Saving the Rohingya

Author: Regina Paulose

Burma has been involved in the lengthy process of democratization since 2011. Some argue that Burmese reforms are not genuine while others argue that the process is genuine but democratization remains complicated by a myriad of political and cultural issues.[1] Although Burmese President Thein Sein is a remnant  of the former dictatorship, there has been progress in freedom of expression and freedom of the press.[2] Yet, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar recently stated that there were “worrying signs of backtracking” and that the patterns witnessed “impose a climate of fear intimidation to the society at large.”[3]

One of the largest beneficiaries of the new democratic freedoms is the Buddhist 969.[4] The Buddhist 969 is a “grassroots nationalist” movement in which the numbers 969 have “ideological roots.” It is reported that the organization originated from the previous dictatorship. The 969 however, have continued to enjoy support under the current government. The 969 claims that the Muslim population, which compromises 4% of the population, is intent on destroying Buddhism in Burma. One of the figureheads of the Buddhist 969 is Ashin Wirathu who was released as part of a general amnesty in 2012, after he was jailed by the previous regime for inciting religious violence. The Buddhist 969 represents a faction of the population against reforms which have taken place in the country. This could equate for trouble in the upcoming elections in the country because politicians may pander to the whims of such groups to get votes.

The Buddhist 969’s unsubstantiated beliefs manifest into action in different ways. The 969 have a pop anthem, entitled “Song to Whip up Religious Blood” which is played while children enroll in schools. The song’s message is simple, “Buddhists should not stay calm anymore.” In exercising their “consumer rights,” the 969 boycott goods from Muslim owned stores. The 969 have fanned the flames of intolerance by using Facebook to incite religious violence and use anti-Muslim rhetoric. There are allegations that the 969 fabricated stories of rape in order to incite anti-Muslim violence. The recent conditions have made the country a “tinder box” which could erupt into “unprecedented levels of violence.”[5]

Rohingya boy

While the 969 utilizes their freedom of speech, the government has done nothing to stop the spread of these genocidal tactics. President Sein often verbally distances his government from the actions of nationalist groups. He characterizes the violence towards Muslims as an “internal conflict” and claims he cannot control these groups. However, there are examples which discredit President Sein’s actions and policy.

In 2013, the city of Meiktila was besieged by riots and arson attacks where security forces “did little” to nothing to stop the violence. Journalists were threatened by the alleged perpetrators if they released photographs of the events which took place. More than 40 people were killed and 12,000 people were displaced.  This was not as large as the 120,000 Rohingyas which remain displaced as a result of 2012 violence. President Sein made political vows to protect Muslims during this surge of violence. Yet under his leadership the Rohingya are confined to “concentration camps” and are starving to death.[6]

In February 2014, President Sein supported calls by Buddhist monks to “protect the race and religion” of Buddhism by implementing legislation which would restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversion, ban polygamy, and control population growth. Further, the Burmese government has banned  the term Rohingya.  As explained by the Myanmar Information Minister “the name ha[s] never been accepted by Myanmar citizens…it was created by a separatist movement in the 1950s and then used by exile activists to pressure Myanmar’s former military government at the United Nations in the 1990s.” To loan some more evidence to this ridiculous policy, in a recent UN sponsored census, those who identified as Rohingya were excluded from the census. The only term approved by the government is Muslim.

There is a very thin line between hate speech and speech which incites genocide.[7] History is the best teacher in this area. Although the 969 may shroud their hate speech with the cloak of freedom of speech, in reality this hatred is furthering genocide. The government may keep silent and say the right thing at the right time, but they are allowing and promoting genocide to take place. The 969 and the Burmese government are one in the same.

Let’s go world – it’s time to save the Rohingya.

More posts on the Rohingya can be found here and here.

[1] See Kristin Mcconnachie, “Introducing Myanmar in transition? A displacement perspective” openDemocracy, March 24, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/kirsten-mcconnachie/introducing-myanmar-in-transition-displacement-perspective

[2] See Charlie Campbell, “In Burma, Media reform tests the limits of free speech” TIME, January 30, 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/01/30/in-burma-media-reform-tests-the-limits-of-free-speech/ . For a more in depth look at the media restrictions still in place, see Mike Harris, “Burma: Freedom of Expression in Transition” July 15, 2013, http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2013/07/burma-freedom-of-expression-media/

[3] UN News Centre, “Myanmar: UN rights experts warns against backtracking on free expression, association” July 28, 2014, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48361#.U_n6aPldWPM

[4] This group is also known as “Defence of Buddhism and Race League”

[5] Tim Hume, “Curfew imposed after deadly clashes between Buddhists, Muslims in Myanmar” CNN July 6, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/04/world/asia/myanmar-mandalay-religious-violence/

[6] See Graeme Wood, “A Countryside of Concentration Camps” New Republic, January 21, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116241/burma-2014-countryside-concentration-camps

[7] See Elizabeth Dovell, “Hate Speech Leads to Genocide” World Policy Blog, November 11, 2010, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2010/11/11/hate-speech-leads-genocide

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