Maung Zarni writes: Though in exile 6,000 miles away from Myanmar, I can almost taste the euphoria of my fellow dissidents. Aung San Suu Kyi’s wildly popular opposition – the National League for Democracy – has won a landslide in the multiparty elections, and 31 million voters, most apparently backing the NLD, are savouring a long-awaited moment of jubilation. The NLD leader, whom they call Amay or mother, appeared on TV, her eyes shining with tears of joy.
Even foreign journalists covering the country in the 25 years since Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest have scarcely been able to conceal their excitement at the prospect of a new era of freedom and democracy, ushered in through her non-violent, pragmatic leadership.
Myanmar’s Mandela moment has arrived. Or has it?
A sober analysis may be in order. Aside from the fact that Myanmar’s military leaders have, constitutionally, blocked any possibility of “the Woman” with her two “impure-blooded sons” and “foreign privileges” assuming the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party faces huge barriers to turn a resounding electoral mandate into a real step towards a genuinely representative government.
And this is not the first time the public has felt euphoric about the power of its votes. In May 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi and her then fledgling opposition party won a decisive mandate taking 82% of the parliamentary seats and 62% of the total votes. That landslide came despite the fact that the generals placed her and her senior colleagues under house arrest on the eve of the elections, in effect barring them from the electoral process. So the opposition knows how it feels to fail to convert this mandate a quarter-century ago into a real political gain or put the country on the path of democracy. [Continue reading…]
Myanmar has taken a potentially momentous step away from dictatorship and towards democracy. More than 6,000 candidates from 91 political parties competed for the votes of 33m registered voters on November 8 in the country’s first credible elections since 1960.
The precise outcome won’t be known for days, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is claiming to have gained at least 70% of the votes cast. Senior figures in the ruling party are conceding defeat.
No one should underestimate the significance of power changing hands in Myanmar via the ballot box. However, this will only finally occur in March 2016, when the newly-elected MPs vote for a new president and a new government will be formed.
The New York Times reports: The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.
She fled Myanmar this year hoping to reach safety in Malaysia, after anti-Muslim rioters burned her village. But her family could not afford the $1,260 the smugglers demanded to complete the journey.
A stranger was willing to pay for her freedom, the smugglers said, if she agreed to marry him.
“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said the woman, Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”
She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland. [Continue reading…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]