By Dr Habib Siddiqui
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recently issued its report on Myanmar (Burma).
The key findings of the USCIRF are: “In 2014, religious and ethnic minorities in Burma continued to experience intolerance, discrimination, and violence, particularly Rohingya Muslims. Bigotry and chauvinism against religious and ethnic minorities grew more pervasive, in some cases provoked by religious figures within the Buddhist community, while the Burmese government demonstrated little willingness to intervene, investigate properly, or prosecute those responsible for abuses in a timely and transparent manner. While the government, at times, denounced violence and incitement, its lack of strong and consistent leadership to condemn intolerance enabled abuses to continue relatively unchecked. Throughout 2014, the expansion of Internet availability and social media played a role in propagating expressions of hatred and spurring violence directed against minority populations. The introduction of four discriminatory race and religion bills in 2014 could well further entrench such prejudices. Based on these systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations, USCIRF continues to recommend in 2015 that Burma be designated as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The State Department has designated Burma a CPC since 1999, most recently in July 2014.”
During its August 2014 meetings in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, the USCIRF pointed out Burma’s failure to redress serious violations of human rights of the minority Rohingya and other persecuted folks. And yet, when Burma’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, U Wunna Maung Lwin, addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2014, he audaciously claimed that his country had addressed “all major concerns related to human rights” and should be removed from the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda. Obviously, the rogue state is not getting its message right and continues to live in denial.
Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are the most persecuted people who face a unique level of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and the denial of basic rights that is simply unknown in our time. The government denies them citizenship, which precludes them from ever attaining equal status in law or practice. They also are denied the right to self-identify as Rohingya because many, including the government, claim that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from next-door Bangladesh. In fact, a partially implemented pilot verification program in the northern Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State forced Rohingya Muslims to identify as Bengali if they wanted to apply for citizenship, or face indefinite confinement in camps with limited rights, mobility, and access to services.
What is worse, the government representatives at both the central level and within Rakhine State have reacted strongly to the use of the term Rohingya by the international community, particularly the United Nations. Rohingya Muslims are also now among those who will be ineligible to vote in the constitutional referendum expected in May 2015 and likely the general elections later in the year.
More than 100,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Burma by boat since 2012, seeking a better life but often facing trafficking, exploitation, and deplorable living conditions. Mass graves of 32 Rohingyas have lately been unearthed in an encampment in the jungle near a town called Padang Baser on the Thai-Malaysia border. The involvement of the Thai officials with the human traffickers has long been known, which has contributed to the misery of the fleeing Rohingyas. They are treated in Thailand as “illegal immigrants” subject to deportation without regard to the threats facing them in Myanmar. Rohingya men are sometimes detained in overcrowded immigration detention facilities across the country, while women and children have been sent to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Many more are believed to be transferred through corrupt arrangements into the hands of human trafficking gangs where they face cruel treatment and no prospect of assistance from Thai authorities. As with previous Thai governments, the military junta of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha does not permit the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to properly conduct refugee status determination screenings of Rohingya.
The 2014 census, Myanmar’s first in more than 30 years, largely excluded Rohingya Muslims if they identified their ethnicity as Rohingya, and counts of ethnic minorities were not conducted in large parts of Kachin State. Rohingya Muslims, who were issued the White Cards which since then have been confiscated by the government, are barred from participating in the coming election. What future awaits them next is still unknown. In fear of losing their identity – the proof of their birth and existence in the land of their forefathers – many Rohingya Muslims have refused to handover their White Cards.
The USCIRF report underscores the toxic and sinister influence of fascist elements within the Buddhist community in deciding the fate of Myanmar. At the prompting of ultra-chauvinist Buddhists and with the support of the central government, Burma’s 2015 session of parliament opened with consideration of a package of four race and religion bills that would further restrict religious freedom and discriminate against all minority faiths in matters of conversions, marriages, and births, mostly to restrict the rights of Muslims. Even visits to the country and expressions of concern by high level UN representatives about religious and ethnic minorities were met with rebukes, protests, and even vitriolic language from Rakhine State and national-level officials, as well as Buddhist monks in this den of hatred called Myanmar. Many such protests were orchestrated by the government – central and local.
In January 2014, violence directed at Rohingya Muslims in Arakan resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people. The government’s investigation, however, concluded that only a policeman was killed in the violence, effectively denying the civilian Rohingya deaths despite detailed information provided by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and others. MSF’s role in reporting publicly the killings contributed to its nearly year-long expulsion from Myanmar. Other international organizations have had difficulty trying to provide assistance to Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, mostly due to the reactions of hostile Rakhine Buddhists who displayed unfathomable intolerance and hatred towards the Rohingya and other Muslims.
Inter-communal violence in Mandalay in July 2014 resulted in the deaths of two men – one Muslim and one Buddhist – as well as several injuries and vandalized property (almost all belonging to the Muslim community), including the burning of a mosque and several copies of the Qur’an inside. The violence was spurred by a blog post about an alleged rape, later proven to be fabricated, that was circulated online and posted to the Facebook page of Wirathu – the terrorist monk of Mandalay who enjoys wide support inside the Buddhist community. Soon thereafter, the members of his 969 fascist group viciously attacked the local Muslims and had it not been for the efforts of the Mandalay Peace Keeping Committee, a non-governmental group comprised of religious and community leaders of various faiths, and others who had intervened the situation could have deteriorated further.
