Myanmar has come a long, determined way in its programme to switch from brutal junta rule to a more acceptable form of government.
But it has some serious problems to overcome. The new government’s approach to drug lords and trafficking is discouraging. The rule of law remains as opaque as during the bad years of military dictators. But arguably, no issue illustrates the vast amount of catching up required by the new Myanmar regime than the treatment and attitude towards the Rohingya people.
The recent communal violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state should have served as a wakeup. Instead, Myanmar officials have pandered and even participated in a continuing campaign to vilify and demonise the Rohingya. The government itself, including President Thein Sein, blame the killings, destruction and ill feelings on the very existence of the Rohingya people.
The riots themselves, now three months old and continuing sporadically, show a serious, deep-seated problem among different nationalities. Many countries and regions have had similar problems. In today’s world, at least, Myanmar’s leadership is unique. But Thein Sein has taken a hard line _ not against the violence, and not against the instigators of murderous attacks. Rather, the president claims that the Rohingya are largely to blame for being illegal outsiders.
In Mandalay on Sunday, there was a double shock. The first offence was by hundreds of Buddhist monks, clad in their robes. They called on the government to deport or build internment camps for all Rohingya, with no exceptions. The second was the failure of the government to condemn such an immoral call. Such a blatantly racist, anti-religious show of intolerance by the Buddhist clergy deserved at least a reprimand from responsible government leaders.
Instead, from President Thein Sein on down, there has only been positive support for the clerical bigotry. Indeed, the Mandalay monks claimed to be supporting the stand by the president. The president even told the United Nations envoy for Myanmar in July that it was ”impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingya, who are not our ethnicity”.
Such xenophobia and intolerance is no longer acceptable in today’s world. Ethnic conflicts do exist in Asean countries, but not to the near-ethnic cleansing level as in Myanmar. Other Asean countries do recognise the need to integrate groups who are different from the majority. Cambodia has Muslims, Malaysia has Hindus and the Philippines has Buddhists _ to pick three obvious examples of societies where minority ethnic and religious groups contribute to the nation. And one wonders what the other nationalities of Myanmar think of their president’s words _ the Karen, the Shan, the Kachin and so many others.
The Rohingya of Myanmar are mostly born and unanimously resident of that country. President Thein Sein has no legal authority and no moral standing in claiming they must be deported or imprisoned. International law, religious teachings and common decency all reveal the president’s weak claims.
This is now an issue which must be addressed by friends and neighbours of Myanmar, specifically Asean. The unacceptable handling of both the Rohingya people and the Rakhine riots has opened a new security problem for this region. Muslim countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have a new focus on our area. President Thein Sein may not want to hear what his neighbours think, but Asean must tell him to change this policy and put his country on a better path.