Friday, 26 July 2013

Who cares for a voiceless minority in Myanmar?

Source Arabnews, 25 July

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 Belgiumhome 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 Presspieced 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, EuropeChina 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 PakistanIraq 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.

• undefinedAijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. Email:

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