Sunday, October 29, 2017

Religions of Peace at War

"We thank the Lord Buddha for this [the growing absence of Rohingya in Rakhine state]."
"They stole our land, our food and our water. We will never accept them [Myanmar Rohingya] back."
Thu Min Gala, 57, Abbot, Damarama Monastery, Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar

There is no case of the [Burmese] military killing Muslin civilians."
"Muslim people killed their own Muslim people."
Dr. Win Myat Aye, Myanmar social welfare minister, National League for Democracy
Myanmar's tourism in crisis amid Rohingya suffering
A crying Rohingya girl fleeing ongoing violence

Muslim Burmese, the Rohingya, have lived for generations in Burma, now called Myanmar. It is likely that they arrived in the country from neighbouring Bangladesh at some time in the past. But for most Rohingya, Rakhine province in Myanmar has been their home for as long as they can recall. Their presence has been barely tolerated; hostility from their Buddhist neighbours, from the general population which is majority Buddhist has meant that the Rohingya have lived as a persecuted minority. When the military took power in 1962 their citizenship was revoked, leaving them stateless.

Militant insurgent groups from within the Rohingya population reacted to their state of persecuted statelessness by attacking a number of military bases, where the Rohingya guerrillas killed Burmese soldiers and some civilians; a well co-ordinated attack against their persecutors whose satisfaction was short-lived when the government ordered the military to cleanse Rohingya villages of the militias. Of course everyone who lived in the villages was identified with the militias.

The Burmese military along with mobs of civilians backed by security forces entered Rohingya villages, setting them on fire. Children were injured, women raped and 'insurgents' killed when ethnic Rakhine Buddhists marched into the villages holding sharpened bamboos and machetes, soldiers escorting them. The outcome of which was the villagers fleeing in panic for their lives, children in tow, marching for miles to eventually reach the border with Bangladesh and ending up in sprawling refugee camps.

The Buddhist abbot, relieved at the absence of the Rohingya Muslims who had no business being in Myanmar, deplored that they were overwhelming the local Buddhist population. Over 600,000 Rakhine Muslim Rohingya have now made their way across the river separating the two countries since last August, driven by fear and persecution. The campaign of killing, rape and arson led by the Myanmar army has been very efficient in achieving its goal of persuasion.

In Myanmar there is general agreement expressed by government officials, religious leaders and local human-rights activists that the Rohingya do not and have never belonged in Myanmar. The government of Myanmar has blocked access to Rohingya by aid agencies in Myanmar, an estimated 120,000 of whom remain in camps in central Rakhine with tens of thousands more Rohingya living in the north of the country.

Speaking a Bengali dialect, physically distinct from other ethnic groups in Myanmar, tensions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya were amplified during the Second World War when the Rakhine sided with Japan and the Rohingya with Britain. Referred to as Bengalis to denote their Bangladeshi heritage, the public at large uses a more derogatory word to describe all Muslims living in Myanmar, who represent about 4 percent of the population.

Community leaders throughout the state of Rakhine have warned the population not to break the blockade for aid to the Rohingya. In one township women activists went out of their way to actively prevent aid groups delivering assistance to an internment camp. A Rakhine trishaw driver took it upon himself to deliver food to a Rohingya camp, to earn badly needed money. The driver's wife was forced by a crowd into a monastery where she was beaten, her hair cropped, then forced to wear a sign stating she was a "national traitor".

As for her husband, he was unrepentant, despite the punishment meted out to his wife. "They are human. They need to eat, just like us", he said. And Burmese authorities finally seem to agree; they are permitting the UN Food Agency to resume delivering aid to the Rohingya.

Ye Aung Thu, AFP file picture | Soldiers and rescue workers unload food aid from a military airplane in Sittwe airport in Myanmar's Rakhine state

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