Obama’s imminent visit to Burma will concrete a recent thawing in relations between the developing nation, post-military dictatorship, and the Western world, but in the wake of waves of violence and ethnocide across Burma’s Rakhine state, it also highlights how much further this fledgling ‘democracy’ has to go.
Burma has been celebrated the world over since 2011 for its moves away from the military dictatorship, which blighted the country’s progression for 49 years, towards a new, more democratic movement and government reforms. While human rights charities have reported signs of improvement within the country however, this is not democratically distributed amongst all inhabitants, and one minority- the Rohingya Muslims- remains one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
These descendents of Bangladeshi Muslim labourers who arrived in Burma in the 19th century under British rule have faced human rights abuses by the Burmese regime ever since, which has refused to acknowledge them as Burmese citizens (despite generations of habitation in Burma) and attempted to forcibly expel them and bring in non-Rohingyas to replace them. An estimated 90,000 people have been displaced in the recent sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma’s western Rakhine State, while these Muslim communities also have fewer rights afforded to them than to other Burmese citizens: they remain forbidden to travel without permission, own land, or have more than two children. Over the past year, violence against these 800,000 stateless Muslims has increased dramatically, with two huge waves of persecution in June and October of this year, with many Rakhine Buddhists using the difference in religion as a catalyst to enact revenge upon what they view to be another wave of unwanted immigrants or invaders, following the British regime in the 19th and 20 centuries.
A campaign for commercial boycotts against the Muslims in Rakhine state (a northern state of Burma which borders Bangladesh) by Buddhist monks in the area has led to widespread hunger and malnutrition amongst the Rohingya over the past years as they struggled to purchase food. A survey by the Actions Against Hunger group in 2010 found a malnutrition rate of 20% in Muslim communities, a statistic far higher than the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization. Apartheid-like restrictions mean that few Muslims can even find work, and one particular bout of violence started just a few weeks ago when Tun Naing punched his wife for requesting rice for their three children: rice which they could not possibly afford. Neighbours soon joined in and the commotion quickly spread to a neighbouring Buddhist Rakhine village. This was one catalyst which plunged this whole region of Burma into a week of violence, and left whole areas looking like war zones. As many as 4000 Buddhist young men swarmed, clutching makeshift spears, swords, slingshots, crossbows or even petrol bombs, through Muslim coastal villages and townships over a week, torching flimsy bamboo homes on their way. In just a few days, the state was ravaged, with reports claiming 82 deaths, 4600 houses burned, and 22000 people displaced (almost certainly all underestimates). In one town which witnessed the massacre of dozens of Muslims, the charred remains of a mosque was left with the graffiti “Rakhines will drink kalar [Muslim] blood”.
After a few days, the military evacuated at least 1700 Muslims to guarded refugee camps nearby, but many other Muslims fled into the sea, trying to reach the safety of fishing boats, and were hacked down in the water. The violence only eventually came to an end days later when the military fired into a mob of Buddhists, killing two men. A state of emergency was imposed, with a curfew in various towns, but in many Muslim quarters in the part of the state which is home to an overwhelming majority of 90% Rohingya, the damage had already been done . The unrest in June and October sparked an unleashing of ethnic hatred which lay suppressed throughout the 49 years of military rule, and which is now surfacing once again. A recent Reuters investigation even suggested that that the wave of attacks was organized by Rakhine nationalists with the backing of a powerful political party, incited by Buddhist monks and abetted by local security forces and police. The mobs were well-organized and appeared to be led by core instigators who went from village to village inciting local anger, resentment and ethnic tensions. Some are blaming central government, as scrutiny is falling upon inflammatory statements made by ministers against Muslims in a possible attempt to derail the recent democratic reforms. Nonetheless, few arrests have been made so far, with only 14 to date in the town of Mrauk-U, which saw the worst of the bloodshed, and with the exception of being hoarded into refugee camps, the Muslims have been left largely to their own devices to defend their families and villages.
In the meanwhile, some desperate Muslims have started trying to sneak across borders into Bangladesh and Malaysia in rickety handmade fishing boats, at times crowded with over one hundred people. As many as 150 are thought to have drowned so far in attempts to leave the country, while little is being done by the government to address the ethnic tensions coming to a head in this northern frontier territory. Opposition leader and Nobel-peace prize holder Aung San Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, has refused to take sides, which seems to be largely representative of the government response as a whole. While Obama’s trip to Burma will be to congratulate the nation for its progress, the stability of one of Burma’s most commercially strategic regions is at risk, as well as the recent gold rush of foreign investment after the suspension of EU sanctions. The seeming impunity of instigators of violence in this region meanwhile is sending out worrying messages to the wider world, and reveals a worrying future for Muslim communities across Burma.
A video including interviews with both Rakhines and Rohingya can be found here