visited hospitals in Belgium, distributed flowers on the streets of Barcelona and bags of rice in Niger and gave bikes to children and canes to the blind in Morocco.
Working with the Rohingya
In September 2013, Moussa was hired by the Paris-based NGO Barakacity, becoming their Asia project manager, with a particular focus on the Rohingya.
He met with other organisations - the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), United to End Genocide, Burma Campaign UK, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch - as well as other activists working with the Rohingya, and was invited to talk about their plight at the UN.
During his first trip to Bangladesh, in 2014, he learned that he would need a government-issued permit to meet the Rohingya refugees there.
"We were told from the start that we were not allowed to enter the Rohingya camps because we need to wait between six months to a year to get government approval," Moussa explained.
"What you have to understand is that the topic of the Rohingya, in Burma [Myanmar] as well as in Bangladesh, is a taboo subject and it is usually very pejorative."
Arrest and imprisonment
It was during his fourth visit to Bangladesh that Moussa was arrested - on December 22, 2015.
He wasn't on an official mission with Barakacity but was instead in the region helping another France-based NGO, Salsabille, scout for potential projects.
Their trip began in Myanmar. From there, the rest of the team decided to head back to France but Moussa stuck to their original plan and continued on to Bangladesh.
Once there, he spent a day visiting schools to learn about their operations, in the hope of establishing a school for Rohingya refugee children with the help of a Bangladesh-based NGO, Pulse Bangladesh.
The following day, Moussa was arrested at a checkpoint by local police, who confiscated his passport and belongings.
"There is nothing illegal in what I did, nothing. I hadn't even gone to any Rohingya camps when they arrested me. I really don't understand," Moussa explained by telephone.
"I was immediately thrown into solitary confinement," he said. "First, I was accused of being contradictory in my statements, then all of a sudden I was being suspected of plotting to commit terrorist attacks in Bangladesh."
The contradictory statements he stood accused of revolve around his name. Before converting to Islam, Moussa was called Puemo Tchantchuing. He adopted his new name after his conversion, but as it isn't legally possible to change your name in France, his birth name still appears in his passport. The Bangladeshi police accused him of falsifying his identity.
Adapting to life in prison was difficult for Moussa.
"I didn't know what was going to happen to me, which is the most difficult thing; being in the unknown. None of the prison guards understood me, none even spoke English. And then there is the difficulty of the cell itself, which is full of lizards, cockroaches, and hundreds of mosquitos. The shower and the toilet were one and the same. I slept on the floor without a roof over my head, and it was so hot. I say slept, but for one full month I didn't sleep at all. It was a battle with the mosquitos every night.
"The only thing I had with me in prison was my Quran. It was a time for me to reconnect with this book and a means for me to get closer to God," he explained, adding that he also began fasting from dawn to sunset every day.
After eight days, a representative from the French embassy visited Moussa in prison.
"It was thanks to the mobilisation and solidarity campaigns on social media, where a petition had been created to apply pressure for my release, that the government really got involved," Moussa said.
"I found out from the consul that something was happening on social media, but I really realised its magnitude when an English person I had never met came to visit me in prison. He was working for an NGO and was visiting Bangladesh, and he decided to come and see me in prison. He also came during my hearing and even brought me some clothes at one point."
Celebrities, rappers and intellectuals drew attention to the case and called on the French government to do all they could to help free Moussa, while #FreeMoussatrended on Twitter and an online petition calling for his release was signed by thousands of people across the world.
And in his home town of Montreuil, a northern suburb of Paris, Mayor Patrice Bessac hung a portrait of Moussa on the wall of the town hall. "Montreuil mobilises for the liberation of Moussa," it declared.
"We put up the portrait in solidarity with him, his family, those close to him and all those mobilising for his freedom," Bessac explained. "This is to affirm that Montreuil will never abandon one of its children. This is a man who is paying for his humanitarian engagement with his freedom. We won't take the portrait down until he is back in France, with his family and friends."
Moussa had been held since December 22, 2015. On January 11, 2016, a court hearing was held and Moussa's release was ordered. Two days later, when his lawyers went to pick him up, they learned that the release order had been cancelled by the magistrate. He remained in prison until March 1, when he was released awaiting a final verdict in his case.
Since March, he was forced to remain in Cox Bazaar, where he rented a small flat, while his hearings were repeatedly postponed.
Then, on July 24, a court ordered that all the charges against him be dropped.
"The Bangladeshi government has been doing everything in its power to expedite the case of Mr Moussa," Farhana Ahmed Chowdhury, the first secretary at the Bangladeshi embassy in France, told Al Jazeera. "But developing countries often have slower mechanisms that cause the legal procedure to move a lot slower."
Chowdhury explained that the border region with Myanmar was a "high-security" area and that, by travelling there on a tourist visa, Moussa had raised concerns.
Maintaining this "high-security" zone has made it difficult for aid workers to reach the Rohingya refugees.
But in a Facebook post announcing that the charges against him had been dropped, Moussa drew attention to their plight and insisted he would continue to try to help them because, he wrote, "a free man is first of all one that is not scared to pursue his ideals".
"When the verdict was announced, my family and I were so happy," Kamdem said. "My mum screamed with joy and my sisters as well. As for me, it was a great relief and so much pressure taken off."
