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November 13, 2012

Burma: Ethnic cleansing of Muslims

The Canadian Charger

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New anti-Rohingya, anti-Muslim pogroms broke out in Rakhine (Arakan) state in Burma (Myanmar) in October. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands fled, some to internal refugee camps and some by boat.

However, rather than assisting boats fleeing the deadly persecution, Bangladesh sent them back.  One is reminded of Canada’s S.S. St. Louis, which was refused docking rights in North America for its Jewish refugees.  They were returned to Germany, and many died in concentration camps.

Through before-and-after aerial photographs, Human Rights Watch identified massive leveling of some Rohingya settlements.  Rohingya sources report that, in addition to attacks by Buddhist pogromists, some security forces also fired on the Rohingya.  They also report that some of the civilian attackers were disarmed by security forces but not arrested.

There are various matters to be considered with regard to the anti-Rohingya violence. 

We start with the religious element.  Buddhist monks are playing a major role in anti-Rohingya, anti-Muslim activity.  Anyone giving succor to the terrorized Rohingya is, say the monks, a traitor, and people are therefore afraid to help them.  They call for the Rohingya to be expelled from the country.  As well, they want a magazine to promote Buddhism to be published and circulated throughout Rakhine.  It should be noted that Buddha’s mission was to relieve suffering.  Apparently the monks need a refresher course.

As an aside, it should be noted that Nobel laureate and Burmese Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a devout Buddhist, has steadfastly refused to denounce the ill treatment of and discrimination against the Rohingya.  They are officially declared to be non-citizens in spite of their long-standing presence in the country.  The best she has come up with is a general call for an end to the violence, while other officials of her party, the National League for Democracy, have given full support to the anti-Rohingya policies of the government.  She and her party are in favor of democracy—for some.

Buddhist racism is not the sole factor involved.  The anti-Rohingya hatred, which is deep and widespread, is a reflection of an official policy.  President Thien Sein has identified expulsion as the preferred solution to the problem.  The country’s laws contain a number of provisions curtailing their rights.  They need permission to get married, permission that is sometimes denied.  They cannot receive higher education and are ineligible for a passport.  The government identifies them as an unwanted group, and such discrimination encourages those who spread hatred and terror against them.  The government is currently investigating the Rohingya population, supposedly to determine the citizenship status of these people.

Then there is an economic trigger to the pogroms.  Syed Tahfin and Chris Stewart, writing in Asia Times, argue that the pogroms are a land grab.  While this factor is certainly not the explanation all by itself, it might well be given some weight.  They point out that the Rohingya settlement on Ramree Island, “14 hectares of property burned to the ground. . . is to be the center of a multi-billion dollar special economic zone (SEZ) based around a deep-sea port and the terminus of gas and oil pipelines being build west and northwards to Myanmar’s border with China.” 

In September, Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird visited Burma, as part of a change of attitude toward that country in recognition of the initial steps it has taken toward democracy.  In the light of the October pogroms, could we expect a slow-down to the lifting of Canadian sanctions?  Doubtful.  Cozying up to China has not resulted in the release of Canadian Imam Husseyin Celil from a Chinese prison.  The U.S.-Canada North American Security Perimeter Agreement does not allow Canadian citizen Maher Arar to board an Air Canada plane in Montreal and fly to Vancouver, because part of the plane’s trajectory is over U.S. territory.  The United States considers him a terrorist. 

With Canada’s weak record in going to bat for its own Muslim citizens, what could we expect in the Rohingya case, especially considering the Canadian government’s drive to increase trade with the Southeast Asian region?

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