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Persecution of the Rohingya

By Faisal Kutty
The Express Tribune
August 22, 2016

“It is not the United Nations,” said Ashin Wirathu, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Indeed according to Wirathu, a Buddhist monk dubbed by Time magazine the “The Face of Buddhist Terror”, even US President Barack Obama was duped by Muslims, and this is the reason why he spoke in defence of Rohingya rights during his visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 2014.

In fact, Wirathu believes that the conspiracy to defame Buddhists and Myanmar is even broader, because the world’s news media are also controlled by Islamic extremists. In his mind, this is why many media outlets have called him out on his hate. “They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” says Ashin Wirathu.

Human rights groups claim that Wirathu and his radical organisation, called 969, are the main forces behind sectarian riots that have killed scores and displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya (a million-strong ethnic Muslim minority living among more than 50 million Buddhists) since 2012. Over the last few years, entire villages inhabited by the Rohingya have been razed or forcibly displaced with scant global attention.

Disturbingly, evidence suggests he has significant support within 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, the government had set in place policies to render the Rohingya an oppressed group.

Global 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,” noted Timemagazine more than three years ago. But as the cover story went on to note, “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 minimised. In any event, whatever the impetus, their victims are real.

Last month, the European Parliament became the latest international body to highlight what it termed 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”.

Around the same time, the US State Department downgraded Myanmar to Tier 3 (lowest) on its closely watched annual Trafficking in Persons report, which examines 188 governments’ efforts in combating modern-day slavery. Rights groups welcomed it as long overdue.

A few weeks before that, a Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights issued a report calling on Canada to take note. The recommendations include reassessing the effectiveness of economic sanctions targeted against the military, Naypyidaw repealing discriminatory laws, restoration of full citizenship and rights to stateless persons, and calling on the government to allow humanitarian groups unrestricted access.

The Subcommittee report notes: “The extent of the Buddhist nationalists’ political influence was exemplified by the previous Myanmar (formerly Burma) government’s decision to ban the Rohingya from voting and running for elected office in the 2015 elections.” The report titled “Sentenced to a Slow Demise: The Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority” highlights the predicament of the more than a million-strong ethnic minority at the hands of Buddhist extremists with official complacency and impunity.

The International State Crime Initiative at the University of London released a report in November 2015 stating that the Rohingya now face 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 all suggested that the pogroms may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

While debate rages about whether they are indigenous to Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state or migrants from Bangladesh, the undisputed fact is that they have inhabited Myanmar for hundreds of years. Indeed, a British survey confirmed a population of 58,255 in just the state of Arakan dating back to 1891. Today they number 4,000 in a ghetto in the capital of Rakhine state.

Due to repressive government initiatives (denial of citizenship, forced labour, sexual assault, a restrictive two-child policy, etc.) and hate from fellow countrymen, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. According to Matthew Smith, executive director of human rights group Fortify Rights, 150,000 live in ghettos which are essentially internal displacement camps, while 500,000 who sought asylum in Bangladesh live in squalor. The Dhaka government strapped with its own problems has refused to allow comprehensive aid or resettlement initiatives.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights wrote in 2015: “The longstanding persecution of Rohingya has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea [in the region] since the US war in Vietnam.”

As if to assist the efforts of Wirathu and those of his ilk to single out victims, Myanmar banned its officials from referring to the oppressed minority as Rohingya, instead insisting they be called “people who believe in Islam”.

Four months after democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi wrested power from the military in national elections, calls to end the mistreatment of the Rohingya have been ignored. In fact, the Nobel Laureate also refuses to use the name ‘Rohingya’, because they are not considered citizens of Myanmar. More disturbingly, she revealed her own prejudice when after a heated interview with a BBC reporter, Mishal Husain, she was reportedly heard to say angrily, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

The question of Myanmar is about more than democratisation, it should also be about ensuring protection, fairness, and justice for all of its people. The plight of the Rohingya is inhumane. It is high time for donors to leverage their aid, and for the broader international community to pressure the Suu Kyi government to end the repression. It is well past the time to demand that Myanmar respect international law, end its complicity in violating Rohingya rights and punish those promoting and carrying out ethnic cleansing whatever their motivation.

The writer is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. He tweets @faisalkutty

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