The poster girl of the pro-democracy movement, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was this month touring Europe in the latest move to normalize Burma’s relationship with the West and remove the pariah status it has lived with for many decades. Suu Kyi spent almost two decades under house arrest in Burma as a political prisoner until November 2010 when she was released following the victory of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the first elections in Burma in 20 years. The USDP is seen as simply an extension of the military junta but it has introduced a number of reforms including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the passing of labour laws allowing trade unions, and the signing a law allowing peaceful demonstrations for the first time. This year, the new government signed separate ceasefires with rebels of the Karen and Shan ethnic group and ordered the ordered the military to stop operations against ethnic Kachin rebels in the North. Such reforms have resulted in the lifting of all non-military sanctions by the EU and visits from a number of foreign dignitaries including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the first by a senior US official in 50 years), British Foreign Secretary William Hague, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In April this year, David Cameron became the first Western head of state to visit the country since the military seized power in 1962.
Yet, Suu Kyi’s celebration tour has been somewhat overshadowed by a shocking series of events back home which appear not to have yet been resolved and which do not seem to attract the same level of condemnation from the governments of the world. Prior to her arrival in Europe, a Buddhist mob attacked a bus in the western province of Rakhine (known as Arakan until 1984) killing ten Rohingya Muslims. It has been reported that the attack was in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl in May this year but according to the Burmese Muslim Association and many others, those killed were not even from Rakhine. The suspected perpetrators of the rape were later arrested in the town of Ramree in the far south of the province. Two of them have been sentenced to death and one died in custody. Following the killings, state media reported that rioting took place with hundreds of homes being torched in Maung Daw and Buthidaung townships by rival Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist crowds, as a result of which a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, a move which is likely to exacerbate tensions. For decades, the Rohingya have routinely suffered abuses by the Burmese army, including extrajudicial killings, forced labour, land confiscation, and restricted freedom of movement. Rohingyas have also faced human rights violations by the army. Using the army to restore order risks arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture.
Although state media reports that scores have been killed, rights groups are painting a far bleaker picture which shocks the conscience. Although Western media sources have reported that 80 people have been killed, numerous reports from Rohingya rights groups in the region estimate the number of Rohingya slaughtered at up to 6000 and the displacement of over 90,000. Looting and rape of Rohingya women and girls by Rakhine Buddhists and the Burmese army is also on the rise. In essence, this is the only latest bout of ethnic cleansing carried out by the state and society against the Rohingya Muslims, described by the UN as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” There are a currently an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Burma, and about 200,000 live in Bangladesh, of which 30,000 live in squalid refugee camps.
For decades the Rohingya have borne the brunt of the earlier military government’s brutal state-building policies. The Rohingya have been formally denied citizenship and were excluded from the last census in 1983. The government does not consider the Rohingya people as one of 135 legally recognized ethnic minority groups in Burma, leaving them stateless, homeless and rights-less. They are widely regarded within Burma as “Bengalis” – people of Bangladesh nationality – although their presence in Arakan dates as far back as the 7th Century. The government refuses to issue identification cards or birth certificates to the Rohingya, which are necessary to be able to travel, as well as to obtain passports and enrol in higher education. They are denied land and property rights and ownership. The land on which they live is frequently taken away from them at any given time. They are forbidden from having more than two children and any who marry without permission face long jail terms of up to five years. Mosques and Islamic schools are regularly destroyed and replaced with Buddhist pagodas. It is prohibited to try and repair a dilapidated mosque and Muslim men, apart from Imams, are forbidden to grow beards.
There have also been multiple campaigns led by the Burmese authorities to expel the Rohingya from Burma, resulting in a litany of human rights violations. As early as 1942, the Rohingya were the target of state-sponsored persecution when an estimated 100,000 Rohingya were slaughtered by the Burmese nationals, local Arakanese communists and Japanese occupiers. In 1978, the Burmese Army launched a military offence, named Dragon King, to root out these so-called ‘foreigners’. Hundreds were arrested, tortured, raped and killed. In the following months of the military operation, over 300,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government refused to provide food supplies and other necessities to the Rohingya refugees, leaving many of them to die from starvation and disease. Again in 1991, the Burmese Army launched another military operation to drive out more Rohingya from Burma’s lands. More than 268,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government forcibly repatriated over 60% of those who fled back into Burma, with full knowledge of their heightened vulnerability to persecution, discrimination, and insecurity. The current massacres seem to be the latest chapter in this campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Numerous human rights groups have repeatedly reported how rape and sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls by Buddhist monks and the state authorities is endemic and committed with impunity
In addition to these abuses, the Rohingya are subjected to systematic forced labour to build “model villages” to house the Burmese settlers intended to displace them. They have been forced to donate time, money and materials toward buildings for the Buddhist community, and certain townships were declared “Muslim-free zones” by a government decree in 1983. In Thandwe township in Arakan state, for example, there are still some original-resident Muslims, but new Muslims are not allowed to buy plots or houses, or move in. In Gwa and Taung-gut Muslims are no longer allowed to live in the areas, mosques have been destroyed and lands confiscated. To ensure that these are not rebuilt, they have been replaced with government owned buildings, monasteries and Buddhist temples.
One would have hoped that in light of the attempts to re-engage with Burma and Suu Kyi’s European tour, more would have been done to raise awareness and condemn the plight of the Rohingya. Yet, such expectations were not realistic considering that weeks before Suu Kyi arrived in Europe, the Burmese immigration minister was quoted as saying that “There is no ethnic group named Rohingya in our country.”
Even Suu Kyi, when faced with questions from the audience at a conference at the London School of Economics about why she did not condemn the military more, could only offer a general condemnation of all violence stating that “resolving conflict is not about condemnation, it’s about finding the roots, the causes of that conflict and how they can be resolved in the best way possible.” Yet, it was decades of condemnation of that same regime coupled with sanctions that resulted in Suu Kyi’s own release.
Furthermore, the law can only be effective and seen to be important when all the people concerned are recognised by the Law and the state in the first instance. While in Ireland, Suu Kyi said she did not know whether Rohingyas should be regarded as Burmese or not, a rather sinister statement for someone being treated by the governments of the world as the official head of state. Despite her fearsome reputation for standing up for human rights, Suu Kyi’s position has to remain silent about the persecution of the Rohingya and where put on the spot, she has failed to defend them and by questioning their right to citizenship, essentially legitimised this persecution. That is because many of those who are most vocal in wanting to expel them from Burmese territory are part of the country’s pro-democracy movement. If Suu Kyi speaks out in favour of the Rohingya’s claim to Burmese citizenship, she risks alienating some of her most erstwhile allies. Nyan Win, spokesman for the National League for Democracy party to which Suu Kyi belongs, would not comment on Suu Kyi’s position, but said: “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”
Despite the democratic reforms taking place in Burma, Islamophobia has become so institutionalized in the country that for the Rohingya, nothing has changed. On the contrary, with the world’s focus likely to shift away from Burma as it emerged from its pariah status, the plight of the Rohingya is only going to get worse.