Myanmar to bar Rohingya from fleeing, but won’t address their plight

The New York Times reports: The government of Myanmar says it is determined to stop the departures of migrants fleeing religious persecution in places like this bitterly divided port city, but it will not budge in its refusal to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, fled the country in recent months, setting off a regional crisis when boatloads of migrants were abandoned at sea or abused and held for ransom by traffickers.

But the government insists that most of the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis, and says it has no plans to alter policies that strip them of basic rights and confine more than 140,000 to a crowded, squalid government camp here.

“There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis,” U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office, said in an interview this week.

Under international pressure, as crowded vessels baked and bobbed in the ocean for days with no country willing to take them in, regional leaders met in Bangkok last month, and the immediate crisis was relieved when the migrants were granted temporary refuge.

But any hope that Myanmar might have been persuaded to soften its position was quickly dispelled.

When a government delegation returned from the talks, the state news media hailed the officials as managing “to refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar.”

And those people, despite the reports of horror stories at sea, are no less desperate to leave. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Burma’s stateless Muslims: The World’s most persecuted minority

Der Spiegel reports: Nuralam often sits awake for hours at night when a lukewarm wind blows through the hut, carrying with it the smell of the sea. He peers over at his sister lying next to him on the mat. He sees his brother at his feet and his mother, both of whom are sleeping. If he were to run to the sea as he once did and surrender himself to it facing in the direction of Malaysia, as he once did, then he would have to leave them all alone here, in a refugee camp in western Burma.

Of course they would miss him. But wouldn’t this provide his siblings with more room in the hut? And couldn’t Nuralam — a 23-year-old diminutive young man with a quiet voice and an ankle-length cloth wrapped around his waist — finally become a real person? “A person with work,” he says. “And with rights.”

As a member of the Rohingya Muslim religious minority, he is not recognized by his country as a citizen. In recent years, radical Buddhists have been agitating people against his religion. Even though he was born in Burma, the authorities refer to him as a “Bengal.”

What keeps a man like Nuralam in a country in which he is stateless and won’t even give him a passport? With a lack of anything better to do, it is a thought that has preoccupied Nuralam countless times in the camp.

During his walks, he has repeatedly seen naked children standing and playing in the sewage. So far this year, more than 25,000 Rohingya have fled in boats across the Gulf of Bengal. The images of their desperate odyssey off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been transmitted around the world. “I wanted to be one of them,” Nuralam says.

On the night of April 14, when everyone was asleep, Nuralam stood up on his mat. He walked quietly out the door and ran down to the beach. He had made an appointment with a smuggler who was waiting for him there. Nuralam didn’t know what odyssey he was about to embark on. He just wanted to put the insanity in Burma behind him for good. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Burma’s ugly Buddhists

The Daily Beast reports: Anti-Muslim protestors supported by Buddhist monks gathered in Burma’s main city of Rangoon this week to denounce the United Nations for “bullying” their country into accepting desperate migrants who have been stranded at sea in abandoned boats.

People waving multi-colored Buddhist flags led a column of several hundred marchers as they chanted slogans against the Rohingya minority who, with their distinct language and darker skin, are considered outsiders and denied citizenship in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

It was the latest in a series of Buddhist hate rallies in the country, a phenomenon that has become common here but has yet to penetrate the psyches of many westerners who associate saffron-robed monks with peace and compassion.

“Yes, we have compassion for all people in our Buddhism, but we have to protect ourselves against our enemies,” said Thuta Nanda, a monk, as people gathered with placards and t-shirts bearing slogans urging the international community to “Stop blaming Myanmar” for the boat crisis.

“In Buddhism, we want to help others,” added protester Htet Htet Soe Oo, “but Muslims are different, their religion teaches that they should kill us.”

If any group of people could benefit from the compassion that many associate with the teachings of the Buddha, it is Burma’s Rohingya Muslims. The group of roughly one million is almost completely friendless, widely despised inside predominantly Buddhist Burma and unwanted by neighboring countries. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Dalai Lama urges Aung San Suu Kyi to act on Rohingya

Al Jazeera reports: The Dalai Lama has urged fellow Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to help Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority amid a worsening migration crisis.

“It’s very sad. In the Burmese (Myanmar) case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” he told The Australian newspaper in an interview published Thursday ahead of a visit to Australia next week.

