It has been little more than two months that Aung San Suu Kyi was elected into the lower house of Burmese Parliament. The by-elections (only the country's third in half a century) in which her party NLD won 44 of the 45 available seats were a crucial test of reforms that convinced the West to soften its pariah image. The United States and European Union hinted that some sanctions - imposed over the past two decades in response to gross human rights abuses (e.g., against the minority Rohingya Muslims and Kachin and Karen Christians) - might be lifted, unleashing a wave of investment, which this impoverished but resource-rich country, bordering Bangladesh, Thailand, India and China, badly needs.
Last year the U.S. Secretary of State Clinton met with Burma's leaders and opposition leader Suu Kyi. Soon after the election in April Japan has already promised to forgive $3.7 billion of Burma's debt and resume aid as a way to support the country's democratic and economic reforms. Last month during his visit to Myanmar, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years, Manmohan Singh held extensive talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein and extended a $ 500 million line of credit to Myanmar as it signed 15 agreements on fields like trade, energy and connectivity. On June 9, the Australian Foreign Minister pledged $100m aid to boost its education sector, where less than half of Burma's 18 million children complete five years of primary school and only about half of all teachers are qualified.
In spite of such positive developments in the international sector, the religious minorities remain disillusioned. "We have been forsaken by the world," a Rohingya human rights activist complained. Similar are the messages I receive about human rights abuses in Kachin, Shan and Karen states. My comrades at the U.S. Campaign for Burma remind me that this year alone there have been at least 750 incidents of human rights abuses committed by the Burmese troops against ethnic minority civilians, and that there are still hundreds of political prisoners behind the bar, and that more and more of the ethnic non-Buddhist minorities are forced out of their ancestral land to either replant such territories with Buddhist majority or make way for foreign investment.
The ongoing diplomacy and the so-called "cease-fires" in ethnic areas are seen for what they are-an alibi for the abdication of morality in the altar of profit-making and greed, and a lifeline for the regime.
Optimistic as I have always been, I try to comfort them that they are neither forgotten nor forsaken, and better days are ahead of them when they would be accepted as equal citizens in Myanmar.
As an outsider, living comfortably on the other side of the planet, little did I know that these unfortunate minorities of Burma would again be made a target of hideous intolerance. As I write, Maung Daw - located in northern Arakan (Rakhine state of Burma) is burning, as if mimicking the pogroms against the Rohingya and Muslim minorities of Burma that started in the 1930s [see, e.g., an excellent review - Rohingya Tangled in Burmese Citizenship Politics by Nurul Islam, UK].
Reliable sources within the territory tell me that on June 3, a mob of nearly hundred Rakhine Buddhist extremists attacked a bus that was carrying some ten Tablighi Muslims who were returning to Rangoon after their religious gathering. They were dragged from their bus by these brutes in Taungup, situated as the main gateway for travel to central Burma from the Arakan State. They were lynched to death and their bus was set on fire. Only the driver was able to flee the scene. It should be noted here that all this gruesome murder happened based on a false rumor that those Muslims had something to do with a recent murder of a Rakhine female whose body was found in Sittwe (Akyab), the state capital with a mixed Rakhine-Rohingya population. While the subsequent inquiries had cleared Muslims of any complicity in the murder of the teacher, to many Rakhines who are prone to imagine the worst of the 'other' people that have as much contesting claim to the land, if not more, the culprit had to be a Muslim. So they savagely murdered those innocent Muslims that had visited the region. These innocent victims were at wrong time at a wrong place!
U Khin Hla, Secretary of the National League for Democracy in Taungup, told the VOA Burmese program, "I think such an incident happened due to the lack of law and order because it happened in broad daylight just around 4:30 pm, and it was also not just an incident in which a man hacked and killed another and ran away. On the contrary, I think the officials who are working for the rule of law and order in the country are responsible for such an incident."
