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July 19, 2012

The Tragedy of Burmese Muslims

The Canadian Charger

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Muslims have been victims of discrimination and human rights violations in Burma for many decades. General Aung San, father of modern Burma, envisioned a more open nation with respect for differences. Aung Son, head of the Burma Independence Army and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, managed to maneuver the British into agreeing to Burmese independence, but he and much of his cabinet were murdered in 1947 in a coup d’état before independence.

Aung San was reaching out to Burmese minorities to grant them minority rights, satisfying many but not all.  For example, the Karens, with a sizeable Christian (Methodist) minority, undertook an armed revolt.  However, with the coup all recognition of minority rights was off, and many armed revolts erupted. 

Roughly a third of the Burmese population is made up of a large number of ethnic minorities.  Muslim Rohingyas make up around 4% of the population.  Unlike other minority groups, they are not seen as Burmese citizens but as illegal immigrants.  This in spite of a very long history of Muslims in the Rakhine (Arakan) sector of what is now Burma (or Myanmar). 

Burma’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, was responsible for making Buddhism the state religion.  He was overthrown in 1962 by General Ne Win, who expelled Muslims from the army.  Turning to more recent times, Burma was the scene of an anti-Muslim riot in reaction to the Taliban destruction of the world-famous Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan.  Bigotry begets bigotry.  Another riot occurred because of damage by unknown persons to a statue of Buddha in Mandalay. 

The most recent major outburst against the Rohingyas specifically began in June of last year.  It started in reaction to the rape and murder of a Rakhine (Arakan) Buddhist woman by three Muslim men.  Ten Muslims were hauled off a bus and killed by a Buddhist mob and Burmese troops.  Following this atrocity, there have been killings and property destruction on the part of both Buddhist and Muslim mobs, with people of good will on both sides condemning the mayhem. 

Homes and businesses have been destroyed.  Muslims have been tortured, raped, and murdered.  Displaced Rohingyas have been placed in concentration camps.  Aid workers warn of malnutrition, if not starvation.  Buddhist monks have blocked food transports, and aid workers have been driven out and arrested.

Looking at the situation from a longer perspective, since 1978, Amnesty International reported on the Rohingya situation:

“The Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Burma citizenship.  They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage.  Rohingyas continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labour in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade.

“In 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army.  Officially this campaign aimed at ‘scrutinizing each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking action against foreigners who had filtered into the country illegally.’  This military campaign directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and further religious persecution.

“During 1991-92 a new wave of over a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.  They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape.”

Over the years, Rohingyas have fled to neighboring countries, some to Bangladesh which borders with their section of Burma, some to Thailand.  Neither country is receptive.  Bangladesh is negotiating with Burma to return Rohingyas.  There have been instances where boats of Rohingyas reaching Thailand have been towed out to sea and allowed to sink. 

Faisal, the late Saudi King, welcomed Rohingya refugees, but with his passing the attitude has shifted.  Syed Neaz Ahmad, a British academic who found himself in a Saudi prison for some unknown reason, reported in an article in the Guardian in 2009 that some 3000 Rohingya families were in Saudi prisons awaiting deportation.  At the time, it was unclear who would accept them. 

Who will help the desperate Rohingyas?  Who will demand that the new “reformist” government of Burma allow aid workers back into the camps, give Rohingyas citizenship, and protect their rights?

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M. Elmasry

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