Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Burmese blunders

Fresh outbreaks of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State have caused tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya civilians to flee towards Bangladesh, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Burma atrocities: United Nations officials estimate that more than 123,000 members of Burma’s minority Muslim Rohingya population have crossed into Bangladesh since Burmese forces stepped up operations against Rohingya villages earlier this month. The Burmese government claims that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants and Rohingya villagers are burning the villages themselves, but it has not provided any evidence to support these allegations. Similar allegations were heard during the
Burma atrocities: United Nations officials estimate that more than 123,000 members of Burma’s minority Muslim Rohingya population have crossed into Bangladesh since Burmese forces stepped up operations against Rohingya villages earlier this month. The Burmese government claims that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants and Rohingya villagers are burning the villages themselves, but it has not provided any evidence to support these allegations. Similar allegations were heard during the burning of Rohingya areas between October 2016 and December 2016, when the international rights group Human Rights Watch and others determined that the Burmese security forces had deliberately set the fires. The inhumane treatment of the Rohingyas has tarnished the image of Burma’s civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, once an unflinching defender of human rights and the darling of the West. She now faces international fury, particularly from Muslim nations, for failing to stand up to Burmese Armed Forces Chief Min Aung Hlaing, whose soldiers are accused of rape, murder, arson and of ripping Rohingya babies from their mothers’ arms and throwing them into rivers and fires. The death toll will inevitably rise after Burma, also known as Myanmar, blocked UN agencies from delivering vital food, water and medicine supplies to 250,000 Rohingya residents of Rakhine State who are desperately in need. Eighty per cent of the population of the country follows the religion of Buddhism, with the Rohingya people being concentrated in Rakhine State, which they claim has been their homeland for generations. Today, they are an oppressed Muslim minority, and almost 400 people have died during the recent clashes between the Burmese security forces and Rohingya Muslims. At least 21 villages around Burma have declared themselves to be “no-go zones” for Muslims, and in this they have been backed by the authorities who have been accused of committing genocide or pogroms against the country’s Muslim minority. Around 60,000 refugees are believed to have fled over the country’s western border to Bangladesh in the two weeks following the beginning of new actions against the Rohingyas, with this figure now put at 123,000 by the UN.

The Rohingya, an indigenous Muslim people, are fleeing Myanmar (Burma) in droves. Violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State is nothing new, and clashes between the Buddhist population and the Rohingya have led to deadly communal violence in the past. However, this time round tens of thousands of Rohingya civilians have been forced to flee towards Bangladesh to escape the violence.

Myanmar is a strategically located nation in Southeast Asia bordered by India and Bangladesh to the west, Thailand and Laos to the east, and China to the north and northeast. The Rohingya people of northwest Myanmar are a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist nation, and they have accused the country’s Buddhist authorities of severe human rights abuses that have dramatically increased in recent weeks.

The Burmese authorities say that Rohingya insurgents armed with knives and home-made bombs attacked more than 30 police posts in northern Rakhine State. Rohingya militants, the Burmese authorities allege, killed 12 members of the security forces, accusing the minority Rohingya of themselves being responsible for the violence.  

At first, the Bangladeshi authorities prevented the Rohingya from crossing the border into Muslim-majority Bangladesh despite UN pleas to let them in. The Bangladeshi people are sympathetic to the plight of their co-religionists in Myanmar, but the country’s authorities initially refused to permit the Rohingya refugees to enter Bangladesh despite the fact that Rakhine borders Bangladesh and there is no other country they can seek refuge in.

Eventually, the Bangladeshi authorities permitted the Rohingya refugees to cross the border, though fears continue of a humanitarian crisis in overstretched border camps.

The violence in Myanmar has drawn attention to the role of the country’s civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. In the country’s landmark 2015 elections, the 72-year-old Suu Kyi, a formidable supporter of the non-violent practices of India's Mohandas Gandhi and the African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, won a majority for her supporters in both houses of the country’s parliament even as the military remains a powerful force in Myanmar politics.

Suu Kyi's Party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had earlier endeavoured to break the political deadlock between the country’s civilian politicians and the military. She was detained for doing so, in 1991 receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and she was imprisoned again from September 2000 until May 2002, also enduring long periods of house arrest.

The NLD convincingly won popular elections in 1990. However, the military junta ruling the country at the time refused to give up power and held Suu Kyi under house arrest until 1995. She was finally released in November 2010, and in April 2012 she won a by-election and became a member of Myanmar’s parliament.

It was a moment of personal triumph for Suu Kyi, and she became an important figure in the country’s democratic struggle, particularly in the West. Today, she finds herself unable to openly champion the rights of the Rohingya people, since she may fear being accused by her Buddhist compatriots of betraying their cause.

Nick-named Daw Suu (or “Auntie Suu”) and Amay Suu (“Mother Suu”) by her supporters, she has endeared herself to the Myanmar masses. However, she has refused to be in the driver's seat and has acquiesced to the army's dictates, not intervening effectively when the Rohingya people find themselves at the mercy of Buddhist mobs.

Myanmar is a resource-rich nation of 56 million people, and its government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups, with the ethnic Burmese constituting the vast majority. Despite the election of Suu Kyi and members of her Party to parliament, the military still largely cracks the whip, creating an environment of self-censorship as journalists "are required to follow 16 guidelines towards protecting the three national causes: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and the perpetuation of sovereignty.”

India, bordering both Burma and Bangladesh, has been keen to curry favour with Buddhist-majority Myanmar ahead of an official visit by prime minister Narendra Modi. China seems oblivious to its southern neighbour's predicament.

Rakhine State is not the only non-ethnic Buddhist state to have suffered persecution by the Burmese authorities. More than 100,000 civilians have also been forced to flee their homes in Kachin State, where the army has been accused of bombing villages and institutions including schools and medical centres in both the Kachin and northern Shan States.

The Myanmar military has been accused of deliberately restricting humanitarian aid meant to alleviate the plight of refugees forced to flee their homes.

Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have decided that stealth yields the best results. She cannot afford to alienate the majority ethnic Burmese, but she also cannot afford to be seen to be doing nothing to assist the persecuted Rohingyas.

She is a skilful politician, and the mass arrival of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh raises political questions about Myanmar's dilemma. There is no clear answer to the country’s ethnic and religious problems, and Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be caught up in the muddle.

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