Helping Bangladeshi street children
Moussa did not let his time in Cox Bazaar go to waste. As he waited for his court appearance, he also befriended a group of street children. At first, he would buy them dinner. Then he gradually began to arrange activities for them, taking them to the hospital when they were sick and visiting their families.
He has now teamed up with Pulse Bangladesh and together they are planning to refurbish the NGO's former offices to house the street children in, as well as to provide them with regular meals and a free education.
But it hasn't been easy. Moussa first had to convince the children's parents to allow them to go to school rather than spend their days on the streets begging for money.
"Our first job was to promise the parents that if they allowed their children to go to school, they would receive scholarships, which the parents can use to pay for their housing and food," Moussa explained.
With the help of several friends in France, he launched a social media campaign called Bani Street, which raised more than $75,000 in under three weeks. They hope to reach $300,000 to fully fund the new housing complex.
"This trial that I have been put through these last several months will only have a meaning, have served a purpose," Moussa concluded, "if I am able to use this time wisely to help other people."
MA BA THA: WHO HATE THE ROHINGYA
Ma Ba Tha and Hate Speech
July 26, 2016
Genocide is often preceded and accompanied by widespread hate speech. The leaders who planned mass killings in the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Srebrenica disseminated ideologies of hatred to spur their followers to act, to cow bystanders into passivity, and to justify their crimes.
A campaign of hate speech that actively dehumanizes Muslims plays a key role in sustaining violence across Burma. This is not limited to the Rohingya, and in fact, anti-Muslim sentiment has evolved to the point that a range of anti-Muslim prejudices have now normalized in mainstream Burmese discourse. A tense inter-faith atmosphere has resulted in Muslim grievances finding an unreceptive ear even among many liberal and pro-democracy activists, and small triggers rapidly escalating into mob violence. The most recent such eruption was in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, in July 2014, where a mob destroyed several Muslim businesses, and resulted in the deaths of two people.
Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the world’s most vulnerable minority groups, have frequently been likened to snakes, savages, and mad dogs. One of the predominant causes of violence against minority groups is the belief that those of the minority group are lesser human beings; hate speech is a tool that helps fuel this belief. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were called “cockroaches,” and during WWII, Jews were compared to “vermin.”
Many hate speech disseminators, including prominent monks of Ma Ba Tha and politicians, maintain Facebook accounts that cater to a large audience and publish original content on a regular basis.
Monk Wirathu’s anti-Muslim tirades constitute some of the most flagrant examples of hate speech. He has compared Rohingya (whom he derogatorily refers to as illegal Bengalis) to African carp, which he describes as violent, cannibalistic, and rapidly breeding, and he preaches that Buddhists ought to be relieved of the “burden” of Burma’s minority Muslims.
Wirathu’s vitriolic hate speech has directly contributed to mass violence against various Muslim groups throughout Burma, including both Kaman and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, and Burmese Muslims in central Burma. Far from intervening in Wirathu’s anti-Muslim propaganda, Burmese President Thein Sein has defended him, censoring publications that criticized his bigotry and calling him the “son of Buddha.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma has documented how hate speech was wielded against Muslims via sermons and the distribution of videos and leaflets prior to the Meiktila violence in March 2013 that killed dozens of Muslims, including at least 32 schoolchildren. He also saw police intentionally failing to intervene during the first two days of violence to protect local Muslims and control the violent mobs.
Social media and mass protests in Burma have propagated hate speech against Muslims as well. Freedom House’s 2013 “Freedom on the Net” report noted that people in Burma are using Facebook as a tool to spread hate speech against Rohingya. At a February 3 protest in Arakan State, an Arakan crowd demanded that Rohingya be stripped of voting rights and access to humanitarian aid, and demanded that police forces be given authority to use force against Rohingya.
The previous Burmese government complicity endorses these public forms of hate speech, and it also actively supports hate speech by means of the legal code. Laws such as the 1982 citizenship law, which does not recognize Rohingya as citizens, propagate a legal discourse that says that Rohingya are not worthy of basic human rights. Other discriminatory policies against Rohingya include strict travel, construction, education, and marriage restrictions, denial of land ownership, and a two-child limit in certain areas of Arakan State.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief writes in his December 26 report that in corrupt authoritarian political environments, one of the main remedies to hate speech is reconciliation through forums of discussion.
It is important to note that what the Ma Ba Tha propagates is often not explicitly ‘hate speech.’ However, “Hate speech is [no longer] necessary in order to construct a narrative of Muslim threat.” Instead, a range of anti-Muslim fears and prejudices are so ingrained in Burmese Buddhist society today that many see a credible existential threat from a population that by most current estimates is unlikely to exceed 5 to 10 percent. This fear has significantly lowered the barrier for potential mass violence against Muslims by rationalizing a need to ‘protect the Burmese race and religion’ from imminent threat and mobilizing support behind a series of restrictive and discriminatory policy measures. The proliferation of anti-Muslim stereotypes and narratives has propelled sectarian tension where small triggers in the form of rumors and false information can quickly become ‘viral’ and incite mob violence. For example, the Meiktila riot of March 2013, which was one of the country’s worst incidences of sectarian violence, began with a petty brawl at a gold shop and resulted in at least 45 and up to 100 deaths, and 1,500 destroyed homes.
