Myanmar's Rohingya Problem

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Burma Washes Its Hands of the Rohingyas

by Peter Lee - China Matters
The piece excerpted below originally appeared at Asia Times Online on November 12, 2012 under the title Myanmar Fixates on Rohingya Calculation. Its thesis is perhaps better represented by the title of this blog post, Burma Washes Its Hands of the Rohingyas.  It can be re-posted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.  
ATOl has run some excellent stories on the Rohingya situation, including but not limited to Rohingya miss boat on development  by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury and Chris Stewart, and Nowhere to go for the Rohingya  by Phil Radford.
My ATOl piece tiptoes close to the TL:DR (too long didn’t read) danger zone since I wanted to go to considerable lengths to document the organized character of the anti-Rohingya pogrom and rebut the “ethnic strife” and “plague on both their houses” narrative that is being put out to Western audiences by almost every political and religious actor in Burma/Myanmar, up to and including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Anti-Rohingya racism has, to a certain extent, been ginned up by the military government; however, the government is building on a long-standing tradition of Buddhist/Burmese chauvinism—fueled in part by Burmese resentment at the Rohingyan role as an instrument of British political and economic penetration during the Raj times-- with communal violence between Rohingya and their local Rakhine/Arakan antagonists dating back to at least the 1930s.
The key factor in the current pogrom against the Rohingya appears to be the willingness of various key players in Burma, for a variety of sordid political and financial reasons described in the piece—a clutch of important votes in the national parliament and billions of dollars of expected revenue sharing to Rakhine state from its adjacent offshore natural gas fields-- to pander to the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
The RNDP controls Rakhine State (the home of the hapless Rohingya).  It has built its political fortune on Arakan chauvinism ( "Arakan" or "Rakhine" being alternative terms for the Buddhist but non-Burmese minority group on the shores of the Bay of Bengal) and its current campaign against the Rohingya may remind one of a ruthless and cynical campaign in the 1930s against a certain minority whose name begins with J by certain political party whose name began with N led by a certain guy whose name began with H in a certain European country whose name begins with G.  There!  Godwin's Law safely evaded.
Arakans have also had a traditionally prickly relationship with the Burma nationality that dominates the Irrawaddy basin.  Arakan has a good case for calling itself the traditional Buddhist heartland of the region and is a reliable agitator for autonomy if not independence.  The historical Buddha allegedly paid a miraculous visit to  Arakan and personally breathed on a statue of himself cast at the order of the Arakan king, causing it to assume the Buddha's physical form.  This priceless relic, the Mahamuni Buddha, was spirited away (actually sawn into pieces for convenient transport) by the Burmese to Mandalay in 1784 as war swag, where it was reassembled and resides to this day.  Every morning Buddhist faithful wash the statue's face and brush its teeth.  The statue has been coated to a depth of 15 cm (6 inches) by donations of gold leaf.
Although the Arakans have to make do with a replica at the original temple site of Kyauktaw and probably harbor a grudge over the removal of their statue, it has not become a flashpoint for Arakan/Burmese conflict.  
Instead, the Mahamuni Buddha sparked  anti-Muslim riots in 1997, in an incident that looks like regime incitement to cover up a particularly egregious incident  of greed-driven Burmese junta sacrilege against the Arakanese artwork.  
I will outsource this story to the lengthy Wikipedia entry on Persecution of Muslims in Burma , written by an aggrieved Burmese Muslim.  Note that the ignition spark was provided by the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by Muslims, just as the current violence in Rakhine State is traced to the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by three men, two of whom were supposedly Rohingya :
The bronze Buddha statue in the Maha Myatmuni pagoda, originally from the Arakan, brought to Mandalay by King Bodawpaya in 1784 AD was renovated by the authorities. The Mahamyat Muni statue was broken open, leaving a gaping hole in the statue, and it was generally presumed that the regime was searching for the Padamya Myetshin, a legendary ruby that ensures victory in war to those who possess it.[37]

On 16 March 1997 beginning at about 3:30 p.m., a mob of 1,000-1,500 Buddhist monks and others shouted anti-Muslim slogans.[citation needed] They targeted the mosques first for attack, followed by Muslim shop-houses and transportation vehicles in the vicinity of mosques, damaging, destroying, looting, and trampling, burning religious books, committing acts of sacrilege. The area where the acts of damage, destruction, and lootings were committed was Kaingdan, Mandalay.[38] The unrest in Mandalay began after reports of an attempted rape of a girl by Muslim men, although this was later disproved and led to speculation that the regime may have orchestrated the incident to deflect anger from the damaged statue. At least three people were killed and around 100 monks arrested.[39]