Visits by the members of the international NGOs to the IDP camps for internally displaced persons in Meiktila and the Rakhine state have repeatedly revealed that much progress remains in finding a durable solution for the persecuted communities.
The USCIRF report noted that expressions of intolerance toward Muslims by senior political and Buddhist leaders are on the rise in Burma, particularly among those who seek to advance anti-Muslim agendas of hate and discrimination. The growing use of social media to communicate messages of intolerance has exacerbated tensions and encouraged violence. However, intolerance is not only limited to online platforms or attacks on Muslims; those rejecting anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination have also been targeted. For example, former National League for Democracy (NLD) official Htin Lin Oo is facing criminal charges of religious defamation and hurting religious feelings for speaking out, in his capacity as a writer, against religious nationalism and the use of Buddhism for extremist purposes in a public speech at an October 2014 literary event. After drawing the ire of Buddhist monks for allegedly insulting the faith, NLD relieved him of his position within the party and he was formally detained and indicted in December 2014. He faces three years in jail. As I have noted before there is no denying that genocidal campaign against Muslims has become a national project with deep rooted support enjoyed from top to bottom of Myanmar’s Buddhist community.
Many of the Buddhist hate provocateurs continue to play their sinister role to incite violence which has led to genocidal activities against the targeted minorities like the Rohingya Muslims. They need to be caught, tried for war crimes and punished. Interestingly, many such inciters of genocidal crimes live in places like the USA, the UK, Germany and Japan (just to name a few countries). For instance, Aye Chan who teaches at Kanda University lives in Japan. The governments of these countries must list such nationals for their evil deeds including inciting to violence. In the USA, such war criminals ought to be included in the “specially designated nationals” list by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) with respect to individuals who have participated in human rights abuses, including religious freedom violations, such as by instigating, carrying out, or supporting publicly anti-Muslim violence and discrimination.
I am afraid that as long as we continue to let these hate provocateurs get away scot-free we shall continue to see the suffering of the Rohingya and other persecuted peoples, and all these USCIRF reports won’t be worth the paper on which these are written.
The USCIRF has recommended that the United States and the international community should continue to press the government of Burma to prioritize religious freedom and related human rights. Respecting the rights and dignity of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Rohingya Muslims, is critical to the reform process, and the United States should continue to stress this consistently at every level of its engagement with Burma. It urged the US government to engage the government of Burma, the Buddhist community and especially its leaders, and religious minorities on issues of religious freedom, tolerance, inclusivity, and reconciliation to assist them in promoting understanding among people of different religious faiths and to impress upon them the dangers of de-linking political improvements from improvements in religious tolerance and religious freedom; use the term Rohingya, both publicly and privately, in respect for the Rohingya Muslim community’s right to identify as they choose; encourage crucial legal and legislative reform that strengthens protections for religious and ethnic minorities, including citizenship for the Rohingya population through the review, amendment, or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law or some other means, and support the proper training of local government officials, lawyers, judges, police, and security forces tasked with implementing, enforcing, and interpreting the rule of law; continue to support the unconditional release of all persons detained for the peaceful exercise of religious freedom and related human rights.
The USA government, disappointingly, beyond keeping an existing arms embargo, has softened considerably its attitude towards Myanmar, which it continues to call by its former name Burma. Since President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s visits, trade and commerce with the pariah state has grown sharply. Myanmar has benefitted tremendously as billions of dollars have poured into the country from greedy investors further solidifying the regime’s grip on the once impoverished country while true reform remains absent or a thing of a distant future.
Since 2012, many Rohingyas have lost everything that they once possessed. Some 140,000 of them are forced to live inside concentration camps, the so-called IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps. The living condition there is simply deplorable and as recently noted in the Newsweek, it is also dangerous for Muslims. Akyab (now called Sittwe), the town, which was home to many Rohingyas who gave its original name, is now a town without any Muslim to be seen, painfully reminding what has gone so wrong there. Before their recent plight, the Muslim population comprised roughly half the total population in the town. They have been ethnically cleansed by the terrorist Rakhine Buddhists as part of a very organized and sinister plan.
To quote from the Newsweek article, “A tense normality has returned to Sittwe, but there are no Muslims to be seen. They are either in the ghettos sealed by police, or in the camps outside. Nazir quarter where they once lived is now an empty lot, reclaimed by tropical vegetation. But few of the Rohingya I spoke to have any doubt about the ultimate aim of this segregation. ‘The extremists want to ethnic cleanse,’ Mojuma Begum said. ‘They want to carry out genocide.’ A fear confirmed by the chilling words of a young Rakhine refugee. ‘I want to kill the Muslims,’ said Aung Ko Naing. ‘Many feel like me… I want to get rid of them all.’”
That is a grim reminder again of the genocide that is taking place inside Myanmar. The powerful states of our time, sadly, are too keen on making money and doing business, and have done nothing substantial that protects the victims. It is shameful!