There is no universal definition of hate speech. The American Bar Association defines it as, “Speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” Narrower definitions associate hate speech specifically with the incitement of violence. Harvard University’s Susan Benesch, who is one of the leading scholars on hate speech, coined the phrase “dangerous speech,” as examined in the context of mass violence, and identified it as, “Speech that has the potential to catalyze collective violence.” Her examination created a fairly simple framework to identify such speech and noted three framework components: “targeting a group of people, containing a call for action, and utilizing a dangerous speech hallmark”. Hallmarks of dangerous speech include comparing the targeted group to non-humans, as well as suggesting that they constitute a serious threat or that they are defiling a group’s integrity.
As a way to distinguish speech that is offensive from speech that can lead to harm, Susan Benesch, the Edith Everett Fellow at the Center for the Prevention of Genocide, presented her research on how to recognize “dangerous speech,” a subset of hate speech that has been shown to lead to violence, including genocide, in past cases. Dangerous speech, she said, is often characterized by dehumanizing language; targeted populations are called “rats” or “cockroaches”—or other reviled vermin—as a way to justify violence against them.
In Burma, there is no shortage of outright hate speech directed against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups. This is especially true in unfiltered online discourse, where incitements to violence and deeply offensive and derogatory terms are common. However, even offline, various derogatory terms targeting Muslims are common in everyday speech, most notably kalar (a particularly derogatory term for Muslims), mus (a less derogatory term), and Bengali (a widely used term that is not strictly derogatory, but implies a lack of belonging in Myanmar). Many of these terms are regularly employed during violence. It is becoming increasingly clear that certain types of hate speech can serve as both a warning sign and a catalyst of genocide and mass atrocities.
However, these hate speech campaign in Burma cannot be banned or remedied solely through inter-faith dialogues and seminars on cross-cultural understanding. These soft power strategies may be effective for long-term reconciliation, but in the short-term, the Burmese government must enforce justice and accountability measures to protect the rights of Rohingya.
Without justice and accountability measures, soft power strategies are powerless to stymie anti-Muslim violence and promote community and religious reconciliation. Hate speech will remain state-condoned. Burma must immediately provide legal redress for victims, arrest and prosecute perpetrators, and impartially investigate violent incidents.
After a year of dizzying gains, the Ma Ba Tha is entering a far more uncertain 2016. The November electoral outcome has come as a shock. The NLD landslide decimated the USDP, which had strongly allied itself with the Ma Ba Tha, and left no space for third-party candidates that had used religious nationalism as a central plank. The defeat is embarrassing to an organization whose key leaders had openly advocated against the NLD, but it may prove to have little material impact over the long run.
To date, the Ma Ba Tha has proven itself to be an adaptive organization. It learned from the mistakes of the 969 and is continually evolving and professionalizing its messaging, activities, and narrative dissemination. Today, the Ma Ba Tha has built a strong foundation of highly active and motivated monks who oversee a vast network of ground activities and partnerships, as well as a powerful communications and lobbying apparatus, all with proven results. The Ma Ba Tha is likely to continue to retain a significant base of support because its messaging endorses a range of anti-Muslim prejudices that resonate in the broader Burmese society. Much of what is considered ‘ultra-nationalist’ in the international media is closer to ‘center-right’ in Myanmar, and core Ma Ba Tha issues such as the denial of rights for the Rohingya, enjoy popular mainstream support. No electoral outcome or new government can easily change these deep-rooted prejudices, but it is possible to better understand their core themes and develop better counter-messaging and early warning strategies.
This is very likely that, the Ma Ba Tha is likely to remain a powerful force in Burma’s politics for some time to come despite the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na) has recently disowned them. Furthermore, the organization is likely to remain centered around the guiding principles of its key personalities, which currently consist of anti-Muslim monks, such as Ashin Wirathu, Ashin Wimala, Ashin Parmoukkha, and other charismatic junior monks who are currently driving the message and overseeing Central Committee activities.. Several years of tolerance for their activities has made them powerful actors in their own right, but a concerted push by Myanmar’s government and senior and more measured members of the Sangha could begin to curb their excesses.
By Moe Myint
July 25, 2016
RANGOON – The Arakan National Party (ANP) and several Arakanese legal experts held a press conference on Sunday alleging that Burma’s previous government had wrongly issued citizenship documents to over 1,000 Muslims in Arakan State’s Myebon Township.
The Arakanese political and legal representatives say that the 97 individuals issued Citizenship Scrutiny Cards—or “pink cards,” which denote full citizenship—and 917 people granted naturalized citizenship, received these statuses in violation of Burma’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law.
Several ANP leaders said that the main purpose of the press conference was to draw attention to what they allege are similarities between the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s current practices regarding citizenship verification and those of the former military-backed administration.
The ANP is instead calling for stricter verification measures; the party has been active in lobbying to uphold the 1982 Citizenship Law, which has been condemned by the United Nations and the international community as being discriminatory against minorities, including Muslims.
As part of a citizenship verification process initiated in June 2014 by ex-president Thein Sein’s government—under the “Rakhine State Action Plan”—former Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn led a team that examined 2,900 applicants who applied for citizenship in Sittwe District’s Myebon Township. These individuals largely belonged to Muslim minorities in the region, including ethnic Kaman and Rohingya.
