Myanmar's persecuted Rohingyas
No place like home
Aug 1st 2012, 13:02 by Banyan
IN YET another symbol of Myanmar’s reform and reintegration into the world, August 1st saw the opening of a World Bank office in its main city, Yangon. The Bank has not lent to Myanmar since 1987, the year before the military junta bloodily suppressed a popular uprising, and led the country into even greater international isolation.
Ever since, America has blocked new World Bank lending. Now that Myanmar has a notionally civilian government, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, has been freed from detention and sits in parliament, the talk is all of economic and political reform, and of hope that Myanmar’s unfortunate people might escape both the desperate poverty the country has suffered, and political repression as severe as anywhere outside North Korea.
So it was an unfortunate coincidence that August 1st also saw the publication of a report that raises serious questions about whether, in the fundamental brutality of its rulers, Myanmar has changed much at all. Human Rights Watch, a monitoring and lobbying group, interviewed 57 people who lived through the dreadful ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Western state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) in June.
The violence followed the alleged rape and murder in late May of a Buddhist woman by three members of the Muslim “Rohingya” minority, of whom between 800,000 and 1m live in Rakhine. On June 3rd Buddhist villagers attacked a bus and killed ten Muslim passengers. The police stood by and watched.
The cycle of ethnic retaliation worsened. Dozens died. Still the authorities intervened at best lackadaisically. The title of the Human Rights Watch report is “The Government could have stopped this”, quoting the identical words uttered by two interviewees, one Buddhist, one Muslim. Specifically, it is the security forces that are accused of perpetrating crimes, including rape, murder and unjustified mass detention against Rohingyas, and of doing little to prevent the violence from escalating.
Few in Myanmar accept that the Rohingyas are true Burmese, although many they have lived in Myanmar for generations. Rather they are subject to racial discrimination as “Bengalis”, and, under a 1982 law, are denied citizenship.
Analysts in Myanmar speculate that senior generals might have had reasons for letting the violence spread: that the carnage showed the need for a strong army; and that it would embarrass Thein Sein, the reformist president, as well as Miss Suu Kyi, as she toured Europe shortly afterwards.
No Burmese politician will gain kudos for backing the Rohingyas. Mr Thein Sein’s solution to the problem they pose was alarmingly candid: “We will send them away if any third country would accept them.” Miss Suu Kyi, asked if the Rohingyas are Burmese citizens, was at least more cautious in her reply. She said she did not know. Other, heroic, freed political prisoners, were even less sympathetic.
Yet the Rohingyas' plight is horrific. The report estimates that over 100,000 have been displaced by the unrest. Many are in grim, unhealthy camps. Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, once a mixed city, is now almost wholly Buddhist. And some of the Rohingyas who tried to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh, where some 250,000 took refuge in 1991. But Bangladesh has turned some back, flouting international law, according to Human Rights Watch. Nobody wants the Rohingyas. Last year Thailand faced criticism for sending some Rohingya boat people back out to sea.
There is so much justified excitement about Myanmar’s reforms and emergence, that the chances the Rohingyas’ suffering will be taken seriously are even lower than usual. But it is hard to quibble with the analysis of Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director: “If the atrocities in Arakan had happened before the government’s reform process started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong. But the international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Burma [Myanmar], signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while the abuses continue.”