Monday, June 18, 2012
An Open Letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma
(This is a revised version of my original letter on the crisis in Burma)
For more than a decade, as a concerned human rights activist, I have worked towards release of political prisoners like you and democratization of Burma (Myanmar). It was good to see that the new regime had the far-sightedness to release you with so many others that were put behind the bars for no fault of theirs except that they demanded what’s morally right and good for Burma. I am also glad that you along with 42 others of the NLD were able to participate in the April by-election and win. It was a great win for the people. A hearty congratulation to you and your party!
People's expectations are high with such positive developments inside Burma. They like to believe that with your voice heard inside the lower house of the parliament their decades-old grievances would now be aired and you would do your utmost to bring about equality, fairness and justice so that no one would be treated unfairly in new Burma on the ground of his or her ethnic or religious backgrounds. For years, the military government had exploited intolerance of the 'other' people to further divide and rule the country. As you may, therefore, expect, no country in the world is as much poisoned by the evils of racism and bigotry as Burma is. And that has to change.
The latest pogrom against the Rohingyas of Burma once again underscores the fault line that exists along race, ethnicity and religion. I am simply shocked to observe how the murder of a Rakhine woman by an outcast could trigger race- and religious riots in which ten innocent pious Muslims (from Rangoon and not Arakan) were mercilessly lynched by a mob of 300 hateful Rakhine extremists in Taungup, situated as the main gateway for travel to central Burma from the Arakan State. If such lone acts of violence by criminal elements within a society were to lay the very foundation and justification for lynching of an entire community, there won't be any human being left alive on earth. And yet, that simple wisdom seemed to have missed the Rakhine leadership who stoked hatred of the Rohingya.
One would have expected that with you leading the opposition camp inside the Parliament, and the new Thein Sein government promising change, Burma is serious about joining the civilized world, and has said sayonara (good-bye) to her hideous past – her centuries of intolerance, xenophobia, racism and bigotry of the ‘other’ people. But our expectations were too premature. We were wrong.
The local Rakhine leadership, the security forces - Hlun Htein and NASAKA jointly collaborated to trigger the latest extermination campaign against the Rohingyas of Burma. When they could have stopped the horrendous crime of the Rakhine mob on June 3, they chose not to intervene, and worse still, as part of a more sinister plan, they attacked and started shooting unarmed Rohingyas on their way to prayer services on Friday, June 8.
As the later evidences, e.g., capture of large caches of lethal weapons from Buddhist temples and sworn affidavits of Rakhine extremists on June 14, show the Rakhine fascist leadership had tried to exploit the event as its ‘Reichstag Fire’ moment to not only terrorize the Rohingya minorities so that they would have no choice but a forced exodus out of the Rakhine state to nearby Bangladesh or elsewhere but also to breakaway the Rakhine state from the rest of Burma. In the meantime, hundreds of Rohingya villages have been set on fire, affecting the precious lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya -- already recognized as the most persecuted community in our globe. Probably hundreds have also perished in this latest genocidal campaign.
I am simply appalled and horrified by the monstrosity of such naked aggression against a persecuted minority that has been robbed of their basic rights to citizenship. As rightly noted by Eric Schwartz, a deputy to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, last year during his visit of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingyas are the victims who are “guilty of nothing other than a desire to flee repression and create a better life for themselves.”
Dear leader, the world looks up to you as a moral voice of conscience, and not as a chauvinist who is obsessed with the supremacy of the Bamar over other races that form the complex mosaic of Burma. I pray and hope that their perception is not ill-placed. It is good to hear last Saturday in your Nobel lecture, albeit 21 years late, that “the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world.” Who is more oppressed in our world today than the Rohingyas of Burma? Why then your equivocation about the Rohingya issue? Just a day earlier when you were asked if Rohingyas should be granted Myanmar citizenship, you regrettably said, “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” I pray not that you are okay with the highly discriminatory 1982 citizenship law that have wrongfully robbed the Rohingyas of that basic human rights.