In December of that year, Arakanese Buddhist residents of Myebon shut their houses and businesses in protest during Maung Maung Ohn’s visit to the township to show their dissatisfaction with the practices of the citizenship scrutiny committee. This caused the government to swiftly suspend the process, which only resumed in May this year.
Thar Pwint, a former lawyer as well as a member of the citizenship scrutiny committee, said the committee was formed of eight people, including six government officials from the township level.
At the press conference, he said that the committee had reportedly checked only the following points at the township level committee: whether the applicants had reached the age of 18, if they were mentally sound, and if they could fluently speak one of the ethnic languages of Burma.
[Although the 1982 Citizenship Law contains the latter provision, it does not list what the ethnic, or “national,” languages actually are—neither does the 2008 Constitution.]
He acknowledged that, at the time, he was not familiar with Burma’s citizenship and immigration laws, even though immigration department officials had distributed pamphlets to the committee members outlining Burma’s three categories of citizenship, as outlined in the 1982 law: full, naturalized and associate.
Thar Pwint alleged that government manipulation of the law “created loopholes for Bengalis,” using a term employed widely throughout Arakan State and elsewhere in Burma to describe the group which self-identifies as Rohingya; “Bengali” implies that the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh, a claim which they reject.
At the press conference, ANP representatives, including party chairman Aye Maung, described an interpretation of the 1982 Citizenship Law focused heavily on articles 42 and 6.
Article 42 states that individuals can obtain naturalized citizenship by demonstrating evidence that they or their parents or grandparents entered Burma before 1948, the year the country gained its independence from Britain.
Article 6 states that those considered citizens at the time the 1982 law came into effect will remain as such, and their status cannot be revoked unless it is found that an individual has attained it under “false representation”—naturalized and associate citizenship can, however, be revoked by the central government on a range of vague pretexts, including “showing disaffection or disloyalty to the State.”
Kyaw Zaw Oo, an ANP lawmaker in the state legislature, argued that according to these measures, applicants for citizenship whose predecessors entered Burma after 1948 are not eligible for any form of citizenship. He pointed out that the previous government’s implementation committee did, however, give “pink cards” [denoting full citizenship] to people who did not meet this criterion, thereby “breaching procedure.”
The Irrawaddy asked ANP vice chairwoman Aye Nu Sein whether the ANP had a plan to address the citizenship status of around 1 million stateless Muslims in Arakan State, approximately 130,000 of whom remain displaced after violence in 2012 and 2013. Echoing other members of the ANP leadership, she said that the only option was adherence to the 1982 Citizenship Law, which she said would provide them with basic rights and greater freedom of movement, without elaborating on how this would be carried out.
“All we want is to keep implementing in line with 1982,” Aye Nu Sein said in reference to the law, adding that the reporter should “not make allusions.”
NLD patron Tin Oo was among party members who attended the event, but he declined to comment. On Monday, both the Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu and Win Lwin, the head of the Population and Immigration Department in Arakan State, could not be reached for comment.
MA BA THA: WHO HATE THE ROHINGYA
Proximity with USDP but Hostile to NLD
July 25, 2016
July 25, 2016
Proximity with USDP
Through 2015, the USDP and Ma Ba Tha appeared to have closely aligned interests, with the Ma Ba Tha pushing forward its ideological agenda and the USDP garnering political support from the powerful monkhood. As such, ratification of the Race and Religion Laws earned President Thein Shein and the USDP significant support from prominent Ma Ba Tha monks. Many of these monks were vocal in 2015 in their preference for the USDP as stewards of ‘race and religion’ in Myanmar, especially as compared to the NLD. Prominent Ma Ba Tha monks were clearly taken by surprise by the extent of the USDP’s defeat. Some have sought to rationalize it in various ways, alluding to the idea that the election was a referendum on the USDP’s past failings, and not on race and religion issues. The level of USDP support for the Ma Ba Tha has been a matter of significant debate inside Myanmar.
Laws delineating religion and politics are severe. Article 12 (A4) of the Political Parties Registration Law, for example, is quite specific in mandating that any political party using religion for political means shall not have the right to exist. As such, any overt high level USDP and military support has been muted; nonetheless, there is a body of evidence that shows several rank and file USDP politicians and leaders making donations and articulating public support for the Ma Ba Tha. It is difficult to determine whether this rises to the level of institutional support, but it is more certain that government officials at the highest levels have favored policies that are in line with Ma Ba Tha narratives and disadvantage the rights of Muslims and other minorities. The government has allowed Ma Ba Tha mass rallies and activities to occur without any interference, in stark contrast to the lack of freedom afforded to other pro-democracy and human rights activists. Additionally, several significant USDP politicians are online consumers and disseminators of Ma Ba Tha content. Win Wunna, a Deputy Director with the Ministry of Immigration, often re-posts Ma Ba Tha statements and content on what appears to be his personal Facebook page, including the Ma Ba Tha’s criticism of the draft National Education Bill that claims, “Legal loopholes that could allow Islamic schools.”
The Ma Ba Tha has publicly stated that it sees the USDP’s non-interference as a sign of tacit support. As early as 2013, Ashin Wimala addressed the issue by telling a journalist that, “By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they [the government] are supporting us.” A year later, at a ceremony to launch the Mandalay chapter of the Ma Ba Tha in January 2014, Chairman Ashin Tiloka voiced precisely the same sentiment. A social media post quotes Ashin Tiloka saying, “Fellow monks don’t fear of what you are doing. The government hasn’t objected to what we have been doing, and the leaders have allowed us as to do what we are doing. Keep striving for the Ma-Ba-Tha cause.”
