Asian Correspondent » Francis Wade Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The dangers of echoing propaganda on Burma’s ‘terrorist threat’ Mon, 15 Jun 2015 10:34:49 +0000
Anti-Rohingya protesters rally in Yangon last month. Pic: Michele Penna.

Anti-Rohingya protesters rally in Yangon last month. Pic: Michele Penna.

A key task of any political journalist is to chip away at the propaganda of the powerful. The ability to pierce myths, to dissect and repudiate misinformation and strategic fear-mongering, is what separates good, independent journalists from those that are either lazy or captured by powerful interests. How journalists set about structuring and writing articles also helps determine the impact of their work—with the average reader rarely making it past the first few paragraphs of an article, whatever appears in the opening section is absolutely essential in setting up the tone and angle to what follows. The journalist should also know that every paragraph (and headline) must be written with the knowledge that those engaged in the art of propagandizing can cherry pick from the published piece and use the content to help spin whatever scenario or version of reality they are trying to construct.

In light of that, a recent piece in the Independent newspaper entitled “Burma’s ‘great terror’ moves a step closer as Taliban urges Rohingya to ‘take up the sword’” falls at the first hurdle. The headline makes the implicit assumption that because of a Taliban statement, Burma’s Rohingya population will inevitably become terrorists. There is however no causal mechanism in a statement urging a population to “take up the sword” and the subsequent violent radicalization of the population in question, yet the headline depicts the two as intimately connected. One could just dismiss this as the work of a lazy editor pushing for clicks, were it not for the fact that this headline, if read inside Burma, will no doubt soon make its way onto any one of a number of online platforms—Ban Islam from Myanmar, Rohingya Scam, Islam Virus—that feed off exactly this sort of fear-generating material, and will pick out and isolate content that helps them to pursue an explicitly anti-Muslim/Rohingya agenda.

The opening paragraph then repeats and expands on the headline, warning of the potential for it to become “a reality”, before the third paragraph explains how the “great terror” that ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks speak of “could prove self-fulfilling”. While the piece then goes on to discuss the contradictory nature of violence in the name of Buddhism, and to condemn the spate of anti-Rohingya protests by Buddhists, at no point does it return to disentangle the assumption that the journalist himself made—that a Taliban statement makes violent radicalisation that much more inevitable. Terrorist groups are savvy in their recruitment methods, and use statements such as this not because they think it will automatically attract newcomers, but instead to whip up fear and galvanise governments or populations into further persecuting and marginalising the target in the hope that this will drive them into their arms. A journalist shouldn’t assist with that project.

These sorts of articles that lazily equate aggrieved Muslim populations with terrorism appear all the time. For sure there is a relationship, albeit complex, between persecution and political violence—few terrorism scholars would argue otherwise—but it certainly isn’t inevitable, and shouldn’t be assumed as such. Taken individually, articles like this account for little, but together they add significant weight to an alarmist and unrestrained discourse surrounding Islam and terrorism that is used time and again across the globe for strategic purposes—whether to justify the rise of security states, to limit immigration, to launch foreign wars, or in Burma’s case, to goad attacks on a Muslim minority. For the latter, this has already had additional impacts, with journalists recently discovering that at least a dozen Muslims in Burma had been arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist group—the “Myanmar Muslim Army”—whose actual existence has been doubted by security experts and lawyers.

This discourse then helps to drive the kind of treatment that the Rohingya are fleeing in droves from. Speak to your average ultra-nationalist Rakhine who agitates against granting rights to Rohingya, and they will tell you that Rohingya—whom they speak of as one entity, a key strategy used to drive mass killing—are either rapists or terrorists; listen to a sermon by the likes of monk U Wirathu, and he will explain why pre-emptive action is needed. The key problem then with an article like this is that it coincides with efforts to legitimate violence by elements within the state and the local Rakhine society towards Rohingya, at a time when what is needed more than anything is to destigmatise their identity, to methodically counter the propaganda of ultra-nationalists, and to make explicit that to be Rohingya isn’t to be something nefarious—whether a rapist, terrorist or anything else—but is instead to require compassion and protection in the face of possible elimination.

