Tue 27 Aug 2013
Filed under: Opinion
Ethnic discrimination and violence against Muslims has not stopped in Myanmar, despite promises from President Thein Sein.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Human Rights Council appointed Special Rapporteur, visited Myanmar from August 11 to 21 to see for himself the reconciliation efforts between Buddhists and Muslims.
Myanmar has been going through bouts of ethnic violence directed against the minority Muslim community. In June 2012, bloody riots broke out in Rakhine state, killing more than 250 Rohingya Muslims and displacing 200,000. In March 2013, similar riots in Meikhtila cost the lives of 43 Muslims. Thousands of Muslims have fled Myanmar to neighbouring countries fearing more violence. Frequent attacks by Buddhists on Muslims have become routine occurrence. Though the government of President Thein Sein has vowed to stop the violence there has been no improvement in the situation. The United Nations Human Rights Council and UNHCR have been monitoring the situation and providing succour.
What surprised and worried the United Nations was the confrontation Quintana had with an angry mob of Buddhists in Meikhtila, in central Myanmar. Quintana’s vehicle was surrounded and pounded by more than 200 Buddhist monks chanting slogans that he leave Myanmar. The government, however, denied any such thing occurred.
Before leaving Yangon, Quintana told newsmen: “I felt totally unprotected during this incident … It gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt,” when they (Muslims) were chased, beaten and killed by Buddhist mobs.
The Rohingya Muslims lost their citizenship in 1982, when Myanmar’s xenophobic dictator General Ne Win promulgated the Citizenship Law. The majority Buddhist population calls the Muslims “Kala,” a racist word containing deep hatred. Muslims constitute 5% of the population of 60 million.
What is most worrying is the rise of Ashin Wirathu (35), a Buddhist monk, who likes to call himself “the Burmese bin Laden.” Wirathu is head of Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery and started the anti-Muslim movement known as “969.” He draws inspiration from fascism and Nazism and is bigoted to the core. Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim leaflets and preaching eviction of Muslims from Myanmar. He was released in 2010, when Thein Sein announced his reform and reconciliation process. In September 2012, Wirathu led a rally of monks to promote Thein Sein’s controversial plan to send Muslims to a third country.
The weird three digit numerology “969” is a basis for religious violence. The first “9” stands for nine special attributes of Buddha, “6” for the six special attributes of “Dhamma” (Buddha teachings) and last “9” for the nine attributes of Buddhist “Sangha.” Wirathu has been campaigning that Buddhists should boycott Muslim businesses and refrain from all kinds of contacts with Muslims. Buddhist-owned shops boldly display “969” to identify themselves. Muslim businesses in central Myanmar and elsewhere are facing closure because of fear of Buddhist frenzy.
The government can stop the violence against Muslims, if it wants to. Actually, Thein Sein is using Wirathu and his ‘Sangha’ of 2,500 followers to do what the government cannot do officially. The government has not stopped these 969-supporting racist monks from traveling around the country and making hate speeches against Muslims.
There was a huge uproar in Myanmar when, on July 1, Time magazine did a cover story on Wirathu under the banner “Face of Buddhist Terror.” Wirathu was quoted as saying that Muslims are “mad dogs” and called mosques “enemy bases.” The government quickly banned the issue of the magazine after big demonstrations in Yangon chanted slogans demanding its ban. The Economist (July 27) described Wirathu as a “notorious chauvinist … (who) has abandoned Buddhism’s universal doctrine of compassion and non-violence. For them Buddhism equates with a narrow nationalism.”
The political parties in Myanmar are absolutely quite on Muslim persecution. That is because the country does not have any democracy. It is not only the Rakhine Muslims who are faced with total elimination. Other ethnic minority groups — Shans, Karens, Kachin, Mons, Kayins — also are victims of systematic discrimination by the Burman majority. These groups have taken up arms to fight the Burman (known as Bamar). Bamar Buddhists actually control the government and have been fighting insurgencies since independence in 1948.
Democracy icon and Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has strangely kept quite on this sad episode of human rights violation. She has asked the police to “act according to the law.” When the government imposed a ban on Rakhine Muslim families on having more than two children, Suu Kyi said it was not correct. Suu Kyi has come under harsh criticism from most human rights activists for her silence on the issue. Her desire to become president of Myanmar and the 2015 election seem to be weighing on her. She does not want to take a moral stand against what the racist monks are doing. Critics say that she has become a stooge of the quasi-military government of Thein Sein. The Economist (June 15) described it as “the halo slips.”
UN Special Rapporteur Quintana has expressed a fear that there is danger of spiraling violence between Buddhists and Muslims. The UN Human Rights Council had made several recommendations in April 2013. The most important of those is to “urgently amend the 1982 Citizenship Act to eliminate provisions that are discriminatory or have a discriminatory impact on determining citizenship for reasons of ethnicity, race, religion or other protected status,” and to “ensure that Rohingya children have the right to acquire a nationality where otherwise they would be stateless.”
That is the crux of the problem. As long as Muslims remain stateless in Myanmar they shall be victims of Buddhist violence, as no law protects them. The United Nations, Asean, Saarc, OIC and the international community have to take a firm stand against the Myanmar regime and demand immediate cessation of all kinds of discrimination against the Muslim community along with return of their citizenship. Bigotry must come to an end in Myanmar.
The writer is a former ambassador and secretary.