However, as the Ma Ba Tha has grown more powerful, monks have grown more aggressive. Ashin Wimala politically threatened politicians who were thinking of voting against the Race and Religion Bills at the June 2015 Ma Ba Tha convention, stating, “I want to know which representative turn down the law… I will make it so that they get no votes in 2015.” This was echoed by Ashin Vimala, a Central Committee leader who said, “We need to note their names, those who did not support our proposal. I told our followers not to give votes to those lawmakers in the upcoming election.”
The ratification of the Race and Religion Bills between May and August 2015 significantly improved the relationship between the USDP and the Ma Ba Tha. During the keynote speech at the grand celebration rally in Yangon in October 2015, Chairman Ashin Tiloka publicly voiced gratitude for the personal efforts of President Thein Shein, while others had stated their gratitude several months earlier. In June 2015, after the ratification of one of the four bills, Ashin Vimala addressed a public event of over 1,000 monks saying, “We all should forget the bad that [the USDP] have done in the past. They are doing good things for us now. We should support them now.” This surge in support behind the USDP and Thein Shein was particularly evident online. After Thein Shein was summoned by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in October 2015 “to respond to allegations of human rights violations committed against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority,” there was an outpour of support on social media. A significant proportion of monitored and observed profiles, including those of Ma Ba Tha monks, changed their profiles to sport a photograph of President Thein Sein on a black backdrop with the slogan “I’ll be with you Mr. President.”
While USDP-Ma Ba Tha relations have evolved over the past year, there have been persistent allegations that the nexus is far deeper. Some imply that the government is responsible for having created and nurtured the Ma Ba Tha. Many of these allegations center on the now deceased former key regime crony and Minister of Industry, Aung Thaung who is alleged to have closely supported the 969 and Ma Ba Tha. There is little available evidence for these specific allegations. However, in one video posted on YouTube, Wirathu is seen meeting with Aung Thaung. In the video, Wirathu appears deferential to Aung Thaung and appears to be lobbying for the release of his comrades still imprisoned by the regime. An investigative documentary aired by Al Jazeera dived further into such allegations, quoting several interviewees who claimed first-hand knowledge of Wirathu’s close relationships with the security services. It included at least two sources claiming that during the 2012 visit, Aung Thaung also met with Wirathu privately, after which his attitudes towards Muslims drastically changed. Wirathu denied having a close relationship with Aung Thaung or his followers. That being said, the Aung Zeyathu issue released after Aung Thaung’s death on July 23, 2015 featured the banner headline “We are All Aung Thaung.”
Hostile towards NLD
As the Ma Ba Tha grew increasingly positive towards the USDP through 2015, its messaging toward the NLD grew increasingly hostile. Various Ma Ba Tha monks and supporters sought to portray the NLD as unsympathetic to issues of ‘race and religion’ and “pro-Muslim,” with NLD members finding themselves directly and indirectly targeted in Ma Ba Tha affiliated campaigns. The Ma Ba Tha allegedly constituted a significant worry to NLD strategic and electoral planners in the run-up to the elections.
A senior member of the NLD admitted in an Irrawaddy article from August 2015 that the party decision not to field a single Muslim candidate in the elections was a result of fear that the Ma Ba Tha would use it to label them a ‘Muslim party.’ In hindsight, it appears to the researchers that the Ma Ba Tha significantly overreached in its deliberate provocations of the NLD, which is now likely to lead the country. However, the NLD’s cautious attitude towards the Ma Ba Tha appears to indicate its understanding of the resonance of the Ma Ba Tha’s populist anti-Muslim message, and its recognition of the Ma Ba Tha as a significant political player.
Many of the Ma Ba Tha’s supporters were much more outright in their hostility towards the NLD. One of the most common ‘viral’ images that regularly circulate in pro-Ma Ba Tha forums is an edited picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in a hijab that even Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged as a political liability. She complained that, “They took a photograph, cut out the monks and put the photograph on the Internet and said I was paying obeisance to the Muslims. And what was worse was, when I went to the Mon state recently, they distributed this photograph to make the Monks think that I was pro-Muslim or anti-Buddhist.” Additionally, various social media posters are often openly derogatory of Aung San Suu Kyi, labeling her a foreigner and Muslim sympathizer, while others disseminate pieces of misinformation that misrepresent or discredit her positions and leadership. A prominent example came in September 2015, when an email allegedly written by Aung San Suu Kyi was “leaked” and circulated on the Internet. The email, which was addressed to a Rohingya rights activist in the U.K., claimed that the NLD would support and focus on the equality and rights of Rohingyas if they won the November elections. The email was widely disseminated through pro-Ma Ba Tha social media channels, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD quickly moved to deny its authenticity.
(To be Continued ---------)
By Kyaw Ye Lynn
July 24, 2016
July 24, 2016
Decline in enumerated Muslim population raises questions about exclusion of Rohingya, nationalists’ anti-Muslim campaigns
YANGON, Myanmar -- Controversial data on religion withheld by Myanmar’s government for two years has shown a decline in the country’s Muslim population, raising questions about the exclusion of a stateless community as well as anti-Muslim campaigns driven by a nationalist monk-led group.
