|A family of Rohingya Muslims at a camp for internally displaced persons in Arakan State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)|
By Lawi Weng
July 21, 2014
RANGOON — Yanghee Lee, the new UN rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, visited the Arakan State capital Sittwe and has met with leaders of the Arakanese Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities in the troubled region, local sources said.
“She only told us that she wanted to hear about our concerns regarding the situation,” said Than Thun, a leader from an Arakanese NGO who participated in Sunday’s meeting with Yanghee Lee.
“Our community leaders gave her a letter to explain why we have conflict in our region between our Rakhines [Arakanese] and the Bengalis. The letter is explains the history of the conflict and the current situation,” he said, while referring to the Muslim minority as ‘Bengalis’ to suggest that they are immigrants from Bangladesh.
Than Thun said it was too early to determine what the Arakanese leaders thought of the new rights rapporteur, adding, “She will have a press conference at the end of her trip. Let’s see what she will say and then we could know what type of person she is.”
South Korea’s Yanghee Lee is making her first visit to Burma as a rapporteur and succeeds Argentina’s Tomás Ojea Quintana. He wrote numerous reports on the crisis in Arakan State and warned that the stateless Rohingya minority were facing persecution and a range of serious rights violations at the hands of the authorities and the Arakanese community.
The government, Arakanese authorities and Buddhist community leaders dismissed his reports as biased.
The new rapporteur announced last week that she would be visiting Naypyidaw, Rangoon, Mandalay and Arakan and Kachin states from 17-26 July to gather first-hand information on the rights situation in Burma.
She said she planned tohave “frank and open exchange of views” during meetings with government officials, political, religious and community leaders, NGO representatives, as well as victims of human rights violations and members of the international community.
State-run media reported that the new rapporteur met with the Burma Human Right Commission last week and several prisoners held in Rangoon’s Insein Prison for political reasons, before heading off to Arakan State.
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist living in Sittwe’s Muslim quarter Aung Mingalar, said he and other Rohingya leaders met with Yanghee Lee on Sunday, adding that the rapporteur visited Aung Mingalar and a camp for displaced Rohingya, as well as two camps for displaced Arakanese.
“I told her about how our children could not go to [Sittwe] university. I said everyone has the right to education, according to the UN, but our children cannot get it,” he said.
“One of our leaders told her that we need to have a program to be resettled [in former homes], while another said we needs rights under the 1982 Citizenship Law,” Aung Win said, referring to a Burmese law that has rendered the Muslim minority stateless.
Aung Win said leaders also complained about the lack of medical care in the Rohingya camps. “There is no 24 hour-service. They only provide 2 hours a day of medical treatment through a mobile clinic that visits the camps. So, we told her we have lost our rights [to access to care].”
Roughly 140,000 Rohingya displaced by the outbreak of deadly inter-communal violence have been living in squalid, crowded camps since 2012. Authorities prevent them from leaving the camp and are limiting humanitarian aid and basic government services such as health care, education and food, for the displaced.
Aung Mingalar is considered a ghetto as authorities are preventing its approximately 6,000 Muslim residents from leaving the area in central Sittwe, and families inside lack access to basic services.
Since the outbreak of violence in 2012, tensions have remained high and the government has come no closer to resolving the conflict. International aid groups’ access to needy Muslim communities has been restricted in recent months, and the government blocked two major medical charities helping the Rohingya from operating in the state.
By Bakir OweidaAl Arabiya
July 21, 2014
I wanted to take a break from the scenes of murder and destruction in Gaza so I grabbed the latest edition of TIME magazine which I bought last Saturday. The contents page gave me a rough idea about the magazine's features this week but it did not prepare me for the shock that was awaiting me. A photo of Abdul Kadir (65 years old) was published on a two-page spread. He lay on the floor as the terror in his eyes stared straight at me. It's as if I was now in his shoes. The headline above the image read: "The Rohingya, Burma's Forgotten Muslims." The photo's caption clarified that Abdul Kadir is one of the 140,000 minority Rohingya Muslims who have been forced to live in camps where disease and despair have taken root.
TIME magazine is one of the few prominent, global journalistic magazines which are objective when it comes to humanitarian cases and don't discriminate between one man and another on the basis of religion or race. It allocated 10 pages for shocking photos taken by James Nachtwey. The photos reflected the terrifying and bleak situation of Myanmar's Muslims in refugee camps. The least that can be said is that this is a disgrace tarnishing the military junta that has held power in Burma for nearly half a century. Commenting on Nachtwey's photos, Hannah Beech wrote: "Sittwe, a drowsy town in western Burma, is a shattered place. I was first here five years ago, back when ethnic Rakhine Buddhists sold vegetables next to Muslim Rohingya fishermen. At the time, a Buddhist abbot and a Muslim cleric blessed me in whispers, as both spoke out against the repressive junta that had ruled Burma — also known as Myanmar — for nearly half a century. Today, Sittwe, like much of the surrounding state of Rakhine, exists in virtual apartheid."
Where do we run then? I don't only mean where do Burma’s Muslims run to in order to escape their suffering, but where does a man run to in order to escape his brother's injustice? What produces injustice? I am not alluding to anything that's not well-known here. What provokes people to injustice? I think the answer is resentment. Resentment fosters injustice among humans. Resentment easily finds its way around men as it knows no color, no religion, no race and no ethnicity. As a matter of fact, resentment uses all of the latter as a means of obscuring the facts and creating further resentment. The problem is that everyone knows that. However most people ignore it.
But what's most dangerous is that most people who already know that also ignore how dangerous this is - especially as intellectuals fail to use their knowledge to confront the threats of resentment. Don't they know that if a field is sewn with seeds of resentment, then evil will grow and expand? Don't they know that if the fire of resentment burns down a house, it will sooner or later spread to other houses? Yes, they do know but most of them turn a blind eye.
Buddhists' discriminatory resentment caused the misery of 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and made TIME magazine scream out against this disgrace. But then, what's the most appropriate description of resentment or even hatred that caused the misery of 10 million and 800,000 Syrians to the extent where they need international aid inside their own country? The term "disgrace" probably doesn't justly describe the extent of resentment which has divided Syria and its people. The situation does not differ much in other areas where resentment has spread and manifested itself in acts of murder and destruction.
The head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has called for international protection for the Palestinians from the violations of the Israeli response to "Hamas" provocations. Libya's semi-paralyzed government is also considering calling for international help to save the Libyans from the militias' internal resentment. It's possible to understand how Hamas' rockets - even if they haven't killed anyone - can soothe people's anger as Palestinians fatalities keep rising. But how can one understand that Libyans are shelling one another with Grad missiles at Tripoli airport, killing one another and torching most of their country's jets? What about Iraq? How will these acts of resentment end there? Is there any hope left that Iraq will remain loyal to its centuries-old heritage when it was the cradle of civilizations, where religions and races co-existed and enlightened humanity with knowledge?
This is only the fruit of a few years of pain inflicted by resentment. Is it necessary to remind us of what some Algerians did to Algeria or to other fellow Algerians; or to remind us of what some Egyptians did to Egypt or other Egyptians; or what some Sudanese did to Sudan, from Darfur to Juba; or what some Lebanese did to Lebanon, from Sidon to Beirut to Tripoli? I don't know but I remember how during my early years of political and academic work, I kept silent and never defied sayings like: "Noble resentment triggers revolutions." How can "resentment" be described as "noble?" No. Resentment is resentment and it can only produce the darkest of injustice.
