Speaking on Myanmar Genocide of Rohingyas, The Oxford Union Genocide Panel, 29 Jan 2018

Saying "Sorry!" to a Rohingya brother who survived Myanmar Genocide, Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh, 7 Nov 2017.

Speaking on the Slow Burning Genocide of Rohingyas in Burma, with Professor Amartya Sen, Harvard University, Nov 2014

N. Ireland peace activist Mairead Maguire presenting Zarni with the Cultivation of Harmony Award on behalf of the Parliament of the World's Religions, Salt Lake City, USA 18 Oct 2015

Meeting with The Minister of Foreign Affairs Rt. Honourable Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, M.P., State Guest House, Dhaka, 4 Nov 2017

"National Traitor and Enemy of the State" for his opposition to Rohingya Genocide. Sun Rays, 16/9/17

Concrete Steps to End Myanmar's Rohingya Genocide

Buddhist nationalist group threatens stability in Myanmar

Buddhist monks attend a June 4 event in Yangon to celebrate the third anniversary of Ma Ba Tha, an anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalist group.

By Motokazu Matsui
Nikkei Asian Review
June 29, 2016

YANGON -- An anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalist group in Myanmar is rapidly extending its influence, growing into a political force that could pose a serious challenge to the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The group, known as Ma Ba Tha, holds rallies that attract huge crowds, a sign that its message strongly appeals to many people in the country.

Ma Ba Tha is winning popular support by playing on people's fears about a sharp increase in the Muslim population. The group's growing clout may soon force Suu Kyi, who leads the government as state counselor, to start tackling touchy religious issues she has been carefully eschewing so far.

Show of strength

At 6:00 a.m. on June 4, a dense throng of monks in orange and maroon robes were gathering at a monastery in Yangon's Insein township. In the precincts of the monastery, dotted with golden pagodas, rows of luxury foreign automobiles with special yellow license plates for religious leaders were parked. These vehicles are a conspicuous indicator of the wealth of senior Buddhist monks in the country.

Inside a main hall, sparkling chandeliers lit up an image of Buddha decorated with jewels.

More than 1,000 monks had come to the monastery to attend a ceremony to celebrate the third anniversary of Ma Ba Tha, or the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion.

"Our aim is to defend national unity and culture," said the chair of the organization, Tiloka Biwuntha, whose name is Tilawka Bhivamsa. He is also known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw.

"Women in Myanmar suffer persecution by members of another religion day after day," the head priest said in an ominous tone. "Muslim 'sham citizens' are trying to become true citizens by deceiving the country."

As the leader ratcheted up his anti-Muslim rhetoric, the sound of voices in prayer coming from the audience also got louder, echoing strongly within the hall.

Ma Ba Tha, launched in June 2013, now has 250 branches across Myanmar and 5 million supporters, according to a public relations official. The group's rally was held in Yangon's Thuwana National Stadium and drew a full-capacity crowd. The core tenet of the group is the rejection of Muslim immigrants, whose population is surging.

A divide grows

Buddhism arrived in Myanmar by the 11th century and has thrived in the Southeast Asian nation. Devotees of Theravada Buddhism account for about 90% of the population. Myanmar's constitution gives Buddhism the status of "special religion" representing the country, and it is at the heart of nationalism among the people of Myanmar.

Muslims, who originally migrated from India and other neighboring countries to Myanmar's western state of Rakhine and Yangon, the largest city, form a minority group.

Starting in the 1990s, the military government suppressed Islam and other minority religions to win the support of Buddhist organizations. This has further enhanced Buddhism's status as an effective national religion.

But the process of democratization, which started in 2011 and led to the opening of the country's border, has triggered a massive influx of Muslims, including illegal immigrants, from Bangladesh and other countries. Observers predict that the results of a national census to be announced in August will show Muslims now constitute 10% of the country's population.

In the state of Rakhine, the principal flash point of religious conflict in the country, Muslims represent an estimated 30-40% of its population of 2 million. Many of them describe themselves as Rohingya Muslims, who are believed to have migrated to Myanmar during the period of the British rule of Burma.

As they have started demanding citizenship, tension has grown between the Muslims and the majority Buddhists.

Rising tensions

The 2012 murder of a Buddhist woman triggered a wave of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine resulting in over 200 deaths.

Ashin Wirathu, a radical and increasingly popular monk known for his anti-Muslim views and activities

The administration of then-President Thein Sein responded to the riots by segregating Rohingya Muslims in suburban refugee camps under the pretext of maintaining law and order. Several thousands of Rohingya fled the wretched living conditions at the camps and sailed on small boats to Malaysia and Indonesia as refugees. This has provoked international criticism against Myanmar.

The riots further fueled anti-Muslim sentiment among Myanmar's Buddhist majority, which has been behind the rapid expansion of Ma Ba Tha's influence.

On June 5, the group adopted a statement demanding that the government build a wall along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh and impose strict immigration control to prevent the illegal entry of Muslims into the country.

Ma Ba Tha is not a small-scale movement supported only by conservative monks. During the June 4 event, a throng of ordinary citizens gathered in front of a huge screen installed outdoors for public viewing.

One of the citizens watching the event, a 38-year-old female teacher, said she was telling her children not to associate with and never get married to a Muslim. There is no room for Rohingya in the country, she said, adding that Ma Ba Tha is the only organization that can prevent the influence of Islam from spreading in Myanmar.

A 45-year-old carpenter echoed her sentiment, saying, "I hate Muslims, who justify killings in the name of god. I want schools to enhance Buddhist education."

Many of the citizens who attended the event were intellectuals, including lawyers and doctors, which suggests broad public support for the group.

