Thursday, 1 December 2016

MYANMAR: The ethnic cleansing of ''Rohingya''

Myanmar has made some impressive and unprecedented changes, including the release of many political prisoners, the rolling back of censorship and the lifting of restrictions to allow opposition political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's win in the last parliamentarian election.

However, it is far too early to say whether Myanmar will continue to make progress, stall, or even fall back into a vicious circle of ethnic and sectarian violence that derails the efforts of reformers and empowers vested interests in the new leader. In fact, some of the most important signs are currently pointing in a distressing direction. The grim fact is that Burmese authorities and local groups have engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Rohingya Muslims that has left that community devastated. .

Last month, Myanmar's army has carried out a bloody crackdown in the western state of Rakhine and thousands of Rohingya have flooded over the border into Bangladesh this month, making horrifying claims of gang rape, torture, and murder at the hands of security forces.

Analysis of satellite images by the Human Rights Watch found hundreds of buildings in Rakhine state have been razed. Myanmar has denied allegations of abuse, but has also banned foreign journalists and independent investigators from accessing the area. Myanmar de faco leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced growing international backlash for what a UN official has said amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Abdul Razal Ali Artan, the somali-born student accused of carrying out a car and knife attack in Ohio State University this week, reportedly protested on his Facebook page about the killing of minority Muslims in Myanmar. Malaysia has abruptly cancelled two under-22 football friendlies against Myanmar to protest at the bloody crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

There has been great disappointment that Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi, whose political party took power in Myanmar this year after a decade of military rule, has failed to ease the plight of Rohingya, despite her reputation as fighter of human rights. However, Suu Kyi's government in August appointed former UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan, to head an advisory panel aimed at finding lasting solutions to the conflict in Rakhine state. he is scheduled to visit Rakhine state on Friday.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority of one million people that has lived in Rakhine state for centuries. But they face systematic religious and ethnic discrimination because under Myanmar’s constitution, they are not classified as one of 135 legally recognized ethnic minority groups with Myanmar citizenship. Ethnic Burmese consider the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as its citizens.

But despite Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's win in the last parliamentarian election, many things inside the country have not changed. Burma's abusive military is still involved in perpetrating serious offenses -- including war crimes and crimes against humanity -- with impunity, as evidenced over the past two years in its war with the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State that has displaced over 80,000 civilians, and its role in stoking and perpetrating crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

The army still enjoys complete immunity from civilian control, justice and any oversight in its affairs. It maintains a bloated budget that crowds out spending to address the massive poverty and social problems caused by its long period of misrule.

There are reports that the perpetrators of these massacres are well-organized, and that the police usually stands by and watches as killings are carried out in broad daylight. Such reports lead to accusations of official complicity in the massacres. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is fading away.

If the army may have helped to ignite the Rakhine massacres, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in  Rakhibe and Arakan states, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.

The situation in Rakhine appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.

The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham, anti-Muslim posters begin appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.

This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.

By Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Political Analyst/Author