Bakir Oweida is a journalist who has worked as Managing Editor, and written for several Arab publications based in London. His last executive post was Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, responsible for the Opinions section, until December 2003. He can be reached on email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
By Mahmut AytekinDaily Sabah
July 21, 2014
Wirathu, a 45-year-old extremist Buddhist monk who labels himself as the "Buddhist Bin-Ladin" stated recenty that "In every town there is a crude and savage Muslim majority." A new form of "militant Islamophobia" is being born within the green tropical lands of Myanmar, with Wirathu being behind most of it. As a researcher working for a humanitarian aid organization and currently in the region, I can say things don't seem very bright here.
To understand the current conflict situation within the Union of Myanmar, one must understand the 2012 Meiktila riots. Meiktila, a region of Myanmar found approximately seven hours away from the former capital city of Yangon, holds approximately 30,000 Muslim families, most not possessing permanent jobs and left starving due to a nationalist campaign that has been started to boycott Muslim businesses throughout Myanmar, with Wirathu again the driving force behind it - and partnering with the Myanmar government in the crimes that he's committing.
A Physicians of Human Rights reports suggest, through eye witness accounts, that an argument in a gold store on March 20, 2013 had set off the spark for the massacre that was to take place for the next three days, resulting in more than 1,500 Rohingya Muslim homes being set on fire, more than a dozen mosques being destroyed, three Muslim schools known as madrasas at which Muslim youngsters are educated being attacked as four teachers and 20 young children were murdered savagely and another 100 Muslims viscously killed with butcher knives and machetes.
Local sources articulate that immediately after the outcry of the international community and institutions to the Myanmar government, shocking legal proceedings began against Muslims regarding the gold shop incident - though the conviction was not made on the collection of any evidence, nor was it made on the basis of any legal rulings.
Also, it is surprising that no fanatical Buddhist monks were convicted of murder or any other crimes. I'd like to highlight the word fanatical here as all followers of a religion cannot be scapegoated for the crimes and sins of a radical and extremist minority.
I had just seen the situation in Meiktila myself while gathering data and delivering humanitarian aid to the needy among both Muslims and Buddhists. The situation is intensifying as days pass by. Muslims have been displaced from their homes and are left to migrate to other cities and neighboring countries. A grave image was seen as a university campus named "Darul Uloom Arabic University" was converted into a refugee camp hosting more than 350 families.
I was told by a local NGO and human rights representative that currently, each week five Muslims are killed and 10 families are left displaced from their homes, resulting in the number of families migrating to the camps increasing with time. According to local statistics, approximately 10,000 Muslims have gone through both this camp and three others that are controlled by the Myanmar government and situated in Meiktila. Also, a one-hundred-year-old historical Turkish mosque was destroyed during the Meiktila massacre.
The population of Rohingya, homeat to about 1 million, has been suffering discrimination for almost two decades. U.N. reports describe them as being "one of the most persecuted minorities in the world." The Myanmar government strongly denies the genocide that took place, to the extent of denying news reports from various news agencies including the Associated Press, claiming the media is being biased to the situation, and the only attacks that had taken place were done by Rohingya Muslims toward the Myanmar police force. U.N. and various other international NGO reports prove otherwise. Reports from local eye witnesses have proven that at least 48 Muslims were massacred in northern Myanmar.
An NGO representative whose name will not be disclosed had mentioned "at least 300 Muslim civilians had died, though this is only the tip of the iceberg which we could see. Many Muslim civilians had died drowning while trying to escape the massacre by going to Bangladesh for refuge by sea." A high-up Turkish official had summarized the situation: "Twenty years ago an apartheid had taken place toward the African minority in South Africa, today the Palestinians are being targeted by the Israeli government, though the situation in Myanmar is worse by far, as the Muslim population here cannot protect themselves, this is currently one-of-a-kind in the world."
While speaking of the conflicts in the Union of Myanmar, one cannot overstate the current situation in the state of Arakan. The region of Arakan is one place in which international NGOs have a very hard time accessing. This is due to Buddhist nationalists having set up "an NGO watch" in which NGOs are targeted, regardless of where they are from or their skin color. Just last year, humanitarian aid was blocked from going to the camps as Buddhist nationalists were posted at various junctions that humanitarian aid trucks and vehicles were passing by. A looting frenzy took place against anyone trying to help the Rohingya population, including the U.N., with both their offices and vehicles being destroyed, forcing the U.N. to relocate and move their offices within the green safety zone in Arakan. At the moment, there is no conflict in Arakan, though the tensions between the local community and Rohingya Muslims are still continuing. Due to security issues, humanitarian aid cannot be stored at a single location and must be spread out between several locations. Local statistics suggest humanitarian aid is reaching about 127,000 people, but sadly, on the downside, 4,000 people are still left to starve.
The current socio-economic situation within Arakan and other Muslim regions does not give a positive impression. Muslims, due to the tragic events that have taken place, have been left to leave their townships and migrate to other locations including Dala and Tawkhayanlay and finally a "camp city" consisting of four mini camps - Dbai Manzi, Ohm Daw Fiyi North, Sdamati and Ohm Daw Fiyi South, which hold approximately 7,900 families. Due to a lack of funding from the Myanmar government, the current situation forces the oppressed Rohingya population to sell half the humanitarian aid they receive at local markets and the city center. In addition to the current locations of the camps, which are far away from the city center, the individuals within the camps are generally made to work hard labor and don't have permanent jobs. They are usually paid about 2,000 to 3,000 kyats (TL 4.37 to TL 6.55) a month, which is equal to approximately $2 to $3.
Urgent action is needed by the Myanmar government and the international community in order to improve the current situation of the Rohingya. In my opinion, solutions to the current situation can be divided into two levels - domestic and international. On a domestic level, a political platform should be formed by regional Muslim NGOs in order to communicate the ideas of the Muslim minority to the Myanmar government and vice versa and mediate necessary negotiations. Secondly, an urgent summit should be formed with Myanmar humanitarian aid NGOs to figure out solutions to the current crisis, focusing on issues such as unemployment and education within the Rohingya Muslim population. Thirdly, more dialogue is necessary between Muslims from the city and rural areas, and also with Buddhists.
Lastly, the Myanmar government has to immediately issue identification cards to the Rohingya population. As Amine Tuna Ertürk, a researcher of Muslim minorities in Asia pointed out, 3 million Rohingya Muslims were counted "non-existent" in the nationwide census of Myanmar and are not on the official records. On the international level, international institutions including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the U.N. should pressure the Myanmar government into controlling the Buddhist extremist 969 Movement, which is responsible for displacing thousands of Muslims and Buddhists from their homes.
Reforms should immediately be pushed forward in order to cure the current situation along with possible international sanctions and trials for whoever is responsible for backing terrorist organizations in Myanmar. International humanitarian aid organizations such as the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) and the International Refugee Rights Association should help with the humanitarian diplomacy taking place between the Muslim population and the Myanmar government. As stated earlier, tensions are still continuing between both communities. Immediate action needs to take place because if action is not taken, humanity, regardless of race, color or religion, will fail one of its most crucial tests of democracy to date.
