Myanmar: confusion reigns, homes burn
Political commentator Sai Latt says human rights abuses and violence are committed not only by the state but also by different ethno-religious groups against each other. Racism and racial profiling in the media deserve careful attention, and the transnational nature of fostering ethno-religious intolerance as part of the new dynamic of human rights need to be addressed.
The following is an abridged version of Sai Latt’s commentary on the situation in Myanmar in a digression from his essay titled: “Intolerance, Islam and the Internet in Burma today, June 10th, 2012. Sai Latt insists that the current peace building initiatives between the government and ethnic armed groups in Burma are not enough; ethno-religious and inter-communal relations must be taken seriously in order not to derail the current political reforms.
He begins: Communal riots have broken out in the Maungdaw district in Arakan State, in Myanmar’s northwest. Reports say a mob of many hundred ‘Bengalis’ started the incident, storming houses, burning down villages, and killing people.
However, there is another report that has made its way to the media, saying that Muslims returning from Friday prayer were mistaken by the police to be rioting and were shot at. The initial tension was between the Rohingya and the police, and the riot started from that incident.
Some reports indicate that the state security forces have been the perpetrators against the Rohingya. But independent confirmation is unavailable.
There are reports that need to be taken into account that give context. On 3 June, 2012, a mob of 300 Rakhines at Tounggout Township in Arakan State, stopped a bus and beat to death 11 persons traveling to Yangon. Ten were Muslim travelers, one of whom was a woman who was sexually assaulted before being killed. It was noted that none of the victims were Rohingyas whom some Arakanese term ‘illegal’ immigrants from Bangladesh. This incident frustrated the country’s Muslim population that felt even more insulted when the state media referred to the victims as Muslim ‘Kalar’. This can be taken as a derogatory term though it mainly means those of South Asian descent, “black-skinned, undesirable aliens” is another interpretation.
The anti-Rohingya story began – it did not start then – with renewed intensity November 2011.
At that time these people were spoken of as foreigners who came to Burma during colonial times to take advantage of the country.
Then came two incidents within two weeks of the by-election April, 2012. A mob led by Buddhist monks and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demolished a mosque in Hpakant, Kachin state. At the same time, another mosque in Magwe Region, central Burma, was demolished by a mob that also destroyed the homes of local Muslims and looted their properties. Initially, as it turned out, this was part of business competition between Win Naing, a Member of the Parliament from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, and Muslim business families (particularly one extended family). The MP, losing a previously monopolised ferry business contract, instigated a religious riot so that he and his colleagues could take back the business licenses from the Muslim family (ferry business, taxation and so on). Law enforcement officers simply watched as the riots took place.
The mainstream media was completely silent on these attacks.
After the organisation Myanmar Muslim Students and Youth sent a complaint letter to the media both in Burma and abroad, the Burmese media started reporting on the incident.
Being misinformed, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi commented on Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service telling the people not to fight with each other. This added to Burmese Muslims’ humiliation as they did not fight, but were attacked and felt insulted because they are left unprotected. No pro-democracy activists, human rights advocate, and politicians condemned the attacks.
Hostilities against ethnic Rohingyas and Burmese Muslims are not new. They are rooted in dictator Ne Win times in the 1970s. The current racist campaign is distinct from the past. It is not simply a state-sponsored project anymore. As Chris Lewa from Arakan Project noted on Radio Australia, it is difficult to say that the government is behind the current campaign.
The hostilities are now a public and transnational movement orchestrated openly on social media websites. Thousands of people from the Burmese diaspora in Australia, US, Canada, UK and other European countries have joined this campaign. These participants include some pro-democracy and human rights activists who migrated to these countries as refugees and asylum seekers. Many are now citizens of these countries.
It may be recalled that the Burmese Consul-General to Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, said in 2009 that Rohingyas were “ugly as ogres”.