The results of the Myanmar Population and Housing Census were released earlier this week, after having been on hold since 2014 due to fears that they may inflame tensions between the country's Buddhist and Muslim populations.
Figures released Thursday show that the country's Muslim population has fallen from 3.9 percent of the overall population in the 1983 census to just 2.3 percent -- a figure that does not include around 1.09 million mostly Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State -- who were not enumerated.
The data starkly contrasts with predictions by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion -- a group better known as Ma Ba Tha which has accused Muslims of attempting to "Islamize" the country of around 51 million people -- that Muslims would account for at least 10 percent of the population.
Countrywide, 89.8 percent registered as Buddhist -- a minor decline -- while the Christian population increased from 3.9 percent in 1983 to 6.3 percent in 2014.
The deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Anadolu Agency that Ma Ba Tha has repeatedly shown that the group is prepared to manufacture false information, twist facts and instigate violence in pursuit of “their goal to drive Muslims out” of Myanmar.
“This made-up estimate of more than 10% [Muslim population] is just another element of their propaganda,” Phil Robertson said by email Friday.
“The only place where the representation of Muslims is truly skewed is national parliament… where there is not one single Muslim-faith legislator in either the upper or lower house,” he added.
When asked to comment on how the census data showed no increase in Myanmar’s Muslim population, a staff member at Ma Ba Tha’s headquarter said the group’s chairman monk has yet to make a statement.
“Sayadaw [abbot] is busy with other matters, and would not make any comment right now,” the staff member, who requested to remain unnamed as he was not authorized to speak to media, told Anadolu Agency by phone Friday.
Since communal violence broke out between ethnic Buddhists and Muslims in troubled Rakhine in 2012, nationalists have claimed "a rise in the Muslim population due to high birth rates" as justification for their campaigns to “protect” race and religion in the country.
With this in mind, the previous quasi-civilian government had delayed releasing the results for fear of inflaming tensions between the country's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim populations.
Given that the some 1.09 million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine were not enumerated -- mostly because they were not allowed to identify as "Rohingya" and instead had to register as "Bengali" (a term that suggests that they are not Myanmar nationals, but interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh) -- the unofficial number of Muslims in the country would reach at least 4.3 percent.
An official from the country's official Muslim body told Anadolu Agency that the Muslim population would certainly exceed 4 percent, insisting that previous censuses showed the minority had been residing in Rakhine for decades.
“Muslims in Rakhine state were counted in 1973 and 1983 census, and Muslims made up 3.9 percent of total population. And 4.3 percent in 2014 census,” said Tin Maung Than, secretary-general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar.
“A 4.3 percent Muslim population is reasonable and logical as we have no knowledge of the Muslim population in the country declining,” he said by phone Thursday.
“It would be ridiculous if Muslims in Rakhine State are labeled as immigrants,” he insisted, underlining that the Council has several documents to prove that Muslims inhabited the region since Myanmar was under British rule -- from which the country gained independence in 1948.
“I am not talking about the ethnicity. But I personally believe people who live in the country for half-century deserve citizenship,” said Tin Maung Than.
Rohingya in Rakhine, described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, have been effectively denied citizenship by a nationality law enacted in 1982 by Ne Win, a military strongman who staged a coup and whose 1962-1988 leadership saw the adoption of xenophobic policies.
Whereas anyone born in Myanmar had been considered a citizen under the 1948 Citizenship Law, it was replaced by legislation in 1982 that restricts citizenship for communities whose ancestors reportedly entered the country after the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out in 1823.
Rights groups have pressured the government to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, saying it is not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with the country’s legal obligations under international treaties.
HRW’s Phil Robertson called on the new government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to end discrimination and abuses against the Rohingya by allowing them to self-identify as a group, and taking action to fundamentally amend the “rights-abusing” Citizenship Act of 1982.
“What we have continually said to the Burmese [Myanmar] national government is they have an international obligation to recognize the Rohingya as citizens,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Despite no such measures having been taken, nationalists have already accused the first elected civilian government since 1962 of planning to grant citizenship to Muslims in Rakhine by amending the law.
Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population Thein Swe, however, told a press conference Thursday that the government has made no such plan.
“I want to assure [there is] no need to worry about that issue,” he was quoted as saying by 7 Day Daily, a local newspaper.
“Amending such an important law is not that easy a matter.”
MA BA THA: WHO HATE THE ROHINGYA
Source of Fund and Donors of Ma Ba Tha
July 24, 2016
July 24, 2016
Myanmar is a deeply religious society, and all segments of society liberally donate to monks and monasteries. In 2014, Myanmar ranked first in the “Global Giving Index,” a ranking of charitable behavior among countries around the world, despite being one of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia. Much of this charitable giving is directed towards the monkhood in the forms of cash, gifts deemed useful to monks or their monasteries, and even labor through donated volunteer time. An analysis of available Ma Ba Tha donation receipts shows donations ranging from small individual contributions of a few hundred kyats to upwards of US$10,000 (12.7 million kyat).
Donations are unregulated and subject to virtually no accountability. The Ma Ba Tha appears to have low operating costs. Much significant expenditure is donated, such as much of the technical expertise that has allowed the Ma Ba Tha to reach its current level of efficiency.