In my piece I make a reference to "Burma's Buddhist Taliban" while comparing the remarkably similar trajectory of "fundamentalist" Theravada Buddhism in South Asia and the Taliban in Central Asia as expressions of chauvinist/nationalist/cultural/religious resistance to the challenge of British imperial assimiliation. As another passage from the Wikipedia entry indicates, the Taliban parallel is not just facile phrasemongering.  When challenged by Taliban Islamic extremism—in Afghanistan!—Burmese Buddhists, at least those egged on by the government, were keen to make sure they gave as good as they got in the destruction of heathen monuments department:


2001 Anti-Muslim Riots in Taungoo

In 2001,Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Sa Yar (or) The Fear of Losing One's Race and many other anti-Muslim pamphlets were widely distributed by monks. Many Muslims feel that this exacerbated the anti-Muslim feelings that had been provoked by the destruction in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.[40] On May 15, 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Taungoo, Pegu division, resulting in the deaths of about 200 Muslims, in the destruction of 11 mosques and the setting ablaze of over 400 houses. On May 15, the first day of the anti-Muslim uprisings, about 20 Muslims who were praying in the Han Tha mosque were killed and some were beaten to death by the pro-junta forces. On May 17, Lt. General Win Myint, Secretary No.3 of the SPDC and deputy Home and Religious minister, arrived in Taungoo and curfew was imposed there until July 12, 2001.[41] Buddhist monks demanded that the ancient Hantha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in retaliation for the destruction in Bamiyan.[42] On May 18, however, Han Tha mosque and Taungoo Railway station mosque were razed to the ground by bulldozers owned by the SPDC junta.[43] The mosques in Taungoo remained closed as of May 2002. Muslims have been forced to worship in their homes. Local Muslim leaders complain that they are still harassed. After the violence, many local Muslims moved away from Taungoo to nearby towns and to as far away as Yangon. After two days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended.[44]

Emphasis added.  To round out this post on outrages against various religious monuments, I hoped to include a picture of the Han Tha Mosque, but was unable to locate one.
A few points of interest. 
First, the two colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, one 55 meters tall and the other 38 meters tall, which the Taliban obliterated at great effort and expense amid international execration, were already missing their faces in 2001.  That particular act of vandalism was committed by Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Amir” of Afghanistan during his campaign to subjugate the Hazara minority, whose homeland is around the town of Bamiyan, in the late 19th century.  Abdur Rahman Khan’s job was to preserve Afghanistan’s role as an independent buffer state against Russia for his own benefit and for the sake of his British backers.  When the Hazara rebelled, he subdued them with supreme violence to prevent Britain from perceiving a dangerous power vacuum and intervening, and used his artillery to deface the statues.
The Hazara could be termed the Rohingya of Afghanistan.  They are Turkic, Persian-speaking Shiites whose name apparently derives from the Persian word for a force of 1,000 men, perhaps a reference to a Mongol military unit.  According to the study of the notoriously ubiquitous Central Asian "star cluster" Y chromosome identified with male line descendants of Genghis Khan, the population with the highest percentage of this gene (even higher than Mongolia and Inner Mongolia!) is the Hazara.  
The Hazara are treated as outcasts and face disenfranchisement and savage repression  from the Pashtun (both Abdur Rahman Khan in the 19th century and the Taliban in the 20th/21st declared jihad on the Hazara). 
It appears that whenever the Pashtun gain the upper hand in Bamiyan they took a knock at the Buddhist statues in order to advertise the subjugation of the Hazara, even though the Hazara are not Buddhists and the statues predate their arrival in central Afghanistan by several centuries.    
There is nothing to take a knock at now.  Only two hollow niches remain (though the destruction serendipitously revealed a treasure trove of Buddhist grottos hidden at the back of the statues) and UNESCO has decided it is impractical to try to rebuild the statues from the remaining rubble.  Ironically, I suppose, the largest statue represented Vairocano, the Buddha of Emptiness (the other was Buddha Sakyamuni).
Second, that hotbed of Theravada Buddhist fundamentalism, Sri Lanka, made considerable efforts to save the Bamiyan statues and subsequently to buy the rubble.  Sri Lanka then declared it would duplicate the destroyed statues in Sri Lanka. (Heroic efforts to preserve Buddhist relics are a hallmark of Theravada kingship and government legitimacy to this day, and Sri Lanka is no exception.  Another notable example is the king of Burma's attempt to rescue Ceylon's precious Buddha's tooth from destruction by the Portugese Inquisition in Goa in 1561.)
Eventually, a one-third replica of the larger Bamiyan statue was erected in the coastal town of Peraliya in 2006, with Japanese financial support.  Instead of serving as an as a monument to Sri Lanka’s Theravada Buddhist assertiveness, it became a moving commemoration of the thousands of victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami who perished in Peraliya and the vicinity.  
Apparently in response to the destruction of the Bamiyan statues, China erected a 128-meter statue of Vairocana, now the largest statue in the world, in Henan Province.  The “pedestal” beneath the colossus in the photograph to the left is a four-story Buddhist monastery.
In China, a replica of the smaller Bamiyan statue of Sakyamuni Buddha is being carved into a mountainside near the monumental Buddha sculpture at Leshan. 
Somewhat unexpectedly, at least to the Western observer, it is possible to push the modern South Asian Buddhist’s hot buttons with invocations of “jihad” and “the Muslim threat to Buddhism” and, in Burma at least, this hot button is pushed with dismaying frequency.
 Unfortunately, recent events have shown that anti-Rohingya bigotry is far from a monopoly of what Westerners would term “anti-progressive and anti-democratic forces” a.k.a. the regime and its goons.  It happens to be part and parcel of deeply-felt Burmese Buddhism chauvinism, chauvinism that was supercharged by the challenge of British imperialism, is now directed against the People’s Republic of China, but may be redirected at a later date against Burma’s would be benefactors/exploiters in the West.

