Politics of ‘Cleansing’

There are many different voices within and supporting the minorities’ human rights movements. But the effective challenge to what it means to be human remains elusive. It’s really a cruel world. Most of the ‘‘world’’ has been bought by moneybags. So rulers, irrespective of their political orientation, democratic or authoritarian, don’t worry about dozens of statements issued almost daily by the defenders of human rights regarding gross violation of rights of ethnic groups across the world. They tell the world that the situation is unbearable in some countries. What the victims in most cases feel painfully is how it is to be abandoned, not only by their own governments but also by the so-called international community.

The collapse of Yugoslavia following the radical upsurge in the former Soviet bloc countries was an opening to ‘rationalise’ ‘cleansing’, rather ethnic cleansing. Maybe the Bosnian tragedy is now history but today there are too many Bosnias to be saved from the humanitarian plight.

‘Ethnic Cleansing’ has now acquired some kind of legitimacy in political culture in many third world countries. It has been going on in Iraq for long. And now in Syria what is happening is anything but ethnic cleansing though both state and non-state actors are involved in it. Everyday brings news of a new atrocity perpetrated against some minority group somewhere in the world.

War crime in the Middle East is now as normal as anything else. And nobody raises the issue at any international forum for trial of war criminals. The army in Sri Lanka in the closing phase of anti-insurgency war indulged in massive ethnic cleansing, virtually committing genocide against the minority Tamil population. And international authorities look helpless in punishing the Generals responsible for war crimes. Ethnic cleansing is invariably related to minority communities everywhere. In Sri Lanka they are Hindu Tamils but in Burma or what is now called Myanmar they are Muslims, more precisely Rohingya Muslim community.

In Myanmar Ang San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy swept nearly 80 percent of seats in the 8 November 2015 polls, supposed to be the fairest elections for 25 years. The incumbent junta backed parliament will remain in power for the time being while a new president is unlikely to be sworn in before March 2016. For Suu Kyi transition to democracy won’t be that easy. 50% of Myanmar’s economy is controlled directly or indirectly by the military as it is the case in Pakistan. Another 20 to 25% by powerful businessmen who have been benefited from their proximity to the army. The military possesses a direct veto over any constitutional amendment by retaining 25 percent of seats in the two legislative chambers. This is the reality of democracy in Burma where democrats or autocrats do hardly feel any necessity to stop the systematic prosecution of the Rohingyas. Even Suu Kyi has stopped short of being explicit on the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan province. There is no end in sight to ethnic cleansing faced by the Rohingyas.

A 2014 report by Fortify Rights, 'Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar', details the systematic oppression under which the Rohingya people doggedly persevere. They suffer from restricted access to basic public services such as education and healthcare and, in the absence of basic freedoms, their movements, marriage rights and childbearing rights are all suppressed. Recently their plight has been raised by Pope Francis who stated the continued persecution of the Rohingya constituted war against these people.

In Myanmar, it's not only government policies that have targeted the Rohingya, rising nationalist sentiment as in Sri Lanka continues to play a significant role in their persecution. Among those encouraging hatred towards the Muslim community are ultra-nationalist groups. Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and prominent member of nationalist groups the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) and Movement 969, has become infamous for his outspoken anti-Muslim rhetoric in which he refers to Muslims as the enemy. He recently lashed out at the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, calling her a "whore" for highlighting the unjust treatment of the Rohingya. Of late these ultra-right forces have become increasingly powerful influencing the policies of both the ruling party and the opposition party.

It is against this backdrop that tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma, only to fall prey to human traffickers in many cases. The situation reached crisis point in May this year after authorities in Thailand began cracking down on human trafficking and slavery. A new report from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has collated the experiences of refugees who were abandoned at sea in May. Their stories tell of terrifying ordeals—violence, drowning, starvation and attempts by Southeast Asian nations to redirect the destitute refugees towards neighbouring territories.

Even in the face of natural disaster the Rohyinga continued to experience persecution with government officials accused of abandoning them, as state aid was only made available at Buddhist shelter areas. The Burma Times reported that Rohingya children, had been refused treatment by local hospitals and there were further reports that Rohingya families were turned out of emergency shelters in Kyauktaw.

The legal status of the Rohingya has been gradually eroded away and these communities have now lost their right to vote. The Rohingya and other Muslims previously had temporary identification papers known as "white cards" which had enabled them to vote in earlier elections. These white cards have now been discontinued, denying the Rohingya citizenship and the right to vote. It is estimated that 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have been removed from voter registration lists prepared for the last national elections held in November, 2015.

No one was expecting Burma to leap from military dictatorship to full-fledged democracy overnight, but any hopes of making genuine progress towards democracy require national elections open to all ethnic and religious groups. The growing influence of ultra-nationalists who claim to have been instrumental in excluding Muslims from the election process is a serious cause for concern. As local political parties who share the ultra-nationalists’ ideologies are now powerful in Rakhine state, there is genuine reason to fear that a mass atrocity a la Bosnia will soon take place in Burma. The Junta's retrogressive rule, now legalised by parliamentary elections is an invitation to further terror and social disintegration.

Vol. 48, No. 26, Jan 3 - 9, 2016