Thursday 14 December 2017

Bigotry continues to cast an image of horror over Burma

Rohingya refugee girls carry drinking water at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya refugee girls carry drinking water at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Mary Fitzgerald

For more than four years now the Rohingya minority of Burma has been subjected to a campaign of persecution and violence that has seen more than 100,000 displaced from their homes. The Rohingya, who number around 1.3 million, are Muslims living in a predominantly Buddhist nation.

The Burmese government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens and has subjected them to restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.

Their plight casts a considerable pall over the record of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is now the country's de facto civilian leader. Once feted for her bravery and activism, Ms Suu Kyi is now criticised for her mealy-mouthed approach to gross violations against the Muslim minority that human rights groups say may amount to crimes against humanity. Hopes Ms Suu Kyi would bring an end to the repression of the Rohingya when she was elected in 2015 have come to nothing.

Such is the recent escalation of violence against the Rohingya that this week Pope Francis drew attention to their plight.

"They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith," he said at his weekly audience at the Vatican, going on to ask those present to pray "for our Rohingya brothers and sisters who are being chased from Myanmar and are fleeing from one place to another because no one wants them".

In summer 2012, communal tensions that had long simmered, flared into deadly violence when Buddhist mobs rampaged after rumours spread that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim man. More than 200 people - most of them Rohingya - were killed, some hacked to death with machetes. Thousands more were driven from their homes. Since then anti-Muslim sentiment has been stoked by hardline Buddhist monks at the forefront of an extremist nationalism movement that has grown as Burma emerged from a decades-old military junta.

Earlier this month a UN report documented a litany of abuses exacted on hundreds of men, women and children by security forces in a "campaign of terror".

The report, based on the testimony of 200 Rohingya who fled Burma to Bangladesh, makes for harrowing reading.

Witnesses described how soldiers and police officers, assisted by local villagers, carried out "the killing of babies, toddlers, children, women and elderly; opening fire at people fleeing; burning of entire villages; massive detention; massive and systematic rape and sexual violence; deliberate destruction of food and sources of food".

In one case, an entire family, including elderly and disabled individuals, was locked inside a house and set on fire. Security forces sometimes beat, raped or killed people in front of relatives with the intention of "humiliating and instilling fear".

A 14-year-old girl told how soldiers had raped her, bludgeoned her mother to death and killed her two younger sisters.

"They were not shot dead but slaughtered with knives," she told UN investigators.

An 18-year-old girl said that her 60-year-old mother tried to escape but was seized by soldiers. "She could not run very well so we saw them catch her and cut her throat with a long knife."

After the report was published, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said Ms Suu Kyi had promised to investigate the allegations but many observers are sceptical that much will be done.

The plight of the Rohingya may have become a stain on the image Burma seeks to present to the world as it transforms itself from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, but inside the country many ordinary Burmese condone what is happening.

Many Burmese refer to the Rohingya pejoratively as Bengalis, an insult that aims to give the impression they don't really belong to Buddhist-majority Burma, though most have been there for generations.

I visited Burma in 2014, travelling to Rakhine state where the worst persecution of the Rohingya has occurred. Not surprisingly, the Burmese authorities are not keen on journalists visiting the miserable camps of Rakhine where thousands of displaced Rohingya languish. Not only had they lost everything when they were driven from their homes, the conditions they lived in were atrocious.

"The government is keeping us here like chickens under a net," one man told me. "It is like living in a prison."

Even more shocking were the conversations I had with Buddhists in Rakhine and other parts of Burma who either supported what the Rohingya had been subjected to or made excuses for it.

Until serious efforts are made by Ms Suu Kyi and others to counter such prejudice and bigotry, the horrific persecution of the Rohingya will continue.

Irish Independent

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