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Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand Fri, 01 May 2015 10:57:36 +0000
Thailand Rohingya

Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities. Many of those fleeing from Burma never make it ashore. Pic: AP.

The discovery of dozens of Rohingya bodies at a human trafficking camp in southern Thailand serves as a reminder that along the nearly 1,000-kilometer refugee passage from western Burma to southern Thailand lies a string of mass graves, both onshore and offshore, occupied by a single ethnic group. In its coverage of the discovery today, the Phuketwan newspaper carried testimony of a 15-year-old boy who, aboard a smugglers’ boat somewhere off the coast of Thailand or Malaysia, watched 34 trafficked Rohingya being thrown overboard. That sort of story is repeated countless times elsewhere—of mass drownings, of the casual dispensing of refugees by traffickers.

Before the Thailand government moves to condemn the brutalization of smuggled Rohingya, it’s worth remembering how its own officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

It’s a depressing illustration of how a people who were dehumanised at home decided to flee, only to become, along the route, commoditized, and when their profitability waned, were rendered dispensable. One man kept in a jungle camp in southern Thailand had an $1,800 price tag placed on him. “As the smugglers beat Sabur in their jungle hide-out, they kept a phone line open so that his relatives could hear his screams and speed up payment of $1,800 to secure his release,” Reuters reported in 2013.

When they can no longer be bought—perhaps because prolonged torture by traffickers in camps means they are unable to work—they become a burden, and will most likely be killed. For traffickers, the moral inhibitions that would guard against cruel treatment diminish every time new articles of trade come ashore. The complicity of Thai officials makes this practice appear, in their eyes, all the more “okay”.

At every stage in the trade there exists a facilitating mechanism that keeps Rohingya crossing the ocean. In western Burma, the government and local Rakhine community makes their lives simply untenable, so they flee, thus making the Burmese government a key player in the supply end of the chain. Perhaps they’ll go to Bangladesh, where only around 27,000 can live in official UN accommodation, and the other 300,000 or so in squalid camps. So they may flee again, lured by the smugglers’ promises of work in Malaysia—a Muslim majority country where they believe they’ll find sanctuary. It may be only several days into the crossing that, as fellow travelers fall ill and are pitched overboard, they begin to realize the duplicity that underpins the trade, and which illustrates that wherever they go—home or abroad—they are essentially expendable. The demand side—from the fishing trawlers where many end up in indentured labour, to wealthy husbands looking for a bride—feeds directly off their persecution in Burma. For them, and for the third parties in Thai officialdom, Rohingya disenfranchisement is highly profitable, and will continue to be so. As long as this remains the case, the mass graves will grow.

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Burma recruits vigilante ‘Duty’ mobs to quell student protests Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:09:05 +0000
Burma Vigilantes

Image via DVB TV’s Facebook page.

Among the crowds of students and riot police that clashed in downtown Yangon on March 5 were groups of men (including what appeared to be teenagers) sporting red armbands emblazoned with the word “Duty”, and who aided several baton charges at protestors. AFP quoted one witness as saying: “The authorities said they would give the protesters 30 minutes to disperse … But after 20 minutes, about a hundred people with red armbands attacked them. Some activists were arrested after they were beaten.”

The spread of protests to Yangon is exactly what the government had been hoping to avoid, as evidenced by its attempts to keep a separate group of several hundred students protesting the National Education Law kettled inside a monastery in Letpadan, just outside of Yangon. The outbreak of demonstrations in Yangon both raises the potential for wider mobilization and increases the international visibility of the protest movement, thereby throwing into sharper contrast the legitimacy of their demands for a greater slice of the state budget for education (currently 5.92%) and reduced government control over the sector, versus the government’s resistance to implementing these. The government, still touting its reformist credentials, is eager to reduce this sort of negative publicity.

The presence of security forces, and of what appear to be hired vigilantes, clearly however does little to aid its image. Quite who these “Duty” mobs are remains unclear, although they have become increasingly visible since the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence over the past two years. Needless to say Burma has a long history of cultivating “neighbourhood watch” teams that come out to play during times of unrest. The Irrawaddy noted the following:

“According to Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure, if an unlawful assembly refuses to disperse, magistrates and police station chiefs have the authority to raise a male civilian force in order to break up the gathering and assist with arrests.

