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    Who cares for a voiceless minority in Myanmar?


    Aijaz Zaka Syed
    July 25, 2013
    THE United States says it’s concerned over the growing
    Islamophobia around the world. In its annual report on the state of political
    and religious freedom around the world, the State Department has denounced a
    sharp spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and violence: “Government restrictions,
    which often coincided with societal animosity, resulted in anti-Muslim actions
    that affected everyday life for numerous believers.” From Western nations like
    Belgium, home to European Parliament, where the veil is seen as the flag of
    invading Islamic armies, to emerging Asian giants China and India, many usual
    and unusual suspects find themselves in the dock. However, it is Burma or
    Myanmar, lately the scene of raging atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, that
    justifiably attracts the strongest censure. Senior officials and security
    forces are seen as openly fanning the waves of attacks that have killed
    hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. The persecution and witch hunt
    has been so overwhelming that the Rohingyas have been desperately trying to
    flee Burma using whatever means they could find but with little success. With
    the authorities turning a blind eye to the growing violence against Muslims and
    at times even colluding with the assailants, the attacks are spreading to new
    areas and are now being reported from across the country. News agencies report
    of mobs armed with machetes, pipes and long bamboos attacking Muslim towns and
    burning down mosques, shops and homes while security forces stand and stare.
    Earlier this month, Associated Press pieced together the March 21 massacre of
    madrassa students in Meikhtila by a mob led by Buddhist monks right when they
    were apparently being moved by police to safety after their school was burnt
    down. Based on the testimony of 10 witnesses, AP says that 36 teenagers were
    slaughtered before the eyes of local officials and police who stood and stared.
    “And what has happened since shows just how hollow the promise
    of change has been for a neglected religious minority that has received neither
    protection nor justice,” writes the author of AP’s extraordinary report on
    Burma. “The president of this predominantly Buddhist nation never came to
    Meikhtila to mourn the dead or comfort the living. Police investigators never
    roped this place off or collected the evidence of carnage left behind on these
    slopes. And despite video clips online that show mobs clubbing students to
    death and cheering as flames leap from corpses, not a single suspect has been
    convicted.” Rights groups say the lack of justice fuels impunity among Buddhist
    mobs and encourages more violence. The US report notes that Myanmar promotes
    Theravada Buddhism at the expense of other faiths. Which seems like a minor
    offense considering Burma sees Rohingyas as ‘illegal aliens’ and enemies
    despite their presence in the land for centuries. They do not exist and have no
    citizenship or rights whatsoever as far as the state is concerned.
    Interestingly, Secretary of State John Kerry released the
    damning report on the day President Obama hosted Myanmar President Thein Sein
    at White House. Sein is the first Burmese leader in nearly five decades to get
    the honor, marking a turnaround in relations with Washington and rest of the
    West. Obama created history of sorts last year when he visited the country that
    Washington still calls Burma.
    The US concern over the plight of Muslims is touching. Some
    would see it as typical US hypocrisy considering America’s own role in Muslim
    lands. That said, there’s no denying the fact that with every passing day the
    witchhunt of Myanmar’s Muslims is turning into an all-out war mocking the world
    community which has been deafeningly silent on the issue. There’s increasing
    evidence to suggest that this targeting of Rohingyas at the hands of Buddhist
    extremists and militant monks enjoys the blessings of powers that be. The
    government has even stonewalled international relief efforts. President Sein
    has the audacity to blame the victims themselves. He told CNN’s Christiana
    Amanpour: “The trouble was started by criminal actions of some (read Muslims).”
    Entire neighborhoods and villages have invited the wrath for
    imagined slights such as the accidental brushing of a Rohingya woman with a
    monk. These are but mere footnotes in the endless tragedy that is the Rohingya
    existence. Persecuted and hounded for the past several decades by a ruthless
    state and an increasingly jingoistic majority, they are strangers in their own
    land. Deprived of citizenship, they cannot even send their children to schools
    nor make use of essential government services.
    Recently, the ‘reformist’ government issued a new diktat
    forbidding Muslims in Rakhine province from having more than two children. This
    is something that even the Nazis and Zionists couldn’t come up with. One
    wonders if Myanmar is part of the same planet that you and I inhabit? Is this
    21stcentury or have we somehow been whacked back in time? Is this the country
    that is supposed to be swept by winds of change and being warmly embraced by
    Western nations?
    Clearly, in an age ruled by Mammon, economic interest takes
    precedence over everything else. Who cares for a powerless people in an
    isolated land on the far side of the world anyway! Even democracy icon Aung San
    Suu Kyi has chosen to look the other way while Rohingyas are hunted and killed
    like animals. She has criticized the two-child norm as ‘discriminatory’ though.
    His Holiness Dalai Lama, feted in world capitals as champion of
    world peace, is yet to break his silence on Myanmar-or Sri Lanka for that matter.
    As in Myanmar, the Bodu Bala Sena’s terror campaign against Lankan Muslims is
    led by militant monks and apparently enjoys the blessings of the state. After
    the Tamils, clearly it’s time to discipline Muslims.
    All this is unfortunate considering Muslim-Buddhist relations
    have historically been amicable. Islam and Buddhism have never been at war or
    in an ideological tussle. Buddha is hailed by Muslim poets as a messenger of
    peace. What went wrong then? Did it have anything to do with the mindless destruction
    of Bamiyan Buddhas by Taleban?
    But there has been a long history of the Rohingyas’ persecution
    and systematic dispossession. It goes way back-even before the military took
    over six decades ago. In recent months and years, it has crossed all limits
    even as the country flirts with democracy and cautiously opens up to the world
    after long years of isolation.
    If the US, Europe, China and India are salivating over the large
    economic pie that is the mineral- and oil-rich Burma, it’s understandable. But
    should everything else including humanity be sacrificed for business? Besides,
    if the world powers need Myanmar’s virgin markets, it also needs them for
    investments and development.
    It’s time the world held Myanmar to account and push it to
    respect the fundamental rights granted by the UN Human Rights Charter and that
    all member states are committed to. As Richard Sollom of Physicians for Human
    Rights put it, Burma needs to be told that the only path from tyranny to
    democracy is through respect for human rights.
    The US which has lately become close to Myanmar must walk the
    talk on human rights and religious freedom. Else the State Department’s report
    isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Arab and Muslim states for once must
    put their economic clout to use to help the besieged Rohingyas. But Muslim
    nations can hold others to account only when they take care of their own
    minorities.
    Given the state of minorities in some Muslim countries, they are
    in no position to lecture others. Many Muslim nations figure also in the US
    report for their “egregious and systemic repression” of religious rights.
    What is happening in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere doesn’t help
    our case. It also goes against the Islamic history of tolerance and protection
    of minorities. This needs to change if we want a change in the condition of
    Muslims in countries like Myanmar.
    • Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com