Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stop Ignoring Muslims in Myanmar!

The recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar has finally shown a light on the dirty little secret of Myanmar, a secret the media seems blissfully ignorant of. There can be no justification for the actions which started this firestorm of violence, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, nor can we justify the retaliatory lynching of ten Muslims dragged from a bus by an angry Buddhist mob; the retaliatory attacks have left scores dead and over 90,000 people displaced.

That being said, it sheds light on the alarming plight of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya are Muslim, according to the Myanmar government do not exist. The State Peace and Development Council stated “In actual fact, although there are (135) national races living in Myanmar today, the so called Rohingya people is not one of them. Historically, there has never been a ‘Rohingya’race in Myanmar. The very name Rohingya is a creation of a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State. Since the First Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of Muslim Faith from the adjacent country illegally entered Myanmar Ngain-Ngan, particularly Rakhine State.” This quote is in reference to the Citizenship Act of 1982 adopted in order to disqualify the Rohingya from citizenship.

In reality, Muslims traders came to the Irrawaddy Delta (Ayeyarwady Delta), Tanintharyi and Arakan (Rakhine) coastal territories in the ninth century, as documented in contemporary books such as “The Muslims of Burma” A study of a minority Group, by Moshe Yegar and “Ancient Pyu” by Professor U Than Tun. Furthermore it has been argued that after Bengal became a Muslim country in 1203, Islamic influence grew in Arakan to the extent of establishing Muslim vassal state beginning in 1430 and lasting until it was invaded and occupied by the Burmese king Bodawpaya in 1784.

Continued denial of the Rohingya people as citizens of Myanmar has as much to do with ethnicity as it does with religion since there are Muslims in the Rakhine State who are not Rohingya and do not speak the Rohingya dialect. The Rohingya have distinct Bangladeshi characteristics and as such are seen as interlopers due to mass immigration from Bangladesh during the British colonial occupation of Burma from 1824-1948. This argument however ignores the fact that Muslims have been in the Rakhine (Arakan) region for hundreds of years, and that many of these recent immigrants would inter marry with more long standing people of the area. None of this matters as the Rohingya and most Muslims whose ancestors originate from India and Bangladesh were considered citizens of Burma under the 1948 Constitution and civilian administration until the military coup d'├ętat of 1962. Their status was subsequently downgraded under the 1974 Constitution, which does not recognize them as indigenous, and the Citizenship Act of 1982, which states that citizens must belong to one of 135 'national races' as recognized under the constitution, or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823. Given the lack of documentation to satisfy the latter requirement, the result has been a hugely discriminatory denial of citizenship for most Rohingya and many other Muslims, effectively rendering them stateless.

Aside from Anti-Indian and Anti-Islam clashes in the 1930’s, the ongoing cycle of violence, rebellion and crackdown by authorities as well as the particularly repressive and systematic measures taken against Muslims – and the Rohingya in particular – resulted in waves of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even over a million, fleeing to Bangladesh in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. Rohingya have been systematically persecuted, oppressed and targeted by the Burmese army who committed such atrocities as torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, extra-judicial killing and summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, destruction of homes, forced labor, forced relocation and eviction, and confiscation of land or property. Discriminatory government policy and regulations based on the refusal to recognize them as citizens, means the Rohingya do not have an automatic right to education, work or necessary social services. Due to severe travel restrictions, unemployment (often due to citizenship), lack of education and an overall demeaning of the Rohingya existence the Rakhine has become the ghetto of southeast Asia and has led to the continued, ongoing, systematic abuse of these people with nothing being said.

When the Christian minority of East Timor claimed they were persecuted by the Muslims of Indonesia it made international headlines and resulted in the creation of an independent state. A Jewish minority in Palestine created massive immigration waves and promoted a national homeland for themselves because of the persecution of the Jewish people particularly during WWII – result, Israel. Coptic Christians in Egypt, who make up less than 10% of the population, have been in the news for weeks if not months, not because of any specific persecution, but because Egypt was electing a new president. Once it was announced a so called ‘Islamist’ had won the Egyptian presidency, there was another slew of articles questioning his stance on the Coptic Christians and how he would treat them. Not because of any particular instance but rather because the ‘Islamist’ might persecute them.

Time and time again we see a persecuted people or even a people who may be at risk of persecution and it grabs international headlines, causing an outpouring of emotion and sentiment (if not action) by government officials as well as its people. Yet it seems when the persecuted people are Muslim, it is perfectly alright for them to languish in obscurity without any public outcry for justice. This tragedy must be stopped, the Rohingya people must be allowed the rights of all other citizens of Myanmar, and the government must build up the Rakhine State through political, economic and social reform. If nothing is done, if the deteriorating conditions continue, if the human rights violations continue, we will see far more tragedy in this region; we will see civil war, genocide or some other great tragedy that could have been prevented.

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