July 21, 2014
Arakan, in fact, a continuation of the Chittagong plain was neither purely a Burmese nor an Indian Territory until 18th century. Chiefly for its location, it had not only remained independent for the most part of history but also endeavored to expand its territory in the surrounding tracts whenever opportunity came. It is a natural physiographic unit clearly separated from the rest of Burma by a long and high impassible hill range of Arakan Yoma and also located far away from Indian capitals. The relation Chittagong and Arakan is influenced by geographical, cultural and historical considerations.
Culturally, socially, economically and politically the peoples of Arakan were independent for centuries. Hinduism and Buddhism spread from India, whereas Islamic civilization began influencing Arakan from the 7th century. As such, her relation with western Muslims states is millennia-old.
Across the last two thousand years, there has been great deal of local vibrancy as well as movement of different ethnic peoples through the region. For the last millennium or so, Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) have historically lived on both side of Naaf River, which marks the modern border with Bangladesh and Burma. In addition to Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) majority groups, a number of other minority peoples also come to live in Arakan, including Chin, Kaman, Thet, Dinnet, Mramagri, Mro and Khami etc.
The Muslims (Rohingyas) and Buddhists (Rakhines) had been peacefully coexisting in Arakan over the centuries. Unfortunately, the relation between those two sister communities began to grow bitter at instigation of the third parties, during the long colonial rule of more than two centuries. The anti-Muslim pogrom of 1942—in which about 100,000 Rohingya were massacred, 50,000 of them were driven across the border to the east Bengal some parts of Muslim settlements were devastated—have caused rapid deterioration in their relation.
Today, the greater number of Rakhines, under the patronization of the successive regime, is hostile to Rohingyas. They are main instruments of Rohingya oppression over the decades. Even many Rakhines today claim Arakan to be the ‘historic land of Rakhine Buddhists’. Denying the existence of Rohingya, they state that Arakan belongs to them alone and the Rohingyas have nothing to do with it and have no right to use the word ‘Arakan” and even ‘Rohingya”. This chauvinistic claim of ‘exclusive ownership’ of Arakan by the Rakhine is the root cause of the problem in Arakan causing constant communal violence and tension between the two major communities.
It is not possible to scribe to Rakhines an “historic right”, the right of first occupier. The Arakanese chronicles recorded a line of kings reaching back to year 2666 BC. More certain is the Kingdom of Dannya Waddy (Dhannovati), which flourished at the beginning of Christian era. Many modern scholars including U Aung Tha Oo and U San Tha Aung believe that the Rakhines were Ayans who came from the west.
Brahmanical and Buddhist culture together an influx of Aryans speakers arrived in this area, in the early centuries Christian era, wrote E.H Johnston basing on Sanskrit Inscriptions of Arakan. So the people in the kingdom of Dannya Waddy were not Aryans stocks. They might have been Proto-Australoid people like that of Bengal or Negrito group of Neolitihic descendants. The pre-Aryan peoples are the real Adivasis (aboriginal) of this area. They were not only the first occupants of the land and had been there for thousand years until the Aryans and other peoples came.
Archaeological remains, many historical and numismatics evidence confirms that the earlier Arakanese dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over population similar to that of Bengal.
Arab traders were close contact with the people as early as 788AD and that they introduced the religious of Islam there in as early as that time. Many these Arabs settled in Arakan. In the 8th century some Buddhists from Magadha in north and northeastern India escaped persecution of Hindu revivalism and took shelter in Chittagong and Arakan region.
History does not help us in forming an idea of Burmese infiltration into Arakan before 11th century. Hall and others described the Araknese (Rakhines) of today as “basically Burmese with an unmistakable Indian admixture …It is only about the 11th century that we can speak of a people of Indo-Mongoloid stock, from an ethnic group in the intermixture of tribes of various ethnic origins, such as, Australoid, Mongoloid and other elements now known as Arakanese Buddhist.
Wilhelm Klein, in his book ‘Burma the Golden’ wrote that, ‘all sudden, Arakan changed. The invading tribes made the country face east, away from India. As Burma began to flex its muscles, the profound changes born at Pagan started to transform Arakan... over the centuries the physiognomy of the Arakanese people changed. The racial admixture of Indo-European with only recently arrived Central Asians became predominantly Mongoloid, an ethnic mixture which still characterizes today’s Arakanese.’
Historically they called Magh. According to Phayer, the name Magh originated from the ruling race of Magadha.As to Prof. San Tha Aung, ‘the derivation would probably be Maghodhi- Magai- Mog or Magh’. However, they prefer to identify themselves as Rakhine.
Rohingyas are descended from local indigenous tribes who lived in Arakan since the dawn of history. They are thus not descended from the Arabs, Moors, Persian, pathens, and Moguls alone. The Arabs arrived in Arakan in the late 7th century AD, settled there and intermingled, intermixed and intermarried with the local people and converted a number of local populations including local Buddhists. The appearance of the Arab in Arakan in the 7th century was for more of a cultural phenomenon than ethnic one. The Persians, Truks, Pathens and other Muslim migrant who came into Arakan in the course of time were also merged with the local populace. These various migrations and local converts led to form one common racial and linguistics classification as “Rohingya”; a term derived from Rohang, the ancient name of Arakan.
Dr. Michael W. Charney, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, writes, “The earliest recorded use of an ethnonym immediately recognizable as Rohingya is an observation by Francis Buchanan in 1799. As he explains, a dialect that was derived from Hindi …is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long been settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Roainga, or native of Arakan.”
With the passage of time, there come to exist two distinct and compact communities of Rohingya and Rakhine in Arakan out of those heterogeneous races and tribes and are thus equally entitled to similar historic rights. Both are indigenous people characterized by objective criteria, such as historical continuity, and subjective factors including self-identification which need to define an indigenous people and to have the right of self-determination. It means that, if Rakhines have historic rights in Arakan the Rohingyas have also the same right in Arakan. If the Rakhines freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development, the Rohingyas have also the same rights to charter their destiny by their free will, by virtue of their rights to self-determination.
|Dusk in Mandalay. (Photo: Alex Bookbinder)|
By Shwe Aung
July 21, 2014
A rape case believed to have sparked recent riots in central Burma’s Mandalay was fabricated, according to an investigation carried out by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
State media published the ministry’s findings on Sunday, revealing what the government maintains is an elaborate plot of false, revenge-inspired allegations.
On the evening of 1 July, hundreds of Buddhists gathered in Chan Aye Tharzan Township — a majority Muslim area in Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay – after rumours circulated that two Muslim brothers who owned a teashop had raped their Buddhist maid. Riots soon ensued, which lasted for several days and left at least two people dead. About 20 others were injured.
The ministry’s report claimed that the woman who was believed to have been raped was promised payment of one million kyat (US$1,000) to make the allegations against them.
According to the ministry, the woman was in debt after her husband was jailed on drug charges. The report said that two people assisting her husband’s case offered her the money to falsely accuse the brothers because of a personal dispute.
The ministry said that forensic tests performed on the accuser showed “no indication of rape and no external injuries”, and that the woman and the two people allegedly behind the plot are currently in police custody.
The report further stated that the pair were behind another rape allegation brought against a Mandalay court official. The ministry maintained that this accusation was also fabricated. The plaintiff in that case, according to the ministry, is related to the woman who claimed to be raped by the teashop owners.
