Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar
By MOSHAHIDA SULTANA RITU
Published: July 12, 2012

Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh
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Times Topic: Myanmar
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LAST spring, a flowering of democracy in Myanmar mesmerized the world. But now, three months after the democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat, and a month after she traveled to Oslo to belatedly receive the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, an alarm bell is ringing in Myanmar. In the villages of Arakan State, near the Bangladeshi border, a pogrom against a population of Muslims called the Rohingyas began in June. It is the ugly side of Myanmars democratic transition a rotting of the flower, even as it seems to bloom.

Cruelty toward the Rohingyas is not new. They have faced torture, neglect and repression in the Buddhist-majority land since it achieved independence in 1948. Its constitution closes all options for Rohingyas to be citizens, on grounds that their ancestors didnt live there when the land, once called Burma, came under British rule in the 19th century (a contention the Rohingyas dispute). Even now, as military rulers have begun to loosen their grip, there is no sign of change for the Rohingyas. Instead, the Burmese are trying to cast them out.

The current violence can be traced to the rape and killing in late May of a Buddhist woman, for which the police reportedly detained three Muslims. That was followed by mob attacks on Rohingyas and other Muslims that killed dozens of people. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, state security forces have now conducted mass arrests of Muslims; they destroyed thousands of homes, with the impact falling most heavily on the Rohingyas. Displaced Rohingyas have tried to flee across the Naf River to neighboring Bangladesh; some have died in the effort.

The Burmese media have cited early rioting by Rohingyas and have cast them as terrorists and traitors. In mid-June, in the name of stopping such violence, the government declared a state of emergency. But it has used its border security force to burn houses, kill men and evict Rohingyas from their villages. And on Thursday, President Thein Sein suggested that Myanmar could end the crisis by expelling all of its Rohingyas or by having the United Nations resettle them a proposal that a United Nations official quickly rejected.

This is not sectarian violence; it is state-supported ethnic cleansing, and the nations of the world arent pressing Myanmars leaders to stop it. Even Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out.

In mid-June, after some Rohingyas fled by boat to villages in Bangladesh, they told horrifying stories to a team of journalists whom I accompanied to this city near the border. They said they had come under fire from a helicopter and that three of six boats were lost. Some children drowned during the four-day trip; others died of hunger. Once in Bangladesh, they said, the families faced deportation back to Myanmar. But some children who had become separated from their parents made their way to the houses of villagers for shelter; other children may even now be starving in hide-outs or have become prey for criminal networks. Border guards found an abandoned newborn on a boat; after receiving medical treatment, the infant was left in the temporary care of a local fisherman.

Why isnt this pogrom arousing more international indignation? Certainly, Myanmar has become a destination for capital investment now that the United States, the European Union and Canada have accepted the governments narrative of democratic transition and have largely lifted the economic sanctions they began applying after 1988 (measures that did not prevent China, India, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and multinational oil companies from doing business with the Burmese). Still, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Myanmar late last year and welcomed its first steps toward democratization, she also set down conditions for strengthening ties, including an end to ethnic violence.

The plight of the Rohingyas begins with their statelessness the denial of citizenship itself, for which Myanmar is directly responsible. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, though not as powerful as the military officers who control Myanmars transition, should not duck questions about the Rohingyas, as she has done while being feted in the West. Instead, she should be using her voice and her reputation to point out that citizenship is a basic right of all humans. On July 5, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, appealed to her to speak up to help end the violence.

To be sure, Bangladesh can do more. Its river border with Myanmar is unprotected; thousands of Rohingyas have been rowing or swimming it at night. But even though Bangladesh has sheltered such refugees in the past hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas live here now, legally or illegally it has been reluctant so far this year to welcome them, out of fear of encouraging an overwhelming new influx. Already, such fears have aroused anti-Rohingya sentiment among some Bangladeshis, and initially Bangladeshs government tried to force the refugees back without assisting them. After some villagers risked arrest by sheltering refugees in their homes, the government began to offer humanitarian aid, before sending them back on their boats. Bangladesh should shelter the refugees as it has in years past, as the international community is urging.

But the world should be putting its spotlight on Myanmar. It should not so eagerly welcome democracy in a country that leaves thousands of stateless men and women floating in a river, their corpses washing up on its shores, after they have been reviled in, and driven from, a land in which their families have lived for centuries.

Moshahida Sultana Ritu, an economist, teaches at the University of Dhaka, in Bangladesh.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 13, 2012, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar.

Rohingyas account for 1.3% of Myanmar’s population. Aside from those recently arrived from Bangladesh, if their past ancestors had been living in Myanmar they should be granted citizenship and be treated equally. It is a basic fundamental human right and the Burmese military-dominated government is abusing it. If Myanmar can’t get this sorted out, it will always have problems in the western parts of the country.

On the other hand, the OIC also shouldn’t keep quiet about another Southeast Asian state, Brunei, who denied citizenship to a significant amount of its non-Malays population whose ancestors had been living in Brunei for 1-2 generations, amounted to a total 5% of its population.

If the OIC closes its eyes on one but then criticize another just because it concerns people with same religion as them, then no one in the world is going to treat that organization seriously.

OIC? pfft. dont count on them on doing or saying anything sensible

You’re right, they have been proven to be inept all these while.

Now back to topic, Myanmar has problems with almost all its ethnic minorities except the Bamar (their majority population) Being a closed country for 50 yrs, problems of racism is so widespread that the country has to change name from Burma to Myanmar (Burma makes it sound like the country is owned by the Bamar race - just imagine racism is so pervasive in Malaysia that it is forced to change name?)

This is a touchy issue since Rohingya started off and make it big by burning 1,000 houses of the Rakhines, resulted in retaliatory attacks. Even though they are discriminated and persecuted all along, this lost a big deal of sympathy. Myanmar certainly carry many wrongs here. If others have been in the country for 20 yrs, they should be given the option to naturalized as citizen. But the ransack of villages gave the Burmese authorities chance to portray them as trouble-maker, undesirable people for citizenship, and the world pretty much already see it that way, including their ancestral land Bangladesh.

Pictures like this, the aftermath of Rohingyas village burning, don’t sit well…