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Facilitating Hate from the Highest Levels of Power

By Burma Partnership  •  April 1, 2014

By Facebook Myanmar Police Force IrrawaddyThe situation in Arakan State is deteriorating rapidly as extremist monks continue to spread hate speech and incite violence against the Muslim community with impunity. With the upcoming census set to inflame tensions over the issue of Rohingya, Arakanese nationalists have been exacerbating these tensions by campaigning for the census to be changed. Such protests descended into violence as United Nations (UN) and non-governmental organizations’ (NGO) offices were ransacked and aid workers forced to flee. Meanwhile, at the national level, highly discriminatory laws are being drafted by certain ministries to be presented to Parliament.

The leader of the extremist Buddhist 969 movement, Wirathu, has been whipping up anti-Muslim fervor among the local Arakanese Buddhist population, demanding that the UN-planned census be changed. The All Rakhine Committee for the Census (ARCC) had threatened a state-wide boycott of the census due to the option for Rohingya to identify themselves as Rohingya.  Adding to the tension has been the antagonism towards international relief and UN agencies for allegedly favouring Rohingya Muslims in their work. This is, of course, a preposterous claim given that such organizations engage in service provision for those who need it most, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, with the majority of such victims happening to be Rohingya. This fervor came to a head as mobs descended on UN and NGO offices in the state capital, Sittwe, late last week.

That the government has allowed the situation to descend into such chaos is testament to the lack of political will to protect Rohingya communities. Wirathu has been in Arakan State for weeks, spreading hate filled rhetoric about the Rohingya, and indeed, all the Muslims populations in Burma. Impunity is perhaps too weak a word to describe how such movements are acting in relation to the government. It would be more apt to describe how the actions of these extremist leaders are a complement to those of the government. Four laws are to be discussed in Parliament that pander to the extremists who support the monks’ campaign. These laws place restrictions on marriage, such as forcing Buddhist women to seek permission before marrying a man from another faith with that man obligated to convert to Buddhism, while the other laws impose limits on the number of children Muslims can have, and ban polygamy. Such restrictions are a flagrant violation of the rights of women and deepen existing wounds in Burma’s delicate society. Eva Kusuma, president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, succinctly summarizes the proposed marriage law: “There is no place in the future of this region for such a restrictive and discriminatory law. It is extremely concerning that it has even been accepted for drafting by the House Speaker in the first place, especially given existing inter-faith tensions in the country.”

Not only are these laws to be debated in Parliament, it was in fact President Thein Sein who forwarded the four draft laws to Parliament last month, which were written by the Committee for the Protection of Nationalism and Religion, a committee of which Wirathu is the chairman. So while extremist monks are in Arakan State inciting hatred and violence, the very perpetrators have the ear of the President of Burma. Not only is the government not doing anything to take action against these extremists, they are facilitating the religious and racial animosity that is one of the most difficult and depressing problems in Burma today.

Furthermore, the demands of the protesters in Arakan State regarding the census have been heeded by the government. Presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, stated that after a meeting with the ARCC, enumerators of the census are to write down the word ‘Bengali’ rather than Rohingya, thus implying they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.  Yet as pointed out by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) who are planning the census, “In accordance with international standards and human rights principles and as a part of its agreement with the UN and donors, the government has made a commitment that everyone who is in the country will be counted in the census and that all respondents will have the option to self-identify their ethnicity.” The question now is whether the UNFPA and the foreign governments who are funding this census will take action and delay the census until international human rights standards are met. While statements of criticism from foreign governments and donors are helpful, it is action that is needed, otherwise said governments will be complicit in the further victimization of the Rohingya.

Burma is a tinderbox of religious and ethnic tensions, yet the situation is getting worse. Extremist monks are given carte blanche to spread the poison that will destroy communities of some of the most vulnerable people in the world right now. Not only that, but the government is exacerbating tensions by bringing highly discriminatory laws that are astonishingly regressive. If parliamentarians have respect for basic human rights, they will vote down the proposed laws. If the government has respect for the rule of law, it will take action to stop the spread of the movement that is filling Arakan State and the whole country with hatred. If the international community, and in particular the donors of the census, do not want to be associated with continuing persecution of a whole race of people, they would at the very least delay the census until the existence of Rohingya people is recognized

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