Another Killing Field?
Killing of the Rohingyas is not merely a matter of Muslim genocide but an issue that is fast building towards religious fundamentalism.
In Myanmar (formerly Burma), violence against the minority Rohingya community by the Buddhist majority has a bloody history. Since 2012, the Rohingyas are being subjected to a planned genocide – a fact confirmed by reputable human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch. While the extremist Buddhist monks persecute them on religious grounds, the country’s President, Thein Sein, openly declares that the Rohingyas are “illegal immigrants”.
According to the United Nations, around 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have suffered “widespread oppression and brutal violence in makeshift refugee camps with many dying unnecessarily. ”Atrocities committed against the community were not possible without state complicity. In its report released in April 2013, the Human Rights Watch alleged that security forces collaborated with Buddhist monks and also took part in the killings of Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in the Rakhine state last summer.
The report terms the massacres ‘well-planned’, exposing the nexus behind the mass killings and torture of Muslims. According to the report, “Political parties, associations of monks and community groups issued numerous anti-Rohingya pamphlets and public statements that explicitly or implicitly denied the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity, demonized them and called for their removal from the country, sometimes even using the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’. The statements were frequently released in connection with organized meetings and in full view of the local and national authorities who raised no concerns.”
State complicity was further exposed in a video footage of the Meikhtila riots released by the BBC. In the video, Buddhist monks could be seen leading a murderous mob while the police stood by, playing the role of onlookers. Even then the government kept denying the involvement of the security forces and did not punish the culprits responsible for the killings of the Rohingyas and Kamans. The official stance that security forces “were overpowered by mobs” does not seem plausible since the same forces had brutally suppressed various uprisings during the 40-year-long military dictatorship in Myanmar.
The horrifying round of anti-Muslim riots in March and April 2013 was a bloody re-run of the 2012 massacre of the Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Rakhine where, according to official estimates, 110 people were killed and 125,000 were forced to flee to refugee camps.
Evidence suggests that violence against the Rohingyas was statesponsored. Various senior army officers and government officials repeatedly expressed their fears that the Muslims would force their religion on the Buddhists and would try to “steal” Buddhist women. A senior minister once reportedly said, “If they are not deterred, the western gate will break (an obvious reference to the country’s border with Bangladesh),” and that “human rights do not apply to Muslims.” The Burmese Consul General in Hong Kong, U Ye Myint Aung, even wrote a letter to local newspapers and diplomatic missions, describing the Rohingyas as “ugly as ogres”.
There has been a marriage of convenience between the government and the Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha. It is strange to note that an organization that earned worldwide admiration for its peaceful prodemocracy movement against the military regime in 2007 would suddenly resort to the genocide of Muslims.
Early this year, monk Wiseitta Biwuntha, also known as the Venerable Wirathu, launched the 969 campaign. He urged his followers “not to transact with Muslims economically or socially and to demarcate their houses and properties by putting up the 969 emblem.”
Many allege that the anti-Muslim policy is crucial for the survival of the ruling elite. The government is supporting anti-Muslim extremism knowing that it would encourage a multi-ethnic conservative alliance between the Buddhists and the establishment forces. The state-run media intentionally highlights and sponsors anti-Rohingya propaganda, promotes violence and spreads hatred against them.
The 140,000 Rohingyas who live in subhuman conditions in displacement camps believe that nothing is left for
them in Myanmar. Some are even paying smugglers to sneak out to Malaysia or Thailand by boats. The conflict is also taking a bizarre turn in the wake of a threat of retaliation by the Pakistani Taliban. Many believe that “a homegrown radical movement may take place”.
"I'm afraid that some of the young men in the camps could become terrorists if they keep living in this way," says a Rohingya activist, Aung Win.
The entire world community has become a silent spectator while violence against the long-marginalized Rohingya, whom the United Nations has termed as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, is on the rise. It is a matter of concern that after emerging from half a century of military rule, Myanmar is faced with this predicament that poses a serious threat to its economic and political reforms as well as to global interfaith harmony.
It is widely alleged that hardliners in the army are restraining the government from further reforms by igniting violence. In some of his speeches, President Thein Sein has emphasized the need for trust, respect and compassion between the people of different faiths and ethnic groups. But, at the same time, he also insists that the Rohingya Muslims are “illegal immigrants”.
This attitude would not help establish peace. The government needs to show determination to protect all the minorities and counter violence from any group. It is time the pro-democracy opposition renounced its indifference, became united and countered religious bigotry. The country’s salvation lies in the victory of non-sectarian forces.
The world community should also come forward. It is not merely a matter of protecting the Rohingya Muslims from genocide but of developing a common front against religious fundamentalism that has Fascist potentials and tendencies. The writers, partners in law firm Huzaima & Ikram (Taxand Pakistan), are adjunct faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).