“The article was enacted in 1898 as part of the imposition of British common law as a means to deter any public assembly containing more than five people. It has remained on the books since.

“’They are just vigilantes who want to keep law and order,’ Myint Htwe, Rangoon Division’s Eastern District police chief, told the media on Thursday, when asked about the group who helped disperse the garment workers’ protest on Wednesday.”

It’s a cynical ploy, but one familiar to citizens of authoritarian states. Using civilian against civilian drives up levels of inter-communal distrust and paranoia, further confusing distinctions between enemy and ally. This was used to great effect during the 2007 uprising, when plain-clothed members of the Swan Arr Shin civilian militia led dozens of attacks on monks. Armed civilians also surrounded the convoy carrying Aung San Suu Kyi during the Depayin massacre in 2003.

Among Burma’s poor, the government has a fertile source of civilian recruits, and exploits the impoverishment it has created to drive recruitment to militias. Pliant civilians in effect then become instruments of state power, a bitter irony given that the poor have felt the effects of misplaced power most painfully. See, for example, this Human Rights Watch briefing around the time of the 2007 uprising. The quote is from an opposition politician:

“The military is organizing the Swan Arr Shin in poor areas that were very active during the 1988 demonstrations. This is smart, as it will help ensure control over these areas and it will split the poor from the broader [protest] movement. Swan Arr Shin members are paid 3,000 kyat [$3] a day and given two meals—this is good pay and it is easy work, as most Swan Arr Shin are day laborers who are used to doing hard manual labor, like working as porters in the market or at the ports.

“Each day, the Swan Arr Shin units are sent by bus in a convoy led by an army vehicle to areas other than those where they are resident. They are under the control of an army major and the police. In the area where I saw them working, they were under the command of an officer from the 66th Light Infantry Division. The township offices have to raise funds to feed the Swan Arr Shin that are sent into their areas.  In our area, each quarter has to provide 500 kyats per day. This leads to resentment, so the officials collect the money under false pretenses, saying it is for street cleaning and such things.”

During several waves of anti-Muslim violence, residents of towns besieged by mobs would often report that busloads of armed men would arrive and begin attacking Muslim-owned property. It doesn’t however always take the form of violence. In October 2014, it emerged that those who participated in a demonstration against the US sanctions imposed on Aung Thaung, a powerful MP with close ties to Than Shwe, had been promised payments of food. The Irrawaddy reported:

“About a thousand people joined the rally, brandishing placards with statements of support such as “We oppose US sanctions against our representative”, “We love our representative” and “Our representative is a nice person.”

“Trucks carrying takeaway Biryani packs and bottled water arrived and began to distribute food as planned, but the crowd quickly became restive after an announcement that the food would soon run out.

“’They suddenly dropped the placards, nudging each other and fighting for the biryani,’ said Aung Myo Tun, a resident of Taung Tha. ‘After that, the road was left with pile of garbage, broken placards and plastic bottles. At some places, rice grains from broken biryani containers were scattered everywhere. Later, some police and USDP members arrived to clean up the trash’.”

The government knows it has little ideological support among the populace, but also evidently knows that hunger is enough to drive the mobilization of crowds. Moreover, to those not familiar with these tactics, the presence of civilian thugs could give the impression that the government does have a support base, and that protestors have enemies among the public. It’s a depressing situation, especially considering many of the vigilantes involved in attacks in Yangon this week appear to be teenagers. The successful exploitation of poverty to turn civilian against civilian shows how ruthlessly adept government manipulation can still be, and the extent to which it will go to snuff out the exercising of freedom of assembly that it claims to be in support of.

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Raw power and a co-opted judiciary in Burma Tue, 03 Feb 2015 16:06:19 +0000
Locals offer prayers for two female Kachin volunteer teachers who were raped and murdered in Burma last month. Pic: AP.

Locals offer prayers for two female Kachin volunteer teachers who were raped and murdered in Burma last month. Pic: AP.

