Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

Photo credit: majkiki via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: majkiki via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND


Munir Mezyed

 Myanmar officially is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, a Southeast Asian nation of 135 official ethnic groups, bordering India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east and China to its north and northeast.

The earliest inhabitants of Myanmar (Burma) were the Pyu. They established themselves in the valleys of the central Irrawaddy and Sittange Rivers and adopted Theravada Buddhism. Their language was a Tibeto-Burman language, related to Old Burmese. But it apparently co-existed with Sanskrit and Pali as the court language.

In the 19th century Britain colonized Burma and destroyed the Burmese monarchy. Thus Burma became an official colony on January 1, 1886. The British rule in Burma brought several enduring social, economic, cultural and administrative changes that completely transformed the once-agrarian society.

Burma regained its independence on 4 January 1948.  Three months after independence, internal conflict in Myanmar broke out between the newly formed government and the communists. The Karen and other ethnic minority groups who believed that they were unfairly being excluded from governing the country. Bear in mind that the communists and the Karen nationalists had fought the British colonial government prior to independence. Consequently, the communists led by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) decided to begin an armed insurgency against the government. Similarly, Karen insurgent groups led by the Karen National Union (KNU) began to fight for independence.

On 6 February 1960, the army facilitated general elections in Burma and acknowledged the authority of the elected civil government Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), led by U Nu or Thakin Nu.  However, the general public viewed the elected government as corrupt, inept at ruling the country, and incapable of restoring law and order in a Burmese society. Meanwhile, the military was regarded as crucial to ensuring social stability, which was a high priority among the people of Burma.

On 2 March 1962 the Burmese Army took power.  In the coup, the military replaced the civilian AFPFL-government, headed by Prime Minister U Nu, with the Union Revolutionary Council, Chaired by General Ne Win who was appointed by U Nu as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces on 1 February 1949 and was given total control of the army, replacing General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen.

Ne Win arrested the Prime Minister U Nu and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, as well as five other cabinet members, the Chief of Justice, and around thirty politicians and former leaders from the states of Shan and Kayah.

Following the coup d’état, the country was ruled under martial law, and witnessed the expansion of military effectiveness in the national economy, politics, and state bureaucracy.

Major events occurred on 8 August 1988, and therefore it is known as the 8888 Uprising. The 8888 uprising was started by university students at the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology.  Soon it spread throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks), students, house wives, children, doctors and people from all walks of life demonstrated against the military regime. The uprising ended on 18 September, forcing the long-time military leader of Burma and head of the ruling party, General Ne Win to step down.

In 1990, the military junta called for a general election, but refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi who was placed under house arrest at her home.

On 7 November 2010, a general election was held in Myanmar in the hope of giving the people of Burma the opportunity to elect new government. However, the election was widely criticized by Western governments as being neither free nor fair because one quarter of the seats in the new parliament were already reserved for military officers and international observers and media were barred.

Since 2013 there has been little fighting in Karen State, and there have been on and off ceasefire negotiations between the Burmese government and several Karen armed groups. There is still occasional fighting and extortion and forced labour by the Burmese Army continued. And Karen State now has a landmine problem matched only by Afghanistan.

Since 2012 the Burmese Army has launched a massive offensive against the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang (Palaung) peoples in northern Burma, and led the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in western and central Burma.

Approximately one million Rohingya Muslims live in western and central Burma facing “Ethnic Cleansing”. They are described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Their dire situation has long been ignored in Southeast Asia. The Burmese government viewed them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Thus they have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless, although many Rohingya have generations-long ancestry in Myanmar. They face harsh persecution, daily   discrimination and a whole raft of restrictions including control of their movement, family size, religious freedom, and access to state education and civil service jobs.

Nearly all of the Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state.  It is one of Myanmar’s poorest states with ghetto-like camps and a lack of basic services and opportunities.

Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan is dated back to the time of the Buddhist King Narameikhla (Min Saw Mon), who ruled Arakan in the 1429–1433, and welcomed Muslim advisers and courtiers into his capital.

Over the past few weeks, things have taken a turn for the worse: Reports of widespread destruction, rape, torture and murder in Rohingya villages by the military and other religious fanatic groups.

The religious fanatic groups are led by Ashin Wirathu, a nationalist Burmese Buddhist monk, and the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Burma. He has been accused of conspiring to the persecution of Muslims through his rhetoric of hate.

In the past two weeks, at least 313,000 Rohingya Muslims have abandoned their homes in Myanmar and fled to Bangladesh to escape the unfolding violence. John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar, told the BBC that troops were “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh.

The plight of the Rohingya is stirring wave of protests worldwide over Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims.Tens of thousands of people marched through the Chechen Republic’s capital city of Grozny to denounce Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Protests also took place in Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan.The Muslim World needs to know that the plight of the Rohingya is not a religious conflict but rather a political one even though there are religious fanatic groups involved in.  Actually, it should be the cause of all nations and governments to resist attacks on minority religions and defending religious freedom.  Therefore, any attack on minority religions is an act of terrorism.

We have to differentiate between the moral and spiritual values and radicalization.  We cannot criticize or blame religion for radicalization.  Therefore, Buddhism is not to be blamed for the plight of the Rohingya. In fact, the only one who should really be blamed for the plight of the Rohingya is the brutal military regime in Burma. Ashin Wirathu, who uses racism and rumors to spread hatred in Burma and leads a violent national campaign against Muslim minority groups, does not represent Buddhism.

I believe now is the time to criminalize the rhetoric of hate. This could be strategic approach to preventing terrorism and countering violent extremism. If we let those ‘hate preachers,’ who incite hate, free then they will lead us to our doom.

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