Nearly all of the Ma Ba Tha’s team of lawyers, accountants, and media experts are reported to provide their services for free. An illustrative case is the lead lawyer U Ye Khaung Nyunt and his daughter who claim they came out of retirement at the urging of senior Ma Ba Tha monks. In an interview, Nyunt claims to be helping purely for “the merit” (i.e. the concept of good deeds that accumulate into the next life in the path towards spiritual enlightenment). Interviews with local journalists suggested the same regarding other Ma Ba Tha advisors who worked full-time jobs and assisted the Ma Ba Tha after hours. Other significant donations are similarly intangible. For example, the Ma Ba Tha’s grand October 2015 celebration rally at Thuwanna Stadium was a venue secured by a special Presidential exemption. For other major events, such as the Race and Religion Law celebration in Pathein, even the 20,000 required chairs were donated, in that case by the Irrawaddy General Administration Department.
Mode of Donations
The donations of Ma Ba Tha appear to be primarily made in the form of cash, for which some monasteries issue receipts. However, increasing shares of donations also appear to route through the formal banking system, with some monks even posting their bank account details online to facilitate donations. The majority of available donations to the Ma Ba Tha, though, appear to be relatively small and from laypeople of various socio-economic statuses, as seen on donation receipts and bank transfer slips.
Donors and Fundraising System
The Ma Ba Tha does not advertise its big-money donors, and some no doubt prefer anonymity. However, in some cases, donors have chosen to publicize their contributions. One such donation that received significant press was alleged to have consisted of 700 million kyat, or US$ 550,000, donated to the Ma Ba Tha by a Buddhist group backed by a gold mining firm, Myanmar National Prosperity Public Company (MNPPC). However, according to contacts who reached out to Ma Ba Tha after the news release, the Ma Ba Tha claimed that the figure had been misreported and was closer to US$ 55,000.
The latter figure appears more realistic. In an interview with BBC Burmese around the time of the donation, MNPPC Chairman Soe Tun Shein stated that he had donated 1 viss (about 3.6 pounds) of gold. At market rates, it would be worth approximately US$60,000 (76 million kyat). This may not be Shein’s only donation; Wirathu claimed in September 2015 that he had previously made another donation of “1 billion kyat” (US$770,000) to flood relief efforts, although there is no corroborating evidence. It is worth noting that the MNPPC is reportedly currently in dispute with the government concerning its gold concessions, resulting from the company owing money to the ministry of Mines and having incurred local opposition to their operations.
Accurate details on the Ma Ba Tha’s fundraising efforts are difficult to determine. For example, one image from August 2015 circulated on pro-Ma Ba Tha social media accounts shows Central Committee members Ashin Thadhamma and Ashin Wimala Buddhi sitting alongside a significant amount of cash as seen in the image on the right. No other details on time, location, or donor are available, but the amount appears to be between US$5,000-10,000. Additionally, it is widely believed that some monks can raise very significant sums through their own channels. For example, a flood relief committee created by Sitagu Sayadaw raised million kyats ($252,000) in just four days, according to local media. Furthermore, funding can come from a wide range of sources.
One instance involves the flood relief coordination committee managed by Ashin Sopaka on behalf of the Central Committee. According to what appears to be a page from the committee’s accounting book posted on a social media account, donations came from Ma Ba Tha Central, various local chapters, Mon State USDP party, and local companies, including a bookstore and two bus companies.
While the allegation is that the Ma Ba Tha receives significant funding from the military, political, and business elites of Myanmar, there is very little information available in the open-source to validate this claim. However, available imagery indicates that several local political elites were courting the Ma Ba Tha’s support in the run-up to the elections. A notable donor was USDP-candidate Lin Zaw Tun, pictured below, who donated $31,000 to the Ma Ba Tha in August 2015.
(To be continued -----)
MA BA THA: WHO HATE THE ROHINGYA
Channels of Communication and public mobilizations
July 21, 2016
Channels of Communication
At the heart of the Ma Ba Tha’s power is its highly effective communications apparatus, which is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces in the country today. In 2014, the first petition by the Ma Ba Tha in support of the Race and Religion bills, which was sent to President Thein Sein, was reported to have 1.3 million signatures. By February 2014, the Ma Ba Tha claimed an additional 3 million signatures in support of the laws, or nearly 8 percent of the country’s population. To engage and maintain this large base of support, the Ma Ba Tha uses a variety of dissemination channels, both online and offline.
Among these are a range of publications, including a magazine that is likely to have one of the largest circulations of any such publication in the country; a cable TV deal to broadcast sermons throughout the country on Myanmar’s largest television provider, SkyNet and a vast array of social media accounts, both directly and indirectly connected to the organization and to individual monks on the Central Committee.
A major reason for the Ma Ba Tha’s success has been its willingness to shape its outreach to best engage the masses. For example, Chairman Ashin Tiloka is well known for his teaching style that simplifies traditional Buddhist teaching methods; he distils complex philosophies into easy to understand lessons, and uses tables, charts, and common language instead of complicated scripture. He is also known for his humility and willingness to communicate with junior monks and laypeople on equal terms. This is often in stark contrast to the reputation of senior monks on the State Sangha, who are seen as having been corrupted by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Today, many Ma Ba Tha monks engage followers with the same pragmatism, employing a range of innovative sermonizing tactics. For example, one video shows a 969 monk standing on a table in front of a crowd, singing and clapping with the audience to a catchy song in a manner more reminiscent of a concert than a sermon.