Enter the political realm

Ma Ba Tha started as a cultural movement for protecting Buddhist communities, but the movement has quickly taken on a strong political hue.

The group's political campaigns have been led by Ashin Wirathu, a radical monk from Mandalay known for his incendiary anti-Muslim speeches. Since the era of military rule, Ashin Wirathu has been championing anti-Islam measures, such as boycotting stores run by Muslims. He once was imprisoned for extremist activities.

But the monk is gaining political clout with the government.

In September 2015, a new law to protect Buddhists came into force. The law restricts marriages between Buddhists and people of other faiths and has a provision for criminal punishment against violations. Ashin Wirathu's group developed the draft bill and lobbied the Then Sein government to enact the law.

In the general election in the autumn of 2015, Ashin Wirathu campaigned for Thein Sein, who enacted the law, and criticized Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy for being lackluster in protecting Buddhism.

The NLD, which came to power by winning a landslide victory in the election, views Ma Ba Tha and Ashin Wirathu as potential political threats to its government as the group is gaining popularity with its increasingly radical messages.

During the June 4 event, about 500 copies of Wirathu's book on his Buddhist views were sold within hours.

Suu Kyi has been sidestepping the issue of Rohingya since even before the election, although she has now made some moves to win over the group. A senior Suu Kyi aide recently met with Ashin Wirathu and told him the NLD places much importance on Buddhism.

The new government appointed Thura Aung Ko, a former general who has repeatedly made anti-Muslim remarks, as minister for religious affairs and culture, in a bid to placate conservative Buddhists.

By compromising with radical anti-Muslim Buddhists, however, Suu Kyi risks alienating the U.S., which is urging the government to protect the rights of Rohingya. International human rights groups are also becoming increasingly more critical of Suu Kyi's failure to take effective action to intervene in the religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in her country.

Nikkei staff writer Thurein Hla Htway contributed to this report.

The New Burma Is Starting to Look Too Much Like the Old Burma

By Elliott Prasse-Freeman
Foreign Policy
June 28, 2016

In Aung San Suu Kyi’s “democratic” Burma, the people are a silent partner.

RANGOON – In the November 2015 election, Burma’s long-standing opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept into office, promising change and new freedoms for the masses after a half-century of military rule. That the party is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a widely revered Nobel Prize winner and long-time dissident, only added to expectations of dramatic change.

So far, though, things don’t appear to be turning out that way. Upon taking power, the NLD promptly proposed legislation that would reinstall some of the junta’s draconian restrictions on peaceful protest. And while many political prisoners have been released, the new government continues to pursue charges against some of the country’s most dedicated activists — such as Harn Win Aung, who has led resistance to a notorious copper mine built on land grabbed from displaced farmers. The NLD even censored a film at a human rights festival for portraying the military in a critical light.

The party has given no explanation for its actions. Indeed, on several crucial issues it has explicitly chosen to avoid taking a stand. One of the promises party activists made during the fall election campaign was to establish a legal definition of what constitutes a “political prisoner.” Yet recently, when a lawmaker from one of the ethnic minority parties raised the issue in parliament, the NLD declined to address it. Over the last two months, while the party has ruled, peace activists, workers, and right-wing nationalists alike have been charged with breaking protest laws. The democratically elected government appears singularly reluctant to dismantle the junta’s machinery of repression. Is it really possible that a political party comprised of and endorsed by hundreds, even thousands, of former political prisoners will become Burma’s new oppressor?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s defenders will likely object to such a characterization. They will point out that the NLD’s supermajority is not robust enough to mitigate the military’s constitutionally reserved bloc of 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. This pro-military contingent prevents the elected government from changing a constitution under which the armed forces retain control of key ministries responsible for defense and internal affairs (including the police). Some have argued that — at least for now — Burma is still the same militarized state it has been for a half-century. It’s not that the NLD wants to keep the military’s restrictions, say the new government’s supporters, it’s just that it hasn’t quite been able to force the changes through yet.

Perhaps. And yet Suu Kyi’s party has made no convincing case that it desires a more progressive approach. Suu Kyi’s party has made no convincing case that it desires a more progressive approach. It has blithely dismissed the concerns of human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who say that the protest law lags behind international standards. Moreover, the NLD has already shown that it can find ways to bypass seemingly intractable limitations when it wants to. When the military barred Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, her party simply created a new position for her above the presidency. Her party must deal with the reality of the military’s continued political power, but it appears to have the ability to advance a legislative agenda that could begin to alter Burma’s entrenched authoritarianism. Yet it is choosing not to.

The NLD’s inaction appears in a less benign light when one considers how the party is systematically ignoring the non-governmental sector. When I recently interviewed more than two dozen activists — from large national civil society organizations to grassroots campaigners — all lamented Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to include them in developing plans to address the country’s problems. Many of those I spoke with reported that she conveyed disdain for their work, raised doubts about their ethics, and questioned their relevance in the new “democratic” Burma. This seems a particularly disturbing irony in light of the important role the country’s civil society played in challenging the military regime.

Having noted the NLD’s hostility, some activists have begun to limit their activity. Many described a mid-May meeting of national organizations in which participants decided to delay a planned forum, concerned that it would raise the NLD’s ire. Members of ethnic organizations have described their tokenistic inclusion in the country’s peace process as “elitist, top-down… unlike the previously ‘joint’ inclusive design” of the military-linked government (as an ethnic activist commented by email). Grassroots activists, too, have found the new environment repressive: “To speak honestly, [the NLD] hates activists… If we distribute pamphlets about land grabs, labor abuses, and so on, we will become the target of the NLD,” Ko Saleiq, a Rangoon-based activist, told me. When I inquired whether this could mean prison time, he scoffed. “We are former political prisoners, we’re not afraid of prison.” He stressed that activists like him want to support the country’s first democratic regime in decades, not become its adversaries. Yet the NLD has rebuffed them at every turn. 

