Burma: Ro­hingya geno­cide

Prince Albert Daily Herald - - OPINION - GWYNNE DYER

Dur­ing the past 65 years of mil­i­tary rule in Burma, the army has killed thou­sands of peo­ple from al­most ev­ery one of the coun­try’s nu­mer­ous mi­nori­ties: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karen­nis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a geno­cide are the Ro­hingya, and it is hap­pen­ing right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 mil­lion peo­ple are eth­nic Burmese, and al­most all the other groups have re­belled from time to time be­cause they have no au­ton­omy. In­deed, the orig­i­nal mil­i­tary take-over in 1962 oc­curred to stop an elected civil­ian leader from cre­at­ing a fed­eral state where the mi­nori­ties would have some con­trol over their own af­fairs. But the 1.1 mil­lion Ro­hingya are spe­cial, be­cause they are al­most all Mus­lim.

The other mi­nori­ties are all Bud­dhist, at least in the­ory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their re­volts. The Ro­hingya never re­volted, but Mus­lims are feared and re­viled by the Burmese ma­jor­ity. Now the army claims that the Ro­hingya are all re­cent im­mi­grants from Bangladesh, and is try­ing to drive them out of the coun­try.

The an­ces­tors of the Ro­hingya mi­grated from what is now Bangladesh be­tween the 14th and 18th cen­turies and set­tled in the Rakhine (Arakan) re­gion of Burma. They were mostly poor farm­ers, just like their Bud­dhist neigh­bours, and their right to Burmese cit­i­zen­ship was un­ques­tioned un­til the Burmese mil­i­tary seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and en­e­mies.

The ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist mil­i­tary regime launched its first open at­tacks on the Ro­hingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the bor­der into Bangladesh, in a cam­paign marked by wide­spread killings, mass rape and the de­struc­tion of mosques. Even then, their civil­ian Bud­dhist neigh­bours in Rakhine helped in the at­tacks.

The Ro­hingyas’ cit­i­zen­ship was re­voked in 1982, and other new laws for­bade them to travel with­out of­fi­cial per­mis­sion, banned them from own­ing land, and re­quired newly mar­ried cou­ples to sign a com­mit­ment to have no more than two chil­dren. An­other mil­i­tary cam­paign drove a fur­ther quar­ter-mil­lion Ro­hingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went rel­a­tively quiet un­til 2013.

The trou­ble this time started with anti-Mus­lim ri­ots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a mil­lion other Mus­lims, mostly de­scended from peo­ple who im­mi­grated from Bri­tishruled In­dia af­ter Burma was con­quered and in­cor­po­rated into the em­pire in the mid-19th cen­tury.

Th­ese ur­ban Mus­lims, many of whom owned shops or other small busi­nesses, at­tracted the envy and re­sent­ment of poorer Burmese, and have been the tar­gets of spo­radic ri­ot­ing and loot­ing through­out the past cen­tury. Since in­de­pen­dence, the Burmese army has of­ten sup­ported th­ese ri­ots, or even in­cited them.

What lies be­hind all this hos­til­ity is a deep-seated fear that Is­lam is go­ing to dis­place Bud­dhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Bud­dhist coun­tries from Afghanistan to In­done­sia. It is a com­pletely un­founded fear – Mus­lims are just four per­cent of Burma’s pop­u­la­tion – but many Bud­dhist Burmese are ob­sessed by it.

When the Tal­iban blew up the gi­ant 6th-cen­tury stat­ues of Bud­dha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘re­tal­i­ated’ by bull­doz­ing the an­cient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taun­goo. In the same year Burmese monks be­gan dis­tribut­ing an anti-Mus­lim pam­phlet called “The Fear of Los­ing One’s Race”, and since then Bud­dhist monks have been in the fore­front of the at­tacks on Mus­lims – in­clud­ing in Rakhine.

The poor Ro­hingya farm­ers of Rakhine have lit­tle in com­mon with the Mus­lim mer­chants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main tar­get of the army’s wrath. This is prob­a­bly be­cause Rakhine is the only prov­ince of Burma where Mus­lims are – or more pre­cisely were un­til re­cently – al­most half the pop­u­la­tion.

The at­tacks on the Ro­hingya, ini­tially ex­plained as part of in­ter­com­mu­nal ri­ot­ing be­tween them and the lo­cal Bud­dhist pop­u­la­tion, have es­ca­lated un­til this year they have be­come straight­for­ward eth­nic cleans­ing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the bor­der into Bangladesh – but that is still geno­cide.

It’s now well on the way to ac­com­plish­ing its goal, thanks to a small group of mis­guided young Ro­hingya men who formed a ram­shackle re­sis­tance group called the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army and at­tacked sev­eral po­lice posts on 25 Au­gust, killing twelve peo­ple.

They were armed with home-made black pow­der mus­kets and swords, but the Burmese govern­ment has pro­claimed that it is un­der “ter­ror­ist” at­tack and launched a “counter-of­fen­sive” that is the lo­cal ver­sion of a fi­nal so­lu­tion.

About 300,000 Ro­hingya have fled across the bor­der into Bangladesh in the past cou­ple of weeks, leav­ing be­hind an un­known num­ber of dead in their burned-out vil­lages. The re­main­ing Ro­hingyas in Burma, prob­a­bly still more than half a mil­lion, are al­most all in refugee camps that the regime care­fully does not call “con­cen­tra­tion camps”.

And what about Burma’s sec­u­lar saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in prac­tice the head of a demo­crat­i­cally elected govern­ment (although one still sub­ject to a mil­i­tary veto on se­cu­rity mat­ters)? She de­nies that there is any­thing wrong go­ing on.

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