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Rohingya abuses expose Myanmar insecurities

(Photo: AP)

By Nauman Asghar
June 12, 2014

Faith-based violence, in most instances, is actuated by irrational fears of insecurity. The followers of a particular religion resort to violence when they perceive their religion to be under attack. 

Religious fundamentalism can be restrained by cultivating tolerance of diversity through education and by the state playing a role of independent arbiter. But where the state identifies itself with one or other religious group, its obligation to treat all citizens equally is seriously compromised. 

The role of religion in society as a unifying or a disruptive force hinges on the cultural homogeneity of the society and the historical relationship between the communities inhabiting the land. Where feelings of mistrust and suspicion existed, religion has been used to further deepen divisions. 

Nowhere is this more evident now than in the perpetration of barbaric acts against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Hundreds of Muslims have been killed and more than 100,000 forced to flee their homes. Eighty percent of the population of the country consists of Buddhists, and Ashin Wirathu, the monk leader of the violent "969" movement, has attempted to justify lynching of Muslims in the name of defending Buddhism against the encroaching influence of Islam. 

Ashin Wirathu's claim appears absurd if we consider that Muslims constitute only 5% of Myanmar's population. Further, the monks actively participating in violence are bringing a bad name to Buddhism, of which peace and compassion are considered core principles. 

Rohingyas, largely to be found in the western Rakhine State, were full citizens of Myanmar until 1982 when the military rulers deprived them of their status of citizenship by enacting legislation and hence compounded their miseries. As a stateless community, the Rohingyas don't have access to state services and they are also denied political representation. 

The Rohingyas face discriminatory treatment at all levels of interaction with the state. The minority have been subjected to discriminatory population control measures and travel restrictions. The Rohingyas are also required by law to seek from authorities a permission certificate for marriage. When the current spate of violence erupted in 2012 - when the Muslim community was accused of raping a Buddhist woman - hundreds of Rohingyas attempted to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh but many had their boats intercepted and were sent back by the Bangladesh coast guards. 

The fusion of religion and state has always had disastrous results. The abuses have taken place against a backdrop of the former military junta in Myanmar seeking political legitimacy in its present "civilian" guise - and this has seen it use the Buddhist nationalism card to encourage hatred against the minority Muslim community. 

The recent transition to democracy in Myanmar has not eased the situation for Rohingyas and no political leader in Myanmar has condemned the Buddhist violence in unequivocal terms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, also keeps mum, as she does not want to spoil her chances of securing the presidency next year by alienating the majority group. 

But the most shocking aspect is the silence of the international community. At best, criticism by Western leaders has been muted and no strong warnings have been issued to the ruling elite. Last year, the International Crisis Group also conferred a peace award on Myanmar's President Thein Sein for initiating the process of political reforms. 

All the proposed reforms will fail to achieve a democratic and tolerant state unless all society is included in the process. The Rohingya story tells that, in non-inclusive societies, religion can be a cause of socio-economic marginalization and how vulnerable groups remain helpless against the excesses of the majority.

Nauman Asghar was Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan 2011. He has graduated in Law from University of Oxford and currently serves in the Civil Service of Pakistan. He has deep interest in politics and social issues.) 

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