From Asia Times

Myanmar Fixates on Rohingya Calculation
by Peter Lee
To outside observers, the carnage inflicted on the Rohingya minority - a five-month spasm of violence and de fact ethnic cleansing ostensibly stemming from the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men - in Rakhine Province is indefensible and inexplicable.

What is even less understandable to Westerners is the virtually universal closing of ranks among local and national governments, pro and anti-government Buddhist monks, junta apologists and pro-democracy activists, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, all uniting to deny the apparently undeniable fact that an old fashioned pogrom is taking place against Rohingya minority and other Muslims.

Friends of Myanmar are puzzled and dismayed that the progressives they have championed have joined forces with the country's most reactionary forces to deny the overwhelming evidence that Rohingya - a dark-skinned Muslim ethnic minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring Bangladesh - are being driven out of their homes by a campaign of intimidation, arson, and violence in 2012 that builds upon years of marginalization and demonization.

Seventy-five thousand Rohingya IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) have been herded into camps on the outskirts of the state capital, Sittwe, and other towns.

In a sign of how bad things are, thousands of Rohingya are trying to flee to Bangladesh, even though they are not welcome there and their only possible refuge if they aren't turned back are two squalid UN-run camps surrounded by a ring of miserable unsanctioned huts.

Exasperated by Myanmar denialism, Human Rights Watch published a satellite photo showing most of the Muslim quarter of a sizable town, Kyak Pyu, burned to the ground. [1]

(As is usual in these matters, nomenclature follows political inclination. The official government identifiers are Myanmar and Rakhine State. People disinclined to legitimize the regime's terms use Burma/Arakan).

The local Rakhine government and its dominant political party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, or RNDP, have been at the forefront of the anti-Rohingya campaign, according to Rohingya advocate Nay San Lwin.

Writing in Turkey's Today Zaman, he asserted:
The tragic cruelty and the carnage of Rohingyas that occurred in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan (now known as Rakhine) state, is assumed to have been caused by Dr Aye Maung, member of parliament and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) because in his interview with Venus News Journal on June 14, 2012, he said, "The Rakhine state should be established in the way Israel was initially established." That's the dream of the Rakhine people. They want to drive out Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine (Arakan) state, their current leader Dr Aye Maung asserted in that interview.

In the last week of last month, a RNDP statement indicated, "Bengalis must be segregated and settled in separate, temporary places so that the Rakhines and Bengalis are not able to mix together in villages and towns in Rakhine state." "Repatriating non-citizen Bengalis to a third country in a short period of time must be discussed with the United Nations and the international community," the statement added. The RNDP also issued a statement early this year against a job announcement by CARE International in Myanmar, an NGO working in Arakan state, for using the term "Rohingya." [2]

Local Arakanese monks have been pitching in as well, according to Democratic Voice of Burma:
A group of Arakanese monks have called for Rohingya "sympathizers" to be targeted and exposed as "national traitors" while tensions again flare between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma's westernmost state.

