The House Foreign Affairs/Asia Sub-committee of the U.S. Congress held a hearing on September 19 to examine the current political environment inside Burma (Myanmar), the growing human right abuses among its ethnic groups, and assess U.S. policy towards the country. Amongst other dignitaries Professor Wakar Uddin of the Arakan Rohingya Union, Tom Andrews of End Genocide and Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma were invited as guests to answer a series of questions on the above subject. Hearings of this kind suggest that the U.S. Congress is mindful of Myanmar and is interested to better the situation for all inside the country. I welcome such an initiative wholeheartedly.
Here below would have been my responses on a series of questions posed by the sub-committee.
Q1. To what extent the political situation in Burma has changed over the last two years? How has this impacted the people of Burma?
Answer: In my opinion, the changes that have happened in the state of Myanmar in the last couple of years are mostly cosmetic and not genuine. I wish I could have sounded more optimistic. But I can’t and I shall share why I feel this way.
On the positive side, hundreds of political prisoners (almost all Buddhists) have been released from the prisons where once they had been rotting for years. On the negative side, they were released conditionally with the threat that they could be re-imprisoned to serve the remainder of their long prison sentences.
There is even a parliament (with members coming mostly from the armed forces) that discusses national issues, but the debates there don’t reflect an environment of a genuine democracy. Important issues affecting the future of the state, the role of military, the nature of the ’emerging democracy’ and federation needed for Myanmar to survive in the 21st century as a united country that is composed of many races, ethnicities and religions are mostly ignored.
The Burmese military showed no sign of reform and in June 2011 it attacked the Kachin Independence Army ending their 17 year ceasefire. In March of this year, it also broke the ceasefire with the Shan State Army.
People, especially the minorities – ethnic and religious – are discriminated in every strata of the society – from local levels to federal state of the government administration. As a matter of fact the situation of the minority Muslims have become much worse than any time before. The minority Rohingyas are still denied their basic rights to citizenship in spite of the fact that they are indigenous to the Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingya and other Muslim prisoners of conscience still continue to languish in Burmese prisons. Many of these prisoners have lost everything that they once owned. Sadly, many of the Rohingya political prisoners, previously uncharged all those years, are all on a sudden charged with fictitious crimes which they never committed, with the objective of excluding them from getting released under mounting international pressure to release of political prisoners. Worse still, in recent ethnic cleansing drives since May of last year while the victims were overwhelmingly Muslims almost all the prisoners related to such pogroms have been Muslims, aged from 8 to 60 plus years old, who are sentenced anywhere from 7 years to life imprisonment terms. Only in Mogher mulluk can one witness such travesty of justice!
The government has not allowed freedom of trade unions to operate freely within the prevalent laws.
There is no journalistic freedom to report from war-torn and riot (or more correctly pogrom) affected areas and express views that may be critical of the government.
The Myanmar government policy continues to advocate deportation of the Rohingya Muslims, unless, of course, they can be eliminated inside. Neo-Nazi Fascism is at an all time high inside much of Myanmar where the minority Muslims are forced to live a life of traumatic fear and absolute insecurity. In recent days, three Kaman Muslim villages in Thandwe Township have been set on fire by the extremist Rakhine Buddhists. Instead of much anticipated security and integration, insecurity and marginalization to the level of wholesale extinction have, sadly, become the lot of the minority Muslims in this ‘new’ Myanmar. They face ever increasing mob violence that is directed against them with full support from top to bottom – from those in administration to the security forces and local racist Buddhist politicians and extremist Buddhist monks. Sadly, there is no Buddhist voice of conscience except probably that of U Gambira condemning such ethnic cleansing drives against minority Muslims. If this situation is allowed to continue unchecked the Rohingyas of Myanmar will become an extinct people in our time.
Succinctly put, while the outside world is mildly amused with the political reforms initiated by the administration of President Thein Sein, such reforms are too little and far between to address the more pressing issues of Myanmar – its fractured society that is divided along ethnicities, nationalities, races, religions, etc., and the role of the politicians, government officials, and the society at large to building the foundations for a stable and viable democracy in this otherwise multi-racial, -religious, -ethnic country. Unless the reforms are genuine by all intent and purpose, I am afraid that Myanmar will continue to bleed internally widening the gaps between religious and ethnic communities, creating an environment in which Buddhist monk-encouraged, racist politicians-motivated and government supported pogroms against vulnerable minorities would become the norms and not the exceptions. This would have, something already witnessed, a very adverse impact in the entire South Asia and South-East Asia leading to permanent chaos, conflict, regional insecurity, and instability – none of which is desirable for our world. As a resource rich but structurally and technologically weak, Myanmar cannot afford such an outcome.
