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A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Aman Ullah 
RB Opinion
March 28, 2016

"The war ? I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!" [Tucholsky's diplomat]

Rohingya and other Muslims have faced torture, neglect, and repression in Burma for many years. A large number of Rohingyas are believed to have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in attacks by extremists who call themselves Buddhists.

Burmese government refuses to recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and labels them as “illegal” immigrants. About 1.3 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine are deprived of citizenship rights due to the policy of discrimination that has denied them the right of citizenship and made them vulnerable to acts of violence and persecution, expulsion, and displacement. 

The plight of the Rohingya was once again flung onto the world stage last year when a number of boats filled with passengers fleeing persecution were thwarted from docking at a number of different shores across the region. This journey is by no means uncommon: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have made this journey over the last few decades, despite it being one of the most deadly irregular migration routes in the world.

The violence that originally targeted Rohingya Muslims in western Burma has spread to other parts of the country, where Muslims who have been granted citizenship are being attacked, according to reports. The Government of Burma has been accused of failing to protect the Muslim minority.

These policies of discrimination are far from being an exaggeration. In 2012 for example, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko, the then Burmese Home Minister, told in the parliament that the authorities were, “tightening the regulations [against Rohingya] in order to handle travelling, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, construction of new religious buildings, repairing and land ownership and right to construct building [sic] of Bengalis [Rohingya] under the law.”

This complete dehumanization of the Rohingya has become commonplace throughout Burma and the region, and has infiltrated political and religious discourse. Important government officials have referred to them as ‘viruses’ and ‘foreign entities’ and many important Buddhist leaders have fuelled this kind of sentiment using social media and anti-Muslim rallies.

The abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya population have been flagged by a number of organizations including the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the results are chilling.

Accusations of rape, torture, forced removals; forced labour, child labour, detention and killings are widespread and have been well-documented. Further, there have been major restrictions placed upon Rohingya reproductive rights, the ability to move freely and access to basic social services. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division has called the Rohingya the ‘world’s most forgotten, abused people’, and the UN has called them ‘one of the most persecuted minorities in the world’.

According to Prof. Schabas, one of the foremost experts on international criminal law, “We’re moving into a zone where the word can be used (in the case of the Rohingya). When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they really are eventually, that they no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”

International journalists, genocide scholars, human rights researchers and humanitarian aid workers have all acknowledged Burmese persecution of these Muslim minority people. In the last several years, a growing international consensus is emerging as to the nature of the crime: Human Rights Watch has described the persecution of the Rohingya as ‘ethnic cleansing’ while several major empirical studies published by the University of Washington Law School, Yale University Law Clinic, Queen Mary University of London International State Crime Initiative and Al Jazeera English Investigative Unit have accused Burmese military government of commissioning the crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Virtually, every iconic leader in the world – from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis to Desmond Tutu and George Soros to the youngest Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yusufzai has called for the end of Rohingya persecution and restoration of their full citizenship rights.

Even U Nyan Win, a spokesperson of Daw Suu once said that, ‘Rohingyas are entitled to “human rights”’. In his proper words, Nyan Win said that “If they [the Rohingyas] are not accepted (as citizens), they cannot just be sent onto rivers. Can't be pushed out to sea. They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights”.

However, it did not come out of the mouth of Daw Suu. On being asked about the attacks on Rohingya Muslims Suu Kyi claimed that it was "not ethnic cleansing" and said: "Muslims have been targeted but also Buddhists have been subject to violence. There's fear on both sides."

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

In a shocking turn of events, a new book on Suu Kyi (The Lady and The Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle For Freedom by Peter Popham) reveals how the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide in the recently concluded general elections in Burma, had made a grossly offensive statement about being interviewed by BBC presenter Mishal Husain.

An off-the-record comment by Sui Kyi, just after she was pressed by Husain to make her stance clear on the thorny issue of Burma's Rohingya Muslims, a minority oppressed by the country's majority Buddhists, went like this: "No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim!"

When Husain asked if the now 70-year-old Suu Kyi condemned the anti-Muslim persecutions and massacres, the Lady became defensive and said: "I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons. This is a result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime."

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