Allegations against the teashop owners were largely considered the catalyst for the riots that took place the first week of July in Mandalay, which were the latest in a string of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims that has accelerated since mid-2012.
A pattern has emerged over the past two years of local disputes, such as sexual abuse or even arguments, igniting long-existing tensions between the country’s majority Buddhists and minority Muslims. Riots have erupted in several parts of the country, and have resulted in more than 200 deaths and the displacement of about 180,000 people. Muslim communities have suffered most of the damages, though this months’ riots in Mandalay left one casualty on either side of the conflict.
July 20, 2014
YANGON, Myanmar — Authorities in Myanmar have announced that the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men that triggered religious violence in the central city of Mandalay was completely fabricated.
Rumors that a teashop owners had raped one of their employees set off attacks on Muslims and mayhem over several days in early July. One Buddhist and one Muslim man had died and 14 others were injured and property damaged.
A Home Ministry announcement published Sunday in the Myanma Ahlin newspaper says a third Muslim man wanted to frame the two shop owners for rape charges that he was facing.
Several hundred people have been killed since 2012 in sectarian violence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
|Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr.com|
By Hugo Swire
July 18, 2014
The last three years in Burma have seen remarkable change, as the country starts out on the hard, but essential, journey towards democracy. Working closely with the U.S. and the international community, the U.K. has supported Burma’s progress. We continue to work with the government, political parties, and armed groups to reach a nationwide ceasefire and establish an inclusive nationwide political dialogue. But there is still much to do to ensure Burma continues to move forward on its path to democracy.
There is a special affection for Burma in the U.K., given our shared history, and the close ties many people still have with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from her days living in Oxford. I have been fortunate enough to visit Burma twice recently, including trips to Rakhine State in 2012 and to Kachin State earlier this year, the first British Minister to travel to the latter since Burma’s independence.
The U.K. has responded to the remarkable changes in Burma by lifting EU sanctions, in close coordination with the U.S. We have also re-engaged with the military through the reappointment of a Defence Attaché and have begun delivering limited military non-combat education courses. It is our belief that we must be proactive in our engagement with the Burmese military and show them how a military is expected to behave in a modern democracy.
Being a true friend to Burma also means being an honest friend. We have been honest that much more needs to be done: including constitutional changes, achieving a peace settlement with the ethnic groups, and improving human rights. There remains an urgent need to tackle the humanitarian situation and underlying inter-communal tensions in Rakhine State and elsewhere in the country. And most importantly, progress on all of this will depend on a robust, transparent and inclusive process, starting now, for delivering a credible general election next year. The international community must maintain its attention, offer its support, and keep up its collective pressure.
Today [June 15] I am in Washington for talks with my U.S. colleagues, and to give a speech on the U.K.’s approach to the Asia-Pacific. Travelling around the Capitol, the iconic monuments bring to mind some of the great slogans of America’s democratic journey. The US declared its independence from Great Britain saying that its people had an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The importance of this ideal struck me forcibly during my discussions on the changes now taking place in Burma.
There have been, and will be, bumps along the road in Burma’s difficult transition. There will be calls to disengage, withdraw to the sidelines, to wash our hands of seemingly intractable issues facing the country. But if we believe all the people of Burma deserve the right to elect their leaders, and to enjoy those freedoms we take for granted, then we have to stay the course. The U.S., U.K. and EU have valuable experience to offer to the reformist administration in Burma, as honest friends. And the wider international community – from Burma’s closest neighbors, to the influential emerging democracies worldwide – can play valuable roles too: lending a helping hand, whilst being clear and honest when concerns arise.
Standing in the shadow of America’s democratic heroes, I firmly believe that with the support of countries such as the U.K. and U.S., and with the determined efforts of the people of Burma, great strides will continue to be made. I am with Lincoln as “a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises.”
The Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP is Minister of State at the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
|The Jan. 25, 2014 issued of the Unity journal is pictured in Rangoon. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)|
By John Arterbury
July 18, 2014
With journalists sentenced to hard labor for writing about an isolated installation, experts are concerned about what might be being produced
It was the kind of scoop any intrepid journalist dreams of getting, hitting all the right notes along the way—a vast and mysterious military installation, rumors of chemicals weapons, unexplained Chinese workers, the gaping maw of a tunnel jutting from the earth.
No doubt the Burmese journalists thought that, given the heady political changes afoot in their country, something might actually come of their revelation that the government appeared to be in the business of making chemical weapons.
Instead, the scoop landed them in jail, and left the government rushing to snap up unsold copies of the February issue of the Burmese-language Unity Journal carrying their claims.
Now, the four writers and the paper’s CEO face 10 years of hard labor after a court found them guilty on Thursday of revealing state secrets, and a lawyer for the accused told Spectrum that the state’s prosecution of the journalists is meant to stifle press freedoms. The sentence was widely condemned by human rights advocates.
“They are charging the journalists to oppress the media,” defense lawyer Aung Thane told Spectrum.
The government charged the journalists under a seldom-used colonial law intended to safeguard military secrets, alleging that they trespassed in pursuit of their story and spilled state secrets by publishing detailed descriptions and pictures of a military site.
It maintains that the sprawling military center in the Pauk township of Magwe region, which opened in 2009, is merely a conventional ordnance factory.
As the journalists face a decade behind bars, security experts told Spectrum that the site could have several possible purposes, including the production of weaponry with foreign backing, raising eyebrows as to what officials in Burma’s Byzantine defense industry might be up to.
The speed with which Burma pursued the journalists, experts say, illustrates that the government is still keen to keep a tight lid on its military activities, regardless of recent government reforms.
This deeply rooted secrecy has done little to dissuade speculation, as one long-time Burma watcher suggested that the site is direct evidence the country has increased its cooperation with North Korea.
“It’s not a chemical weapons factory, but reportedly a factory where they produce aluminum casing for missiles, and ‘the Chinese technicians’ they mention in the article are most likely North Koreans,” veteran journalist Bertil Lintner said.
This doesn’t surprise some observers, who suspect that ties between North Korea and Burma run deep. There have been unconfirmed reports in recent years that the reclusive state has been providing Burma, under the umbrella of the country’s Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), with technical assistance in starting its own missile program near the city of Minbu.
One defense analyst stressed caution, noting that if North Koreans were helping make hefty rockets that the outcome would likely be publicly known.
“It’s a reasonable avenue of speculation, but we don’t know as a fact that the North Koreans are cooperating in a Burmese missile production program,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst with IHS-Jane’s.
To assess the Unity Journal’s claims, the East Asia Non-proliferation Program analyzed a recent commercial satellite picture of the facility and supplemented it with publicly available satellite images. While such imagery alone isn’t enough to determine the facility’s true purpose, the photos appear to verify parts of the Unity Journal story, including the time frame of the site’s construction, said Jeffrey Lewis, the program’s director.
“They mention a number of details that are true or consistent with the imagery, including the loss of farms and homes, as well as the presence of high-ranking visitors and foreign workers,” Lewis said.
The imagery also appeared to confirm villager tales of land confiscation and displacement. The hamlet of Lebinaing appears in one image, only to be erased in a later shot, replaced by overgrowth and craggy soil.
Images also show construction at the site, and it was in the midst of building activity that the Unity Journal reporters entered the fray.
For the reporters, the story started innocently enough. Villagers had asked the journalists to come to the area because they said the government had seized their land to make way for the site — not entirely unheard of in a country known for rampant land confiscation.