Despite thousands of Rohingya fleeing on harrowing boat journeys to Southeast Asia to escape poverty and discriminatory treatment by the country’s Buddhist majority, opposition leader Suu Kyi, who is celebrated as a human rights and democracy champion, has not yet commented on their plight.

The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said she must speak up, adding that he had already appealed to her to do more on their behalf twice, in person, since 2012, when deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state saw violent attacks by Buddhist extremist groups against the Rohingya. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

The Rohingya crisis is not an isolated tragedy – it’s the shape of things to come

Tahmima Anam writes: In 1971 Ravi Shankar and George Harrison organised a concert in New York City’s Madison Square Gardens to fund relief efforts for war-torn Bangladesh. The album featured the image of a starving child on the cover, which became a symbol of an impoverished country emerging out of the rubble of war. Forty-four years later, another image is now associated with Bangladesh: that of the abandoned refugees who float on the Andaman Sea with no hope of rescue.

We’ve all seen the photographs of these refugees. We’ve seen them hanging their emaciated limbs off the sides of their boats. We’ve seen the scars on their backs,earned in fights over scarce food and water. We’ve read their harrowing stories of their being abandoned at sea, rejected by one government after another.

It is estimated that up to 8,000 refugees are marooned in the sea between Bangladesh and Malaysia. Most of them come from Rakhine state, in Burma, where as members of the Rohingya community they are denied the basic rights of citizenship. The rest are economic migrants from Bangladesh. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Outcast: Adrift with Burma’s Rohingya

Jason Motlagh writes: In June 2012, mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists tore through Rohingya Muslim neighbourhoods in the coastal town of Sittwe, attacking anyone in their path. Mohammad Idriss, a member of the persecuted minority, took refuge with relatives indoors. In a moment of panic, his younger brother made the mistake of jumping from a window, only to be caught and beaten to death with sticks and iron rods.

Idriss says that a neighbour dealt the first blow to the head. “All victims deserve justice, but I don’t think it will be possible even in a decade,” he says, reflecting on the massacre that night. “Our situation is hopeless.”

The killings were part of a gathering wave of sectarian violence that has spread to other parts of the country, amid accusations that security forces have turned a blind eye to bloodshed. Two years on, Idriss and most of the 140,000 Rohingya uprooted from their ancestral homes live in what have been likened to concentration camps, trapped between armed guards and the sea. Burma’s government insists it is for their own protection, but aid groups have been kicked out, and food and medical supplies are limited, resulting in a surge of deaths from treatable illnesses. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How a Buddhist supremacy movement is sowing hatred across Asia

Time reports: During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.” [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Death stalks Muslims as Myanmar cuts off aid

The New York Times reports: By the time the baby girl was brought to the makeshift pharmacy, her chest was heaving, her temperature soaring. The supply of oxygen that might have helped was now off limits, in a Doctors Without Borders clinic shut down by the government in February.

A hospital visit was out of the question; admission for Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority, always requires a lengthy approval process — time that the baby, named Parmin, did not have. In desperation, the pharmacy owner sent the family to the rarely staffed Dapaing clinic, the only government emergency health center for the tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims herded into displaced people’s camps. Although it was just 4 p.m., the doors were shuttered.

“We became like crazy people, running everywhere,” the child’s grandmother, Daw Mu Mu Lwin, said. With no good choices left, the family returned to the pharmacy, where Parmin died, untreated, three and a half hours later, cradled in her grandmother’s arms.

The baby’s death was part of a rapidly expanding death toll and humanitarian crisis among the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that Myanmar’s Buddhist-led government has increasingly deprived of the most basic liberties and aid even as it trumpets its latest democratic reforms. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Anti-Muslim monk stokes Burmese religious tensions

BBC News reports: This week, religious violence has once again flared in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Hundreds of Muslim homes have been burnt to the ground in Sagaing region after being attacked by Buddhist mobs.

In just over a year more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed and many more displaced as unrest has spread from Rakhine state in the west to towns across the country.

Many are blaming a controversial monk and the nationalist organisation he helps lead for the rising tensions.

In a classroom at one of Mandalay’s most famous monasteries, a teacher is at work. Shin Wirathu is taking a class of young monks at Masoeyin through the five precepts or pillars of the Buddhist faith.

