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Burma: peace without justice for world’s most oppressed people

By Kuranda Seyit - posted Monday, 25 March 2013


It is no understatement that Burma is one of the hottest spots for conflict in the world today and that it is high on the Australian government’s agenda on SE Asia. The new poster boy of Myanmar is in town and that must flag some important signals.

President, Thein Sein has in the eyes of Western powers done some remarkable things, which we call 'reforms', he has allowed a slow transition from a Junta led regime to a more democratic one albeit the litmus test will be in 2015, the lifting on the ban on Aung San Suu Kyi was an important step in building bridges with the free world and consideration to amend the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to participate in the 2015 elections is quite a leap forward.

However, its on the human rights issues that he still falters. Recent violence in Arakan state against the ethnic Rohingyas was quite disturbing. Sein distanced himself from the violence attributing it to ethnic tensions flamed by vigilantes on both sides. However, human rights groups report that the government and the military are complicit with the violence and in the systematic expulsion of Rohingyas from their homes. Rohingyas are not even permitted citizenship although they have a continuous history of settlement in the country. In other areas, the regime is known for its oppression of the Karen people and there is the problem of the large number of political prisoners.

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Recently I watched the film The Lady, with a title like that it sounds like a Richard Gere style light-romance. But it was not light at all, a film about the life of Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. One cannot but be inspired by her after watching the film. But the reason I watched the film was because my interest in Burma had been sparked by ghastly news reports showing hundreds of refugees stuck on the Bangladeshi border who were eventually sent back on over-crowded leaky boats, and eye-witnesses telling of unfettered violence being carried out against the ethnic Rohingyas by Buddhist vigilantes supported by the Burmese government.

Sadly, the world leaders stood silent on the issue. There was some condemnation from the UN but it was not backed up by stronger language. Instead, the then US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton lifted sanctions after Burma's so-called 'reforms'. This was like saying we are rewarding you for killing Muslims. At the time Aung San Suu Kyi was touring in the states, and when she was asked about the issue, she replied, “You must not forget that there have been human rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It’s not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations.” (Channel 4, World News Blog)

This was a disappointing response from the Nobel Peace Laureate and Activist and indirectly her unwillingness to condemn the violence allowed the killing to continue unabated.

Anushay Hussain wrote in the Huffington Post, “When I first mentioned that I wanted to write about how Suu Kyi has failed the Rohingyas, many people were shocked that I would "attack" a woman the world holds so dear. No one wants to hear anything bad about Suu Kyi. We clearly have idolized this woman to the point of no return.”

Ironically in 1991 Suu Kyi said, “[I]t's not power that corrupts but fear and that fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it. While the fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it”. Was she pre-empting criticism of herself, almost two decades earlier?

The Rohingya, who are called “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups,"follow the Islamic faith and are situated mainly in the coastal Arakan state of western Burma. Over the past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically pushed out of their homes by Burma’s military government and subjected to widespread violence along with the complete negation of their rights and even identity. They have become a stateless minority.

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The Rohingyas have been wrongly described as ethnic Bangladeshis who migrated to Burma about 200 years ago. However, history indicates that the Rohingyas have lived in the area for over 600 years and converted to Islam around this time when Arab merchants arrived in the area via Malaysia.

The question that I want to posit is "What is the fine line between an act of violence and the unwillingness to condemn an act of violence?" Does that mean, our silence condones it or is merely the fear of losing power or jeopardising one's chances of winning an election an excuse for cowardice and silence?

We here in Australia are relatively impervious to the events that occur abroad but even at this safe distance we have a moral responsibility to try to stop the violence or to at least speak out against it.

There are probably less than 1000 Muslim Rohingyas here in Australia. However, the community was in shock of what they saw and felt helpless. They lobbied some government representatives and held a protest rally in Canberra. However, it fell on deaf ears. The situation in Burma in the western Arakan State has not improved, thousands are living in fear and poverty and many are displaced effectively in a stateless zone between their homeland and Bangladesh.

Now is the time to put pressure on the Burmese government to address the long list of human rights issues. Australia wields a lot of influence in the region and with the new aid packages and the setting up of a trade commissioner in Yangon, we need to ensure that our money is going to create good karma in the country and not give the regime more ammunition for its oppression of its ethnic minorities.

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About the Author

Kuranda Seyit is a council member of the Sydney Peace Foundation, Director of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations (FAIR) and an independent documentary film maker.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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