Once there, locals told them stories of foreign workers, high-ranking visitors and tunnels stretching under the complex. The suspicion among area residents, which the Unity Journal published, was that chemical weapons were being made.
“There was construction going on at the site and two journalists went inside with them [the villagers],” Aung Thane said. “There were no signs at the site and nobody stopped them.”
The law under which they were been prosecuted — Section 3/1/A of the Official Secrets Act, which covers espionage — should not have been applied to this case, Aung Thane said, because sites protected by the law must be clearly marked in local languages.
“To define a secret area the government has to issue a statement or order in multiple languages and publish it in the Gazette,” Aung Thane said.
The Unity Journal staff are also charged under 2C of the Secrets Act, which concerns trespassing.
A planned new media law could not yet be used to try the journalists because the rules needed for its implementation have not yet been approved. Contrary to local media reports, Aung Thane said the defense did not request the government use the law.
Little has been heard from the Burma government to address the allegations. In the meantime, the Unity Journal has fallen on hard times since the arrests. With its editor jailed and circulation declining, the publication has been forced to close its Yangon office.
A key discovery in the East Asia Non-proliferation Program’s findings was the presence of a helicopter pad similar to one found at the Minbu site, which Lewis said appears to validate claims by locals that Chinese or North Korean technicians are present.
“At a more general level, the presence of foreign workers is most interesting to me. DDI has been sanctioned for dealing with North Korea, and this site appears similar to another location near Minbu where North Koreans are believed to live and work,” Lewis said. “Working from satellite images, it would appear that DDI’s activities are expanding, not contracting, despite promises to stop any illicit programs and end cooperation with North Korea.”
The possibility of strengthened ties between the countries startles observers who say such a development would be a step in the wrong direction for Burma. North Korea is also involved in vast under-the-radar activities worldwide that provide the cash-starved nation with a vital economic lifeline, according to reports — a practice that Lewis says likely extends to Burma.
“One concern is that Myanmar is a source of hard currency for the DPRK,” said Lewis, using the North’s formal name. “Myanmar may also serve as a trans-shipment point for the DPRK to help it evade sanctions. And, of course, there is the challenge that such a relationship poses to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
A Burmese official downplayed the significance of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program’s findings.
“They based their assumptions only on bird’s-eye-view images. Even if it was a real chemical weapons factory, the American intelligence capability would be able to detect it in the first place,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut told website Eleven Myanmar. “This facility is meant only for our defense measures.”
For Southeast Asia, Burma is a heavyweight defense spender, allocating nearly US$2.4 billion (77.3 billion baht), more than 12% of its annual budget, on military expenditures this year alone. Much of the reason for this, Davis said, is to counter “more complex and more varied” military threats, such as ethnic insurgencies.
To counter these threats, the Burma defense industry has ramped up its production of naval frigates, sophisticated weaponry and vehicles, he said. In doing so, Burma has increasingly drawn on Chinese expertise.
“They’re beefing up their capabilities for conventional conflicts, plus there is a range of civil unrest scenarios they have to be prepared for,” Davis said. “The Burmese military industrial complex is much more broadly developed and ambitious than people give it credit for. The days when they just produced assault rifles and ammunition are long over.”
In weighing the Unity Journal’s allegations, one chemical weapons expert said that it’s difficult to tell the site’s purpose without having a thorough look behind its doors.
“Observing from the outside, and even having a peek into the factory may not shed much light as to what is actually going on,” independent security consultant Dan Kaszeta said. “Trucks go in, trucks go out—there’s a spaghetti factory of pipes and valves inside. Even a highly trained specialist can’t necessarily tell you what’s going on in the mess of pipes and vessels without knowing some of what’s in the pipes.”
But despite the government’s claims, the limited open-source information on the site lends credibility to the idea that it could be something other than a run-of-the-mill munitions factory.
“The Burmese government says only that the site is a ‘standard ordnance factory’, but it is far too large to be a standard anything,” Lewis said.
It’s in part this immense size, stretching over more than 1,200 hectares, that gives way to additional possibilities.
“A factory built in a remote area in secrecy and under high security with a lot of pipes and pumps and such could easily be a chemical weapons facility,” Kaszeta said. “However, it is occurring in a country known for secrecy with a military that operates a vast defense industry as a state-owned enterprise. Many things under that umbrella could account for this, such as manufacture of explosives or propellants.”
Burma is no stranger to chemical weapons allegations, but past charges remain uncorroborated. Witness accounts of chemical weapon use by the Burma military against ethnic rebels, spanning from the 1980s to more recent skirmishes, have not been independently verified. In a 1992 report, the US government accused the Burma government of using artillery-fired chemical munitions, but it quickly abandoned the claims.
Were Burma making chemical weapons, Kaszeta said there would likely be other evidence, such as set-ups for testing weapons or changes in troop training, weaving chemical weapons into their playbook.
“A strong indicator is some kind of testing regime to see if weapons actually work,” said Kaszeta, a former US army chemical corps officer. “It seems unlikely that a country would go to the massive effort of making chemical weapons without seeing whether their chosen delivery mechanisms work.”
Yet Burma has done little to allay fears. The government could go a long way in putting chemical weapons rumors to rest were it to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), experts said, since the treaty contains robust provisions for monitoring defense installations. The country signed the 1993 arms treaty but has yet to ratify it.
“If the facility is declared as a civil facility under the CWC, there are routine provisions for inspection,” Lewis said, noting that it could shed light on its activities.
Ratifying the treaty, which bans the use, production or possession of chemical weapons, would also mean that other countries could request inspections of specific of sites.
“In theory it opens up the country to an inspections regime,” Kaszeta said. “What the practical impact would be, it’s hard to say. It could pave the way for a ‘challenge inspection’ if some other country says, ‘XYZ factory might be a chemical warfare plant, please inspect it.’ ”
The journalists, meanwhile, remain behind bars, and Aung Thane condemned the state’s vigorous prosecution. The entire taxing ordeal has sent a direct message, Aung Thane said.
“The case is used to set an example for other journalists,” he said.
There could be a quick fix, experts say, with the country accepting the treaty and doing an about-turn. But the hope that it opens the doors of its opaque facilities remains bleak in a country not renowned for its transparency.
“This would be easy enough to resolve if Burma were to simply ratify the CWC,” Lewis said. “Instead, they continue to delay, while holding the journalists in prison.”
By Kyaw Win
July 18, 2014
This month's tragic anti-Muslim violence in Mandalay has again revealed that dark forces are alive and well in Myanmar. The violence left two dead and many injured, causing damage to property and generating a climate of fear in the country's cultural and historic capital.
In the aftermath of the violence, the government has moved to crack down on hate speech but has also warned the media against making statements that could destabilize national security, saying that "action will be taken against those who threaten state stability."
Tellingly, however, no action has been taken against those responsible for triggering the Mandalay violence by spreading false rumors on social media, while journalists reporting on the riots have already been threatened with violence. In addition, some observers have noted that the violence has also had a secondary effect- it has successfully distracted public interest from a signature campaign calling for amendment to the 2008 Constitution.
Such patterns are finally leading more and more analysts to ask critical questions about the nature of recent anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and the real motivations behind it. Outside of Myanmar, reporting has been less critical, with some major media wires referring to the violence as 'sectarian'.