This morning, he is lecturing on the importance of avoiding sexual misconduct.

“Yes venerable monk,” the young men chant in unison, as Wirathu softly delivers his advice on the need to avoid temptation.

When the class is over, he shows me outside. On the wall of the monastery courtyard are graphic posters of the Buddhist victims of recent religious and ethnic violence in Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

They are unpleasant viewing. The pictures from October last year show dead children with their heads cut open and the bodies of women with their internal organs spilling out of their torsos.

Wirathu said he put them up as a reminder to Buddhists that the country is under attack from Muslim “invaders”.

“Muslims are only well behaved when they are weak, ” he said. “When they become strong, they are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals.”

Wirathu believes there is a Muslim “master plan” underway to turn Myanmar into an Islamic state.

If he is right, it is a long-term project. Latest estimates suggest that of Myanmar’s 60 million people, 90% are Buddhist and about 5% Muslim.

“Over the past 50 years, we have shopped at Muslim shops and then they became richer and wealthier than us and can buy and marry our girls,” Wirathu said. “In this way, they have destroyed and penetrated not only our nation but also our religion.”

Wirathu’s solution lies in a controversial nationalist organisation called 969. It calls on Buddhists to shop, sell property and marry within their own religion.

Small, brightly-coloured stickers have been distributed to clearly brand businesses as Buddhist-owned.

Supporters of 969 argue it is a purely defensive organisation, created to protect Buddhist culture and identity. Listening to the rhetoric of Wirathu and 969’s leaders, there is no doubt it is squarely aimed at Muslims. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Myanmar’s government-backed Buddhist extremists

Reuters reports: The Buddhist extremist movement in Myanmar, known as 969, portrays itself as a grassroots creed.

Its chief proponent, a monk named Wirathu, was once jailed by the former military junta for anti-Muslim violence and once called himself the “Burmese bin Laden.”

But a Reuters examination traces 969’s origins to an official in the dictatorship that once ran Myanmar, and which is the direct predecessor of today’s reformist government. The 969 movement now enjoys support from senior government officials, establishment monks and even some members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Wirathu urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun interfaith marriages. He calls mosques “enemy bases.”

Among his admirers: Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs.

“Wirathu’s sermons are about promoting love and understanding between religions,” Sann Sint, minister of religious affairs, told Reuters in his first interview with the international media. “It is impossible he is inciting religious violence.”

Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in Myanmar’s army, also sees nothing wrong with the boycott of Muslim businesses being led by the 969 monks. “We are now practicing market economics,” he said. “Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.”

President Thein Sein is signaling a benign view of 969, too. His office declined to comment for this story. But in response to growing controversy over the movement, it issued a statement Sunday, saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”

Wirathu and other monks have been closely linked to the sectarian violence spreading across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the country for nearly half a century. But the worst fighting has occurred since the quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011.

Two outbursts in Rakhine State last year killed at least 192 people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims. A Reuters investigation found that organized attacks on Muslims last October were led by Rakhine nationalists incited by Buddhist monks and sometimes abetted by local security forces. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Video: Are Myanmar’s new democrats promoting ethnic cleansing?

facebooktwittermail

Video: What is behind Myanmar’s ethnic unrest?

facebooktwittermail

Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory does not bring Burma freedom

Zoya Phan writes: I have dreamed for many years of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament and watching thousands of people celebrating in the streets. Yet, while the scenes made me happy, I also felt a strange emptiness inside.

We always expected that Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to take a seat in parliament would be a final step on the road to democracy. Instead, it is only the first. Aung San Suu Kyi is even more cautious. Asked last week how democratic Burma was on a scale of one to 10, she answered “on the way to one“.

Too much importance has been attached to these byelections, whose significance is more symbolic than practical. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, will have about 5% of the seats in parliament, compared with 80% for the military and the main military-backed party. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi had a majority, parliament has very limited power, and the military has an effective veto over its decisions.

Yet, as Aung San Suu Kyi hoped, the byelection campaign has successfully mobilised many people, breaking down the fear of engaging in politics after generations of dictatorship. Now she is trying to use the limited new political space to bring genuine democratic reform, but the challenges are immense. To use these byelections as a benchmark for judging change is a mistake. Even had they been free and fair, and they were not, they don’t mean Burma is now free.

facebooktwittermail

Myanmar opposition claims by-election win for Suu Kyi

Reuters reports: Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the country’s lower house of parliament on Sunday after defeating her two rival candidates in a by-election in her constituency, the main opposition party said.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party announced at its headquarters that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi had won in Kawhmu, south of the commercial capital Yangon.