Q2. Has the Obama Administration moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma and increasing its overall engagement efforts over the last two years?
Answer: As any expert would tell the regimes like those of Thein Sein crave for opportunities that give a lift to their legitimacy. The visits of the former Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton and President Barak Obama to the state of Myanmar are what the Myanmar’s new government craved for its public image and to boost its standing at home and abroad. Such visits gave the impression that the U.S. government is okay with the so-called reform efforts and the direction in which Myanmar is heading.
When the Thein Sein government was guilty of advocating Nazi-type solution for the Rohingya Muslims in July of 2012, the Obama administration issued waivers lifting financial and investment sanctions on Myanmar. In September-October of 2012 the US government lifted restrictions on international financial institutions assistance to Burma. In November President Obama waived the majority of the import ban on Burma.
Naturally, with all the sanctions almost lifted, there is no bar any more for any U.S. company to do business with this government, which still runs an apartheid state by any definition. Farmers and entire ethnic and religious minorities are removed forcibly from their ancestral lands in anticipation of lucrative foreign investments there. The Burmese Parliament has passed two laws that legalize land confiscation – the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law – taking people’s ability to fight for their land rights.
As expected, the pace of reform slowed down drastically after the sanctions were lifted. Thus, in my opinion, the Obama Administration has moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma. What was required was a slow – give and take policy in which the new regime had to prove its sincerity for true reform before it could extract such political, economic, trade privileges or concessions from the USA.
The lifting of sanctions has been very counterproductive and damaging on the human rights front sanctifying violent and inhuman actions of the government as if those practices are okay. Thus, what we have been witnessing is an evolving face of Genocide of Muslims of Myanmar, which is no longer limited to the Rakhine state, but spread all over Myanmar. And, there is no other way around to describe this ugliness. In one particular incident this year in Meiktila Township in central Myanmar, as documented by the Physicians for Human Rights, 32 Muslim students were massacred by Buddhist mob and local authorities after hunting them down during the night. An MP, the police commissioner, security forces and hundreds of Buddhists watched the monstrosity as those unfortunate Muslim students were lynched to death one after another in a very calculated way. The pits where the students’ bodies were buried had been pre-dug, once again indicating the premeditated nature of the crime.
Many observers see, thus, easing of U.S. sanctions as highly hypocritical in which U.S. policies are considered opportunistic and short-sighted that are more dollar-pleasing and conscience-starving! It is morally bankrupt and ill-advised, to say the least.
Q3. Do you agree with the Obama Administration’s decision to start military-to-military relations with Burma?
Answer: I find the decision of the Obama administration quite problematic for a plethora of reasons. As a concerned citizen of this planet, my preference would have been to avoid military relationship with any government that is guilty of some of the worst crimes of our time.
A visit to the ethnic territories in the Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karen states inside today’s Myanmar and/or a mere research on what the Tadmadaw – the Burmese military and its hated NASAKA have done or have been doing for years would have been sufficient to show the unfathomed inhumanity and brutality of the apartheid regime. The Burmese military continues to practice and adopt means that are illegal and unacceptable per international laws and are simply criminal to the core. Such practices need to be condemned by all, and surely, not condoned.
So when a government like the USA, which is respected around the globe for its advocacy and promotion of law and order, human rights and integration of all people, is seen cooperating with a government that epitomizes intolerance, abuse, racism and bigotry and is known as the worst den of hatred and inhumanity in our time – it sends a very wrong message. It is immoral and wrong. The military collaboration with Myanmar should have been shunned and not promoted.
