By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
September 29, 2013
The U.S. Congressional panel recently had a hearing 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 was invited to answer a series of questions on the above subject. Hearings of this kind do show 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.
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.
1.On the positive side, hundreds of political prisoners have been released from the prisons where once they had been rotting for years. A notable example in this regard is the much-demanded release of former Rohingya MP.
2. 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.
3. People, esp. the minorities – ethnic and religious – are discriminated in every strata of the society – from local levels to federal state of the government administration. 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.
4. The government has not allowed freedom of trade unions to operate freely within the prevalent laws.
5. 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.
6. 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. Instead of much anticipated security and integration, insecurity and marginalization to the level of wholesale extinction have, sadly, become their lot 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.
7. Succinctly put, while the outside world is somewhat 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.
Questions have been raised if the Obama Administration has moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma and increasing its overall engagement efforts over the last two years. 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. 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.
1. In my humble opinion, the Obama Administration has moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma.
2. 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.
3. 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. And, there is no other way around to describe this ugliness. 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 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 much like when it came to
4. Many observers see such 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.
3. Do you agree with the Obama Administration’s decision to start military-to-military relations with Burma?
1. I am not a military strategist to be able to answer this question appositely. But as a concerned citizen, scientist and professor in a prestigious university, my preference would have been to avoid military relationship with any government that is guilty of some of the worst crimes of our time.
2. A visit to the ethnic territories in the Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, 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.
3. So when a government like ours that is respected around the globe for its advocacy and promotion of law and order, human rights and integration of all people is seen as collaborating with a government that epitomizes intolerance, abuse, racism and bigotry and is known as the worst den of hatred and inhumanity in our time – I venture to say that it is immoral and wrong. The military collaboration with Myanmar should have been shunned and not promoted.
4. Having said that, it would be foolish of anyone to ignore the importance of Burmese military 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 Sann 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 like Drs. Habib Siddiqui (the author of the books – The Forgotten Rohingya: their struggle for human rights in Burma; The Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan state of Burma; Imagine that you are a Rohingya) and Shah Nawaz Khan (alias Shwe Lu Maung – author of the book – the Price of Silence) 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 not progressive at all in its character. It is built on myths and astrology – concepts that are outdated and absolutely pre-modern.
5. Whether we like it or not, the military will continue to play a dominant role inside Myanmar for a foreseeable future. Its empire of more than half a century would not be toppled down that fast and it won’t allow such from happening 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.
6. Thus, my short answer to your question is – no. I don’t agree that our US government should 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 like ours for 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.
4. 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?
1. Since Thein Sein floated his so-called ‘reform’ government, the ethnic-religious-racial tensions are 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.
2. According to reports shared by human rights groups, some 140,000 Muslims remain as IDPs (internally displaced people) inside the Rakhine (Arakan) state alone. Many of them 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.
3. The condition in these refugee camps where Muslims are kept are beyond description. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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!
6. The situation of the Muslims in other parts of Myanmar is also 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! I shall request my distinguished panel members and chairman to read Dr. Habib Siddiqui’s articles listed in the back on this subject (see, e.g., his blog: www.drhabibsiddiqui.blogspot.com)
7. In recent days, parts of Myanmar have seen demonstrations held by racist Buddhists opposing the resettlement of the Muslim victims.
8. As noted by Dr. Siddiqui, 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.
9. Many outside observers were surprised to see such outbreaks of targeted violence that have seen wholesale destruction of hundreds of Muslim villages and townships, esp. in the Rakhine state, the internal displacement of some 200,000 Muslims all across Burma, deaths of innumerable victims and rape of so many. But we 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 used 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 process of keeping them out of the political process – permanently denied and ignored.
10. For a national reconciliation process to succeed, I suggest that Rohingya and other minority Muslims, Hindus, Shikhs, 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 as now enjoyed by the Buddhist majority. Quota systems must be allowed for these vulnerable minorities to make sure that not only are their views heard in 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13.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 character, 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.
14. As well documented by Drs. Siddiqui and Abid Bahar in their massive works dealing with problems of xenophobia and racism inside Myanmar, I would like to point out 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, have settled in the liberal west. The late Dr. Aye Kyaw who drafted the 1982 citizenship law disbarring the Rohingya was a professor at the NYU. Dr. Aye Chan, another 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 here 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.
15. As noted by Dr. Siddiqui in his keynote speech at Thammassat University, Bangkok, Thailand, a massive government undertaking is necessary for eradicating hard-core racism and xenophobia that has hitherto allowed the military brutal 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.
16. The USA can play a very important role in this latter goal of reconciliation and nation building sharing its own experience how it has become a beacon of hope for all to jointly collaborate and gain, thereby strengthening the American nation. Pluralism, integration and multi-culturalism are the answers for curing Myanmar’s disease.
Thank you all for listening to my talk.
– Asian Tribune –