Ethnic cleansing

Violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, which erupted in the western province of Rakhine in June last year, persists and worryingly, has spread over the past fortnight to towns in other parts of the country.

It took just an argument to set off the conflagration that engulfed the central Myanmar town of Meiktila, killing over 30 people and injuring another 70. Buddhist mobs burned down mosques, homes and businesses of the Muslim and then evicted survivors. Rakhine’s Buddhists and those in other parts of Myanmar believe that the Rohingyas are illegal Bangladeshi migrants who should be driven out of the country. It is becoming evident that the Rakhine province, indeed increasingly all of Myanmar is being ethnically cleansed of Muslims. As troubling as the involvement of Buddhist monks in the violence is the role of the government.

It is well known that for decades, Myanmar’s military government targeted the country’s religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities in order to consolidate its grip over power. By making the state a Myanmar-Buddhist one, the junta hoped to win support of the Burman-Buddhist majority. While some believe that the recent outbreak of violence in the Rohingya province is an extension of this strategy, it is more likely that sections in the military that are opposed to the democratic reforms of President Thein Sein are seeking to destabilize the government through triggering violence and unrest.

The Thein Sein government has been accused of not doing enough to prevent violence. It has declared martial law in Meiktila and nearby cities and deployed troops to quell the rioting but these steps have come rather late. There have been allegations too that his government is making permanent displacement of the Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingya Muslims have a right to return to their homes but the government is acting to ensure this doesn’t happen. Activists have drawn attention to the government’s refusal to allow aid to reach the displaced. They have warned that the already serious humanitarian crisis will assume disastrous proportions when the rains come.

Anxious to avoid ruffling the feathers of the Burman majority, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained a deafening silence on the ongoing ethnic cleansing. This is a blot on her stature as a peace activist. She must speak up on the persecution of the Rohingyas. That is the principled thing to do.

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