U.S. President Barack Obama waves after giving a speech at the University of Yangon November 19, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Minzayar
October 07, 2013
US President Barack Obama spoke of the “crushing poverty and persecution” being faced by Burmese Muslims, known as Rohingyas, on his trip to Burma last year. “This is a very serious problem for the world community,” former US President Jimmy Carter said last month referring to the continuing violence against Muslims in this Buddhist nation of 60 million. During their visit to Burma, Carter and two other world leaders — former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland — also called for “an end to impunity“ to those who indulge in “these senseless, destructive, repeated acts of brutality.”
Last Wednesday we saw an extreme manifestation of this brutality in Thandwe, a township in western Rakhine state where four days of violence left five Muslims dead, forcing terrified women and children to hide in forests. One person was mutilated and burned so severely that his son couldn’t recognize the body. Around 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 rendered homeless in several outbreaks of inter-religious violence around the country since June 2012.
Actually, to call it sectarian violence will be misleading. It is state-supported ethnic cleansing, according to many impartial observers. When a government casts a group of people as terrorists and traitors, things become easy for firebrands who preach that Islam is a threat and describe mosques as “enemy bases.”
This explains why many of those responsible for the worst of the bloodshed remain unpunished and security forces stood idle as Buddhist mobs chased down their victims.
Muslims have faced repression in Burma since it achieved independence in 1948, though not on a scale inviting international outcry. Their plight can be traced to the denial of citizenship for them. Burmese Constitution closes all options for Rohingyas to become citizens on grounds that their ancestors didn’t live there when the land came under British rule in the 19th century. Burmese government and extremist Buddhist groups claim that the Rohingyas are migrants from Bangladesh, while the Rohingyas point to ample evidence of centuries of settlement in the region.
So it is not difficult to think of the broad outlines of a solution to the problem. First,the government should rein in Buddhist nationalist movements like 969 and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP). Those responsible for inciting murderous violence should get exemplary punishment. As for the long-term measures, Burmese President Thein Sein has himself indicated that he would consider policies “ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.”
The world community should remind Thein Sein of the offer he made in advance of Obama’s visit to Burma. Western countries will be committing a grievous mistake if they accepted the government’s narrative of democratic transition and kept quiet as extremist groups went ahead with their plans for ethnic cleansing.
They should make it clear that this is Burma’s problem, not Bangladesh’s just because Rakhine where a majority of Rohingyas live shares a border with that country. It is true that from time to time, Rohingyas had fled by boat to villages in Bangladesh. But this was to escape persecution, not because Bangladesh spread a welcome mat for them. It would be unfair to ask Bangladesh to pay the price for Burma’s abdication of its responsibility to protect the person and property of its citizens or world community’s indifference.