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

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16 year-old Khalida, lying paralysed on the floor of her bamboo hut. She had been shot multiple times in her leg during a Burma army attack on her village. 

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

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Burma: Stop the Block on Aid. Photo credit: United to End Genocide

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.

Military powers remain problematic in Burma

The news headlines from Burma over the past year have mostly been positive. A remarkable peaceful transition from military rule to a civilian, democrat-led government, with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm, should be a cause for celebration. Her party, the National League for Democracy, overwhelmingly won the country’s first credible elections in a quarter of a century last November, and formed the government in April. To see her with Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street, with President Obama in the White House, or at the United Nations, after over 15 years under house arrest and the best part of three decades of struggle, is extraordinary.

Yet behind the headlines, the reality is more complex. The military may no longer be in direct charge, but their power remains. Under the military-drafted constitution, a quarter of the seats in Parliament are reserved for them and they control three key ministries in government: home affairs, border affairs and defence. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee.

So unless the military agrees, the prospects for tackling the root causes of Burma’s conflicts remain slim. In August, Suu Kyi organised a major peace conference with representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities, which was a welcome start. But to secure genuine peace, a political solution needs to be found to address the ethnic nationalities’ desire for autonomy and equal rights within a federal system. And the fact that as the talks were going on, the Burma Army launched new attacks in Kachin and Shan States is hardly an encouraging sign. Even in Karen State, where a ceasefire was agreed in 2012, reports of new violence have emerged recently.

Dimensions of Religious Intolerance

Religious intolerance in Burma has several dimensions. In its most acute form, there is the appalling crisis facing the Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim people in Rakhine State. Described as one of the most persecuted people in the world, enduring what some experts say may amount to crimes against humanity or even potential genocide, the Rohingyas are marginalised, dehumanised and stateless. Their mosques have been destroyed or closed, their movement restricted, their access to education denied and their citizenship taken from them. In 2012, two horrific explosions of violence against them forced thousands out of their homes and into displacement camps that seem more like concentration camps.

After years of reluctance to speak about the issue, Suu Kyi finally formed an international commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, to investigate the causes of the conflict and seek solutions – something CSW had been calling for. Rakhine nationalists and military-backed groups responded with outrage.

Trying to find lasting solutions to end conflict and build peace in Burma is of course vital and these two steps taken by Suu Kyi’s government – the peace conference and the Kofi Annan commission – have to be welcomed. But there is the more immediate, more urgent challenge of allowing humanitarian aid to reach those desperately in need.

“For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability.”

Aid is a Lifeline to Internally Displaced Communities

Last week, the Burma Army prevented trucks containing a month’s supply of rice from the World Food Programme (WFP) from reaching a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin state, and the previous month the military blocked a vehicle carrying medical supplies for four camps, provided by the United Nations.

In a separate but equally troubling development, reports have emerged that over 40 camps in Rakhine state have experienced cuts in WFP aid or been informed of cuts to come. These are apparently part of a plan to phase-out relief assistance in parts of Rakhine State.

In July, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee said, after meeting internally displaced peoples, that she had heard of their “daily struggles to survive”. She expressed concern about the “extensive difficulties in accessing and delivering aid”, even though such assistance “provides a lifeline to communities”. In Rakhine state, she noted, access can only be approved “through a cumbersome procedure”, and in Kachin state “humanitarian access is shrinking”. The conditions of the internally displaced peoples’ camps she witnessed “remain poor”.

If this continues, more people will die. For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability. It is in Burma’s own interests to ensure that this does not happen. Suu Kyi’s government needs to stop the block on aid, and the international community must end the cuts, and we must all do what we can to ensure that no one starves to death because of their race or religion. Join us in this campaign today, and help bring real change for Burma.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader