Rights Groups Doubt that Systemic Discrimination against Rohingya Will Be Resolved
As manifested in the United States, race and religion are extremely delicate topics for politicians to explore. And eradicating widespread endemic prejudices against certain racial and religious groups is a notoriously explosive proposition. However, that is exactly what is required in Burma, where a slow-burning genocide against the Rohingya people is becoming an urgent priority for the international community. On Aug. 23 2016 Burma's Nobel Peace Laureate and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced the establishment of a 9-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, where the Rohingya primarily live, as "a national initiative to resolve protracted issues in the region". This sounds, at first blush, like a promising step -- considering that the peaceful Rohingya were not invited to the Norway peace conference with other ethnic organizations (EAOs).
Burma Task Force welcomes Ms. Suu Kyi's belated response to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and the conditions of poverty and oppression that instigated it. But we are extremely troubled by signs that this Commission has already been compromised by inclusion of staunch defenders of the previous military regime as well as deniers of mass atrocity crimes. The inclusion of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan cannot restore the balance to this advisory commission -- especially since Secretary Annan himself has expressed regret at not doing a better job to handle the Rwandan genocide of 1994. We can pray that he will apply the lessons he learned from Rwanda throughout his work on this Commission, but I fear his voice may be drowned out by the extremist Buddhist nationalists who have expressed quite hostile views of the Rohingya. Most importantly, no Rohingya representatives have been included! I am profoundly dismayed by Ms Suu Kyi's failure to appoint a single Rohingya leader to a commission tasked to discuss their fate. What could be more damning?
While the presence of two Christians on the Commission will hopefully add a breath of fresh interfaith air, two Rakhine members -- namely U Win Mra (Chair of the National Human Rights Commission) and Saw Khin Tint (Chairperson, Rakhine Literature and Culture Association and Vice-Chairperson of the Rakhine Women's Association) have engaged in denial of mass atrocity crimes committed by the extremist Buddhist nationalists. It's easy to doubt the comment one of the newly appointed Commission members, Aye Lwin, made to the Democratic Voice of Burma: "This is very impartial third-party intervention."
An ethnic Rakhine, Win Mra is the chair of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an organization whose name could not be more misleading. The MHRC officially refuses to accept or utter the name of the Rohingya in blatant disregard for the international norm that any group has the right to self-identify. In fact, established by the previous President and ex-General Thein Sein on whose watch two separate waves of violent pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities took place, MHRC has been in the fore-front of denying the existence, identity, and history of the Rohingya people.
Mrs Saw Khin Tint is an even more unconscionable choice. A nationally-known Rakhine leader who is on the record condoning the slaughter of all Rohingya as early as December '12, within 2 months of the second wave of organized and state-sanctioned killing and community destruction of the Rohingya people, she gave a speech in which she remarked:
"Seeing their [non-Rohingya natives of Myanmar] great anger and compassion, and hear them say, 'We just want to go and kill all of those Bengali people with our own hands!' we've now got the advantage of gaining the support of all the national races all over Myanmar on the incidents that we've sacrificed so far." (The bi-lingual English-Burmese transcript of the speech delivered by Saw Khin Tint at the gathering of the Rakhines in Yangon on 22 December 2012.)
"Bengali" is the inflammatory and insulting term extremist Buddhist nationalists use to imply that Rohingya do not belong to Burma, but rather are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh. This false narrative is the prime excuse the genocidaires have been using to facilitate the Rohingya's extermination.
International experts have unequivocally agreed with Burma Task Force's strong designation of the Rohingya persecution as 'genocide' -- including Professor Amartya Sen, Suu Kyi's teacher at Delhi University and a close friend of her late husband Michael Aris. Professor Gregory Stanton, President of the Genocide Watch and past President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, is in accord with this assessment. So are two widely publicized studies by Queen Mary University of London and Yale University Human Rights Law Clinic. It appears that, in the choice of her Commission members, Suu Kyi is far more interested in pleasing the ubiquitous monks than in heeding the warnings of trustworthy international scholars. Peace will not come to Rakhine State, let alone development, if pandering is a higher priority than good policy.
Despite 4 consecutive years of deafening silence, evasion, and dismissal of the concern as "exaggeration", Suu Kyi should not be able to ignore the mounting criticisms from across the worldwide political spectrum -- voices including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, George Soros, and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi--alarmed that 150,000 Rohingya Muslims live in concentration camps and other "conditions calculated to bring about their destruction". Nor, fortunately, can she prevent the international community, particularly the United States government, from respecting the group right of the Rohingya to self-identify. In brave opposition to the powerful monks' hate groups, United States Ambassador to Burma Scot Marciel has held to the international norm of self identification & insisted that the Rohingya do exist. Around the globe, World Rohingya Day rallies were held last Friday, 19 August, to demonstrate the Rohingya's positive existence and clear desert for equal rights in their home country.
Ms Suu Kyi must not shy away from her responsibility with regards to the Rohingya genocide. She must end the wide spread suffering and honor the Rohingya's legitimate and verifiable claim to full and equal citizenship rights as Burmese citizens. International partners must not be fooled by empty or misleading gestures. Instead, to be true friends of Burma, local and international stakeholders must demand that more appropriate members be added to this Advisory Commission, and that the Commission be fully transparent in its deliberations on this urgent issue. The MaBaTha, the society established by extremist monks to "protect race and religion", has been disbanded; this is an excellent first step, but will in no way stamp out the hateful prejudices of many Rakhine and other Burmese against the defenseless Rohingya minority. It is imperative that Suu Kyi include Rohingya voices on this Commission, and that concrete steps be taken to restore balance, equality & human decency in Rakhine State.