In truth, Burma’s version of democracy seems to mean a reduction in the country’s degree of authoritarianism, not a qualitative change to its political system. In many aspects, the NLD seems to be more interested in making cosmetic changes than in addressing the country’s fundamental problems. For instance, Aung San Suu Kyi’s first action as head of the new government was not to address land grabs or labor abuses but to lead a massive anti-litter campaign — a symbolic gesture that is meant to evoke order through cleanliness. Another noteworthy campaign is the recently-proposed ban of the betel nut, a mildly addictive carcinogenic substance the chewing of which produces the distinctive red spit stains that decorate the country’s corners and corridors. While the unilateral ban threatens the livelihoods of thousands of poor people, the NLD appears care more about the aesthetics of betel than such social dislocations. 

The party has also announced an ambitious and potentially disastrous plan to relocate urban squatters. A union organizer working in an industrial zone lamented this approach, pointing out that aesthetic concerns have trumped pro-poor policy. “Rather than address high costs of living, they simply think it is shameful for a good city to have squatters,” he said. “There is no land anyway because it was all sold off to the cronies. We don’t know if [the NLD] dares to have a face-off with the cronies or the military.” Rather than tackling these structural political and economic issues, the NLD prefers to try to sweep them under the rug. 

The party does have its democratic trappings — after all, it was elected overwhelmingly in a fair election. But its version of democracy has more than an edge of the old, authoritarian Burma. Its disdain for non-governmental activists, its obsession with the appearance rather than the substance of good governance, and its continued harassment of dissidents all suggest that the party views the people’s role in democracy as being limited to voting for those who will then make the decisions.

Once they have voted, Burma’s citizens are denied any further active role. 

A critical question is how this version of democracy will be received by the country’s long-marginalized masses. Under a formal authoritarian system, crushing dissent helps quiet the population through fear. In a new, more ‘democratic’ context, the same repressive tactics may spur furious opposition. The more the NLD represses citizens, while ignoring real problems, the more it may inspire real resistance – especially if the resentment for the party felt by some activists today solidifies into open antagonism. “It is we, the activists, who changed the country, not the NLD. We feel betrayed,” a Mandalay land and labor activist told me. 

For now, the NLD’s mandate and popular support remain strong. Farmers and workers across the country around told me that they trust this “people’s government” to resolve their problems. But those problems are not being resolved. Instead they are being displaced by the NLD’s politics of tidiness and citizen silence. As a result, the calm is unlikely to last forever. “We trust that the new government will not ignore our losses and our suffering. But if they do, we will fight back to the end,” farmers in Mattaya told me. 

For generations, Burmese expected to be regarded with contempt by their military rulers. Facing much the same treatment at the hands of the long-adored NLD is jarring. The party needs to start listening — or it runs the risk of alienating the very people who helped bring it to power. 

In the photo, a labor demonstrator is arrested by police in Tetkone township on May 18, during a protest march to central Naypyidaw. 

Photo credit: AUNG HTET/AFP/Getty Images 

Genocide in Burma, Joshua Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington Monthly, Jun/Jul 2016

The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, by Azeem Ibrahim, Hurst, 224 pp.

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Washington Monthly
June 29, 2016
The Rohingya may well be the most persecuted people on the planet, and nobody, including the United States, is lifting a finger to help.

Of all the ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in the world, wrote the Economist last year, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, may well be the most persecuted people on the planet. Today nearly two million Rohingya live in western Myanmar and in Bangladesh. Inside Myanmar they have no formal status, and they face the constant threat of violence from paramilitary groups egged on by nationalist Buddhist monks while security forces look the other way. Since 2012, when the latest wave of anti-Rohingya violence broke out, attackers have burned entire Rohingya neighborhoods, butchering the populace with knives, sticks, and machetes. They beat Rohingya children to death with rifle butts and, quite possibly, their bare hands. Since then, half the population of Myanmar’s Rohingya has been displaced. Some have tried to escape to other Southeast Asian nations on rickety boats often operated by human traffickers. If the migrants do not die of dehydration or heatstroke, they are frequently picked up by pirates or the Thai navy—which may not be much better than getting nabbed by pirates. Exhaustive reporting by Reuters seems to suggest that Thailand’s navy is closely involved in shuttling Rohingya refugees into slave labor in Thailand’s seafood, fishing, and other industries. Rohingya women who do not have enough to pay traffickers are forced into marriages or prostitution. 

Even if the Rohingya make it out of Myanmar, past the pirates, modern-day slavers, and Thai navy ships, there are few places for them to go. In nearby nations like Malaysia or Indonesia there is some sympathy for their co-religionists, but they are not willing to give the Rohingya permanent refuge. The Rohingya living in Malaysia operate in the shadows, working in the informal economy, unable to send their children to public schools, with no prospects of resettlement anywhere else.

No prominent nation outside of Southeast Asia is willing to do much for the minority group either. The Rohingya have no close ethnic or linguistic ties with a regional or global power: the Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in western China, for instance, have ethnic and linguistic ties to Turkey. Bangladesh, from which some Rohingya originally migrated, is itself desperately poor and not interested in having the Rohingya settle there. Indeed, Bangladeshi security forces have often forcibly repatriated Rohingya, or kept them in squalid camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. No Western nations have opened their doors for the Rohingya the way they have, for instance, for the Tibetans who make it out of China.

For those Rohingya living in Myanmar the future is horrifically grim. They are packed into camps that are little more than internment centers, with residents given minimal food and shelter. Aid organizations face significant hurdles operating in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. Myanmar has expelled aid groups from parts of the state, and journalists have been repeatedly turned back from traveling there. (Reporting on an alleged massacre in western Myanmar in 2014, two New York Times reporters were detained.)