The New York Times reports: Daw Khin Maung Mya, 76, was filled with emotion after voting on Sunday at a polling station in her neighborhood of crumbling buildings and trash-strewn streets.

“I feel like crying when I talk about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” Ms. Khin Maung Mya said after casting her vote. “It felt so good to vote for her party — only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can save us from deep poverty.”

For the first time in two decades, voters in 45 districts across Myanmar had the chance to vote for the party of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a milestone after years of military rule and brutality.

From a strictly numerical standpoint, the election itself will not affect the balance of power in Myanmar, as less than 10 percent of seats in Parliament were in play.

But voters described it as a joyous day, another step toward democracy as the country undergoes radical changes under President Thein Sein, the former general who has led the country for the last year and is encouraging reconciliation with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We used to fear speaking with foreigners about democracy,” Daw Kyi Kyi Tun, a 50-year-old former school teacher, told a reporter after voting. “Now we have courage.”

Christian Caryl writes: Back in 1990, when the military-dominated government last allowed a relatively free general election, the NLD and its allies won 92 percent of the seats. That result stunned the regime, which subsequently annulled the results. This time around, as the country slowly transitions to more democratic governance, there won’t be any room for surprises on a comparable scale. The 45 seats up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the seats in the Burmese legislature. So even if the NLD wins a landslide victory, it will still fall far short of anything like a workable majority, and its ability to effect change will be correspondingly limited.

Optimists say that this election marks a watershed. Since ex-general President Thein Sein came to power two years ago, he has steered a cautious course toward greater openness: releasing political prisoners, loosening state control over the media, and inviting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate in the political system. “This is a compromise for both sides,” says Tin Maung Thann of Myanmar Egress, a private group that aspires to train future Burmese leaders. The president, he says, used his power to change legislation so that the NLD could register as a political party, while Aung San Suu Kyi “put her faith in the reforms.”

Yet there are evident risks. Some NLD supporters worry that the government will use their party’s modest presence in parliament after April 1 to legitimize what is still a profoundly non-democratic political system. The existing parliament, for example, was chosen in a nationwide 2010 election resoundingly rejected by the international community as a sham. That vote was based in turn on a 2008 constitution drawn up by the military government in a process that bore few traces of genuine citizen involvement. The constitution, which remains in force, reserves a full quarter of the seats in the legislature for members of the armed forces. It’s a situation that results in a curious paradox: Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues are taking part in an election that they themselves consider flawed. “I don’t think we can consider it a genuine free and fair election if we consider what has been happening here over the last few months,” she said in her pre-election press conference today, referring to allegations of widespread violations made by the NLD.

facebooktwittermail

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release

The Los Angeles Times reports:

A day after her release from detention, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday met dozens of ambassadors, hundreds of journalists and thousands of Myanmar citizens, underscoring the importance of dialogue, strength and determination in the battle for democracy in her country.

As a jubilant crowd swelled in front of the headquarters of her disbanded National League for Democracy party, traffic ground to a halt, and people perched in trees, on fences and on vehicle roofs for a look at their charismatic leader.

Her eventual appearance at noon in the doorway of the ramshackle building electrified the audience. “I understand what the people want; they want democracy,” she said to a roar from the crowd. “You must make your voices heard. Only then can we take action.”

An editorial in The Guardian notes:

Those who have campaigned for her release, including many western governments, have cause to celebrate. But this is not yet a defining moment in Burmese history, let alone the “Mandela moment” some believe they see.

Nelson Mandela was freed because those who ruled South Africa knew the game was up, that apartheid was unsustainable. Burma’s military rulers, by contrast, are determined to prolong their grip on power. They have held a bogus election and the party they created to win it has duly won. A general in a lounge suit is prime minister. Some nations, eyeing new trade opportunities, will be amenable to the idea of easing sanctions. Achieving that end is one of the calculations behind Suu Kyi’s release.

