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Strangers in their own land

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The world community must hold Myanmar to account for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims who are hunted and killed like animals

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

The United States says it’s concerned over the growing Islamophobia around the world. In its annual report on the state of political and religious freedom around the world, the State Department has denounced a sharp spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and violence: “Government restrictions, which often coincided with societal animosity, resulted in anti-Muslim actions that affected everyday life for numerous believers.” From western nations such as Belgium, home to European Parliament, where the veil is seen as the flag of invading Islamic armies, to emerging Asian giants, China and India, many usual and unusual suspects find themselves in the dock.

However, it is Myanmar, lately the scene of raging atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, that justifiably attracts the strongest censure. Senior officials and security forces are seen as openly fanning the wave of attacks that have killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. The persecution and witch hunt has been so overwhelming that the Rohingyas have been desperately trying to flee Myanmar using whatever means they could find but with little success.

In latest attacks, now spread to northern state Shan, news agencies report of mobs armed with machetes, pipes and long bamboos attacking Muslim towns and burning down mosques, shops and homes while security forces stand and stare.

The US report notes that Myanmar promotes Theravada Buddhism at the expense of other faiths. It seems like a minor offence considering Myanmar sees Rohingyas as ‘illegal aliens’ despite their presence in the land for centuries. They do not exist and have no citizenship or rights whatsoever as far as the state is concerned.


Interestingly, Secretary of State John Kerry released the damning report on the day President Obama hosted Myanmar President Thein Sein at White House. Sein is the first Myanmar leader in nearly five decades to get the honour, marking a turnaround in relations with Washington and rest of the West. Obama created history of sorts last year when he visited the country that Washington still calls Burma.

The US concern over the plight of Muslims is touching. Some would see it as typical US hypocrisy considering America’s own role in Muslim lands. Last week Obama once again tried to justify the drone terror that has since 2003 claimed nearly 4,000 lives in Pakistan alone.

That aside, there’s no denying the fact that with every passing day the witch hunt of Myanmar’s Muslims is turning into an all-out war. And there’s increasing evidence to suggest that this targeting of Rohingyas at the hands of Buddhist extremists and militant monks enjoys the blessings of powers that be. The government has even stonewalled international relief efforts. President Sein has the audacity to blame the victims themselves. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “The trouble was started by criminal actions of some [read Muslims].”

Entire neighbourhoods and villages have invited the Buddhist wrath for imagined slights such as the accidental brushing of a Rohingya woman with a monk. In March, dozens of Muslim students and teachers were roasted alive when their school was burnt down.

These are but mere footnotes in the endless tragedy that is the Rohingya existence. Persecuted and hounded for the past several decades by a ruthless state and an increasingly jingoistic majority, they are strangers in their own land. Deprived of citizenship, they cannot even send their children to schools nor make use of essential government services.

Recently, the ‘reformist’ government issued a new diktat forbidding Muslims in Rakhine province from having more than two children. This is something that even the Nazis and Zionists couldn’t have come up with.


Is Myanmar part of the same planet that you and I inhabit? Is this still the 21st century or have we somehow whacked back in time? Is this the country that is supposed to be swept by winds of change and being warmly embraced by the international community? But then in an age ruled by Mammon, economic interest takes precedence over everything else. Who cares for a powerless people in an isolated land on the far side of the world anyway!

The Dalai Lama, feted in world capitals as champion of world peace, is yet to break his silence on Myanmar or Sri Lanka for that matter. As in Myanmar, the Bodu Bala Sena’s terror campaign against Sri Lankan Muslims is led by the militant Buddhist monks and apparently enjoys the blessings of powers that be. After the Tamils, it’s time to discipline the other minority. Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has looked the other way while Rohingyas are hunted and killed like animals. She has criticised the two-child rule for Muslims as ‘discriminatory’ though.

All this is unfortunate considering Muslim-Buddhist relations have historically been amicable. Islam and Buddhism have never been at war or in an ideological tussle. Buddha is hailed by Muslim poets as a messenger of peace. Perhaps the mindless, totally stupid destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban may have sown the seeds of discord.

But there is a long history of the Rohingyas’ persecution and systematic dispossession. It goes way back — long before the military took over six decades ago. In recent months and years, it has crossed all limits even as the country flirts with democracy and cautiously opens up to the world after long years of isolation and backwardness.

If the US, Europe, China and India are salivating over the large economic pie that is the mineral- and oil-rich Myanmar, it’s understandable. But should everything else be sacrificed for business. Besides, if the world powers need Myanmar and its virgin markets, Myanmar also needs them for investments and development.

The world powers must hold Myanmar to account on its treatment of Muslims and push it to respect the fundamental rights granted by the UN Human Rights Charter and that all member states are committed to. As Richard Sollom of Physicians for Human Rights put it, Myanmar needs to be told that the only path from tyranny to democracy is through respect for human rights.

It’s time the US walked the talk on Myanmar. Else the State Department report isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Arab and Muslim countries with their growing economic clout could do more too to help the besieged Rohingyas.

All said and done though, Muslims can hold others to account only when they take care of their own minorities. Given the state of minorities in some Muslim countries, they are in no position to lecture others. Many Muslim nations also figure in the US report for their “egregious and systemic repression” of religious rights.

What is happening in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere certainly doesn’t help our case. It also goes against the Islamic history of tolerance and protection of minorities. This needs to change if we want a change in the condition of Muslims in countries such as Myanmar.

[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aijazzakasyed]

(Courtesy: Gulf News)
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