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    Misery mounts for Myanmar’s marginalized Rohingya Muslims

    Ramzy Barod
    June 4, 2013

    ON April 21, the
    BBC obtained disturbing video footage shot in Myanmar. It confirmed extreme
    reports of what has been taking place in that country, even as it is being
    touted by the US and European governments as a success story pertaining to
    political reforms and democracy.
    The BBC footage was
    difficult to watch even when faces of Muslim Rohingya victims were blurred. To
    say the least, the level of violence exhibited by their Arakan Buddhist
    attackers was frightening. “The Burmese police (stood) by as shops, homes and
    mosques are looted and burned, and failing to intervene as Buddhist mobs,
    including monks, kill fleeing Muslims,” the BBC reported. A Rohingya man was
    set ablaze while still alive. The police watched.
    To some extent,
    international media are finally noticing the plight of the Rohingyas who are
    experiencing what can only be described as genocide. And there are reasons for
    this. On one hand, the atrocities being carried out by the Burmese state, local
    police and mobs belonging to nationalist Buddhist groups in the northwestern
    Arakan State, are unambiguous attempts at removing all Rohingyas from Myanmar.
    The Rohingya numbers currently hover between 800,000 and one million. On the
    other hand, Myanmar has, as of late, been placed in the limelight for the wrong
    reasons — thanks in part to Western governments breaking the political and
    economic siege of the country’s decades-long military dictatorship.
    While the “new
    Burma” is being rebranded in a new positive discourse in order to open Yangon
    up for foreign investments and steer it way from growing Chinese influence,
    Western governments are deliberately ignoring the fact that a human rights
    crisis of unprecedented proportions is taking place. This all is being done
    with the active involvement and encouragement of the government.
    In the eyes of many
    in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are considered subhuman, and are treated as such.
    Most Rohingya Muslims are native to the state of “Rohang” — also known as
    Rakhine or Arakan. The majority of them live in very poor townships — mainly
    Buthidaung and Maungdaw — in the northwestern part of Arakan, or live in
    refugee camps. Their population subsists between the nightmare of having no
    legal status (as they are still denied citizenship), little or no rights and
    the ethnic purges carried out by their neighbors. The worst of such violence in
    recent years took place between June and October 2012. However, the onslaught
    targeting Rohingyas is resurfacing and spreading. This time around the
    intensity and the parameters of violence grew to include other Muslim minority
    groups in the country.
    The BBC footage is
    not only revealing in the sense that it confirmed the authorities’ complicity
    in the violence, but it also reflected the government’s general attitude toward
    this minority group, described by the UN as the “world’s most persecuted
    people.” Responding to the outcry against his country’s brutal treatment of its
    minorities, Myanmar’s President Then Sein made an “offer” to the UN last year
    where he was willing to send the Rohingyas “to any other country willing to
    accept them.”
    This peculiar
    behavior by the Burmese government is problematic in more than one way. Rangoon
    doesn’t seem even slightly mindful of international humanitarian laws or simply
    wishes to ignore it altogether. Its legal frame of reference is hardly a
    reflection of a repented dictatorship. But what is even more dangerous is that
    Rangoon has been sending unmistakable messages to nationalist groups who are
    leading the ethnic purges, that their extremely violent behavior is in fact
    consistent with the central policies of their governments.
    Groups like Human
    Rights Watch (HRW) have become markedly more outspoken regarding the violence
    against the Rohingyas. To quell growing criticism, perhaps fearing a backlash
    in terms of lucrative business contracts, the Burmese government decided to
    investigate the ‘sectarian violence’ through a supposed independent commission.
    Its recommendations were as equally disturbing as the violence itself.
    The government
    Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State, assembled last
    August, was composed of 27-members, all Arkanese Buddhists, none of them from
    the Rohingya minority. The long-awaited report on the violence finally emerged
    on April 29,
    2013. Its major
    findings included concerns over “rapid population growth” among Rohingya and
    Kaman Muslims. Its recommendations compelled a swift response from local
    authorities that moved in to limit the birth rate of Muslim Rohingya in two
    large townships.
    On May 26, Arakan
    State spokesperson Win Myaing told journalists that the findings of the
    commission were consistent with the 2005 law that limits birth rate among
    Roghingya Muslims to two children per family. That discriminatory law goes back
    to 1994 where severe marriage restrictions were imposed on the Rohingya community,
    requiring long and complicated procedures. The BBC said, “it is not clear how
    (the ‘two-child policy’) will be enforced.”
    Regardless of what
    sort of mechanisms Burmese authorities plan to put in place to implement the
    ‘law’, limiting population growth of the Rohingya people, is an abhorrent
    principle in and of itself. It even compelled celebrated “democracy icon” Aung
    San Suu Kyi to break her silence regarding the violence against Rohingyas,
    however, she carefully selected her language.
    “It is not good to
    have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights either,” Suu
    Kyi told reporters, although “she could not confirm whether the policy was
    being implemented,” reported the BBC online on May 27.
    Considering the
    level of violence directed at Rohingyas and the fact that more than 125,000
    Rohingya have already been pushed into internally displaced camps, (tens of
    thousands more have already been forced to flee the country and are scattered
    in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia) one can only imagine the kind of
    sinister plans which are being put into action, amid the deafening
    international silence.
    In fact, “silence”
    is an understatement, for following the early wave of devastating violence,
    European officials welcomed the country’s ‘measured response’ and spokesperson
    for the EU’s high representative on foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, said on
    June 11: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult
    inter-communal violence in an appropriate way.”
    Meanwhile, western
    countries led by the United States, are clamoring to divide the large Burmese
    economic cake amongst themselves. As Rohingya boats were floating (or sinking)
    in various waters, Myanmar’s President Sein met with Norway’s Prime Minister
    Jens Stoltenberg in a “landmark” visit in Oslo on Feb. 26. Regarding the
    conflict in Arakan, Jens Stoltenberg unambiguously declared it to be an internal
    Burmese affair, reducing it to the most belittling statements. In regards to
    ‘disagreements’ over citizenship, he said, “we have encouraged dialogue, but we
    will not demand that Myanmar’s government give citizenship to the Rohingyas.”
    Moreover, to reward Sein for his supposedly bold democratic reforms, Norway
    took the lead by waving off nearly half of its debt and other countries
    followed suit, including Japan which dropped $3 billion last year.
    Meanwhile, the
    Rohingyas are left to ponder their punishment for flouting one discriminatory
    law or another. “Fear of punishment under the two-child rule compel far too
    many Rohingya women to risk their lives and turn to desperate and dangerous
    measures to self-induce abortions,” Asia director at HRW, Brad Adams said in a
    report published May 28.
    No words can
    suffice to describe the plight of the Rohingyas who are trying to survive an
    unprecedentedly violent ethnic purge, with support and complicity of the
    Burmese government and silence of the very western governments that never cease
    to preach democracy and human rights.
    Matthew Smith is a
    researcher for HRW and author of the organization’s report, “All You Can Do is
    Pray”: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in
    Burma’s Arakan State.’ Concluding a commentary in CNN online, Smith wrote: “The
    world should not be blinded by the excitement of Myanmar’s political opening.
    Rohingya are paying for that approach with their lives.” Since then, more
    Rohingyas were killed, many more homes, mosques, shops and orphanages were
    burned to the ground and there has been no international uproar as of yet.