While Buddhism is known to be a compassionate religion, it has its fundamentalist fringe. One such is monk Ashin Wirathu, responsible for the 2003 religious riots in Kyautse, central Burma. He is known for preaching extremism in the name of protecting ‘race and religion’, including his call for mandatory Buddhist education in all educational institutions. His extremism led critics to call him the “Taliban Monk”.
Although there is no single organisation or individual formally leading the campaign, the campaign’s patrons are Arakan nationalists such as Dr. Aye Chan from Kanda University of International Studies in Japan, the late Dr. Aye Kyaw from the United States and historian Khin Maung Saw based in Germany. Dr. Aye Chan’s book about the ethnic Rohingya was titled “Influx Viruses: The Illegal Muslims in Arakan”!
While Rohingya activists have been consistently lobbying western governments for support, Burmese Muslims, with few exceptions, have been silent on the racist campaign. Although frustrated and humiliated, they hoped that it would fade away sooner or later as democratic reform proceeds and that the reform would allow them to address the issue through the parliamentary process. The lack of action is partly because the Muslims are politically too weak.
In short, the muddling of ethnicity, religion, ‘illegal’ immigration and citizenship has been left unaddressed.
What caught local people’s recent attention may have been the racial profiling by the ethnic Arakan news agency, Narinjara, established in 2005. When a rape incident took place (the rape-murder of a 26-year- old Arakan woman on 28 May 2012, allegedly by three Muslim men), the agency published news identifying the accused with their Islamic faith. In its Burmese language news, the incident was presented as if Muslims, undertone, aliens, were threatening local people, have raped and brutally killed a woman. The words – Muslims, Kalar, Islam – were repeatedly used in its news reports.
Interestingly, Naranjara and Facebook users started talking about the accused rapists as Kalars even when the backgrounds of the accused were still unclear. Information from alternative sources shows that the main accused’s father was born into a Buddhist Rakhin family, but a Muslim couple adopted him after his parents abandoned him at birth. However, his father and the couple died. He became a spoiled kid with a criminal record showing multiple violations.
On 3 June 2012, the angry mob at Taunggot stopped a bus and killed 11 people [There are reports saying that the culprits were not local residents. Some were holding communication devices that are normally used by security officers]. Surprisingly, although this massacre humiliated many Burmese (Muslims and non-Muslims alike), there are still many who openly justify the violence.
A new issue emerges
As the country tries to address the issue, another problem has been introduced: citizenship. Burmese Muslims are being treated as second-class citizens and the discourses of racism are increasingly portraying them as Lu Myo Char [different race/people]. The state media’s new usage downplays their citizenship status and that “living in the country” only signifies their “guest” status. This adds to the complicated identity crisis of Burmese Muslims, now Myanmar Muslims, that has a long history in Burma.
The government has established an investigation committee for the 3 June 2012 massacre. Five major Islamic organizations in Burma have issued a joint statement, urging Muslims to calm down and not to protest. The Muslims in the country seemed calm.
On 8 June 2012, however, riots broke out in Maungdaw district, which is a Rohingya majority area. Previously idle media organisations started distributing breaking news. Weekly Eleven, a Yangon based-agency, for example, that was completely silent on anti-Muslim riots in April and the 3 June 2012, massacre began regularly posting breaking news.
Campaigners started distributing information associating Rohingya with terrorists, and speculating that foreign interventions (including from Bangladesh) are behind the scene. Leaders of influential 88 Generation Students declared that Rohingya is not an ethnic group of Burma. The government has issued Curfews in Maungdaw and Buthitaung (other Rohingya areas) in Arakan State. Some fear that the military government is returning to power in the name of ‘keeping the country together’.
Any attention to human rights issues in Burma needs to take seriously racism, inter-ethnic and religious relations, the role of the media and its code of conduct, transnational racist campaign on social media websites, and finally citizenship issues. The Rohingya problem has already troubled both Burma and its neighbours near and far.
Sai Latt is a PhD candidate in Canada. Full article at: