Burma's Human Rights Blind Spot: A Compendium on Violence Against Rohingyas in June/July 2012
By virtue of its geography (great river valleys, plains, plateaus and mountain chains) and history (migration and settlement along the rivers and in the uplands) Burma is a multicultural crossroads of Southeast and South Asia. Peoples, ways of life and religions from the Indian subcontinent, Himalayas, Indo-China and beyond, have intermingled in a land which became a nation under British colonization and has struggled with ethnic identities ever since. Although the vast majority of inhabitants are Buddhists, with the overwhelmingly Buddhist Burmans the largest ethnic group, nearly all other religions are represented in the population. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism were among Burma's strengths in times of peace.
Unfortunately, military rule and the promulgation of ethnic-majority nationalism have been in effect since General Ne Win's takeover in 1962, and even in the post-British democracy of U Nu, establishment of Buddhism as a state religion appeared to sideline Burma's people of other faiths. Ne Win's dictatorship favored the assimilation of Buddhist groups like the Rakhines, Mons and Shans into a Burman nationalism, discouraging those peoples' knowledge of their own languages, civilized history and cultures. Targeting Christians and Muslims, Ne Win's armed forces often burned churches and mosques, torturing and killing pastors and imams.
In western Burma's Arakan State (aka Rakhine State), military rule brought decreased rights for the Buddhist Rakhine people and absolute denial of citizenship for the Muslim Rohingya people. The mass exodus of Rohingyas fleeing repression to neighboring Bangladesh took place in 1978 and 1991, resulting in tens of thousands of refugees cordoned off in squalid camps in Bangladesh or permanently stranded overseas (Gulf States, Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Thailand.) As Rohingyas left the northern Arakan region, particularly Buthidaung and Maungdaw, out of fear of extreme repression, Burma's post-1988 junta settled Buddhist Rakhine and Burman villagers in the area -- a scenario guaranteed to make both groups resent each other. Rohingyas who remained were often preyed upon by border security forces and other military personnel, and were severely restricted in rights such as marriage and travel. Military rape and other violent victimization of Rohingyas was well-documented by respected international human rights organizations.
While Rakhines and Rohingyas had coexisted peacefully in the past, there had long been an undercurrent of animosity between influential members of both groups. Rohingya anti-regime organizations had been kept out of alliances of anti-regime groups by Rakhine members. Many Rakhine pro-democracy activists accepted Ne Win's denial of the Rohingyas' citizenship, an apparent contradiction of their usual mistrust of the Burman-centric military regime. Rakhines and many Burmans expressed opinions that Muslims such as the Rohingyas, although a very small minority in Burma (probably less than 5%), intended to "take over" the entire country somehow. An uneasy relationship with populous neighboring Bangladesh apparently led to the Rakhines' and Burmans' fear that mass Bengali/Muslim migration into Burma -- with more landmass, though even more poor and far worse-governed and less free -- could happen. As disenfranchised, impoverished rural people who are ethnically and linguistically related to the Bengalis of Bangladesh's Chittagong region, the Rohingyas of northern Arakan were victims of such fears.
When Burma's military rule began to ease in 2011-2012, with civil society opening up and media access becoming available, it became apparent to longtime Burma observers that ethnic/religious minorities would remain vulnerable and might even face increased attacks. In times of change, sometimes old resentments come to the fore and spin out of control, as in the brutal mass attacks on ethnic Chinese when Indonesia took its first steps to democratization.
In Burma, riots against Chinese or Muslim minority populations have taken place even under military rule, perhaps allowed as a distraction from the real economic and political sources of popular discontent. In June 2012 this happened again, as violence spread rapidly through Arakan's main city, Sittwe (Akyab), towns and villages. Initially this was portrayed in international media as attacks from both sides, particularly against Rakhines by Rohingyas. By July 2012, it became apparent that Rohingyas had borne the brunt of most of the violence and were continuing to do so, as the government's troops ordered to stop communal violence were actually continuing the armed forces' long tradition of repressing the Rohingyas, rounding them up and driving them out. On July 11, 2012, President Thein Sein, lauded for bringing reforms to Burma, proposed to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the Rohingyas -- all of them -- could be deported to another country or placed in camps under the UNHCR as a final solution. The UNHCR declined this offer, with Kitty McKinsey, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, commenting, "Resettlement under the UHNCR program is only for recognized refugees. And people cannot be refugees in their own country. So it is not logical to talk about resettlement for people who are in their own country."
Some observers believe that the entire outbreak of attacks in June/July 2012 may be linked to the Burma government's desire to secure and depopulate (or repopulate) northern Arakan in preparation for large international resource projects such as the Shwe Gas pipelines and Kaladan river shipping and petroleum transport lines.
The role of Burma's newly censor-free press and internet social media in spreading inciteful hatred of the Rohingyas was obvious. The guilty pleasure of internet "flaming" with hate speech swept into Burma. What had been something of a secret came out in the open: that even some deeply committed Rakhine and Burman human rights activists do not believe that human rights should extend to Rohingyas, whom they consider "terrorist" interlopers. Instead of universal compassion ("metta" in Buddhist terms) there is a blind spot blocking out respect for Arakan's Muslim minority, with a strong overtone of racism based on "foreign" or "dark" South Asian physical appearance, once infamously described as "like ogres" by a member of Burma's diplomatic corps.
