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Canada must pressure Burma to end abuse of Muslim minority

Nationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu speaks during a rally in Myanmar. "Human rights activists claim that Wirathu and his group, called 969, are the main forces behind riots that have killed scores and displaced thousands of Rohingya (a million strong ethnic Muslim minority living among more than 50 million Buddhists) since 2012," writes Faisal Kutty. (KHIN MAUNG WIN / AP FILE PHOTO)

By Faisal Kutty
August 1, 2016

Hate movement led by Buddhist Monk Wirathu has significant support in Burma and the acquiescence of the government.

“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” says Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk dubbed by Time as the “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Human rights activists claim Wirathu and his group, called 969, are the main forces behind riots that have killed scores and displaced thousands of Rohingya (a million strong ethnic Muslim minority living among more than 50 million Buddhists) since 2012.

Disturbingly, evidence suggests his hate movement has significant support in the country and even the acquiescence of the government. In fact, decades before Wirathu, described by some as the “Buddhist Bin Laden,” came on the scene, various state policies existed singling out the Rohingya.

The Canadian government may be finally forced to take a serious look.

A few weeks ago, a Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights issued a report titled “Sentenced to a Slow Demise” highlighting the plight of these stateless persons. Among the 12 recommendations are: Reassess the effectiveness of economic sanctions against the military, demand that authorities repeal discriminatory laws, restore full citizenship and rights to the minority, and calling on the government to end its complacency and allow humanitarian groups access.

Global and Canadian reaction appears to be too little, but hopefully not too late. Some attribute the hesitation on disbelief about the religious identity of the perpetrators. “In the reckoning of religious extremism — Hindu nationalists, Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews — Buddhism has largely escaped trial,” notes Time. But as the cover story went on to state, “Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.”

As with most violence attributed to religious causes, the nuances of political and social influences are mostly minimized. In any event, whatever the impetus, their victims are real.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament became the latest international body to highlight what it termed as the “brutal repression” and “systematic persecution” of this group. The Resolution also noted that the Rohingya are “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” The U.S. State Department also downgraded Burma to Tier 3 (lowest) on its annual Trafficking in Persons report.

In a 2015 report, the International State Crime Initiative at the University of London alleged the Rohingya were facing the final stages of state-sponsored genocide. While most shy away from the term genocide, rights groups, include Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations have suggested the pogroms may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

While debate rages about whether they are indigenous or migrants from Bangladesh, the undisputed fact is that they have lived in Burma for hundreds of years. Indeed, a British survey confirmed a population of 58,255 in just the state of Arakan (now Rakhine) dating back to 1891.

Repressive government initiatives (forced labour, sexual assault, two child policy, etc.) and hate from fellow countrymen have had serious consequences. 

An Association of Southeast Asian Nations-linked human rights group noted in 2015, “The long-standing persecution of Rohingya has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea [in the region] since the U.S. war in Vietnam.” 

Meanwhile, Matthew Smith, executive director of human rights group Fortify Rights, says 150,000 live in internal displacement camps, while 500,000 asylum seekers live in squalor in Bangladesh, with little to no help from the already strapped Dhaka government.

As if to assist the efforts of Wirathu and those of his ilk to single out victims, Burma banned its officials from using the name “Rohingya,” insisting that they be called “people who believe in Islam.”

Months after democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi won the country’s first national elections, calls to end the mistreatment of the Rohingya fall on deaf ears. In fact, the Nobel Laureate herself refuses to use the name “Rohingya.” More disturbingly, her own prejudices were revealed when, after a heated interview with BBC reporter, Mishal Husain, she was reportedly heard angrily saying, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

Burma should be about more than democratization, it should also be about ensuring protection, fairness, and justice for all its people. It’s high time for donors to leverage their aid, and for the broader global community to pressure the Suu Kyi government to end repression. 

The subcommittee report calls on our government to submit a formal response within 120 days. Ottawa must do better and demand that Burma respect international law end its complicity and punish those responsible.

Faisal Kutty is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. @faisalkutty.

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