The song, which was the 969’s unofficial anthem and often accompanies Ma Ba Tha videos, is titled, ‘We will Fence the Country with Our Bone.” One verse mentions “infidels” (i.e. Muslims) who, “drink our water… break our rules… suck our wealth… insult us the host… destroy our youth…Alas, they are one ungrateful creature."
Newspapers and Magazines
The Ma Ba Tha publishes a wide range of literature that is both low cost and widely circulated. These include Aung Zeyathu, a weekly newspaper that is available at most tea shops for 1,000 kyat (US$ 0.78); Atumashi, a magazine for Upper Burma; and a bi-monthly magazine, Tharkithwe or “Royal Blood,” that is reported to have a circulation of around 50,000. This number may appear low compared to international standards, but is much higher than the circulation of even The Irawaddy, the highly respected and largest Burmese independent media organization, at 30,000 readers.
In addition, the Ma Ba Tha publishes a periodical journal called Myittatagun, which sells for 500 kyat (US$0.39). Given the print quality, all of these publications are remarkably inexpensive, even by local standards. The hardcopy Myittatagun is a glossy print and bounded publication, and self-reports on the inside cover to have an extensive production staff, including consultants, legal advisors, graphics designers, editors, and a newsroom with reporters in at least three states. Many of these magazines appear to have come a long way in professionalism; for example, the first copy of Tharki-thwe from July 2013 is an amateurish black and white production, but the 2015 publication is a professionally designed color edition, as seen in authors’ copies. Finally, Ma Ba Tha monks also publish a wide range of books and other literature, many of which are available in major bookstores throughout Myanmar, as seen by authors’ field visit in September 2015.
The Central Committee appears to run a significant, but frugal, operation to maintain these publications. Reuters imagery from September 2015 shows bulk copies of magazines, including Aung Zeyathu and Tharki-thwe, being packed for distribution at the Ma Ba Tha head office in Chairman Ashin Tiloka’s Insein monastery. What is described in captions as a “warehouse” appears to be little more than a room located within their headquarters. The publications are believed to be shipped to local chapters, who distribute them through their own networks, but the magazines themselves are printed in Yangon; Myittatagun is published at Myin Chan Press in Kyauktada Township. It is likely that the revenue from sales helps offset the costs of publication, but it is believed that donors may defray at least some of the cost. For example, one post from July 5, 2015 on a pro-Ma Ba Tha Facebook page, noted that Tharki-thwe publications had been donated by an affiliated monk-teacher community association, and were available at no cost in all Mawlamyine monasteries.
TV and Radio
In addition to its publications, the Ma Ba Tha has aggressively pushed to expand into radio and TV to broaden its reach. During its June 2015 conference, a Thai delegation pledged funding and the donation of equipment worth at least $35,800 to fund the construction of two radio stations. Pornchai Pinyapong, the owner of a Thai private hospital and president of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth, was reported to have brokered the deal. The deal was blocked by the government, which cited a current law that requires a partnership with the state-linked TV broadcaster. The ruling has stalled the project, but the Ma Ba Tha has vowed to mobilize support behind the upcoming Broadcast Bill to reform the law. Meanwhile, Pinyapong has also continued his patronage in Myanmar, despite some condemnation in Thailand, including a strong Bangkok Post editorial criticizing his activities.
Despite setbacks on its radio stations, the Ma Ba Tha has experienced significant success on the TV front. In September 2015, it signed a licensing deal with Skynet, the country’s largest cable news provider to broadcast its sermons. Skynet is owned by U Kyaw Win, the owner of Shwe Than Lwin, an entity that was formerly sanctioned by the European Union. According to imagery from 2015, SkyNet camera crews have been widely seen at Ma Ba Tha events and Ma Ba Tha monks appear to have received significant airtime. In the few months since the formal deal, social media posts show that even smaller Ma Ba Tha aligned fringe activist groups appear to be gaining national airtime.
Many Ma Ba Tha monks are tech-savvy. Many junior monks maintain large and active online presences, including social media accounts, blogs, and other websites. Even 77-year old Ashin Tiloka is known to text, and is seen clutching his Smart phone in at least one image on a social media post. The most popular is Wirathu, with a primary Facebook account that boasts 117,000 followers as of November 2015, but another representative example is Ashin Sopaka, who operates at least four Facebook accounts. Many of these accounts release nearly identical content, and are high-volume feeds that post a large amount of information and imagery multiple times a day.
The content on these accounts is typical of the younger generation of networked monks, who post a high volume of content with detailed coverage of their sermons, events, travels, and personal thoughts on major news items. While Wirathu and Ashin Sopaka are both believed to personally manage and post on their accounts, they are also assisted by ‘media teams,’ often comprised of laypeople and junior monks armed with smart phones, cameras, and computers, as seen on various social media posts. In fact, computer literacy and training has become an important priority for many monks. Ashin Sopaka recently held a free two-month computer literacy training event for laypeople at his monastery. Available imagery from a social media account apparently controlled by Ashin Sopaka, shows a well organized operation with textbooks produced by the monastery and instructors in well-stocked classrooms.
(To be continued -----------)
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In this 9-minute radio interview with Malaysia's top Business FM station Dr Zarni dissects the state of Burma and Washington's real agenda in his native country.