Abuses against the Rohingya have received some attention from the international media, but Myanmar’s western region is remote, making it harder for the best-financed media organizations to report on many abuses against the ethnic group. In part because Myanmar media is dominated by Buddhist, ethnic Burmese editors and writers, the Rohingya issue is routinely ignored or minimized as a minor problem.

Many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, having migrated there during the British Raj. In his new book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide—one of the few accessible primers on this battered group—the Oxford and U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute fellow Azeem Ibrahim tells of how the Rohingya have never had an easy time in Myanmar. Beginning in 1962, when a junta seized power, up until the transition to civilian rule in the early 2010s, the Burmese government effectively stripped most Rohingya of their rights. In 1982, the military government removed the Rohingya from the list of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar. The Buddhist Rakhine people generally held a deep distrust of the Rohingya as interlopers, a distrust heightened during World War II, when many Rohingya fought with the British and many Rakhine fought alongside Japan.

Rakhine nationalists had always chafed at the junta’s rule (the Rakhines once had their own, powerful kingdom separate from the ethnic Burmans), but in 1978, according to Human Rights Watch, many Rakhines made common cause with the Myanmar army. They forced roughly 200,000 Rohingya to flee, mostly into camps in Bangladesh. Again, in 1991, units of the Myanmar army attacked the Rohingya, driving some 250,000 out of their homes, with many fleeing into Bangladesh once more. 

Then, in the early 2010s, the junta gave way to civilian rule, for myriad reasons (see “How Big a Success Is the Democratic Revolution in Burma?,” March/April/May 2016). From the beginning of the transition, it was clear that if the army loosened its grip, violent, nationalist groups would step into the political vacuum. Myanmar’s primary democratic party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), would do little to stop these forces. From interviewing many NLD members, I found that the party and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, were primarily concerned with building up their own power, reducing the role of the military, and winning over Buddhist voters in the first free national elections in twenty-five years. 

In the weeks before last November’s election, Suu Kyi herself told reporters not to “overexaggerate” the threat facing the Rohingya, and other prominent longtime democrats openly inveighed against the Rohingya, using racist taunts. When the highly anticipated national elections were finally held, there were no Rohingya—indeed, no Muslim candidates from any ethnic group—on the NLD slate. 

Ibrahim offers one of the fullest descriptions available of the current Rohingya crisis, retelling the narrative of the emerging genocide with force (if not always the clearest prose). He may not be arguing that the Rohingya are the most persecuted people on earth, but his research substantiates recent claims (including a detailed report by Yale Law School’s clinic on international human rights) that the Rohingya are targets of genocide. 

A genocide, according to the internationally accepted definition, is a campaign of violence conducted against one defined group, with the intention of eradicating them in whole or in part. Ibrahim shows that, starting in 2011 and 2012, the Rohingya in western Myanmar were not simply attacked by gangs or roving bands of thugs infuriated by reports (many untrue) of Rohingya raping Buddhist women or of fistfights between Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine shopkeepers. Instead, the Rohingya faced what appears to be an organized campaign to target their homes, property, and lives. There may have been an additional incentive; as Myanmar began to open up to foreign investment in the 1990s, it became clear that Rakhine State was quite rich in minerals. 

The exact genesis of the violence in western Myanmar in 2012 remains unclear. It may have started with Rohingya men raping and murdering a Rakhine girl, and then Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes murdering Rohingya bus travelers. Local police and army units stood around while the vigilantes pulled people off the bus and killed them, according to accounts of the attack by survivors. 

After the rape and then the unrest in four townships in western Myanmar, Rakhine politicians and monks spent months vilifying the Rohingya and calling for violence against the minority group. In October 2012, four months after the bus incident, violence erupted throughout Rakhine State, with a clear pattern of attacks. Groups of Buddhists were armed with swords, machetes, guns, Molotov cocktails, and even earth-moving equipment to raze Rohingyas’ homes and businesses; they had stockpiled weapons for months. The attacks appeared strikingly similar across Rakhine State, clearly designed to change the ethnic composition of the region. 

Some of the attackers had clear links to paramilitary organizations that had been affiliated with the former junta. The anti-Muslim violence spread to other parts of the country: Muslims of all ethnic groups were bombed, beaten, and shot in Yangon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities. 

Ibrahim’s reporting also corroborates the work of numerous human rights groups who have worked in western Myanmar. The transitional civilian government, led by the former general Thein Sein, did little to stop the burning, looting, and killing. The government did not bother to acknowledge the possibility that the attacks on Rohingya, preceded by open calls for ethnic cleansing, were part of a coordinated wave of violence. President Thein Sein’s office merely said that the violence was “riots [that had broken out] unexpectedly,” and then later declared that the only way to resolve unrest in Rakhine State was to deport all the “illegal” Rohingya living there—basically, most of the Rohingya population. 

The most damning reports on the pogroms came from a Human Rights Watch report: 

In the deadliest incident, on October 23, 2012, at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a massacre in Yan Thai village in Mrauk-U Township. Despite advance warning of the attack, only a small number of riot police, local police, and army soldiers were on duty to provide security. Instead of preventing the attack . . . or escorting the villagers to safety, they assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves. 

As Rohingya fled their homes, the military and police maintained cordons around the camps in western Myanmar that were created, and quickly turned the camps into “open-air prisons,” in the words of Human Rights Watch. The security forces also created an armed ring around a de facto ghetto into which Rohingya were pushed. Once Rohingya men and women had fled into these ghettos, their land was often seized. The government sometimes refused to allow UN representatives to visit trapped Rohingya, and security forces routinely confiscate food and other aid provided by international groups for Rohingya in camps. 

