Friday 13 July 2012

Supporting Rohingya human rights draws ugly attacks

Source from Mizzima, 13 July 2012

(Opinion) – Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) supports human rights for the Rohingya people. For Burma Campaign UK to make such a statement shouldn’t be surprising or controversial.

Burma-Campaign-UK-logoWe are a human rights organization working on Burma. How could anyone disagree that the Rohingya people are entitled to full human rights and the normal rights and protections under international law?

But some people see that statement as such an outrage that Burma Campaign UK staff deserve to be raped and killed. We need to be “punished,” “taught a lesson” and “hung.” All these views and many more – many vicious and obscene – have been emailed to us or posted on YouTube and Facebook.

The level of abuse, hatred and anger directed against Burma Campaign UK and other organizations who say that Rohingya should have human rights, and which work with Rohingya to defend their human rights, has been astonishing.

There has even been a demonstration in Rangoon, outside the British Embassy, which, as well as attacking exiled media in almost exactly the same way the dictatorship used to, accused Burma Campaign UK of “propaganding” for the Rohingya. I doubt anyone in that protest could cite an example of us “propaganding,” whatever that means, but in the current hysteria some people seem willing to believe anything they hear as long as it is anti-Rohingya.

That they were allowed to protest at all was a good sign, but have those people also used their new freedoms to protest for the release of hundreds of political prisoners still in jail, or to protest against the Burmese Army raping women in Kachin State?

The hysteria has gone to such levels that some people from Burma are claiming, and, incredibly, others are believing, that Burma Campaign UK somehow stirred up the violence which broke out in Arakan State. They claim that we are responsible for the violence that has taken place

Burma Campaign UK has long faced criticism for supporting human rights for the Rohingya, and for a variety of sometimes bizarre reasons, as well as what may be genuine misunderstandings.

One lie being spread around on blogs, emails and sites like Facebook is that we are making money out of working for Rohingya. Burma Campaign UK has never received a grant for working on Rohingya issues. In any case, all of Burma Campaign UK’s income is spent on campaigning for human rights and democracy in Burma. We are a nonprofit organization.

Another lie in a similar vein is that Middle East countries fund us. Sometimes it is implied we are funded as part of a Middle East plot to take over Burma and turn it into a Muslim country.  It is even claimed that there is evidence for this. When Rohingya activists attended an Organisation of Islamic Conference meeting and set up the Arakan Rohingya Union, pictures were posted on Arakan blogs of the delegation, with captions and an article saying I was in the picture, and this was proof that I and Burma Campaign UK were taking Middle East money.

The only problem was, I wasn’t in the picture. I didn’t even know the event was taking place. The person in the picture was Harn Yawnghwe from the Euro Burma Office. At the time we thought it funny that people making these attacks could not even tell the difference between a Shan Prince and myself, we never expected it to be taken so seriously, but this lie took hold. It was spread on email and more blogs, on Facebook, and people actually believed it. On my recent trip to Burma, even very senior democracy leaders in Rangoon talked about it.

One common lie is that we support the Rohingya having a state of their own. We have never said that, and although some Rohingya organizations talked about this decades ago, we have never even heard any Rohingya organization saying they want their own state. There seems to be some great misunderstanding that if the Rohingya are recognized as an ethnic group, somehow that will entitle them to land or their own state. This simply isn’t true, and Burma Campaign UK has never said we support that.

Another reason we are attacked over Rohingya issues is that we have a Muslim staff member. From the moment Wai Hnin Pwint Thon joined Burma Campaign UK, messages started to be left on our Facebook Page by people from Burma, attacking her because she is a Muslim.

It was not until years later when she was pictured at a demonstration protesting against the dictatorship’s abuses of the Rohingya that it became Rohingya linked abuse posted on our Page. But now Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is subject to torrents of abuse, much more than our non-Muslim staff and volunteers who were on the same demonstration as she was, and have been on other protests with Rohingya as well.