The Burmese military’s response to allegations that soldiers gang-raped and murdered two Kachin women last month provides a sobering reminder that the country’s most powerful institution remains beyond the scope of public scrutiny and independent investigation. In late January the military published a statement denying involvement in the attack and threatening legal action against any media outlets that carry the allegations first raised by activists and community leaders in Kachin state. The investigation that did take place occurred after the site was sealed off to bar anyone who was not part of the investigation from entering. This would be normal procedure, were it not for the fact that the investigation team was comprised of police and military personnel – two entities with a patchy track record of forensic examinations of alleged military abuses.

It is not the first such instance of media intimidation following claims of extra-judicial killings by the army. As Fortify Rights notes in a statement, Brang Shawng, a 49-year-old ethnic Kachin man, faces at least two years in jail for filing a complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) alleging the army was responsible for the death of his 14-year-old daughter. The lawsuit against him appeared tactical, in more ways than one, given the military has diverted what should be an investigation into the killing of the girl to an investigation into the actions of her father.

Brang Shawng. Image provided by Fortify Rights.

Brang Shawng. Image provided by Fortify Rights.

What is troubling about the two cases is the breathless support the military has received from President Thein Sein, whose office repeated the threats directed at journalists. It signals the continuation of a long-standing symbiosis between the two institutions, one that any genuine democratization process should necessarily seek to undo. It also severely limits any chance of an independent investigation into the allegations – even that a truly independent body exists in Burma that stands a remote chance of being sanctioned by the government to carry this out.

(READ MORE: Burmese soldiers suspected of brutal rape and murder of 2 Kachin teachers)

Implicit in the military’s threats towards the media is the expectation that journalists will not report on abuses. That expectation is born of decades of control of the media by the junta, which sought to precondition journalists to avoid matters of such sensitivity. Doing so would induce a self-censorship that frees the military up to do what is necessary to maintain its predominance. Two recent developments however have complicated this: one is that space has emerged for Burmese to challenge those processes, to a point; the other is that several years of cautious liberalization has meant the military’s raw power – namely its ability to use violence or the threat of violence without fear of punishment – has been constrained, albeit it in a very minor way.

Despite this, it can still resort to more subtle and institutionalized modes of intimidation – namely threat of punitive action. This is a prime example of why reform needs to be all encompassing, given how power in a country like Burma emanates from a single entity and is filtered through institutions. The military can therefore still use the cover of a corrupted and co-opted judiciary to carry out its work.

The key concern of the military in all this however isn’t the possibility that soldiers could be brought to justice, but rather the newfound sense of agency displayed at a grassroots level. While a free media doesn’t yet exist in Burma – these threats, issued by both military and “civilian” authorities, reflect this – the audacity of journalists and activists has meant the story has made it out of Burma, and thus the persistently criminal nature of the army, unbowed by reforms, is on show for all to see. It will continue its efforts to obfuscate whatever abuses it carries out – but those efforts, if given the light of day, are themselves evidence of where we’re currently at with the transition.

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How the Burmese military perpetuates its own myth Wed, 19 Nov 2014 11:34:21 +0000
Military MPs attend Burma's parliament. Pic: AP.

Military MPs attend Burma’s parliament. Pic: AP.

A heated debate broke out in Burma’s lower house Monday over efforts by the opposition to overhaul the constitution prior to the 2015 elections. As per previous debates, the military contingent – which takes up a quarter of seats and thereby wields effective veto over such matters – resisted the idea that charter reform, and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, might benefit the country. “I would like you all to remember that the constitution is not written for just a person but for the future of everyone,” Colonel Htay Naing, one of the uniformed MPs, told parliament.

But he deployed another buzz phrase that illustrates very succinctly how the military perpetuates the myth that it is the only viable protector of a country beset by internal discord. The constitution shouldn’t be changed, Col. Htay Naing added, because ongoing fighting in the border regions threatened to destabilize Burma. Therefore “unity”, in the shape of fealty to a constitution the junta rushed through in 2008 amid the chaos of Cyclone Nargis, is required.