It was your father, General Aung San, who assured full rights and privileges to Rohingya Muslims of Arakan by saying “I give (offer) you a blank cheque. We will live together and die together. Demand what you want. I will do my best to fulfill them. If native people are divided, it will be difficult to achieve independence for Burma." So, during your Nobel speech when you said that “My only concern is that I prove worthy of him,” I would like to believe that you did not speak with a forked-tongue. You can prove yourself worthy of your father by demanding restitution of citizenship right of the Rohingyas and other racial/ethnic/religious groups.
Let me also remind you that the former first President of Burma Sao Shwe Theik stated, “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races.”
Lest you forget the parliamentary government before General Ne Win’s time listed 144 ethnic groups in Burma. It was Ne Win who put only 135 groups on a short list, which was then approved by his BSPP regime’s constitution of 1974. The three Muslim groups - Rohingya (Muslim Arakanese), Panthay (Chinese Muslims), Bashu (Malay Muslims) - and six other ethnic groups were deleted from the short list.
The 1982 citizenship law violates several fundamental principles of international law. It offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights. The law has perpetuated the Rohingya citizenship crisis making them object of persecution and of discrimination which render them a very difficult life as stateless people in their native country, where they have absolute rights to be on an equal footing with all other citizens. Such persecution and discrimination are contrary to the purposes of the United Nations. The discriminatory practices against the Rohingyas make the Myanmar government guilty of non-compliance of each of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Burma, as an UN member state has an obligation to follow the UN resolutions.
Dear Daw Suu Kyi, leadership is about taking difficult decision even when it is unpopular. You cannot allow the voices of intolerance within your party and the country to define you and the future course of your country.
As I have noted time and again, there is nothing worse than racism, which, sadly, has permeated Burmese society since its very beginning; not only the racial supremacy complex which many Burmans (Bamars) are brought up with, but the racism of the Karen against the Burmans, the Burmans against the Shan, the Shan against the Wa, the Wa against the Shan, the Mon against the Burmans, the Rakhine against the Rohingyas, the Burmans against the Chinese, the Christians against the Buddhists, and everyone against the Muslims. The list goes on and on. In new Burma this vicious politics with racism must end once and for all time.
For decades, the ruling military junta had encouraged a blind racist nationalism, full of references to ‘protecting the race’, meaning that if Burmans do not oppress other nationalities then they will themselves be oppressed. It encouraged ‘national reconsolidation’, meaning assimilation, and promoted preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’, meaning that if the Army falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would ensue.
Thus, under the new regime while some windows of freedom have opened up, the doors to racism and violence are still wide open. There is little or no change in the ethnic nationality areas, especially in Rakhine, Shan, Karen and Kachin areas. Severe fighting is ongoing between the Burmese army and ethnic armed groups. This year alone, there have been at least 750 incidents of human rights abuses committed by the Burmese troops against ethnic minority civilians. There are also many prisoners of conscience behind the bar.
As you currently go through a transition, you ought to know that democracy alone will not be enough to prevent the people tearing each other apart, particularly if it is a unitary, non-federal democracy. The first and biggest step in bringing about an end to the problem of racism is to admit that it exists and to recognize its scale. The latest extinction campaign against the Rohingya has once again shown the depth of Rakhine racism.
Dear leader, yours have to be a strong voice that condemns intolerance unequivocally. If you and other political leaders fail to do so, Burma will remain a country that is at war with itself, whether or not today’s hybrid regime is replaced in 2015 by another government - civil or military.
The 1982 citizenship law is illegal, morally unconscionable and grossly discriminatory. It is opposed to everything that we stand for. Please, tear down that wall of hatred and discrimination. The Rohingya-demand for equality in citizenship rights is a bona fide demand and you must do everything possible to make such a reality. That should create an atmosphere for inclusion. The new Burma must embrace pluralism under a federal framework and cannot live in the past of rotten hatred, racism, xenophobia and bigotry. The sooner the better!
Dr Habib Siddiqui
(A well wisher from the USA)