Such inaccurate diagnosis is not new, as international diplomatic and public opinion circles have tended to portray Myanmar's anti-Muslim violence as an unfortunate social consequence of transition from authoritarianism to democracy. In this view, it is the uncertainty of transition and the new freedom of expression that have given rise to fear of the Muslim minority and ultra-nationalist Buddhist extremism.
This definition, however, is misleading and has resulted in significant confusion both about the form of violence in question as well as its root cause. Indeed, from the point of view of many Myanmar Muslims, it appears to be a case of applying a perfectly sensible theory to the wrong context.
Such misconceptions not only ignore the reality of decades-long persecution of Muslims in the country, but they also absolve authorities of their historical responsibility for manufacturing, endorsing and permitting such violence, both directly and indirectly.
They also ignore the role played by Myanmar's generals and their cronies in manufacturing Burman-Buddhist nationalist ideology and institutionalizing a culture of fear and distrust of minorities, including the Muslim community. Anti-Muslim violence is, in fact, not a new phenomenon, and has been stirred by the military and its proxies since 1981.
The misdiagnosis also ignores the fact that the military deliberately designed the 2008 constitution to maintain sufficient power to protect their interests and have historically exploited identity as a tool to divide and control the country's diverse population.
It also ignores the reality that many institutions, including some of Myanmar's Buddhist monasteries, have long been infiltrated by certain military actors and have served as sites for organizing support for the military and their vision of nationalism.
That much of the violence has been carried out by mobs that also involve ordinary people does not mean that it is purely a social phenomenon free from any political involvement. Indeed, this form of violence is neither new nor apolitical, as campaigns to spread public fear against Muslims and the mobilization of pogroms have been consistently carried out by Myanmar's military and their proxies throughout the decades of military dictatorship.
The reality is that the current anti-Muslim violence is sign of continuity with the past, rather than a break with it.
Mask of reform
President Thein Sein's government is not the first to employ divide and rule tactics through a variety of proxies, manipulating religion and ethnicity as a means of maintaining power.
In the 1960 general election, Prime Minister U Nu published in his manifesto a promise to declare Buddhism as the state religion if elected. As a result, he won a landslide election victory.
Thein Sein's government now appears to be using this old tactic to kill three birds with one stone- to divert public attention from Chinese interests, to avoid enacting constitutional amendments that would allow opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the country's next president and to attract voters ahead of the 2015 elections.
Since Thein Sein took office in 2010, he has faced three major challenges: public protests against Chinese projects, public protests to amend the 2008 constitution and public support for Suu Kyi. These challenges have coincided with the re-emergence with anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar. That can hardly be a coincidence.
Public opposition to mega-projects, particularly those backed by China, has grown since Thein Sein took office. While he won praise for suspending the Chinese mega-dam project in Kachin State in 2011, this was short-lived.
In August 2012, police used white phosphorus against peaceful demonstrators, including monks and villagers at the Letpadaung copper mine. Another major Chinese project is the Shwe gas pipeline, which starts near Kyauk Pyu Township, Rakhine State and provides an important alternative route for China to much-needed energy resources should access through either the Malacca Strait or the South China Sea be blocked in a future conflict.
The second challenge is the growing public demand to amend the 2008 constitution, which many in Myanmar view as deeply flawed, undemocratic and designed by the junta to maintain the power of the army. Since early 2012, activists have been raising public awareness against the constitution and several public mass gatherings were organized to protest against the constitution and demand its amendment.
The third challenge is the outcome of 2012 by-election, which placed the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on the horns of a dilemma. Although Thein Sein successfully convinced the international community to recognize him as a reformist, even receiving a peace award from the International Crisis Group, his party has not yet convinced his country's own voters.
On the contrary, members of the USDP are well known for their record of corruption and it is not surprising that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory at the 2012 by-election. The poll result was alarming for the ruling party and has created anxiety about the upcoming general election in 2015. The ruling party and its military backers may have thus considered applying political tactics that had already been tried and tested.
As the government came under increasing pressure from these multiple challenges, a new wave of anti-Muslim violence emerged. Violence broke out in Rakhine State in June and October 2012 where Rohingya and Kaman Muslims were targeted.
Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have historically been at their highest in Rakhine, with ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Rohingya occurring in 1942, 1978 and 1991, making it an easy target for igniting anti-Muslim violence. But anti-Muslim mobilization was not limited to Rakhine and was soon followed by hate-speech campaigns in Karen State at the end of 2012 that spread to other parts of the country. In March 2013, anti-Muslim pogroms erupted in Meiktila in central Myanmar.
Government and crony-controlled media have also played a dangerous role by portraying Rohingya as intruders from Bangladesh and Islam as a threat to Buddhism. They have succeeded in obscuring real problems such as land grabbing by the army, civil war and the use of rape as a weapon against minorities. The majority of Buddhists are unaware that they are being brainwashed by the powerful cronies' media.
It is highly likely that many extremist Buddhist monks are agents of Myanmar's army and part of a vast propaganda machine. In a context where monks are the most revered figures in society, this strategy has proven highly effective and faces almost no opposition. Those who have spoken out against radical monks have been intimidated.
During the crisis, the inflammatory rhetoric of Thein Sein and his spokesperson Major Zaw Htay received strong support from Buddhist extremists. In a meeting with the head of UNHCR in July 2012, Thein Sein denied the existence of the Rohingyas, stating that they are the illegal immigrants and should be sent to third countries or kept in concentration camps as refugees. His comments have directly put the lives of Rohingya into great danger, encouraged hatred against them and allowed the extremists to target them without condemnation by the wider public.
During a recent attack on Rohingyas, Zaw Htay posted provocative anti-Rohingya propaganda on his Facebook account in Burmese. Exercising scare tactics, he used the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, an organization known to be almost defunct for several decades, as a scarecrow, claiming that RSO members had crossed into Myanmar to invade Rakhine State and threaten the lives of Buddhists. He also warned opposition parties and critics not to oppose government policy towards the Rohingya on the basis of human rights.
Anti-Muslim hate campaigns led by the radical 969 movement, including those led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu, have played a significant role in expanding the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya into generalized anti-Muslim violence across the country. U Wirathu has traveled across Myanmar giving anti-Muslim speeches without restriction and expanded an extremist network known as the Race and Faith Defense League, (Ma Ba Tha).
The biased judiciary, meanwhile, systematically grants impunity to the hate instigators, encouraging further attacks on Muslims. In return, these extremists promote the ruling party as a defender of Buddhism and Buddhist interests. Ma Ba Tha also largely opposes the amendment of the 2008 constitution, particularly the section 59(F) that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because she was married to a now deceased foreigner.
A public declaration of anti-Muslim persecution was made on September 10, 2012 after a meeting between monks from all Buddhist sects in Karen State organized by the Alliance of Buddhism Custodians at Mae Baung Monastery in the state capital Hpa-an.
The declaration was mainly intended to segregate Muslims from social and economic activities, including a drive to boycott Muslim-owned shops. In December 2012, the alliance declared it would fine anyone who breached the order and members of Ma Ba Tha began monitoring Muslim shops to implement the order.
The declaration openly challenges the rule of law and yet in spite of this there has not been a single response from Thein Sein's government. The President did not fail, however, to swiftly issue a statement defending U Wirathu when Time magazine published an edition with the monk on the front cover calling him 'the face of Buddhist terror'.
