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Blindness over Burma

(Photo: Reuters)

June 13, 2014

The Muslim Rohingya population of Burma has been described in a UN report “as the most persecuted people in the world.” To look at international businessmen flooding into the country’s five-star hotels in search of lucrative deals, the idea that Burma is hiding the crime of ethnic cleansing, might seem ludicrous. Yet a succession of reports from human rights groups and the United Nations itself, has described a deliberate campaign of violence and deprivation against the Rohingya which ought to shame the Burmese government. It ought to shame foreign entrepreneurs into paying off their rooms and heading for the airport. It ought also to shame foreign governments who have turned a blind eye to what has been happening, but who have instead been busy welcoming a once-isolated and closed Burma back into the international community.

The most astonishing political myopia is taking place. Last year Burma’s President Thein Sein was actually given a peace award by the International Crisis Group, in recognition of his leading the country away from military rule toward democracy. This ludicrous recognition may have had something to do with the looming political presence of the Nobel peace laureate Ang San Suu Kyi, whose long passive resistance to a harsh military junta was so admired. But even she has failed to lead the sort of campaign on behalf of the luckless Rohingya that might have been expected on an international figure of her stature. Instead she has allowed her endorsement of the political transformation to give “comfort” to international investors, anxious to profit from Burma’s markets and abundant natural resources.

Let there be no doubt about it; the persecution of the Rohingya has been systematic. Led by Buddhist bigots belonging to a racist movement known as the “969” (a reference to the “virtues of Buddha”), there has been a concerted effort to target Burma’s Muslims, including the Rohingya, who together make up some five percent of the population. However these murderous thugs are only picking up on officially sponsored repression. In 1982 the military junta removed the citizenship of the Rohingya and with it their rights to health care, education and political representation. The claim was that they should never have been accorded the status of citizens, were recent interlopers and should quit the country. 

Of course, for these unfortunate people who knew no other home than Burma, this was a disaster. And disaster turned to tragedy as Buddhist bullyboys began to terrorize their communities, while a complacent police and army looked on and did nothing. Even as Burma emerged from its long dark days of military rule, no thought was given to the reversal of this historic injustice, not even by the paragon of democratic virtue, Ang San Suu Kyi. Murder, rape and forcible evictions became common place and there was no one, in Burma anyway, prepared to plead the Rohingyas’ cause. In a move of the greatest cynicism, the government decided to move Rohingya communities into camps “for their own safety.” They thus continued the ethnic cleansing, which robbed some 140,000 of the Rohingya of their land and workplaces. Moreover the camps themselves became the target of attacks by the 969 fanatics, attacks which the police and army guarding the perimeter did nothing to stop. It became clear that these facilities were in fact prisons and the guards were there to stop Rohingya escaping.

It is time for world governments to listen to the UN investigators and stop the headlong rush of cash and technology into “the new Burma” until it ends its long-standing policy of ethnic cleansing, restores civic rights to the Rohingya, cracks down on the bigots of the 969 movement and censures those in the police and army that choose to look away.

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