December 19, 2018

Burma’s response and the world’s obligation

More than 400,000 out of 1 million Rohingya Muslim minorities in western Burma had fled to Bangladesh within three weeks in late August and early September after the Burmese government army launched what is called “clearance operations” against Muslim militants.

On Aug. 25, the Muslim militants known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — led by Attaullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia — launched a series of attacks against 30 police outposts in the Maungdaw region in Burma’s Rakhine state. In response, the Burmese army launched an operation that became an international issue that was discussed at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Rakhine, one of Burma’s poorest and most isolated states, now is known by the world. Bangladesh has to host 420,000 refugees from Rakhine while the U.N. provides aid to them. The United States announced it would provide $32 million for humanitarian aid for the refugees in Bangladesh and displaced people in Rakhine.

More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the United Nations and world leaders have accused Burma of ethnic cleansing and called on the government to stop the army from continuing its so-called clearance operations. The British government halted training with a group of Burmese military officials in England and sent them back to their country, and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Burma and said the attacks on the Rohingya people amounted to “genocide.”

Rohingya refugees who arrived in Bangladesh said the Burmese army and local Rakhine nationalists burned down their homes and killed the Muslims they found. They said members of the army raped Muslim women.

Despite criticism from world leaders and the international media, the Burmese government has a different perspective about the Rohingya and defends itself. On Sept. 19, Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed diplomats, representatives of international nongovernmental organizations, and foreign and domestic journalists in the capital city of Naypyidaw. She said she wants to find out why many Muslims have fled to Bangladesh even though there were no clashes or military operations since Sept. 5. 

However, journalists who visited the  conflict-torn Maungdaw region on Sept. 7 said they heard gunfire and witnessed arson being committed in the region.

Suu Kyi recognized that there has been much concern around the world with regard to the situation in Rakhine.

“It is not the intention of the Burmese government to apportion blame or to abdicate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” Suu Kyi said, without mentioning the Burmese army operation that killed about 400 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims.

Burmese government officials deny allegations made by world leaders, saying there has been no ethnic cleansing. They also blame the international media of taking the side of the Rohingya Muslims.

More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the United Nations and world leaders have accused Burma of ethnic cleansing and called on the government to stop the army from continuing its so-called clearance operations.

The government’s information committee even released a statement warning some media organizations that don’t use the term “terrorists” as it has instructed. Media that use “Rohingya,” the unwanted terminology among government and nationalists, were verbally attacked. The committee even has warned that legal action will be taken against media outlets that don’t follow the instruction. 

Talking with a wide range of Burmese people, from ordinary citizens to government officials and generals, it is apparent that anti-Muslim sentiment is an open secret in Burma. And the Rohingya people, who are seen by a majority of Burmese as immigrants from Bangladesh, are unwanted. They have been denied citizenship and basic rights — such as freedom of movement, education and health care — for decades. 

The ARSA attacks succeeded in getting the Rohingya issue on the agenda at the U.N. General Assembly. But the image of Burma has been damaged as its government, army and Rakhine nationalists responded emotionally and unwisely, targeting not only ARSA militants but also driving out 420,000 unarmed Muslim civilians, 40 percent of the entire Rohingya population in the state. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims is alarming, and Burma’s issue has become one to which the world has an obligation to respond.

The world should act urgently to stop the Burmese from driving the Rohingya Muslims from their country. The U.N. also should take punitive actions, such as its Responsibility to Protect provision, and influential nations around the world should consider imposing sanctions against Burma.

Nations that sell weapons to Burma should suspend further arms deals. International human rights bodies also should investigate allegations of mass killings and gang rape allegedly committed by Burmese security forces during military operations.

ROGERS PEN is a pseudonym of an experienced Burmese journalist based in Yangon who fears retribution for expressing these views.