Burma elections: This Sunday, the country needs a miracle

By Benedict Rogers

Five years ago, the overwhelming election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma heralded the dawn of a new democratic era after over fifty years of brutal military dictatorship and civil war.

After a total of 15 years under house arrest and more than a quarter of a century of courageous struggle for democracy, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate known to everyone as “The Lady” was poised to head her country’s government. And although the military had deliberately drafted a constitution that excluded her from becoming President, her advisers ingeniously created a new role that circumvented that restriction – the position of State Counsellor, de facto prime minister. With the exception of the three key ministerial roles given to the military under the constitution – home affairs, defence and border affairs – she has absolute oversight of the civilian government.

Yet five years on, it’s a very different picture. Burma approached the crossroads of democratization, peace-building and national reconciliation – and went into reverse.

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Burma’s identity crisis

The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.

Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.

That is the picture presented by CSW’s new report, Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, published today. The report is the result of over three years’ work, involving first-hand front-line research, supplemented by information provided by CSW’s contacts in Burma and by other organisations working on these issues. It tells the human stories, it analyses the legislative framework, it assesses the international community’s response and it provides a call for action.

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The Rohingya Crisis One Year On: Burma’s Work of Healing Cannot be Postponed Any Longer

On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.

“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”

In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.

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Burma: Stop the Block on Aid

No one should be denied food or medicine on account of their ethnicity or religion, but that is what is increasingly happening to some people in Burma. A humanitarian crisis is emerging because in some parts of the country, the authorities are blocking aid access. In other areas, international agencies are cutting aid. Blocks and cuts combined are resulting in displaced people who have fled conflict going hungry at night. That is why we have launched our new campaign: “Real Change”.

When we talk about refugees today, we think of Syria and Iraq. But Burma remains a country where significant numbers of people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands escape to other countries, but others are internally displaced. Over 120,000 in Kachin and northern Shan states, and over 130,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state.

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The Plight of the Rohingya – His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo Addresses the Houses of Parliament, London, 25 May 2016

On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations. 


My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.

But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.

“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”

Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.

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