In some ways, Myanmar’s increasing economic and political openness actually has made the situation worse for the Rohingya. Not only the United States but also most leading democracies, including regional powers like Japan and Australia, have opted for close relations with a freer Myanmar. As I discussed in an essay in the Washington Monthly earlier this year, the Obama administration has cited rapprochement with Myanmar as one of its greatest foreign policy successes, and now touts U.S.-Myanmar relations as a model for rapprochement with Cuba. 

The rich democracies, now invested diplomatically and economically in a Myanmar success story, are unwilling to spend too much time seriously investigating crimes being committed in Myanmar’s isolated west. They said little when, eight months before last November’s election, Thein Sein and the interim government essentially stripped the franchise from any Rohingya who still had voting rights. (The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has repeatedly raised the issue of Rohingya disenfranchisement, but gotten nowhere.) 

To be fair, some rights advocates in Congress have tried to raise the profile of abuses against Rohingya, holding hearings on the plight of the ethnic minority. When Obama himself visited Myanmar in 2014, he called on the country to face “the danger of continued [inter-communal] violence” but did not slow down rapprochement. The Obama administration has not come so far in boosting diplomatic and economic engagement with Myanmar’s government to do more than rhetorically tut-tut at it, even as many of Myanmar’s leaders continue to insist that all Rohingya are in the country illegally. 

Many leading democracies, including Japan, have larger stakes in Myanmar than the United States and are even less likely to take up the Rohingyas’ cause. Japan’s government, for instance, sees Myanmar as a strategic bulwark against China’s rising power in Asia. The region’s main multinational organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, operates by consensus, and has a weak, small secretariat in Jakarta that is ill-prepared to handle crises. Bangladesh continues to struggle with its own population challenges and chaotic politics. 

Other foreign countries that, at a different time in history, might have helped the Rohingya will also do nothing. Wealthy Persian Gulf states, whose leaders see themselves as custodians of the rights of Muslims worldwide, are preoccupied with the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. India, which at times in its history has positioned itself as a champion of rights in Asia, is enjoying warm relations with Bangladesh, and is unlikely to take any steps that would alienate the Bangladeshi government. 

The NLD’s sweeping victory in the November 2015 elections, hailed around the world—and by many in Myanmar—as a major gain for democracy, will not help the Rohingya either. Not only before the elections but also after the vote, Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders have shown as little interest in the situation of the Rohingya as Thein Sein’s government did. (Suu Kyi has expressed a deep desire to promote peace with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, but she has focused on relations with the ethnic groups that have their own armed insurgencies.) What’s worse, in last year’s November elections, the provincial party known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric won control of Rakhine State’s legislature. 

The NLD’s victory further reduces the possibility that foreign governments will pressure Myanmar’s leaders, and the new president selected by the NLD, the Suu Kyi loyalist Htin Kyaw, has demonstrated total fealty to the democracy icon but evinced little interest in the conflict in Myanmar’s west. 

Most chillingly, the new government of Myanmar has asked that the United States “not call the Rohingya people by that name because it does not recognize them as citizens,” said Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, reported the New York Times. He hastened to add that “Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had not ordered the Americans to stop using the word or threatened consequences if they did.” 

Even if foreign countries, and Myanmar’s own leaders, suddenly decided to protect the Rohingya, it might be too late. The ethnic composition of western Myanmar has already been radically changed, many Rohingya families have been destroyed, and many Rohingya are too scared and economically devastated to ever return to their home villages. Next spring, when the dry season comes in Southeast Asia again, large numbers of Rohingya probably will head to ports in western Myanmar and try their luck again with makeshift boats, pirates, and the prospect of being enslaved in Thailand. As Time magazine reported in an extensive study of western Myanmar last fall, the Rohingya face the “point where complete extermination is a possibility. . . . [T]he final stages of genocide.” 

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Why and in what ways is Myanmar military protecting Buddhism and Buddhist 'race'?

Why does Myanmar Tatmadaw intend to protect "Buddhism" and "Bama race"? And in what specific ways do the military strategists "protect" Buddhism?

Now Myanmar is officially a Fascist State, with the military claiming itself as the protector of Buddhism and Race: Aung San Suu Kyi is crippled, intellectually and strategically. 

Myanmar Armed Forces led by monk-killers - remember the Saffron Revolt of 2007 ? - has been using Buddhism as a strategic tool for the following 3 goals:
1) divert public attention away from the discourses of human rights,
2) create the pretext of the need for a strong hand, which in turns conceals its plan to stay in power indefinitely by injecting a sense of fear, insecurity and disunity within the society at large;
3) derail any remotely democratic program and push by the NLD; and since 2011
4) discredit, undermine and diminish Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership.

Myanmar's Ma-Aa-La military chief officially claiming to protect a religion vis-a-vis all the other faiths - in the case of ideologically and intellectual backward Burma or Myanmar, religion and ethnicity are seen as inseparable - spells more troubles for the country.

I have always KNOWN that the military is the hidden hand behind all the religious tensions and violence, in ways that both covert and overt.

Destabilizing and disuniting the society is a Win-Win strategy for the institution that had long - and officially - identified the two other influential above-ground, non-military national institutions as the greatest threats to the military's attempt to monopolize state power in its hand, namely the Sangha or Buddhist Order and (politically conscious) university student bodies across the country.