She is a symbol of hope, fortitude and strength – one Nobel peace prizewinner whose reputation never falters. But the generals may also reckon that she is a symbol from the past who might struggle to engage with the reality of modern Burma. Her own party, which didn’t contest the election, is split. Her tactical options are narrow and perilous. She has, after all, been locked away twice before. If she causes trouble, she could quickly rejoin the 2,000 unreleased political prisoners.

facebooktwittermail

INTERVIEW: Burma today “is almost like Nazi Germany”

“The opposition has no chance right now, but this is only the beginning”

“Right now the opposition is under great stress. Burma today is as most repressive as it has ever been: they basically shut down all the cities every night, and they roam the streets and go and arrest people, it is almost like Nazi Germany. That is why the opposition has no chance right now”. Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative of the Open Society Institute, which is part of the Soros Foundations Network, makes no illusions about the future of the “Saffron revolution”, but she observes that the international pressure is growing, especially from the U.S. and also Europe (“can play a big role”), and that’s why she declares herself optimistic: “The trend of history is not towards more repressive dictatorships. It is impossible to totally isolate a whole population from the rest of the world in the 21st century”. [complete article]

facebooktwittermail

NEWS & ANALYSIS: Monks march and Burmese government forces children into military

Myanmar monks said to march again

More than 100 Buddhist monks marched in northern Myanmar for nearly an hour Wednesday, the first public demonstration since the government’s deadly crackdown last month on pro-democracy protesters, several monks said.

The monks in Pakokku shouted no slogans, but one monk told the Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based short-wave radio station and Web site run by dissident journalists, that the demonstration was a continuation of the protests in September. [complete article]

Report: Brokers supply child soldiers to Burma

Burma’s military government has been forcibly recruiting child soldiers through brokers who buy and sell boys to help the army deal with personnel shortages, which have been exacerbated by desertions and public aversion to its brutality, Human Rights Watch concludes in a detailed report being released today.

Private militias and ethnic insurgent groups in Burma have also been using child soldiers, though in far smaller numbers, according to the New York-based group’s 135-page study, based on an investigation in Burma, China and Thailand.

“The brutality of Burma’s military government goes beyond its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “Military recruiters are literally buying and selling children to fill the ranks of the Burmese armed forces.” [complete article]

facebooktwittermail

ANALYSIS: The strategic importance of Myanmar

The geopolitical stakes of ‘Saffron Revolution’

…the US State Department has recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government organizations in Myanmar. It has poured the relatively huge sum (for Myanmar) of more than $2.5 million annually into NED [National Endowment for Democracy] activities in promoting regime change in Myanmar since at least 2003. The US regime change effort, its Saffron Revolution, is being largely run, according to informed reports, out of the US Consulate General in bordering Chaing Mai, Thailand. There activists are recruited and trained, in some cases directly in the US, before being sent back to organize inside Myanmar. The US’s NED admits to funding key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio.

The concert-master of the tactics of Saffron monk-led non-violence regime change is Gene Sharp, founder of the deceptively-named Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group funded by an arm of the NED to foster US-friendly regime change in key spots around the world. Sharp’s institute has been active in Myanmar since 1989, just after the regime massacred some 3,000 protestors to silence the opposition. CIA special operative and former US military attache in Rangoon, Col Robert Helvey, an expert in clandestine operations, introduced Sharp to Myanmar in 1989 to train the opposition there in non-violent strategy. Interestingly, Sharp was also in China two weeks before the dramatic events at Tiananmen Square.

A relevant question is why the US government has such a keen interest in fostering regime change in Myanmar at this juncture. We can dismiss rather quickly the idea that it has genuine concern for democracy, justice, human rights for the oppressed population there. Iraq and Afghanistan are sufficient testimony to the fact Washington’s paean to democacy is propaganda cover for another agenda.

The question is, what would lead to such engagement in such a remote place as Myanmar?

Geopolitical control seems to be the answer – control ultimately of the strategic sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. The coastline of Myanmar provides naval access in the proximity of one of the world’s most strategic water passages, the Strait of Malacca, the narrow ship passage between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Pentagon has been trying to militarize the region since September 11, 2001 on the argument of defending against possible terrorist attack. The US has managed to gain an airbase on Banda Aceh, the Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base, on the northernmost tip of Indonesia. The governments of the region, including Myanmar, however, have adamantly refused US efforts to militarize the region. [complete article]

facebooktwittermail