Between a Crocodile and a Snake: Racism and religious intolerance in Burma

by | Apr 30, 2013

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About Guest contributor

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

By Benedict Rogers

Benedict Rogers will be speaking in Oxford this Thursday, 2 May.  Click here for more information on the Event “Racism in Burma: Silent Persecution of the Rohingya” or here to learn more about the Oxford-Burma alliance.

After fifty years of repressive military rule, Burma is just beginning to open up. In the past year, democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to Parliament, along with 42 of her colleagues in the National League for Democracy. Along with this extraordinary development, media freedom, space for civil society, and freedom of expression have all increased, particularly in Rangoon. For the first time in more than two decades, Burma has a real chance of change.

However, the transition is only just beginning, and there is a very long way to go. Repressive laws remain in place and the quasi-civilian government is dominated by former soldiers. Meanwhile, new challenges surfacing in the slow transition threaten to derail promising reforms in their infancy.

Burma is a multi-religious nation with seven major ethnic groups. The non-Burman ethnic nationalities comprise collectively 40 per cent of the population, and inhabit 60 per cent of the land mass, mostly around the country’s borders. For decades these groups have faced discrimination and persecution— some, such as the Karen, have faced conflict for more than 65 years.

In addition, Burma has a sizeable Muslim minority, who fall into three racial categories. Of these, the Burmese and Kamar Muslims are recognised as citizens, although subjected to racial and religious discrimination by some. The Rohingyas, however, were stripped of their citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, and are regarded as ‘foreigners’ or ‘illegal immigrants’, despite evidence that many Rohingyas have lived in Arakan State for generations. Indeed, the government, and many in society, refuse to even recognise the name ‘Rohingya’, insisting on calling them ‘Bengali’.

Yet Bangladesh does not recognise them either, and refuses to receive Rohingyas fleeing persecution. There are 200,000 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh, but in recent years, Bangladesh has turned many away. When I visited the camps in 2008, a refugee told me: “The Burmese say we are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh; the Bangladeshis say you are Burmese, go back to Burma. We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake. Where do we go?” The Rohingyas are a stateless people.

Last summer, the marginalisation and persecution of the Rohingyas reached unprecedented intensity when violence in June and October, left many dead and over 130,000 displaced. Human Rights Watch released a report this week, describing the crisis as ‘ethnic cleansing’ involving ‘crimes against humanity’.

Anti-Rohingya hatred has now turned into wider anti-Muslim violence.  I was in Burma when the carnage in Meiktila occurred, and then anti-Muslim pogroms spread. I visited a small Muslim community in a village outside the capital, Naypyidaw, whose mosque had been desecrated and madrassah completely burned down. I heard the hate speech spread by a militant Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, and the movement known as “969”.

While racial and religious prejudice is deep-seated and widespread in Burmese society, attitudes towards the Rohingyas are largely based on misinformation; the widespread perception that they are illegal immigrants pouring across the Bangladesh border stems from years of propaganda by the regime. Campaigns of such violence and destruction have been well-planned and orchestrated. No one has clear evidence, but it is widely believed that last year’s violence in Arakan was coordinated by elements within the regime and the army, to derail democratic reforms.  So, too, is the wider anti-Muslim violence seen in recent weeks. The suspected aim of instigating old prejudices and creating such instability is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s position is undermined; the 2015 elections are either cancelled, delayed or won by the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP); or the military retakes direct power. The people of Burma, and the international community, which has staked so much on President Thein Sein’s reforms, cannot afford to let that happen.

Action must be taken. Pressure must be increased on Thein Sein to ensure that the culture of impunity ends, and those responsible for fomenting or perpetrating hatred and violence are brought to justice. Humanitarian aid must be provided for the displaced victims, with unhindered access. A serious review of the 1982 Citizenship Law is imperative, as are amendments to align it with international standards. Significant investment in inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, anti-racism awareness programmes, public education and other initiatives to tackle intolerance must be made, and the extreme Burman Buddhist nationalist ideology should be replaced by a recognition of Burma’s ethnic and religious diversity, and the development of a political system that safeguards equal rights for all.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.  He is the author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads


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