Leaders of opposition civil society such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, and Min Ko Naing and the 88 Generation Students did not respond to the June/July 2012 crisis by taking actions to protect the Rohingyas from state violence or civil unrest, and have spoken of the conflict in terms of controlling "immigration" rather than the need to reform discriminatory citizenship laws. Burma's Buddhist Sangha (clergy) largely failed to point out the need for Buddhist precepts of tolerance and nonviolence to be extended to Muslim neighbors. It should, however, be noted that the mainstream exile-founded Burma media, including The Irrawaddy, Mizzima News and the Democratic Voice of Burma have covered the violence in Arakan in a commendably fair and thorough manner.
This Project Maje compilation lists links to a selection of recent thoughtful and important coverage of the June/July 2012 violence in Arakan, with an emphasis on analysis. Project Maje DOES NOT endorse the content of the articles and reports in the links; they are presented for information so that journalists, humanitarian groups and others interested can easily read about the situation. The exception is the July 16, 2012 Refugees International sign-on statement "Civil Society Organisations Deeply Concerned by On-going violence against Stateless Rohingya in Myanmar and their Refoulement from Bangladesh" which Project Maje has endorsed. Project Maje was one of the first international observers to call attention to the Burma military regime's violations of Rakhine and Rohingya rights under military rule, dating back to the early 1990s, and has since been at the forefront on human rights and environmental issues which have affected both groups, as well as the indigenous Buddhist and Animist peoples of far northern Arakan bordering Chin State.
Project Maje views the late U Kyaw Hlaing and the late Gen. Khaing Raza (Arakan Army) as models of forward-thinking Rakhine leadership who valued peaceful Rakhine coexistance with Rohingyas, and cooperation in resisting Burma's dictatorship. Burma's Buddhists should be known for the bravery of 2007's monks chanting for compassion for all beings, not for ethnic cleansing against vulnerable religious minority civilians. Now that the hostility and resentment are completely out in the open, it is time for conflict resolution, legal reform and the prioritization of developing not only an economically improved Burma, but a new Burma where everyone really has equal rights.
NEWS AND ANALYSIS, JUNE 13 - JULY 19, 2012:
Myanmar: Abuses Against Rohingya Erode Human Rights Progress
Amnesty International, July 19, 2012
Rohingya Plight Highlighted in London
The Irrawaddy, July 18, 2012
Bangladesh Keeps Door Firmly Shut on Rohingya
Deutsche Welle, July 17, 2012
Shaikh Azizur Rahman
Civil Society Organisations Deeply Concerned by Ongoing Violence Against Stateless Rohingya in Myanmar and their Refoulement from Bangladesh
Refugees International, July 16, 2012
Western Burma in Conflict: Rights, Reconciliation, and the Rohingya
The Huffington Post, July 16, 2012
"Trauma Will Last Long Time": Ko Ko Gyi
The Irrawaddy, July 16, 2012
AIPMC Condemns Persecution, Killing of Rohingya Muslims
Mizzima News, July 16, 2012
Eva Kusuma Sundari, Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC)
Burma "Creating Humanitarian Crisis" With Displacement Camps in Arakan
The Guardian, Friday July 13, 2012
Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar
New York Times OpEd, July 12, 2012
Moshahida Sultana Ritu
Situation in Rakhine (Arakan) State and the Rule of Law
"Statement by Burma campaign groups worldwide", July 9, 2012
The Rohingya and the Denial of the "Right to Have Rights"
Democratic Voice of Burma, July 5, 2012
Burma: Mass Arrests, Raids on Rohingya Muslims
Human Rights Watch, July 5, 2012
Burning Homes, Sinking Lives
The Equal Rights Trust, July 2, 2012
The Rohingya, Myths and Misinformation
Democratic Voice of Burma, June 22, 2012
Rohingyas Coming in Again
The Daily Star, June 19, 2012
Julfikar Ali Manik and Dwaipayan Barua
A Friend's Appeal to Burma
Mizzima News, June 19, 2012
Remember the Rohingya
The Jakarta Post, Editorial, June 19, 2012
A Litmus Test for the New Burma
June 18, The Guardian, June 18, 2012
Myanmar Boat People Swap Violence for Desperation
Reuters, June 17, 2012
Internet Unshackled, Burmese Aim Venom at Ethnic Minority
New York Times, June 15, 2012
Burma Riots: What the Media Isn't Telling You
Asian Sentinel, June 14, 2012
Myanmar Conflict Spurs Hatred for Asia's Outcasts
Associated Press, June 14, 2012
Religious Leaders Call for Peace, UN Convoy Visits Arakan
Democratic Voice of Burma, June 13, 2012
Why Sectarian Conflict in Burma is Bad for Democracy
Foreign Policy, June 13, 2012
Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya
Kaladan Press, ongoing coverage
Perilous Plight: Burma's Rohingya Take to the Seas
Human Rights Watch, May 26, 2009
Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied
Amnesty International, May, 18 2004
Our Journey: Voices from Arakan, Western Burma
Project Maje, May 1991
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