Having said that it would be foolish of anyone to ignore the important role played by the Burmese military (Tadmadaw) in all things related to Myanmar. It has a long history dating back to the colonial times. It has ruled the country for almost its entire life. Her much celebrated founder Aung Saan (the father of Aung Saan Suu Kyi) himself was a military man who first collaborated with the Japanese Army against the Allied forces during the World War II, when Burma was a British colony and then switched side before the Allied victory. Ever since General Ne Win, a former comrade of Aung Saan, took power in 1962 through a military coup, military has continued to run the country. The current president Thein Sein is a former general, too. Most of the ministers and those in authority within the country have military connections. As a matter of fact, hardly anything happens without military involvement. The military continues to dominate the parliament and write policies and draft constitution so that none could challenge its grip on the country either today or tomorrow. Its philosophy has been described by area experts as Myanmarism – a toxic cocktail of militarism, neo-Nazi fascism and ultra-racist-religious-Buddhism in which the Bamar (Burmese ethnic group) primarily rules and other secondary and tertiary races support the pyramid structure in an apartheid system. It is feudal and regressive in its character. It is built on myths and astrology – concepts that are outdated and obscene.
Whether we like it or not, the military will continue to play a dominant role inside Myanmar for a foreseeable future. Its grip on power of more than half a century would not go away soon and it won’t allow such from happening either by hook or crook. It would, therefore, be years before we see a real transition to democracy in which the faces of leadership are all or mostly civilians.
Simply put, I cannot imagine the US government to have military-to-military relationship with an apartheid regime which is guilty of some of the worst crimes of our time. Lest we forget, the regime exploits such collaboration with a powerful country to boosting its image, solidifying its legitimacy and avoiding or delaying the true reform from taking place.
What the ethnic minority states like Karen, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan, etc. need is a federal structure that allows all its people inclusion and not exclusion where they feel secure and safe, and enjoy the same rights and privileges, and surely not a program that strengthens the killing machines – killing them, dehumanizing and marginalizing them, and eventually pushing them out, leading them no option but to fight guerilla wars with no winners at the end.
Q4. Please describe the growing conflicts between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. What implications does this conflict have for an end to inter-ethnic conflict and national reconciliation? How should the US better respond to escalating human rights abuses and mounting doubt that reforms will continue?
Answer: Since Thein Sein floated his so-called ‘reform’ government, the ethnic-religious-racial tensions have become worse. In the last 17 months, we saw the worst violence against the minority Muslims not only in the Arakan state but also all across Burma. In May of last year, nearly a dozen innocent Muslims – heading for Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, were pulled out from their bus and lynched to death mercilessly. Days later, Muslim villages and townships were burned down in a very organized manner in which the local Buddhist security forces, the police, politicians and preachers (monks) collaborated, inciting the Rakhine mobs to kill and destroy everything Muslim or Islamic. Even the government security forces were seen taking part in this murderous orgy. As a result, there is not a single functioning school, mosque, shop or business in territories that once had a solid Muslim majority in many parts of Burma, esp. in the Rakhine state. The pogroms against Muslims continued unabated for months and the entire city/town zones and villages in which they once lived became ghost towns with no Muslims to be found.
According to reports shared by human rights groups, some 140,000 Muslims remain as IDPs (internally displaced persons) inside the Rakhine (Arakan) state alone. Tens of thousands of Muslim homes have been systematically destroyed to ethnically cleanse those territories. Many of the Muslims are now living in squalid camps with less-than-adequate supplies. Many have tried to flee the country as unwanted refugees to places like Bangladesh, Thailand and beyond. They have been denied access in Bangladesh, imprisoned in Thailand and/or repatriated forcibly back to Myanmar, and worse still, some have been enslaved by Thai fishermen. Many have died trying to brave the ocean.
The condition in these refugee camps where Muslims are kept are beyond description. On July 2012 President Thein Sein told Antonio Gueterres of the UNHCR that the ‘only solution’ to the anti-Muslim conflict is to deport the Rohingya to other countries or to confine them to UNHCR refugee camps. He said, “We will send them away if any third country would accept them.” Such a statement is a direct reminiscent of the Nazi era in which Hitler and his fascists saw the ‘only solution’ to the ‘Jewish Problem’ was for other nations to take the Jews off Germany’s soil. Obviously, Rohingyas cannot be refugees in their own land, and the UNHCR rejected Thein Sein’s fascist demand.
