Genocide is afoot in Myanmar and there’s no sign of hope for the Rohingya Muslim minority, writes Tim Robertson from Yangon.
Relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar predominate all other social issues. The military junta that ruled the country for decades and whose influence is still very visible fostered a Buddhist nationalistic identity that remains unchallenged, despite the country’s recent political reforms.
The government continues to portray the country’s Muslim minority as a threat to both Buddhists and Buddhism alike. And the people seem largely convinced.
The very first thing my taxi driver said when he picked my up from the airport was that my hotel was a very bad one, in a very bad part of town, full of far too many Muslims.
Then, a couple of hours later, driving past the Shwedagon pagoda, another taxi driver insisted that I visited the site before I left Yangon, lamenting that it was on borrowed time. Without being prompted, he proffered a prediction: In 2 500 years Buddhism will be wiped out. It will be erased by Muslims who, he told me earnestly, kill without compunction. And Buddhists – variously described as ‘peaceful’, ‘non-violent’ and ‘loving’ – will be unable to defend themselves. (Perhaps an indication of just how distorted and divorced from reality this issue has become is the fact that he pointed to Pakistan as a case in point that somehow unequivocally proved his theory.)
This myth is now so ingrained in the Burmese psych that no public figure will dare point out the lunacy of it for fear of what it will mean for his or her popularity.
The one person, almost universally respected and loved, who could help put an end to the murder, rape, torture and marginalisation of Myanmar’s Muslim minority is Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Sui Kyi. She has by far the most popular influence in Burmese politics, but rather than speak out against the violence, she has made vague comments that tacitly endorse the government’s deliberate inaction on this crisis. What hope do the Rohingya have if Myanmar’s best-know ‘peace activist’ supports their persecution?
The United Nations has called to the Government of Myanmar to investigate ‘credible information’ on violence against the Rohingya Muslims between January 9 – 14, in which 48 men, women and children are thought to have been killed, along with a Buddhist police officer.
Last months violence is the worst since 2012, when sectarian brutality killed hundreds and displaced more than 140 000 people after Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya Muslims and razed their villages.
Access to the region is severely restricted to foreign journalists and aid agencies, so the reports are difficult to verify. But Médicines Sans Frontières has confirmed that they treated 22 patients on 14 January who were believed to be victims of the violence in the Maungdaw township of the Rakhine state.
And the government’s response to the most recent attacks has all the early hallmarks of a government that’s prepared to endorse and take part in genocide. They have refused to confirm the reports; rather, they’ve accused the United Nations of releasing false information.
At a press conference at Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yangon the government refused entry to all foreign journalists and only admitted four local publications, citing ‘some limits on space’ as the sole reason for need to handpick certain media outlets.
It goes without saying that restricting the movement of journalists and blocking access to information is hardly the behaviour of a government that welcomes transparency and accountability and it has dangerous precedents.
In 2009 when the Sri Lankan army made they’re decision to wipe out much of the Tamil population one of the first things they did was ensure no journalists were able to leave Colombo.
If one persists with the Sri Lankan comparison, obstructing foreign humanitarian assistance was another a sign of the genocide to come. And this is already happening in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch released a report stating that ‘the Burmese government is systematically restricting humanitarian aid’.
And there are further dire indicators that make it difficult to see how things can get better before they get a lot worse. The nature of most of the wounds inflicted on the Rohingya Muslims (puncture and blunt force, as well as gunshot) suggests that both security officials and local Rakhine villagers carried out the violence.
The very fact that the Myanmar government refuses the Rohingya citizenship and refers to them as Bengalis – the inference being that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh – provides the Buddhist villagers with a pretext for murder, torture and rape safe in the knowledge that they’ll not be prosecuted.
If these Buddhist groups become more organised and form militias to carry out more strategic attacks it’s not hard to see how the situation could quickly descend into a situation reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, in which the Hutu militia enjoyed the backing of the government.
And there is evidence to suggest that this may already be happening. Following the initial violence, several Rohingya homes were set alight. The government responded predictably by accusing the Muslim minority of lighting the fires themselves, but there’s evidence to suggest that attacks were carried out by armed, Buddhist mobs with assistance from the security forces. And with reports of orders to arrest all Rohingya males over the age of ten emerging it seems villagers and security forces may be working towards the same goal of eradicating the area of all Rohingya Muslims with a frightening level of efficiency.
With no support for the victims or censure of the perpetrators within the government or Buddhist majority population one cannot envisage a domestic solution; rather, the Myanmar government seems to have no desire to seek one. And with the United Nations shameful record on protecting the victims of past genocides, one feels there is little hope for the Rohingya, who are becoming more isolated and more vulnerable with each attack.
(An edited version of this article was published on New Matilda on 14 February, 2014)