COMMENT Stillbirth persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya
By Ramzy Baroud
On April 21, the BBC obtained disturbing video footage shot in Myanmar. It confirmed extreme reports of brutality, even as the country is being touted by the United States and European governments as a democratic reform success story. The BBC footage was difficult to watch even when faces of Muslim Rohingya victims who were violently attacked by Buddhist mobs were blurred.
"The police [stood] by as shops, homes and mosques are looted and burnt, and failing to intervene as Buddhist mobs, including monks, kill fleeing Muslims," the BBC reported. One Rohingya
man was set ablaze by a mob while still alive. The police watched idly.
To some extent, international media are finally noticing the plight of the minority Rohingya, who are experiencing what can only honestly be described as genocide. And there are reasons for this. On one hand, the atrocities being carried out by the Myanmar state, local police and mobs of nationalist Buddhist groups in the northwestern Rakhine State are unambiguous attempts at removing all Rohingya from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
The Rohingya population in the country currently hovers between 800,000 and one million. On the other hand, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has recently been placed in the limelight for the wrong reasons, thanks in part to Western governments breaking their previous political and economic siege against the country's decades-long military dictatorship.
While the "new Myanmar" is being rebranded through a new positive discourse aimed at opening the country to new foreign investments and steering it away from growing Chinese influence, Western governments are deliberately ignoring the fact that a human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions is taking place. This all being done with the active involvement and encouragement of president Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government.
In the eyes of many in Myanmar, the Rohingya are considered subhuman and have been treated as such. Most Rohingya Muslims are native to the state of "Rohang" - also known as Rakhine or Arakan. The majority of them live in very poor townships, mainly Buthidaung and Maungdaw in the northwestern part of the state, or live in refugee camps.
Their population subsists between the nightmare of having no legal status (as they are still denied citizenship), little or no rights, and ethnic purges carried out by their neighbors. The worst of such violence in recent years took place between June and October last year. However, the onslaught targeting Rohingya is resurfacing and spreading, with the intensity and parameters of the violence growing to include other Muslim minority groups.
The BBC footage is not only revealing in that it confirmed authorities' complicity in the violence, but it also reflected the government's general attitude towards the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as the "world's most persecuted people". Responding to the outcry against his country's brutal treatment of the minority group, Thein Sein made an "offer" to the UN last year where he was willing to send the Rohingya "to any other country willing to accept them".
This official behavior is problematic in several ways. Naypyidaw does not seem even remotely mindful of international humanitarian laws - a long-standing complaint against the previous military regime. Its legal frame of reference is thus hardly a reflection of a repented dictatorship. At the same time, Thein Sein's government has sent unmistakable messages of tacit support to nationalist groups that have led the ethnic purges.
International rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have in recent months become markedly more outspoken regarding the violence against the Rohingya. To preserve tentative business contracts with Western investors, the government has gone into damage control mode. To quell the growing criticism, Thein Sein's government launched an investigate into the so-called "sectarian violence" through a supposed independent commission.
Its final recommendations, however, were as disturbing as the violence itself. Assembled last August, the presidential Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State was composed of 27 members, with no representation from the Rohingya minority. The long-awaited report on the violence, released on April 29, raised ethnically biased concerns over rapid population growth among Rohingya and Kaman Muslims.
Authorities in Rakhine State have followed up by imposing a two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya families in two townships. The policy, however, does not apply to Buddhists in the area. On Tuesday, nearly 1,000 Rakhine Buddhists marched in support of the government's ban on Rohingya birthrights, according to press reports.
Al Jazeera reported that the order makes Myanmar "perhaps the only country in the world to impose such a restriction on a religious group". The report noted that China's controversial one-child policy is not based on religion and makes exceptions for minority ethnic groups.
On May 26, Rakhine State spokesperson Win Myaing told journalists that the findings of the commission were consistent with a 2005 law that limits birth rates among Rohingya Muslims to two children per family. That discriminatory law dates back to 1994, where severe marriage restrictions were imposed on the Rohingya community that required long and complicated bureaucratic procedures. The BBC said that "it is not clear how the [two-child policy] will be enforced."
Regardless of what sort of mechanisms authorities plan to put in place to implement the law, limiting population growth of the Rohingya people is an abhorrent principle in and of itself. It even compelled celebrated pro-democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to break her silence on the violence against Rohingya, though she carefully measured her words.
"It is not good to have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights either," Suu Kyi told reporters. She later said the restriction was "illegal".
Considering the previous level of violence and the fact that more than 125,000 Rohingya have been pushed into internally displaced person or second country refugee camps, one can only imagine the kind of sinister plans that are being put into action to push them permanently from Myanmar.
The international response to the violence has been equally disturbing. Following the early wave of devastating violence, European officials welcomed the government's "measured response" to the crisis. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative on foreign affairs, is on record saying: "We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult inter-communal violence in an appropriate way."
Behind those statements, the EU and US are scrambling to divide and rule Myanmar's many untapped markets and resources. As Rohingya boat people were floating (or sinking) in various regional waters, Thein Sein met with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in a "landmark" visit in Oslo on February 26. Regarding the conflict in Rakhine State, Stoltenberg reduced it to an "internal" Myanmar affair.
To reward Thein Sein for his supposedly bold democratic reforms, Norway took the lead by waving off nearly half of the debt Naypyidaw owed Oslo. Other countries have followed suit, including Japan, which last year dropped US$3 billion off the amount it was owed.
The Rohingya, meanwhile, are left to ponder their punishment for flouting discriminatory laws. "Fear of punishment under the two-child rule compel far too many Rohingya women to risk their lives and turn to desperate and dangerous measures to self-induce abortions," Human Rights Watch said in a May 28 report entitled "All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma's Arakan State."
Matthew Smith, one of the report's authors, later wrote: "The world should not be blinded by the excitement of Myanmar's political opening. Rohingya are paying for that approach with their lives." Since then, more Rohingya have been killed while many more of their homes, mosques, shops and orphanages have been burned to the ground. And where there should be a concerted international uproar, apart from a few disparate voices, there has been only silence.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).