Lies posted and spread about Wai Hnin Pwint Thon include that she is secretly Rohingya (she isn’t), she has been accused of working with Rohingya Solidarity Organization (she doesn’t), of wanting to create a Caliphate in Burma (she doesn’t), of taking money from Rohingya (she hasn’t), and even that she has had several children with different Rohingya men (she hasn’t). She has faced not just lies but abuse, much of it sexual in nature.

Many people seem to think that any lie or story they hear about someone with any connection to supporting Rohingya human rights is justification for personal attacks, abuse and even threats. Given that this is the way their leaders behave, perhaps that is not surprising.

Around a year ago, I tried to engage Dr. Aye Chan in a conversation on why he and his followers spent much more time criticising Rohingya than they did the dictatorship. Aye Chan was incapable of having the discussion without repeatedly making personal attacks. The email conversation was forwarded to various email groups, and my in-box was flooded with abusive emails. When I asked Aye Chan to ask his supporters not to use personal abuse and threats, and to condemn those who do, he repeatedly refused to do so. When leaders not only fail to condemn abusive and personal attacks, but even make personal attacks themselves, their followers will copy their behaviour.

More recently we have been accused of being pro-Rohingya. I am still not exactly sure what that means. Certainly we are pro-human rights for the Rohingya, how could we or anyone else who believes in democracy and human rights not be?

But the implication is that we are pro-Rohingya, and therefore somehow anti-Rakhine. It is worrying how so many people now see the two as automatically going together. Burma Campaign UK supports the human rights of everyone in Burma, and that includes Rohingya and Rakhine. To talk about Rohingya having human rights does not make us anti-Rakhine. We have campaigned on many Rakhine related issues, including Shwe gas, Rakhine political prisoners, and were one of the few campaign groups actively campaigning for the 34 Rakhine and Karen prisoners in jail in India.

Burma Campaign UK has been criticised for not doing enough on Rakhine issues, and this is also cited as evidence of some kind of pro-Rohingya bias. But we have never refused any request when we have been asked to work on any Rakhine related issue by any Rakhine community or human rights group. We would do more on Arakan issues, but some members of the Arakan community in the UK will not work with us because we support human rights for the Rohingya. When we tried to meet with Arakan community leaders, it took months to arrange, and only one person turned up. In the past we made repeated offers of all kinds of training and support to the Arakan community in UK, and to groups in exile, and none have been taken up.

Burma Campaign UK was also fiercely criticized for circulating information from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK about the recent violence. Circulating information on behalf of human rights groups is a major part of our work. Every year we circulate media releases, briefings and reports from dozens of organisations from Burma, and from international NGOs.

If any organization working on Arakan human rights had also provide a briefing with information not being reported, we would have circulated that as well. But they didn’t.

I have tried to have some conversations with some of the people criticizing myself and Burma Campaign UK for bias, asking them for examples. So far no one has been able to provide a single one. Yet the perception remains.

It seems impossible to dispel the belief by some that working for Rohingya human rights means bias against Rakhine. From our perspective, it seems that this is a deliberate tactic of extremists to polarize the debate and incite more hatred and intolerance.

Any public comment or photograph relating to the Rohingya seems to act as a lightning rod for more abuse and threats, and this article will probably result in the same.

But I hope some people may take the time to consider the truth. What possible reason or interest could Burma Campaign UK have in being biased?

Our agenda is solely human rights and democracy. We have been working relentlessly for this for more than 20 years. Why have people been so ready to believe lies and bad things about people who have worked so hard to support their cause? And why do people not simply ask what the truth is before passing on lies and gossip?

Even for those who disagree with Burma Campaign UK, is it right that we should receive threats and abuse just for having a different opinion than them? That is the approach and mind set of the dictatorship. It shouldn’t be the way things are done in a democracy. People do need to ask themselves why they are so ready to believe these lies.

The terrible events in Arakan State in the past month and the reaction of many people to those events, casts a long shadow over Burma. Violence and intolerance took hold. Is this the kind of Burma people want to see in the future?

Isn’t one of the main reasons for having a democracy that disagreements can be debated and settled politically, not through violence and threats?

Burma’s democracy movement is an anti-dictatorship movement, but it must also be a movement for human rights, for tolerance and for equality.

Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK.

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