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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Burmese sleepwalking into “ethnic cleansing”

Burmese sleepwalking into “ethnic cleansing”

 |  | Last Updated: 13/07/16 8:37 AM ET
More from Araminta Wordsworth
Warning to the West:  Remember Rwanda
AP Photo / Matt DunhamWarning to the West: Remember Rwanda
Full Comment’s Araminta Wordsworth brings you a daily round-up of quality punditry from across the globe.  Today: A genocide could be brewing in Burma where monks are firing up the majority Buddhist populace to attack Muslims.
As happened in Rwanda almost two decades ago, the West is looking the other way while the inter-religious (and ethnic) assaults and killings mount
Rohingya Muslims make up about 5% of Burma’s population, but as the majority Buddhists tell it, they represent a growing threat to the country’s well-being just by being there.
They are also outsiders ethnically. Many are the descendants of people from the Indian subcontinent who moved to Burma during the days of the British raj. Others are dispossessed peasants from Bangladesh who have eked out a living on the fringes of society. Most are stateless.
At least 237 people have been killed in the past year and about 150,000 people fled their homes. The deadliest incidents have been in Rakhine, home to about 800,000 Rohingya Muslims. More recently, the violence has spread to central Burma, where roving gangs of Buddhists are attacking mosques and Muslim-owned businesses. However, most of those sentenced for taking part in the violence have been Muslim.
The government appears to have done else little to quell the violence, though President Thein Sein spouted all the right words on the weekend
“Freedom of religion and freedom of expression must be protected for democracy to flourish in Myanmar and mutual trust, respect, understanding and tolerance are needed in order to have freedom of religious worship and expression,” he said.
This looked remarkably like window dressing coming as it did just before his visit to London and Paris, where the matter was bound to be discussed. “We are … very keen to see greater action in terms of promoting human rights and dealing with regional conflicts,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “We are particularly concerned about what has happened in Rakhine province and the Rohingya Muslims.”
Sadly, the whole affair has tarnished the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, once seen as Burma’s democracy icon but who has little to say about the violence.  “They are not our citizens” is the chilling line put forward by her National League for Democracy. (Translation: she has an election to win and can’t afford to turn off voters.)
Ahamed Jarmal, secretary general of the Burmese Rohingya Organization, is among those who fear Burma could become another Rwanda. Writing in The Guardian, he says, 
In Burma, ethnic cleansing is happening. We have seen more human rights violations and attacks on Rohingya minorities in the past two years than in the last 20. Organized in monasteries and on Facebook, a wave of hate is being broadcast against the Muslim Rohingya community in Burma and a new apartheid system is being introduced.
My family regularly get called “dogs” or worse when they walk down the street. The government continues to deny us citizenship, telling us this isn’t our home. We can’t marry the people we love and are told we’re only allowed to have two children per family. We can’t travel from one village to another without permission. No other minority in the world faces such extreme and vicious treatment. We are being treated as criminals simply because we exist.
His remarks are bolstered by reporting from Burma itself. In an article for The Daily Telegraph from Mandalay, Fiona MacGregor notes,
Radical Buddhist nationalism is sweeping Burma, and at the forefront of the movement is a group more commonly associated with peace and tolerance: monks.
The most prominent among them is the controversial cleric U Wirathu, who gives passionate sermons from his Mandalay base calling on Buddhists to stand up against the “Muslim threat.”
“I believe Islam is a threat not just to Buddhism, but to the [Burmese] people and the country,” says the monk, whose boyish face and toothy grin belie the name his critics have given him: “the Buddhist bin Laden”.
Time magazine recently set off an uproar in Burma when it profiled the 46-year-old monk under the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
The backlash showed how little things have rarely changed in Burma. The generals reverted to their usual tactics: ban the magazine and shoot the messenger, writesFrancis Wade, who has also interviewed Wirathu, in a posting on the website Asian Correspondent.
President Thein Sein and his spokesperson Ye Htut have personally weighed in on the furor surrounding the interview. Their concern is that it could affect government efforts to rebuild harmony between Buddhists and Muslims (quite where these are I’m not sure), or sully the reputation of Buddhism. Nowhere do they address the actual parts of the interview that are cause for alarm, such as Wirathu’s dictate to followers that, “Now is not the time for calm. Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.”
It seems the journalist who wrote the piece is the greater of two evils. It reminds me of an article that appeared in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper several weeks after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed close to 140,000 people. ‘The enemy that is worse than the cyclone’ was the headline, and the article an indictment of the work of journalists who had circumvented government restrictions to report on the true extent of the disaster, which the junta had tried to hide. They were deemed worse than the death toll of the cyclone.
compiled by Araminta Wordsworth
awordsworth@nationalpost.com