Disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi
By Fawad Kaiser
December 26, 2016
For Rohingyas, the alternative to fighting is flight. But, unless something changes, life is so bad for Rohingyas in Myanmar that thousands more will try to escape on rickety boats in their attempt to find safe heavens ashore
Conditions for Muslims have steadily declined in Myanmar, with the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State left with facing the gravest threat. Although about a million Rohingya Muslims among Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist 52 million people have lived in Myanmar for generations, most people view them as foreign intruders from neighbouring Bangladesh. They face discrimination and violence from the Buddhist majority in the country, and their plight is getting unnoticed by the world at large, even though some rights activists say their persecution amounts to ethnic cleansing.
In 2012, the country was rocked by the worst sectarian violence in over 50 years, resulting in over 200 killed and 140,000 displaced — most of them being the Rohingya. A campaign of hate speech that actively dehumanises Muslims plays a key role in sustaining violence across Myanmar. This is not limited to the Rohingya, and in fact, anti-Muslim sentiment has evolved to the point that a range of anti-Muslim prejudices has now normalised in mainstream Burmese discourse. A tense inter-faith atmosphere has resulted in Muslim grievances finding an unreceptive ear even among many liberal and pro-democracy activists, and small triggers have been seen rapidly escalating into mob violence.
The army has been accused of carrying out a bloody crackdown leading thousands of the long-persecuted Muslim minority to cross the border into Bangladesh. Human rights watch groups have reported horrifying claims of gang rape, torture and murder at the hands of security forces. Around 30,000 have fled their homes and analysis of satellite images by Human Rights Watch found hundreds of buildings in Rohingya villages have been burned. On the contrary Burmese government officials have denied allegations of abuse and claims army is hunting “terrorists.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who famously led democracy efforts in the country, has been accused of failing to protect the Rohingya. Despite holding enormous influence in Myanmar, she has remained quiet, only saying an investigation into the reports of atrocities was underway. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize insists on underlining the Rohingya’s foreignness by referring to them as “Bengalis” and argues that the government’s response to the attack is based on “the rule of law.” The repeated dismissal of the claims of gross human rights violations as fabrications, coupled with the failure to allow independent monitors access to the worst affected areas in northern Rakhine, is highly insulting to the victims and an abdication of the government’s obligations under international human rights law.
Meanwhile, most humanitarian assistance has been cut off to the area. UNICEF has warned that thousands of malnourished children are in danger of starving and lack medical care. The government must immediately allow aid to reach those in need. The United Nations and the United States are calling for an impartial investigation into the violence, and Human Rights Watch is urging the government to invite the United Nations to assist. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to save her reputation as a human rights champion and should extend that invitation to stand tall. There has been a great disappointment that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi whose political party took power in Myanmar after decades of military rule, has failed to ease the plight of Rohingya despite her reputation as a fighter for human rights.
The root of the violence appears a legacy of colonial years partly when Indians, many of them Muslims, arrived in the country as civil servants and soldiers, stirring resentment among Burmese Buddhists. Over the years radical monks have built on those historic grievances, fanning fears that Muslims are having more children than Buddhists and could dilute the country’s Buddhist character. Some Muslims with means have fled to Malaysia or Singapore. Muslim-owned businesses are losing Buddhist customers. A growing Buddhist movement known as 969 that has the blessing of some of the country’s leaders is campaigning for a boycott of Muslim products and businesses and a ban on interfaith marriages. The movement says it is not involved in violence, but critics say that, at the least, hate-filled sermons are helping to inspire the killings.
Against this backdrop, a network of ultra-nationalist monks organised as the “Ma Ba Tha” (the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) has grown rapidly. The Ma Ba Tha has been formally active since only 2014 when it was established, but it has already grown into one of Myanmar’s most powerful socio-political forces. In 2015, it achieved huge success. Most notable was the passage of all four ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’ that the Ma Ba Tha had proposed and lobbied for. These laws are prejudiced, and largely target against key beliefs of Burmese Muslim society, and significantly overlap on their religious and social freedoms. These legislative actions are backed by a well-organised mass messaging campaign that takes into the group the various anti-Muslim discriminations hidden across society, and packages them into a coherent narrative that has mass appeal.
Despite these dreadful provocations, most of the Rohingyas have so far remained comparably pacific. Others, however, are more militant on their behalf, provoking fears of an Islamist backlash against Myanmar, or even Buddhism in general.
So far Rakhine has not turned into another Syria, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Kashmir, mounting a battlefield for angry young foreign jihadists because foreign fighters these days are drawn mainly to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq since it offers them group conformity and war for a Caliph rather than defending poor farmers and fishers. Secondly, Myanmar has kept its borders well secured, making it hard for foreign jihadists to reach the prospective battlefield. And thirdly, as Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian expert on Islamism, explains, militants “don’t go to where Muslims suffer; they go to where Muslims fight.” Rakhine today has more killing fields than battlefields. But risks and odds can change.
After decades of peaceful coexistence with the Buddhist majority in the country, Muslims say they now constantly fear the next attack. Over the past year, several violent episodes across the country led by rampaging Buddhist mobs have taught them that if violence comes to their neighbourhood, they are on their own. For Rohingyas, the alternative to fighting is flight. But, unless something changes, life is so bad for Rohingyas in Myanmar that thousands more will try to escape on rickety boats in their attempt to find safe heavens ashore.
The writer is a professor of Psychiatry and Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist in the UK. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org