This raises several questions. One concerns the reasons as to why Burmese should wish to stand by a constitution that was passed amid conditions that make a mockery of democratic processes (it allegedly received 98% of the vote from a 92% turnout, despite the fact that several million people had been left destitute by the cyclone, on top of the several million more in conflict zones that were unable to vote). Suu Kyi’s party earlier this year collected signatures from 10% of the population wanting a referendum on the constitution, suggesting that not all are in agreement with Htay Naing’s vision of “the future of everyone”.

More pertinently, however, he exploited a situation in the border regions that the military plays a direct role in fueling. Despite some progress in ceasefire talks, bouts of heavy fighting are ongoing, with the army continuing to attack civilians. But Htay Naing’s logic follows that the instability resulting from the fighting, which the military is arguably the key driver of, is apparently reason enough for it to retain power. It’s a useful illustration of the circular strategy of the military – perpetuate instability, draw on it to justify dominance, and then refer back to it when that power is challenged.

Were this merely a case of one man pointing to one incident then it wouldn’t be means for great concern. But it’s a strategy the elite in Burma has used for decades to both rationalize its rule, and to cast those who challenge it as criminal saboteurs bent on destabilizing the union. It can be used to illuminate the more subtle ways in which the military, or those in government who share its resistance to democratic transition, has actively sought to foment unrest that it can then capitalize on – one example being the Buddhist-Muslim violence.

On top of the various suggestions that security forces played an active role in aiding Buddhist mobs (not to mention the decades of anti-Muslim government propaganda that has helped normalize the current-day attacks on Muslims), government ministers have been fingered for complicity – Aung Thaung, a powerful MP known to be close to former junta leader Than Shwe, was recently sanctioned by the US government reportedly for his role in provoking anti-Muslim sentiment (the US government isn’t the only one to share this suspicion).

Indeed when violence first broke out in Rakhine state in June 2012, prominent Rakhines called for troops to come in and “protect” them against the Rohingya. This is despite the fact that the Rakhine have a long history of quite vitriolic resentment towards the Burmese military and have continually resisted its efforts to influence the affairs of the state.

In this sense it’s plain to see how the military actively benefits from instability – Colonel Htay Naing spelled it out quite clearly. Why this is of particular concern with regards the constitution is that this document, were it revised, could be the one thing that dilutes the military’s power, and then codifies a new order in which the military doesn’t have veto over legislation in what should be a civilian parliament. Resisting this will have a serious impact on whether something approaching a genuine form of democracy ever emerges in Burma. At present, however, conflict clearly remains politically profitable, and because of that we may see the military continue to stoke it for some time.

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Why did Burma deport a journalist reporting on press freedom? Thu, 08 May 2014 10:31:09 +0000

Angus Watson was deported after covering a press freedom protest. Pic from Angus Watson's Facebook page.

An Australian journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) news group was deported from Burma today after being arrested whilst covering a media freedom protest. The charge given was two-fold: that Angus Watson, who joined the organization recently, had been working in the country on a business visa, and that he’d been taking part in the protest. It’s the second major blow for DVB in the space of a month, following the one-year jail term handed to reporter Zaw Pe in April for “disturbing a civil servant” during an assignment in 2012.

There’s a bitter irony in the government’s decision to deport someone who at the time of arrest was covering a protest for greater press freedom – indeed the decision emphasizes exactly why that protest needed to happen. DVB has said explicitly that Watson was merely reporting, and not involved in the demonstration on May 7 – the video footage taken by his colleagues testifies to this. The two actions taken against DVB, a leading Burmese-run media group that is regularly critical of the government, and that until recently operated in exile, are among a number of recent signs that what appeared to be a promising media opening is now being constricted (several jailings of journalists have occurred recently).

It’s also no coincidence that the issues both Zaw Pe and Watson were covering happened in Magwe division. Journalists can operate relatively freely in Yangon, which is something of a showpiece for the reforms – rising tourist numbers, a burst of new construction, incoming western brands – but away from there things get more complicated. One of the major accusations leveled at this reform process is that while an economic transformation is underway, the same cannot be said for political freedoms (perhaps even that the former is distracting from the shortcomings of the latter). Moreover, that the progressive rhetoric of the government is simply not being realized on the ground, especially in more remote areas where local authorities continue to crack down on protests, confiscate farmland, and so on.

