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When will the world act on Myanmar's abuses?

Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims amounts to 'ethnic cleansing' and 'crimes against humanity'.

Last updated: 28 Apr 2014 06:38
Emanuel Stoakes

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict.
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Myanmar's 'recently-extended census contains a hidden time-bomb of sorts', writes Stoakes [AFP]

Commentaries by respected journalists, analysts and rights advocates appear to have consensus that the reform process in Myanmar appears to be slowing, if not completely stalled.

It seems like a reasonable observation - evidence in the form of unresolved land confiscation issues, continuing sexual crimes perpetrated with impunity by the military, poor treatment of the press and the drafting of discriminatory laws give credence to this state of affairs.

Most of all, highly credible allegations of crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya minority underline the country's enduring backwardness on urgent moral issues. The offences continue to this day, perpetrated as a matter of long-standing state policy.

By any yardstick, abuses that reach this threshold ought to elicit serious international pressure and shouldn't be allowed to drag on open-endedly, especially if the country responsible looks set to receive a growing flood of foreign investment.

Yet, this is exactly what is happening in Myanmar and there are no indications that accountability will be realised in the near future.

The government has shown blatant disregard for the issue by placating extremist groups who have long been calling for the ethnic cleansing of the minority; continuing to limit their basic human rights; denying that a horrendous massacre took place in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary; systematically restricting aid; publicly defending a well-known anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate preacher; and allowing total impunity to reign in the aftermath of violence committed by state forces.

A humanitarian crisis

Their response to a humanitarian crisis taking place in Rakhine amounts to more of the same.

Foreign workers struggle in Malaysia

Aid organisations had to flee en masse in the wake of mob attacks last month and are only just returning as the rainy season approaches, bringing with it the added risk of cyclones and the spread of water-borne diseases.

Evidence in the form of leaked minutes from meetings between Myanmar authorities and NGO representatives indicate that efforts to alleviate the shortage have been hampered by government agencies. The material also records how the same authorities have provided totally inadequate replacement cover and even turned down offers of increased funding to boost their capacity.

The effect of the absence of NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres who were expelled in February by the government, has been dramatic. Carlos Saldina Galache, a journalist colleague who recently visited the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in which over 140,000 Rohingya are confined, told me that the lack of aid has created a humanitarian situation that has "gone from bad to worse…The IDPs are basically deprived of everything, they have no healthcare at all, and suffer shortages of food and water".

"People are dying because of this," he added, echoing the terse summaries of NGO sources I also consulted on the impact of the aid shortage.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, whom I spoke to recently on the crisis in the camps, referred to the situation as a "humanitarian disaster with its roots in ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and systematic discrimination".

"It's time for the international community to act decisively and apply maximum pressure on the Burmese government to reverse this rapidly deteriorating situation before it's too late," he continued.

A ticking time bomb

In my view, Robertson's call for global action is more than appropriate given the current situation - moreover, such efforts should be directed towards ending government-backed policies of persecution more generally. Myanmar simply cannot be expected to change its abusive posture on the minority of its own accord, not least because of the populist utility of anti-Rohingya policies to a ruling party terrified of losing next year’s election. 

As a consequence, the only "solution" to the Rohingya problem that the political elite in the capital, Naypyidaw, appear to be willing to envisage at the present time is a counterfeit one. Hmuu Zaw, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, has indicated that the government is willing to review the citizenship claims of the Rohingya, but only according to a junta-era law that was designed to disenfranchise the minority, and for which only a small number will be able to prove they are eligible.

This may be the only answer Myanmar will offer to its foreign critics, but such a response will ensure that the present conditions for the overwhelming majority of the group will remain as miserable and persecutory as before. If such a gambit is attempted, it should not be readily accepted by influential foreign powers.

In the analysis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), international criticism of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya has "helped to prevent further deterioration" in their treatment and remains an "essential" part of efforts to aid them. External political forces that have leverage over the government, such as the EU and the United States, should continue to push for measures that protect the vital rights of the Rohingya as a whole if they sincerely wish to ease their plight.

Indications are that the need for this will only increase in the near future. Before long, tensions are likely to skyrocket; this is because the recently-extended census contains a hidden time-bomb of sorts, constituted by the data it will eventually release on religious demographics.

The inevitable fall-out from the census revelations will almost certainly mean increased internal pressure on the government to restrict Muslim freedoms within the country.

As some journalists have indicated and other sources speak of in ominous terms, the population survey will probably reveal that a far higher number of Muslims than has been previously estimated live in Myanmar. The current level is often cited as 4 percent of the population; credible projections indicate that up to 12 percent may be a more accurate figure.

Such a revised percentage would undoubtedly play directly into the hands of political actors like Wirathu, the notoriously racist monk who is regarded as the spiritual leader of the influential Buddhist-chauvinist 969 movement. The narrative presented by him and his colleagues has been that adherents of Islam are attempting to take over Myanmar through a variety of sinister means, including attempts to outbreed their Buddhist counterparts. The largely Muslim Rohingya, who are heavily concentrated in areas near the border with Bangladesh, are often paradoxically associated with this sort of practise.

The inevitable fall-out from the census revelations will almost certainly mean increased internal pressure on the government to restrict Muslim freedoms within the country and result in heightened sectarian tensions.

Such prospects, perhaps counter-intutively, should prompt less careful diplomacy on the issue of Rohingya rights and more direct, unrelenting foreign pressure; the impulse to wait until the national mood changes will mean unjustifiable delays - widespread prejudice towards the group is not going to disappear anytime soon.

After decades of abuse, encompassing at least three ethnic cleansing campaigns, the time is more than ripe for an increase in diplomatic efforts to ensure the survival of this long-persecuted people.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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