The essay below is from Al Ahram:
Conditions have deteriorated for Myanmar Muslims, known as Rohingya, despite “positive” political developments in this country of diverse ethnicity and religion that had been under military rule since 1962 until the arrival of the National League for Democracy to power in 2015.
A report issued last week by the London-based Amnesty International focused on conditions of the Rohingya and is the latest in a series of spotlights on them in recent years. The report revealed that discrimination and religious intolerance targets northern Rakhine where the Rohingya live as a large minority, around one million in a country of 52 million who are mostly Buddhists.
The turning point was in October 2016, when Burmese border guards were attacked by suspected Rohingya rebels, leaving nine government soldiers dead. Immediately, the army and police launched a broad clampdown in northern Rakhine which, according to Amnesty International, included many extrajudicial killings, sometimes resulting from random firing into crowds, as well as widespread arrests.
Reuters news agency reported late last month that around 1,000 Muslims in Myanmar (also known as Burma) were killed by the army in Rakhine province where they are a substantial minority. Key UN officials working on refugee affairs in two different agencies said in two separate interviews that previous reports about the numbers of victims could be underestimated, and they are concerned the world is oblivious to what is happening in Rakhine in northwest Burma.
One official, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “Now we are talking about hundreds, but this could be an underestimation. We could be talking in the thousands.” Another official said what we see is “the tip of the iceberg”.
Officials in neighbouring Bangladesh are taking measures to receive tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing from violence in the province that has been volatile for years. Officials estimate, from the accounts of refugees over the past four months, that no less than 1,000 people were killed.
Reuters said it reviewed an unpublished UN report in which 1,750 people were interviewed and included 182 reports of killings in their home villages. The report also included 186 instances of disappearance from these villages.
Burma’s presidential spokesman said the latest reports by the military state that less than 100 were killed in a campaign “to thwart an armed Rohingya rebellion who attacked border checkpoints in October”. He added: “Their figures are larger than ours, and we must verify the facts on the ground.”
But verifying the number killed is very difficult since the army is blocking roads to Rakhine province. Earlier this year, the London-based Amnesty International reported that hundreds of Rohingya were detained by the police and army without information on their charges. There was also video footage of policemen in Rakhine province beating Rohingya villagers.
Traditionally, the Burmese government rejects these reports but in response to the video footage, it said it will investigate the incident even though a few days earlier it denied the video footage entirely.
The government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who resisted the military junta that ruled the country for nearly five decades, formed a committee chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to investigate conditions in Rakhine.
The government had previously formed a local committee led by a former general who was vice-president, but it was widely criticised and rejected by the world community. Annan’s committee should issue its report on the situation and recommendations for resolution in August, 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi was embarrassed on the global stage, especially by peer Nobel Peace Prize winners, for not condemning the oppression of Muslims.
It will not be easy for her to implement the recommendations of Annan’s committee, not only out of concern over protests by radical Buddhist groups but also because of objections by members of her own party. Aung San Suu Kyi has no power over the military according to the constitution, which was written by the military.
Conditions in Rakhine are no different than the rest of the country where for years there has been unrest between ethnic and national minorities and the majority Burmese. Hatred towards Rohingya Muslims is deeply rooted in British colonialism when Burma became part of India after complete imperialist control took over in 1852 before the 1930 unrest against Indians.
In 1937, Burma continued under the British crown but separate from British administration of India. Hostility against Indians continued, nonetheless, in the form of tensions with Rohingya Muslims whom the majority Buddhist residents view as “illegal refugees from Bangladesh” which was part of India before independence in 1947.
In fact, Rohingya are subjected to persecution and violence in Bangladesh also. Hundreds of them were kidnapped and placed into forced labour similar to slaves, according to one human rights group. Some Western historians, however, trace hostility between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine back to pre-colonial times, to conflicts between Muslim and Buddhist kingdoms in Rakhine and Bengal in the 17th century.
There are 1.1 million Rohingya in a country of 52 million people who are mostly Buddhists. Their status fluctuated between right to citizenship in the 1960s and 1970s under the socialist rule of General Ni Wen, and revoking their citizenship in the 1980s under pressure from radical Buddhist monks. Commentators believe international neglect of what was occurring in Burma enabled these laws to be passed.
In the 1990s, some citizenship rights were restored to the Rohingya but protests by radical Buddhist groups in 2010 resulted in revoking these rights once again, and the old labels of “foreign residents” and “Bengalese” were once again used against the Rohingya.
Several radical groups sprouted, including Ma Ba Tha and the 969 Movement led by Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu who is referred to as “Burma’s Bin Laden”, or what Western commentators call “the face of Buddhist terror”. Wirathu was imprisoned in 2003 for inciting religious hatred but was released in 2012. Radical Buddhist groups organised several protests against any steps by the government to improve the conditions of the Rohingya.
There is a long history of hostility between Buddhist monks who have wide cultural and social influence in the country, and the military who are the largest political power there. Religious figures led protests in 2007 against price hikes, which further fuelled distrust between the two sides.
Unrest in Rakhine began again in 2012 after a rumour – which until today has not been confirmed – that a Buddhist woman was raped by a Muslim man. Like similar rumours in countries around the world, it was enough to trigger a deluge of religious hatred between Buddhists and Muslims, killing thousands of Rohingya so far. Hundreds of thousands have also fled to Bangladesh and Indonesia, while an unconfirmed number were arrested or disappeared.
Tensions continued until they reached the level of “crimes against humanity”, according to UN officials, but this time with the assistance of the army and police as well as extremists who are fuelled by political religious groups in the country.
Nonetheless, there is still hope. First, overall democratic developments across the country and international attention should ease difficult conditions for the Rohingya. The government’s admission that there needs to be international assistance in resolving the problem is in itself a key development, after years of officially insisting that foreigners cannot understand the true situation in Rakhine.
The road remains long and difficult. Societies do not change easily from extremism to moderation, tolerance and accepting the other.