In the last 50 years, the military has deviced various strategies to effectively control these institutions. Its strategies include brutal crackdowns, implanting hundreds of intelligence moles in both student bodies and monastic communities, enticing the corruptible senior monks with sweateners, structural mechanisms (such as the splitting up of large academic institutions and instituting 'Sangha Purification' - really IDing and administering monk bodies), coopting ambitious university academics, coercing monks and academics to serve as surveillance monitors on their pupils and disciples, using influential monks and academics as the military's mouthpieces, etc.

Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pledges to help safeguard Buddhism

By Wa Lone | Friday, 24 June 2016

Myanmar's Commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaks during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Friday, March 27, 2015. Myanmar's powerful army commander has pledged to work to support successful elections in November and warned that the army will not tolerate instability or armed threats. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing Amid the government’s efforts to arrange peace talks, and an ongoing controversy over terminology for religious minorities in Rakhine State, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the Tatmadaw would help shoulder the burden of protecting Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist character.

In a speech to recruits at the military’s Officer Training School in Bahtoo, Shan State, on June 21, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing noted Myanmar’s majority Buddhist demographics, pledging to safeguard that religious heritage for future generations.

The comments, reported in the military-owned Myawady newspaper, come as the government grapples with the sensitive topic of how to refer to the Muslim community that self-identifies as Rohingya, as well as prepares to undertake peace negotiations with a handful of ethnic armed groups that identify as Christian.

The senior general insisted that the military’s pro-Buddhist stance did not constitute religious extremism.

Political analysts and rights groups, however, have questioned the timing of the remarks.

U Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, speculated that the Tatmadaw leader chose his words as a calculated attempt to distinguish the powerful institution that he heads from the new civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I believe that the Tatmadaw putting forward this opinion will tend to lead to a bad outcome,” he told The Myanmar Times, pointing to the peace process that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is attempting to jumpstart. Herself a Buddhist, the state counsellor has emphasised inclusivity as one of her government’s peace priorities.

Some of the ethnic armed groups involved in the negotiations are majority-Christian, while the Tatmadaw leadership and rank-and-file largely reflect the country’s overall Buddhist majority, which estimates put at 85 to 90 percent.

Ethnic minorities have long accused the military of harbouring bias against them, in part the product of decades of Tatmadaw offensives and human rights abuses in areas inhabited largely by Christians.

Pado Saw Kwel Htoo Win, secretary of the Karen National Union, said the notion that Myanmar is a “Buddhist country” – advocated strongly by its first post-independence prime minister, U Nu – was one reason anti-government insurgencies proliferated over the years.

“We already have experiences of suffering long-term civil war because of a lack of equal rights between the majority and minorities,” he said.

He added that future political dialogue should focus not on enshrining Buddhism’s pre-eminence, but instead on guaranteeing equal rights for all within a federal state.

He said a discussion would need to be had about whether the commander-in-chief was speaking of a Tatmadaw policy that would be put down on paper or was merely expressing his personal opinion.

For Muslims, the statement’s implications are different but related. There are no ethnic armed groups in Myanmar that identify as Islamic, but communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists has flared in recent years, most notably in Rakhine State in 2012.

There, where more than 100,000 people self-identifying as Rohingya were displaced by the unrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has formed a committee tasked with improving the situation for all the state’s residents. Terminology has arisen as a flashpoint in recent weeks, however, with Buddhist nationalists insisting that Muslims in Rakhine State be called “Bengali,” while the international community advocates the right to self-identify.

The new government has sought to chart a middle course on the matter, opting to describe the group as “the Muslim community from Rakhine State”. Much of the tension in Rakhine State stems from fears among its Rakhine Buddhists that their identity is under threat from Islam.

U Thopaka, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, told The Myanmar Times that Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing had his full support, adding that such safeguarding should be the duty of “everyone”, including the government.

“You have to know how to maintain and protect your race and religion as a Buddhist,” he said.

U Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said the Tatmadaw has a responsibility to protect every citizen, regardless of race or religion.

“I think the Tamadaw shouldn’t voice such kind of opinion, which increases hate and distrust among the people,” he said.

U Yan Myo Thein, another political analyst, said given the Tatmadaw’s critical role in the peace process, its leader should adopt a more broad-minded approach.

“The military leaders need to accept that the only way they can overcome the deadlock of the country’s peace process is to be all-inclusive,” he said.

Critics might also find irony in Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s additional pledge that the military, in addition to Buddhism, would help protect the nation’s natural resources. Many accuse previous military and quasi-civilian governments of selling off much of Myanmar’s resource endowment for personal enrichment.

Will Genocide Be the True Cost of State Building in Myanmar?

Image Credit: Flickr/European Commission DG ECHO

By Tej Parikh
The Diplomat
June 3, 2016

To govern, Aung San Suu Kyi seems prepared to turn a blind eye to the Rohingya issue.

“If we mix religion and politics then we offend the spirit of religion itself,” said Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San, addressing his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League party in 1946.

Seventy years on, for his daughter and globally revered human rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, the doctrine has changed.

Deeply entrenched nationalism has blurred the line between religion and politics as Myanmar seeks to build a viable state. And it’s pitting the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s pragmatism against her principles—with the lives of the nation’s Rohingya minority at the center.

“[Aung San]…wanted the Buddhist Sanghas [associations] to retain their traditional roles and abstain from politics,” writes author Nilanjana Sengupta in her book A Gentleman’s Word. “Their contribution to nation building could be in spreading the message of brotherhood and freedom from fear but not in inflammatory communal politics.”

But since Aung San’s assassination in 1947 and independence the year after, xenophobia has been stoked by the successive nationalist agendas of Myanmar’s leaders. With the dominant Buddhist and ethnic Bamar population—estimated at 89 percent and 68 percent respectively today—minorities were considered a hindrance to nation building.

Attempts by the state to homogenize language, culture, and religion gained impetus among the nation’s monkhood, an institution with gargantuan civilian sway.