From the statement of Thein Sein, it is obvious that the Myanmar authorities don’t want the Rohingya Muslim minorities living anywhere inside Myanmar. Thus, they are determined to starve them to death, unless they flee the country on their own. Even while fleeing the country, these unfortunate human beings have been shot at by the security forces.
Worse still, the government authorities and Rakhine terrorists worked together to physically destroy the buildings in the emptied Muslim communities in cities and towns, ensuring that the IDPs could not return to their homes. As noted by Ms. Quigley, the army dug pits and dumped the bodies of the Rohingya people in mass graves outside the IDP camps near Sittwe and throughout the Arakan state. Burmese authorities were also seen destroying Mosques and conducting mass arrests of Muslims.
The international NGOs and human rights agencies were barred from opening offices to monitor and provide necessary humanitarian aid to Muslim victims. Even the OIC could not open office in the Rakhine state. Government sponsored mob demonstrations provided the justification to deny such rights to the OIC.
The Buddhist monks have demanded that laws should be enacted that penalizes people from selling to and buying from Muslims. They also demanded that maximum quota for children for a Muslim family be limited to only two. It is all copycat of the Nazi era Germany that is being promoted in Buddhist Burma with the perpetrators being Buddhists and victims the Muslims. The formula is essentially the same!
The situation of the Muslims in other parts of Myanmar is equally bad. Recent months have seen organized mob violence in many parts of the country that are far away from the Rakhine state. The Buddhist terrorist monks like Wirathu are increasingly playing a very divisive, an evil, role in such pogroms against the Muslim minorities. Muslims are safe nowhere today inside Myanmar. Just like in Nazi Germany, the Muslim properties are easy targets for destruction, looting, and pillage. Just a mere rumor is enough to incite such organized mob violence against them in which everyone in this Buddhist country is a participant. Even the so-called democracy icon -Suu Kyi – is a silent endorser to such horrendous crimes!
In recent days, parts of Myanmar have seen demonstrations held by racist Buddhists opposing the resettlement of the Muslim victims. As I have repeatedly maintained, it would be utterly foolish to ignore the evolving signs of genocide of the Muslim minorities inside Myanmar. It has become a national project in which every Buddhist is playing a role inside the country – overtly or covertly, if not silently through their impotence or hesitance to condemn what is morally wrong and unjustifiable.
Many outside observers were surprised to see such outbreaks of targeted violence that have witnessed wholesale destruction of hundreds of Muslim villages and townships, esp. in the Rakhine state, the internal displacement of more than 200,000 Muslims all across Burma, deaths of innumerable victims and rape of so many. But we, in the human rights camp, knew better. Years before the current tragedy had hit Burma, we asked the leaders of the ENC and other so-called democracy groups operating inside Thailand and other parts of the world for a dialogue to discuss the problem of racial and religious tension and ethnic division inside Burma, and its transition to democracy but what we got was outright contempt and rejection. From the level of arrogance and intolerance, hatred and racism displayed by the so-called leaders and members of the ‘democracy’ movement, we knew too well that a simple transition to democracy won’t be able heal the wounds and stop the bleeding process; democracy would be abused, democratic means of voting would be abused to impose majoritarian narratives on the marginalized minority, denying them basic rights. As we feared, mob violence against the targeted minorities is the new face of democracy in Myanmar. Apparently, minority rights have no place in this new jargon. The denial of citizenship right to the Rohingya and other Muslims is seen as a necessary means to cement this apartheid process of keeping them out of the political process – permanently denied and ignored.
For a national reconciliation process to succeed, I suggest that Rohingya and other minority Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Christians who have been born and live in Myanmar be given full citizenship rights forthright. They need to be integrated within the Myanmar society with all the rights and privileges enjoyed now by the Buddhist majority. Quota systems must be allowed for these vulnerable minorities to make sure that not only are their views heard inside the parliament but they have equitable representation in all sectors of the government. Without such a massive program to integrate the once-persecuted minority, there is no way to fully reconcile the various peoples who live in this fractured country on the right track.
As to the refugees, now stranded or forced to live as unwanted refugees or temporary workers in foreign countries, provisions should be made under the supervision of the UN for their quick resettlement inside Myanmar.
Due compensation for the loss of properties should also be made by the Myanmar government to each of the victims so that they could restart their lives.