Tolerance of anti-Muslim violence was also apparent during the Meiktila pogroms in March 2013. Victims said that when police were requested to protect Muslims from deadly attacks they responded that orders were not given to stop the violent mobs. The mystery in that instance is who held the authority to give the orders and why these officials would allow the mobs to target Muslims.
At the same time, the organized manner in which the mobs targeted Muslims reveals that at least some among them were well-trained to carry out heinous crimes against humanity, such as the chopping and burning alive of 28 small children at an Islamic orphanage.
So far anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim campaigns have successfully diverted public attention from many issues: Chinese projects, land grabbing, the civil war in Kachin State, corruption, dubious multi-billion dollar property holdings by high-ranking generals, and calls to amend the controversial 2008 constitution.
Undoubtedly, the military will plan their every strategy carefully and execute every move deliberately. The result of the 2012 by-election could be used as a parameter to measure the USDP's chance of victory in 2015. The stakes are high, raising the potential for more distractive anti-Muslim mobilization, persecution and violence in the run-up to the polls.
While the international community invests millions in government institutions such as the Myanmar Peace Center, more must be done to hold the government accountable for the role it has played in supporting organizations and movements responsible for inciting hatred and violence. Allowing these deadly and divisive trends to continue is morally wrong and threatens to unleash new cycles of fear, violence and vengeance that will undermine the prospects of all of Myanmar's people and jeopardize stability across the wider region.
Kyaw Win is a Burmese Muslim scholar and human rights activist living in London.
|Yanghee Lee in an Oct. 13, 2010 photo.|
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
July 17, 2014
The United Nations new human rights envoy to Myanmar kicked off her first official visit to the country on Thursday with an inspection of Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison and talks with the local human rights commission.
Yanghee Lee of South Korea, who took over as the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar in June, is on a ten-day mission that will include visits communal strife-torn Rakhine and war-ridden Kachin states.
On Thursday, she met with Win Mya, chairman of the government’s Myanmar Human Rights Commission, to discuss the panel’s work since it was established in September 2011.
“This is her first time in Myanmar, so we explained what the commission has done on human rights issues in the country,” Win Mya told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We also told her about the areas we have visited to report on human rights issues, such as humanitarian assistance, people displaced by conflict, education, land mines, soldier recruiting for both [the government and ethnic rebel armies] and child soldiers in Kachin state.”
Win Mya said that the rights commission also explained the reports it had released concerning a crackdown by authorities on a protest against a Chinese-owned copper mine, as well as on violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state which has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced since 2012.
He said that the commission had received around 6,000 letters from the public to investigate human rights complaints.
The chairman expressed optimism that Lee would have a more comprehensive understanding of Myanmar’s rights issues than her predecessor, Tomas Quintana, whose six-year term as rights envoy to the country ended in May.
Quintana, whose relationship with the government was tense at times, said at the end of his term that severe shortages of food, water and medical care for the minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state were part of a long history of persecution that could amount to "crimes against humanity.”
“The former envoy was from Argentina on the other side of the world and she [Lee] is from our [Asia] region,” Win Mya said.
“I believe an Asian could have a better understanding of the problems facing an Asian country. I hope her report on her findings in Myanmar will be beneficial to the country because of her Asian perspective.”
Tomas Quintana oversaw Myanmar’s transition from a ruthless military regime to fledgling democracy after President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian took power from the former junta in 2011, but also large-scale rights violations following a new outbreak of military clashes with rebels in Kachin state and communal violence in Rakhine state.
Win Mya urged Lee to maintain her status as an independent reporter on her findings in Myanmar.
“There could be some difficulties in achieving good results if she submits her reports based on political pressure,” he said.
Ahead of her visit, the U.N. said in a statement that Lee will also travel to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, Yangon and the country’s second city Mandalay, where recent clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims left two dead and several injured.
In addition to meeting with members of parliament—including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—and other officials, Lee also plans to hold discussions with religious and community leaders, civil society representatives, victims of human rights violations and members of the international community.
“A frank and open exchange of views will be vital to help me better understand the realities on the ground,” Lee said in the statement.
“And it is my intention, as Special Rapporteur, to work closely with the government and people of Myanmar, towards the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.”
Lee has previously served as chairperson of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child and is currently a professor at Sungkyunwan University in Seoul. She also serves on the Advisory Committee of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
The human rights expert will submit her first report following the country visit, which will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in October.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
By Matthew Pennington
July 17, 2014
WASHINGTON - The State Department’s top human rights official is accusing Myanmar authorities of resorting to police-state tactics after five journalists from a weekly magazine got 10 years at hard labor for a disputed story about a weapons factory.
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski’s comments, in an Associated Press interview Wednesday, are the stiffest U.S. criticism yet following last week’s sentences. The case is troubling for the Obama administration, which has cast its support of Myanmar’s democratic reforms as one of its important foreign policy achievements.
Malinowski said the U.S. remained committed to engagement with Myanmar’s government as it grapples with difficult institutional reforms and shifts the nation also known as Burma from five decades of direct military rule. He urged protection of the press freedoms that were unleashed when a repressive junta ceded power three years ago. He said that would be crucial to its democratic transition and for the credibility of national elections next year.
The chief executive and four reporters of the journal Unity were charged under a colonial-era security law. Myanmar authorities have defended the arrests as a matter of national security. The magazine has since gone out of business.
The punishment has raised alarm among rights groups and Myanmar journalists. Police have also opened a case against 50 journalists after they staged a peaceful protest in the main city of Yangon against the sentences. They could face charges for violating a law on peaceful assembly that carries a six-month prison term.
“The release of political prisoners has been one of the most important success stories of the last couple of years, and it would be unfortunate if we got back to having to address more cases like that,” Malinowski said.
“So obviously sentencing a journalist to 10 years’ hard labor for reporting the news, whatever one thinks of the quality or accuracy of a particular news story, is not a great sign,” he said.
Malinowski urged that the case be reviewed and that any journalists prosecuted for reporting a story be freed.
Malinowski, who raised the issue of press freedoms when he met top government and military officials in Myanmar in late June, said concerns over journalistic ethics and irresponsible reporting were legitimate and to be expected in Myanmar’s fledgling media but the U.S. has stressed “the way to deal with those problems is not through the tactics of a police state.”
“If your response is to arrest journalists, we are going to go back to the kind of relationship between Burma and the rest of the world that is not in your interests,” he said.
Unity had reported in late January that the military had seized farmland and constructed a chemical weapons factory in central Magwe Region. It printed a denial from authorities.
Government spokesman Ye Htut did not respond to an email requesting comment Wednesday. After the arrests of the journalists in February, he told The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based online news site, that it was a national security issue and even a country like the U.S. would respond in the same way.
Zaw Thet Htwe, a journalist and member of the Myanmar Press Council, likened it to treatment of journalists under the former ruling junta and said it did not augur well for democratic reforms.
Zaw Thet Htwe is one at least 14 journalists among the more than 1,100 political prisoners who have been freed by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration. He had been sentenced to death by a military court in 2003 for publishing articles critical of the military; his sentence was commuted.
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, said new laws this year have also stifled press freedom, and there have been cases of journalists held on spurious charges.