After the news of the inhuman act of gruesome murder reached the Muslim community, Muslims in Rangoon held a peaceful demonstration and asked the government officials to find and try the guilty ones responsible for this heinous crime. The government promptly formed a 16-member committee to investigate the matter by June 30 and take legal actions against the perpetrators. Interestingly, the announcement for investigation came a day after the government was forced to print a retraction for referring to the victims as "kalar" - a racial slur for Muslims or persons of Indian appearance - in their official appeal for calm after the violence.
When approached at her NLD office, the Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi expressed concern at the handling of the situation by local Rakhine authorities, esp. their failure to dampen anti-Muslim sentiment after the woman was attacked. "If the very first problem was handled effectively and quickly, this flicker wouldn't have become a flame," she said. Urging understanding between Rakhine's religious communities she advised, "don't base your actions on anger."
Apprehensive of potential troubles to brew in Maung Daw, a Muslim majority district, close to Bangladesh border, the district administrator and police chief met with Muslim community leaders and sought cooperation against any retaliation. Muslim leaders assured them of their cooperation. A decision was taken by Muslim religious leaders to apprise the community on Friday, June 8, during the Jumu'aa prayer service, of the assurance that they had received from government and the absolute importance of peace and avoidance of trouble.
After Friday congregation prayer, when a group of Muslims were trying to join a payer at Kayandan Tabligh Centre in Maung Daw for those 10 Muslims who were murdered by the Rakhine extremists at Taunggup, the security forces, however, tried to stop them and then started firing at the crowd killing at least two people and injuring many others. Some extremist Rakhines, hiding behind the police, threw wine bottles against the Muslims, further fueling the already tense situation.
While curfew has been imposed in Maung Daw from dusk to dawn, several Muslim villages have already been gutted down. Almost all the Muslim shops and business centers have also been attacked and ransacked by the Rakhine mob. On Saturday armed security forces with Rakhine extremist equipped with lethal arms were seen roaming Maung Daw town and surrounding villages. That morning four Rohingyas were carried away from Fayazi village of Maung Daw. Their whereabouts still remain unknown.
Eye witness accounts have shown that the Rakhine extremists and the security forces Hlun Htein and NASAKA had jointly collaborated in causing such crimes. On Friday, Rakhines were seen piling up weapons in the Maung Daw main Buddhist temple (Phongyi Chaung) and planning attacks at nightfall. Since Friday, Buddhist monks and Rakhine extremists have been seen being escorted by security forces while they were announcing 'War on Kalas', (war on blacks, foreigners - meaning the Rohingyas) along the streets of Maung Daw. This dangerous message spread like a wild fire all over Maung Daw and Buthidaung townships. Many of the security forces, dressed in civilian clothes, were seen firing on the Rohingya Muslims. As a result, at least a hundred Rohingya Muslims have reportedly died. Several mosques have also been set on fire.
The Myanmar government has dispatched military troops and naval vessels to calm the violence. In a statement in official newspapers on Saturday, the All Myanmar Islam Association condemned "the terrorizing and destruction of lives and properties of innocent people" and called on Muslims across the country to live in peace.
How could this be happening when we thought that we had said sayonara to the old days of Burmese and Rakhine pogroms directed against the persecuted Muslims of Burma? In the Rakhine state where tensions between Muslims and Buddhists run high, and has been witnesses to such riots many times since at least the 1930s, a mere mention of the term 'Rohingya' is enough to ignite passion amongst the Rakhines who view them at best as unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh and at worst "invaders."
The truth of the matter is Burma, in spite all the newer developments - mostly cosmetic or superficial - still remains our planet's worst den of hatred by any name - bigotry, racism, xenophobia, etc. For many people in Burma, a Burmese is a Buddhist by definition; Buddhism forms an essential part of their identity; there is no place for people of other religious persuasions.