On its part, the ruling elite and the dominant Bamar race ought to understand that ethnicity is a colonial era concept, which has no place in our time when we have moved to citizenship to foster group identity towards shared responsibility of nation building. By holding onto its divisive and racist past, Myanmar, instead, is doing harm to its own long-term goal of keeping the country together. It needs a federal system where every state from the western-most Arakan state to the eastern-most Shan state would have rights similar to those enjoyed in the USA by any of its 50 states. Minus that formula, Myanmar will fight internally and eventually become a failed state disintegrating along ethnic/religious lines. Thus, it is to Myanmar’s best interest that I suggest that Rohingya and other minorities be accepted as full citizens of the country, allowing them every opportunity to build the country up so that once again Myanmar could become strong politically and economically.
Xenophobia and racism run deep and are widespread inside Myanmar because of the poisonous roles played by several ultra-racist provocateurs who continue to foment hatred in this country. Sadly, many of these ultra-racists, whose role have become akin to those played by Julius Streicher of the Nazi-era in Germany, have settled in the liberal west. The late Dr. Aye Kyaw (a Rakhine academic) who drafted the 1982 citizenship law disbarring the Rohingya was a professor at the NYU. Dr. Aye Chan, another Rakhine academic, notorious for describing the Rohingya people as ‘virus’ and inciting extermination campaign against them is a US resident who teaches in Japan. There are many such hate provocateurs who don’t mind enjoying the liberal, open status that they enjoy in the liberal West as a Buddhist minority, but are outright rejecters and deniers of such rights and privileges for the minority Muslims in their native country. Since their writings have been feeding hatred and justification for current and previous ethnic cleansing drives against the Rohingya and other Muslims, it is pertinent that such provocateurs of hatred and violence be prosecuted in the land of their residence. Those who incite genocide should never be allowed to continue their hateful mission that translates into loss of so many lives! They need to be held accountable for spreading intolerance and violence.
As I have noted last year in my keynote speech at Thammassat University, Bangkok, Thailand, a massive government undertaking is necessary inside Myanmar for eradicating hard-core racism and xenophobia that has hitherto allowed the brutal military regimes to exploit the country through the old maxim of divide and rule. But in the new setup, such old techniques will prove to be devastating and suicidal. Old myths that degrade and dehumanize the ‘other’ people need to be replaced with new realities through massive education and propaganda campaigns that unite and foster citizenship with shared responsibility.
The USA, as the most powerful nation on earth, can play a very important role in this latter goal of reconciliation and nation-building sharing its own rich experience how it has become a beacon of hope for all to jointly collaborate in and gain from, thereby strengthening the nation. Pluralism, integration and multi-culturalism, and not hard-core racism and bigotry, are the answers for curing Myanmar’s disease.
In conclusion, ethnic cleansing of the Muslims can no longer be denied by the Burmese government. It must be stopped. The continued neglect of human rights of the Muslim minorities and other non-Buddhists inside Myanmar will prove detrimental to any chance of national reconciliation and genuine democracy in Myanmar. The USA must change its current Burma policy that is emboldening Myanmar’s apartheid policy, which is increasingly becoming genocidal against the targeted Muslim minorities. The USA government policies should reflect and incorporate the needs of those persecuted minorities. It would be dim-witted to offer carrots to a rogue ass that refuses to change its behavior. The USA government should not issue GSP privilege to Myanmar until the latter has demonstrated concrete progress on labor laws & practices, and uprooted its forced (slave) labor policy.
Domestic attempts to inquire the root cause of anti-Muslim pogroms have proven to be hogwash to fool world opinion. The participation and complacency of security forces plus the lack of justice and accountability for those in authority underscore the importance of an international inquiry into crimes against humanity. A UN Inquiry is the only way through which facts can be established, those responsible can be held to account, and recommendations can be made to prevent further violence. The USA and the UN must support the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into what has taken place in Arakan State and other parts of Myanmar since May of 2012.
Neo-Nazi Fascism, a la Myanmar style, targeting minorities has become the new dark force of our century. Sadly, it is growing in a very alarming rate and in a calculated way but with devastating results, permanently altering the face of Myanmar. Unless, the UN and the USA see this danger nakedly and stop it now, I am afraid that the burden of doing too little and too late will haunt us forever much like it did about Rwanda.
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book – Devotional Stories – is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.