Last week, five staffers of the Bi Mon Te Nay weekly were arrested and are being charged under a security law for publishing an article suggesting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be installed as leader of an interim government.
Outbreaks of deadly anti-Muslim violence and the uncertain prospects for reforming the current military-dominated constitution have also raised questions from U.S. lawmakers about whether the Obama administration moved too quickly in easing sanctions against Myanmar and ramping up aid.
Malinowski said he did not believe Myanmar was backtracking on reforms but was now in a more difficult stage in its transition that requires fundamental legal and institutional changes. Despite new openness, many laws on its books date back to a more repressive era, leaving journalists and civil society activists still vulnerable to prosecution, he said.
“I see a contest between people who are trying to push this remarkable transformation forward and those who are either confused or threatened by the rapid pace of change,” he said.
Malinowski said the U.S. would encourage Myanmar to keep up the momentum on reforms ahead of the 2015 national elections, a key test of its democratic progress.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.
To: Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, UN Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei
The Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHROM) would like to draw your attention in regards to the recent attack on both Palestinians and Rohingyas by Israel and Myanmar during the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.
We strongly condemn such attack as many innocent people have died especially children and women. We could not accept such act as it contradicts the International Laws and International Conventions.
Both Palestinians and Rohingyas faced continuous Genocide since the 1940s. We experienced the same critical moment where we face continuous attack from both regimes. Unfortunately the United Nations did not take any appropriate measures to stop the longstanding genocide that caused death to thousands of Palestinians and Rohingyas.
We felt very sad and heartbroken to see millions of human beings especially children, women and the elderly being murdered, raped, tortured and imprisonment for the past 60 years. The United Nations, world leaders and international communities have constantly talked about the gross human rights violations in both countries, how Palestinians and Rohingyas were oppressed and prosecuted by the regimes.
Further to that the United Nations itself announced that the Rohingya is the most prosecuted ethnic group in the world. However, until now no concrete action has been taken by the United Nations to stop the oppressions, prosecutions and genocide towards both Palestinians and Rohingyas.
The current situation is very critical. We do not know what will happen in the next few hours. The death toll is increasing for the Palestinians. As of now an estimated 173 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,200 Palestinians have been wounded badly. We have to stop this immediately to save the innocent population. We have to increase pressure to stop the genocide in both countries.
We strongly condemn Israel and Myanmar for attacking innocent populations, mosques, hospitals, schools, and madrasah for whatever reasons due to the facts that these are noble places.
We strongly condemn Israel for using bombs that can cause cancer to the Palestinians. Such attacks towards the innocent population could not be accepted at all as children and women will be suffering the most.
We strongly condemn Israel for destroying the water supply for the Palestinians as water is a very basic need for human survival.
We strongly condemn all countries allied to Israel for supplying military equipment to kill the Palestinians.
We strongly condemn the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not doing enough to protect the holy place of all religions - Baitul Maqdis.
A few hundred thousands of people have died both in Palestine and Arakan State due to bombings, shooting, diseases, malnutrition and starvation. Thousands more of Rohingya drowned in the ocean over the years while fleeing their country.
We regret very much when the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon appealed for a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians. This clearly shows that the United Nations losing its mandate to secure the security of its member states.
We have done everything in the world to save us from the genocide but it was no use to help us. We have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a super solid declaration which guides us how we suppose to live in this world. The UDHR clearly state our rights in very detail way.
Unfortunately in our cases, NONE of these RIGHTS belong to us. It is shameful that we only can see the UDHR on paper but we cannot embrace it in our life. All our rights have been taken away by the regimes.
We have the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) but none of their rights are guarenteed in Palestine and Myanmar. Ironically, children and women became the target by both regimes and suffered the most at any times.
We have the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute those who involved in the Crimes Against Humanity but it was not use to prosecute the head of the countries who conducted the genocide against Palestinians and Rohingya.
We have the United Nations Security Council which oversees security issues around the world but it was not use to secure the Palestinians and Rohingyas while we become the victims of genocide. We had urged the United Nations thousand times to take immediate action to intervene but it was not done except sending their envoys and making reports.
As a mandated body, the United Nations must treat all races and ethnic groups equally without being prejudiced to their religion. If the United Nations cannot function effectively, it will lose its credibility as a mandated body.
Human rights and international conventions are useless if these instruments could not stop genocide and other form of crimes against humanity. We should not call ourselves civilised nation until we respect each other’s rights.
We have no more time to talk and negotiate with the regimes. This is the time to take action against the regimes who commit severe crimes against humanity. The failure of the United Nations to stop the genocide is the failure of the world leaders and the international communities at large.
Human lives must be given the first priority before anything else if we call ourselves as a develop nations. We must contribute in whatever way to save the Palestinians and Rohingyas from the continuous genocide from the cruel and uncivilised regimes.
Israel is an illegal state which committed the biggest crime against humanity - genocide - for the past 60 years. All countries should not condone Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.
In this very critical situation, MERHROM urge the United Nations to:
1. Immediately send a peace-keeping mission to Gaza to restore a ceasefire and monitor the human rights abuses.
2. Urge Israel to allows foreign aid and aid workers to enter Gaza without any restrictions.
3. Urge the countries allied to Israel to stop military and financial assistance to Israel immediately in order to stop the killing of Palestinians.
4. Urge its member states to boycott all Israeli product as well as the products of countries allied to Israel until Israel stops killing the Palestinians.
5. Urge the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) to immediately stop exporting oil to countries allied to Israel until Israel stops killing the Palestinians.
6. Urge all countries to immediately stop economic and diplomatic relationships with Israel immediately until they stop the attack on Gaza and Palestinians.
7. Urge Israel to free Palestinian prisoners.
8. Prosecute the current and former prime ministers of Israel for genocide and crimes against humanity. They must be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for killing the Palestinians.
For the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar, MERHROM urge the United Nations to:
1. Prosecute President Thien Sein and former general Thein Shwe as well as previous generals for genocide and crimes against humanity. They must be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for killing, raping, torturing, detaining and abusing minority Muslims and other ethnic groups.
2. Urge the Myanmar government to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law to recognise Rohingya as a citizens of Myanmar.
3. Urge its member states to stop the economic and political relationship with Myanmar immediately until they protect Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar with equal rights.
4. Eestablish an independent commission of inquiry Immediately to specifically investigate the gross human rights violations towards Rohingya prisoners in Buthidaung jail.
5. Urge the United Nations Security Council to send a peace-keeping mission to Arakan State urgently to control and monitor the human rights abuses.
6. Establish an independent commission of inquiry Immediately to investigate, monitor and access the situation of Rohingya in Arakan State.
7. Urge the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia (UNHCR) to speed up their registration process for the Rohingya asylum-seekers. At the moment the registration process is very slow and it will only leave the Rohingya with no protection at all.
8. Urge the UNHCR to process the resettlement of Rohingya refugees to third countries due to increased persecution by the Myanmar government towards the minority Rohingya.
9. Urge the resettlement countries to accept Rohingya refugees due to very low intake of Rohingya refugees into their countries. At this critical stage we appeal to the resettlement countries to accept the victims of genocide and give us a new life for our future generations.
We thank you very much for your urgent intervention to resolve the conflict and save the Palestinians and Rohingyas from genocide.
ZAFAR AHMAD BDUL GHANI is president, Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHROM).
This letter is originally published here.
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