Who Will Stand Up For The Rohingya?


When I arrived in Yangon, the first thing I was told was that was that my hotel was a very bad one, in a very bad part of town, full of far too many Muslims.

Then, a couple of hours later, driving past the Shwedagon pagoda, the taxi driver proffered a prediction: in 2500 years Buddhism will be wiped out. It will be erased by Muslims who, he told me earnestly, kill without compunction. Buddhists — variously described as "peaceful", "non-violent" and "loving" — will be unable to defend themselves.

The opposite is closer to reality: the United Nations has demanded the Burmese Government investigate "credible information" of violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State between 9 – 14 January, in which 48 men, women and children are thought to have been killed, along with a Buddhist police officer.

Access to the region is severely restricted to foreign journalists and aid agencies, so the reports are difficult to verify. At a press conference on 2 February at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yangon, the government refused entry to all foreign journalists and only admitted four local publications, citing "some limits on space". The Burmese Government has refused to verify the reports, and instead accused the United Nations of releasing false information.

Nonetheless, Médicines Sans Frontières said they treated 22 patients on 14 January, who were believed to be victims from the Maungdaw township in Rakhine state. NGOs also face controls on their operations; Human Rights Watch released a report in 2013, stating that "the Burmese government is systematically restricting humanitarian aid".

The nature of most of the wounds inflicted on the Rohingya Muslims (puncture and blunt force, as well as gunshot) suggests that both security officials and local Rakhine villagers carried out the violence, HRW reported.

Last month's violence is the worst since 2012, when sectarian brutality killed hundreds and displaced more than 140,000 people after Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya Muslims and razed their villages.

Following the initial violence, several Rohingya homes were set alight. The government responded predictably by accusing the Muslim minority of lighting the fires themselves, but it is suggested that attacks were carried out by armed, Buddhist mobs with assistance from the security forces. Reports of orders to arrest all Rohingya males over the age of ten are also emerging.

The Myanmar government refuses the Rohingya citizenship and refers to them as Bengalis — the inference being that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and that crimes committed against them will not result in prosecutions.

Relations between Buddhists and Muslims predominate all other social issues in Burma. The military junta that ruled the country for decades, and whose influence is still very visible, fostered a Buddhist nationalistic identity that remains unchallenged, despite the country’s recent political reforms.

No public figure will dare criticise what is becoming an active campaign of ethnic cleansing for fear of what it will mean for his or her popularity.

The one person, almost universally respected and loved, who could help put an end to the murder, rape, torture and marginalisation of Burma's Muslim minority is Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. She has by far the most popular influence in Burmese politics, but rather than speak out against the violence, she has made vague comments that tacitly endorse the government’s deliberate inaction on this crisis. What hope do the Rohingya have if Burma's best-known "peace activist" won't speak out?

With no support for the victims or censure of the perpetrators within the government or Buddhist majority population one cannot envisage a domestic solution; rather, Burma's government seems to have no desire to seek one. And with the United Nations' shameful record on protecting the victims of past genocides, one feels there is little hope for the Rohingya, who are becoming more isolated and more vulnerable with each attack.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.