Nationalist Buddhist groups like the 969 Movement, championed by Ashin Wirathu (dubbed the “Buddhist bin Laden” by some) amassed a stronger platform for their xenophobic rhetoric under former-President Thein Sein’s censorship-loosening reforms since 2011.

The nation’s Muslims, four percent of the population, have been their top target. Rakhine state’s Rohingyas are subject to violence, discrimination, and economic exclusion. Numerous attempts to flee have seen hundreds drown at sea and thousands displaced in refugee camps, and the government afford humanitarians limited access. They are “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities,” says the UN.

And early last month, Suu Kyi’s government—once a glimmer of hope for the minority— requested the very term “Rohingya” be renounced, failing to recognize the community’s rights as part of Myanmar’s 135 official list of ethnic groups.

Suu Kyi’s stance is not new. Since violent riots broke out between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya in 2012, she has remained passive, neutralizing questions by pointing out aggressions against Buddhists and downplaying the concern of international bodies.

For some, Suu Kyi was just straddling the political line, cautious not to alienate an electorate largely sold to an entrenched islamophobic narrative. In the lead up to the National League for Democracy’s landslide election victory in November, an Al-Jazeera source reported that she deliberately purged the party of its Muslim candidates.

For an election that received plaudits from U.S. President Barack Obama, the Rohingyas were ineligible to vote, and currently there is not a single Muslim parliamentary representative.

Suu Kyi not only had to pander to the electorate, but also to the military which traditionally bands around nationalism and is constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of seats. But it was assumed her humanitarian streak would return once in power, more willing to tackle electorally sensitive issues years before the next election. However, Suu Kyi’s latest constraint may be the pressures of state building.

After 27 years of playing the pro-democracy activist opposition, the NLD are in uncharted territory. In November, U Win Htein, a party spokesman, said the Rohingya would not be the party’s priority.

Suu Kyi inherits an inefficient, unskilled, and corrupt bureaucracy, alongside a promise to deliver economic development. Elevating the strife of an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million minority may pale in comparison, particularly when factoring in a likely lengthy reconciliation process, financial resources, and potential for social instability.

Suu Kyi is aware of the sacrifice, diplomacy, and compromise that comes with taking office. “I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker,” she said in a 2013 CNN interview. She will have to negotiate shrewd deals with international suitors and make controversial decisions on large construction projects. Not all parties can be satisfied.

Bound by the realism of statecraft, Suu Kyi may be playing a long game. Forging peace between Buddhist and minority communities is likely to be more delicate, iterative, and convoluted than external observers can appreciate.

During U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Myanmar last month, Suu Kyi asked for “enough space” to address the “emotive” Rohingya issue. On May 31, it was announced she would lead a new Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, though the details remain sketchy.

The global community is growing impatient with a woman who has come to embody revolution and democratic values. Some have suggested her Nobel Prize be revoked for failing to act definitively on her sermons, while others fear Suu Kyi sees reason in the nationalist logic of Myanmar’s past.

The fact that she may be carefully treading the line between religion and politics is a bitter pill to swallow for her followers who feel short-sold, particularly when the Rohingya “face the final stages of genocide,” according to an 18-month study by the U.K.-based International State Crime Initiative, published last year. “The marked escalation in State-sponsored stigmatization, discrimination, violence and segregation, and the systematic weakening of the community, make precarious the very existence of the Rohingya,” it adds.

The clock is ticking on Suu Kyi, with her legacy deeply intertwined with the fate of Myanmar’s long-persecuted minority.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

Aung San Suu Kyi Is in Power. So Why Is She Ignoring Her Country’s Most Vulnerable People?

By Richard Cockett
Foreign Policy
June 11, 2016

For the Rohingya, Burma’s new democratic government is little better than the old dictatorship.

Burma’s new government gets down to business, one thing is increasingly clear — there won’t be much to look forward to for the country’s one million or so Rohingya people.

The West has rejoiced at the election of a new government dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and headed, in effect, by the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner. But for the Muslims of western Rakhine state — described by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority in the world” -- Burma’s new era is already turning out to be a disappointment. There is almost certainly worse to come.

The Rohingya have endured decades of harassment, marginalization, and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Burma’s old military regimes (and the local Rakhine people), amounting, some argue, to genocide. Everyone knew that Burma’s new leader, Suu Kyi, has also been ambivalent towards their plight. She has refused to even call them by their own name, for fear of offending the country’s often Islamophobic Buddhist majority in the run-up to last November’s general election, which she won by a landslide. But surely Burma’s first civilian government since the 1960s would be better than the murderous, kleptocratic rule of the generals?

Maybe not. First came the news, in mid-May, that the Burmese foreign ministry (now headed by Suu Kyi) had asked the American embassy not to use the term Rohingya on the spurious grounds that it was “controversial” and “not supportive in solving the problem that is happening in Rakhine state.” The Americans refused. The request was utterly disingenuous. The Rakhine people might indeed prefer to call the Rohingya “Bengalis” (implying that they are illegal immigrants from what is now Bangladesh), but this is an essential part of the exclusion of the Rohingya from the mainstream of Burmese life that constitutes the problem in the first place.

Prompted by the visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Suu Kyi returned to the theme on May 22, saying that her government would be firm about not using “emotive terms” like Rohingya or Bengali. Yet, as has been pointed out, she has never asked anyone — chauvinist Buddhist monks, soldiers or legislators — to refrain from using the term “Bengali.” The Rohingya will also have been disappointed that President Obama recently relaxed sanctions against Burma as a reward for its shift towards democracy, without mentioning the fact that nothing has changed in the authorities’ mistreatment of the Rohingya.