In a document seen by DVB, the All-Arakanese Monks' Solidarity Conference have urged locals to distribute images of anyone alleged to be supporting the stateless minority group to all townships in the region, potentially opening them up to violent attacks by nationalist extremists. …
Many Arakanese monks have repeatedly called on local Buddhists to sever all relations with the Rohingya community, including trade and the provision of humanitarian aid. [3]
Another ugly message was delivered courtesy of some Rakhine Buddhist university students:
Hundreds of Buddhist university students in Sittwe in Rakhine State rallied on Wednesday against Rohingya Muslims as communal tension was at a heightened pitch in western Burma, according to news service reports.

More than 800 students joined a rally to call for an end to "studying with terrorist Bengalis" and for the removal of Muslim villages on the road to the university. [4]
In addition, the RNDP embarked on an active political and public relations campaign to reframe the pogrom as "sectarian clashes" in order to present its supporters - the rioters - as the injured party, especially if foreign diplomats show up to commiserate over the plight of the Rohingya.

In June, the Secretary General of the RNDP complained:
Q : We have knowledge that UN Secretary General's Special Advisor on Myanmar Mr. Vijay Nambiar visited the town of Sittwe through Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships of Rakhine state and head back straight to Yangon. However, during his trip, he did not meet the representatives of ethnic Rakhine. What's your say on this?

A: I would so much like to talk about this issue. … We feel highly upset about Mr. Nambiar's failure to meet [Rakhine ethnic representatives] despite coming to Rakhine state. That makes us wonder about the stance of UN. There was no press conference either. And that is purely a totally unpleasant situation.

Therefore it makes us wonder the true motives of Mr. Nambia, is he being bias against those of ethnic Rakhine? So, by looking at this event, it's obvious that there are people who are pulling the strings from behind; otherwise, there is no reason for such a high ranking diplomat like him to dare not to call for a press conference. For an organization like UN, which is the de-facto representative of world's democratic societies, such a big failure is a heinous diplomatic mistake. [5]
When the Organization for Islamic Cooperation proposed setting up a humanitarian liaison office in the state capital of Sittwe, local "offended Buddhist" women marched through the streets of the state capital, wearing mass produced T-shirts and brandishing mass-produced banners. [6]

That's bad enough. But there was more. The national government of Thein Sein endorsed the position of the Rakhine State government and declared that the best deal for the Rohingya would be to herd them into UN camps for their own safety and then deport them to whatever third country would take them.

At the national level, the anti-Rohingya wave was not limited to the callous, knuckle-dragging authoritarians associated with the Myanmar military junta (now the pro-Western reformist regime in Nyapyidaw).

Buddhist monks and democracy activists piled on, excoriating the international community for daring to care about the Rohingya.

The leadership of the 8888 student democracy movement, while vigorously and commendably deploring the violence against the Rohingya, adamantly declared its disdain for the persecuted group:
Rohingya is not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all. We see that the riot happening currently in Buthedaung and Maungdaw of Arakan State is because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called "Rohingya" and mischievous provocation of some international communities. Therefore, such interfering efforts by some powerful nations on this issue (Rohingya issue), without fully understanding the ethnic groups and other situations of Burma, will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation. Genetically, culturally and linguistically Rohingya is not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar … Taking advantage of our kindness and deference, if the powerful countries forced us to take responsibility for this issue, we will never accept it. Concerning with the sovereignty, if we are forced to yield by any country, we, the army and democratic force will deal the issue together as a national issue. [7]
From the Western liberal perspective, the worst was the studied disdain of Aung San Suu Kyi- whose official title in the Western press appears to be "democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi- for the plight of the Rohingya.

When pressed on the issue at Harvard University, she went Ice Queen, according to Global Post:
The forum at Harvard's Kennedy School Thursday evening was little shy of a lovefest …Until someone mentioned the "R" word.

Thanking Suu Kyi for "being our inspiration," a student from Thailand said: "You have been quite reluctant to speak up against the human-rights violations in Rakhine State against the Rohingya … Can you explain why you have been so reluctant?"

The mood in the room suddenly shifted. Suu Kyi's tone and expression changed. With an edge in her voice, she answered: "You must not forget that there have been human-rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It's not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations." [8]
Read the full post at China Matters.

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