The decades-old military government in Burma has been replaced by a hybrid group of civil and ex-military personnel that promises change. However, the life of an ethnic minority, esp. if it is a non-Buddhist, has not improved an iota there. They are persecuted and are easy targets for ethnic cleansing. They are treated as if they don't exist. As noted by Mr. Nurul Islam of ARNO, "U Thein Sein's government has not changed their attitude towards our people. It is still holding onto to past policies which excluded, discriminated and persecuted the Rohingya population. We need to remind the government Rohingyas are an integral part of the Burma's society regardless of the fact that their appearance, ethnicity and religion is different than the majority of the population." He added, "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi so far has been surprisingly silent regarding the persecution of our people. As a democratic icon, advocating for human rights for all, we urge her to use her influence to speak out on behalf the Rohingya, who have no voice in Burma."
There are clear evidences that the authorities in Arakan state have been guilty of collaborating with Rakhine leadership to sow anti-Muslim sentiment among the Buddhist people so that they can be terrorized, to help prevent Muslim migration and settlement into central Burma from the region.
As eye witness accounts and social media outlets show when the Rakhine mob attacked the Tablighi Muslims on June 3, the army and police personnel did not do anything to stop the carnage. One eye witness said, "The police and the army were there when the mob was beating the victims, but they did not do anything to control the mob or protect the victims. The attack happened right in front of their eyes." He added, "If the army or police had controlled the mob, they would have been able to save the victims. They knew the situation well, but they did not do anything to control the mob or protect the victims."
The level of deep-rooted Rakhine racism against the Rohingya can be understood from the hateful statement of Khaing Kaung San, a local Rakhine activist in Sittwe, who said, "They [Rohingyas] are fighting to own the land, occupy the entire state." "They don't need weapons; just by their numbers they can cover the entire land."
Obviously, such false assertions epitomizing intolerance, racism and hatred are not new and cannot disappear overnight when it is so deeply entrenched touching every walk of life in Burma, esp. in places like the Rakhine state. The politically dominant Rakhine community doesn't want to share the state with others. This, in spite of the fact that serious works of research have proven convincingly that the Rohingyas are the descendants of the indigenous people (bhumi-putras) of this coastal region whose ties to the land precede those of the Rakhines by few centuries. [See, e.g., this author's work - Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma, Amazon.com; and Dr. Abid Bahar's - Burma's Missing Dots - the emerging face of genocide.]
The recent riots in the Rakhine state once again highlight the vulnerable status of the Rohingyas of Burma. Declared stateless, they are unwanted inside Myanmar and unwelcome as fleeing refugees in neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Thailand. This is the greatest tragedy of our time. They are caught between crocodiles in the sea and tigers on the ground. Where would they go? Should they become an extinct community much like what had happened to so many others before in the annals of history? Or, must they wander in the wilderness for two millennia and suffer repeated persecution, humiliation and genocide to qualify as equals in our world?
For my part, I have petitioned my Congressman to cosponsor the Resolution H. J. Res. 109 to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which is the only leverage the U.S. has left to push the Burmese regime to move forward with positive changes and hold them accountable for widespread human rights abuses and mass atrocities they commit against the people of Burma.
It is not enough, but better than doing nothing and being a silent spectator to violence!
Notes in the margin:
General Aung San assured full rights and privileges to Muslim Rohingya Arakanese saying "I give (offer) you a blank cheque. We will live together and die together. Demand what you want. I will do my best to fulfill them. If native people are divided, it will be difficult to achieve independence for Burma."
"The former first President of Burma Sao Shwe Theik stated, "Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races."
"The previous parliamentary government listed 144 ethnic groups in Burma. But Ne Win put only 135 groups on a short list, and then was approved by his BSPP regime's constitution of 1974. The three Muslim groups of Rohingya (Muslim Arakanese), Panthay (Chinese Muslims), Bashu (Malay Muslims) and six other ethnic groups were deleted. "
Color-coding of individuals - Hitler's Nazi regime was into color-coding and other forms of classification of peoples and individuals. "In 1989, colour-coded Citizens Scrutiny Cards (CRCs) were introduced: pink cards for the full citizens, blue for associate citizens and green for naturalized citizens. Rohingya were not issued with any identity cards which are very essentials in all their activities."
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.