Furthermore, it is evident that the Rohingya will be excluded from the formal “peace process” that the new government intends to take up with the rest of the country’s ethnic minority groups, such as the Kachin, Karen, Chin, Shan and more. This process, inherited from the last government of President Thein Sein, is an attempt to find a lasting resolution to the civil conflicts that have plagued the country virtually since its independence from Britain in 1948. Suu Kyi has called for a second “Panglong-style” peace conference, invoking the memory of an agreement her father, General Aung San, negotiated with indigenous ethnic groups in 1947 before he was assassinated.

The recent peace process, however, has involved only those groups defined as indigenous peoples under the terms of the controversial, military-inspired 1982 Citizenship Act. The Rohingya are not citizens under that act, and they have never been included in any such process.

In all likelihood, the new government will simply try to park the Rohingya issue, which is viewed as marginal.Burma’s new president, Htin Kyaw, has set up a grand-sounding “Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State,” which consists of 27 officials, including the members of the cabinet and representatives of the Rakhine state government, to be chaired by Suu Kyi herself. But the Rohingya fear that this is merely a bureaucratic device meant to postpone taking any firm decisions, and they also worry that they may not even have any input into the committee. Meanwhile, the government will get on with drawing up the federal-style constitution that is needed to satisfy the political aspirations of other ethnic minority groups. There is a lot of sympathy among members of Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, for the suffering of the Karen, Kachin, and others over the past decades. So the party can be expected to negotiate in good faith with these groups, who are also represented institutionally at the higher levels of the NLD. There is very little sympathy, however, for the Rohingya among party ranks — the NLD is only marginally less riddled with Islamophobia and prejudice against the Rohingya than the last military government. Neither do the Rohingya have any voice or representation in the NLD.

Indeed, for the first time in recent years, since last November’s election there is not a single Muslim legislator in the entire country, despite the fact that the Muslim population of Burma numbers up to three million. Suu Kyi knows that that there is no political constituency in Burma for helping the Rohingya, just as she also knows that they do not have an armed wing (as most of the other ethnic groups do), so their capacity to make life difficult for the authorities has always been correspondingly less. In other words, apart from the demands of her own conscience, Burma’s de facto leader has little domestic incentive to do anything at all for the Rohingya.

The risk is that pushing the issue to the margins will have a devastating effect on the already desperate situation of the Rohingya. Separated from the rest of the population in refugee camps, or cooped up in their villages, their movement is tightly restricted. They have been cut off from their former sources of livelihood and live under an apartheid system in their own land. Ambia Preveen, a Rohingya doctor working in Germany, estimates that 90 percent of the Rohingya are denied access to formal healthcare. A recent study of poverty and health in Rakhine state by Mahmood Saad Mahmood for Harvard University shows vast disparities between the Rohingya and the Rakhine: There is only one physician per 140,000 Rohingya, but in the parts of Rakhine state dominated by the Rakhine, there is one doctor per 681 people. Acute malnutrition affects 26 percent of people in the Rohingya-dominated area of northern Rakhine state, whereas the figure is just 14 percent in Rakhine-dominated areas, and so on.

If the Rohingya give up on any prospects of change from this new NLD government — and well they might — then they will probably take to the boats again, as they did last year, fleeing in the thousands to other Muslim countries in South-East Asia. They will risk drowning in flimsy craft provided by unscrupulous human traffickers, and the crisis will merely spread abroad once again.

What can be done? Since there is no domestic imperative to help the Rohingya, it’s up to countries like the United States and Britain to exert all the pressure that they can on Suu Kyi’s government over this issue. The Western powers have helped enormously in rebuilding the NLD as a functioning political party, in providing Suu Kyi and her ministers with technical expertise and practical advice, and in beefing up the institutions, such as the national parliament, that have been at the fore of the democratic transition. Given this leverage, it must be made clear that the one million Rohingya are an essential part of that new democracy, and that even if they are not technically “citizens” under the present constitution (one which Suu Kyi herself rejects, albeit for different reasons) the government will be judged by how far it protects and gradually includes them. And even if the NLD balks at giving the Rohingya citizenship — as the United Nations, for one, has demanded — it could at least repeal repressive legislation passed by the last military government, such as the four so-called “Race and Religion Protection Laws.”

Passed in 2015, these laws were inspired by the nationalist, sectarian monks of the Ma Ba Tha movement, and are aimed squarely at restricting the personal freedom and choices of Burma’s Muslims. If enforced with any vigor, these laws could provoke even more tension, especially between the Rakhine and Rohingya. The NLD stood against these laws when it was in opposition. Now it is in power, the party should repeal them, sending a clear signal that the new government is genuinely concerned with the human and civil rights of all those who live in the country, and that the Rohingya are part of the wider reform process.

But the country’s other minority ethnic groups, as do the Rohingya themselves, also have a role to play. The latter have long been isolated from their fellow minorities, politically as much as geographically, and this has added to their marginalization. Although the plight of the Rohingya is now well advertised outside Burma, little is known about them in their own country. Rather than investing all their hopes for change in the international community, the Rohingya should now take the initiative to build bridges with the Kachin, Karen, Mon, and others, who have also suffered at the hands of the Burman-dominated central governments, to strengthen their political position and to make their case more visible.

It is in their interest of these other groups to overcome their own prejudices against the Rohingya, as the latter bring considerable international goodwill, diplomatic support, and potentially money, to the negotiating table. As much good as the international community can do, real change will not come until the political dynamics of the Rohingya issue change within Burma itself.

In the photo, a Rohingya woman sits with her children in their temporary shelter next to the Baw Du Pha internal displacement camp on May 17 in Sittwe, Burma.

Photo credit: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images