BANGKOK: Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has finally broken her silence on the Rohingya problem on September 6, denouncing the international media and human rights organizations for spreading “misinformation” about the conflict.
The day before, the London-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) had launched a report in Bangkok attacking Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for its “systematic persecution” of the Muslim Rohingya.
The BHRN claimed that there was a “systematic persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority” with ID cards denied to them, constant monitoring of their mosques and young people across the country, spread of “Muslim Free” villages and military attacks on Rohingya in Rakhine state leading to the exodus of thousands of refugees across the borders, mainly to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government claims it is they who are facing a “terrorist” threat from a Rohingya terrorist group. The government information committee said that gunmen affiliated with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)had invaded villages in Maungtaw township in the Rakhine state over the weekend and set fire to hundreds of houses. After the clashes, authorities discovered a number of explosive devices and another 80 houses burned in neighboring townships. The government has put the blame for this carnage on ARSA, a terrorist group of Rohingya refugees believed to be trained in Pakistan and funded by Wahabi sources in Saudi Arabia.
The day after the BHRN media presentation, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making his first official visit to neighboring Myanmar, pledged Indian support to fight cross-border Islamic terrorism.
The claim of “discrimination” against Muslims listed in the BHRN report was almost identical to what Muslim minorities are having to cope with in Western countries. However, the report constantly referred to “Buddhists” as perpetrators whereas when such discrimination is reported in the West it is addressed as a national security issue rather than pointing to “Christians” as the perpetrators.
The Myanmar government complains about this double standard. It says they are facing a terrorist threat from IS-linked ARSA.
But Phil Robertson, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Deputy Director for Asia, said during the media conference that they have monitored the “carnage” via satellite images from Bangkok and showed such images in which red dots marked the Rohingya houses burned by the army. When a journalist said that the Myanmar government has claimed that the Rohingyas themselves were setting fire to houses, Robertson said: “oh, this is Burmese government propaganda.”
After the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of ethnic cleansing and regional destabilization and sent a rare letter to the Myanmar government, talking of a “humanitarian catastrophe,” Suu Kyi finally broke her silence on the issue on September 6 and blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the violence in Rakhine state, but did not address the issue of fleeing refugees.
In a statement issued by her office on Facebook, Suu Kyi said the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible” and warned against misinformation that could mar relations with other countries. She referred to images on Twitter of killings posted by Turkey’s deputy prime minister that he later deleted because they were not from Myanmar. Earlier Suu Kyi had spoken by telephone with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
She said in the statement that “(such) kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different countries and with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists.”
The UN estimates that over 125,000 Rohingya—most of them women and children –have fled across the border to Bangladesh. There are about 1.1 million Rohingyas in Myanmar whom the locals call Bengali because they believe most of them are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But, human rights campaigners point out that most have lived in Myanmar for generations. According to the BHRN report, Muslims have to provide documentation that proves a family lineage dating back to before 1824 to gain Myanmar ID cards.
While reports in the Myanmar media said that attacks by ARSA terrorists on “Bengali villages” continue, Mizzima News—which won a ‘free media pioneer” award from the International Press Institute in 2007— reported on September 5 that Indian and Bangladesh intelligence officials have disclosed that they have intercepted three long duration calls of Hafiz Tohar, military wing chief of ARSA, on August 23 and 24 that hold the key to why the militant group unleashed the pre-dawn offensive against Myanmar security forces.
The report said that Tohar has been trained in Pakistan by Lashkar e Tayyaba and while the Bangladesh government is also worried about these terror links, a lack of an intelligence sharing network between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar may have prevented the latter from getting prior warning of the threat.
While there have been public demonstrations on the issue by militant Islamic groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, the three governments have been playing a behind-the-scenes quiet diplomatic role to defuse the tension knowing very well how religious passions could have a negative impact on the Asean community building process. All three Muslim neighbors of Myanmar practice a very moderate form of Islam compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts, and this issue has the potential to empower the smaller extremist groups in their countries.
The same applies to the Buddhists in Myanmar, where the Myanmar government has been closely monitoring the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion — usually referred to by its Myanmar-language acronym, Ma Ba Tha, which is viewed by many of its supporters as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated to protecting Myanmar’s Buddhist identity and heritage, as well as empowering poor Buddhist communities at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in the country.
Millions of Buddhists across the country also face same economic hardships that the Rohingyas are supposed to be facing. Statistics released from the 2014 census indicate that the number of homeless across the country have reached almost one million and tremendous housing deprivations exist across the country.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report on “Buddhism and Politics in Myanmar” that the crisis triggered by Rohingya insurgent attacks and massive retaliation by the army has boosted anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide.
“While the dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the specter of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country’s transition,” warned the ICG report. It added that a failure by the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi to come to grips with economic inequality and provide adequate public services such as education, access to justice and disaster relief would allow Ma Ba Tha to gain legitimacy.