What the actions taken against Zaw Pe and Watson also signal is that reporting cannot be done where it is most needed – in the parts of Burma that have long been off the international radar, and where the reforms are yet to reach. For huge chunks of the country, particularly in the border regions, foreigners require prior permission before visiting, as this map shows. The upshot is that when, for example, reporters from the New York Times visited a town in northern Arakan state in March to report on allegations of a massacre by Burmese soldiers, they were promptly ordered out of town, leaving the scale of the incident shrouded in uncertainty, and conveniently so for Naypyidaw.

The government will respond that they did things by the book – Watson did not have the visa they stipulate he needed to  work as a journalist in Burma. But there are still major obstacles to attaining a journalist visa, given many journalists work freelance, while others are attached to organisations that the government hasn’t given full legal status to. The point is that journalism shouldn’t stop because a government is fearful of open reporting – paradoxically, that’s exactly why journalists need to think of alternative ways of going about their job and circumventing restrictions that a true democratic transition should be working to lift. In Burma’s case, those restrictions appear to be tightening again.

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Full extent of anti-NGO attacks in western Burma emerging Tue, 01 Apr 2014 02:42:30 +0000

Police trucks in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Monday. Pic: AP.

Attacks on NGO workers and offices in western Burma occurred last week after an international aid worker in the town of Sittwe removed a Buddhist flag that had been placed in front of the office. Tensions there are evidently at boiling point.

On Tuesday I spoke with a senior staff member with an international aid group there to get an update on the situation, and he explained on condition of anonymity that the total evacuation of foreign workers (and non-Rakhine nationals) from Sittwe was only the tip of the iceberg.

It is now effectively impossible for the international community to deliver any aid in Rakhine state, said the source, adding that the aid delivery infrastructure had been systematically made inoperable through intimidation and the destruction of the vehicles and boats used to deliver supplies in remote areas.

(MORE: UN chief urges Burma to protect aid workers)

International groups had provided the vast majority of aid to camps in Rakhine state, which in total hold close to 200,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims, as well as Rakhine Buddhists. These attacks appear a major step towards isolating displaced Rohingya, who are largely dependent on aid.

Although foreign aid workers play a key role in the delivery of aid in the region, much of the day-to-day coordination and delivery is carried out by local Burmese workers. These Rakhine employees have been warned by their own communities not to participate in aid work and are denied basic services and even face threats of violence if they do not comply. Communities are reportedly cirulating lists containing the names of ‘betrayers’ who work with aid organizations.

The attacks on NGO offices have been far more extensive than reported, with suggestions that the violence was carefully planned. More than 30 different properties were attacked in last week’s incidents; a World Food Programme warehouse containing food for both communities was among seven warehouses destroyed.

Those behind the shutdown of aid operations in western Burma are not only targeting workers and properties, but also destroying the means by which the aid is delivered. Boats, in particular, are being targeted in the knowledge that they are the only way to access many of the refugee camps once rainy season begins.

The small handful of UN workers still in the town are being kept under heavy guard. The response of the Burmese government has been to send the army in and militarise Sittwe, a move that does nothing to restore aid delivery.

There has also been clarification on the incident that sparked last week’s violence. The female aid worker removed the Buddhist flag from outside an office for just 5 minutes, before replacing it. Reports that she danced with the flag or placed it on her waist are untrue. Nevertheless, an angry crowd gathered so quickly after the removal of the flag that it appears this was an orchestrated incident designed to bring a halt to humanitarian efforts in Rakhine state.

(MORE: Burma expels Médecins Sans Frontières, further isolates Rohingya)

When MSF was expelled from Rakhine state in early March, UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana said the decision by the government could be “part of a strategy toward consolidating not only the segregation of Rohingyas, but also the oppression against them, including complete limitation to access to health.” This appears to have now been achieved. Rainy season is approaching and the boats are the only way to deliver aid to some of the camps. It’s hard to read their destruction as anything other than a deliberate attempt to completely cut off the supply of outside assistance.

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Burma expels Médecins Sans Frontières, further isolates Rohingya Fri, 28 Feb 2014 08:24:48 +0000
Rohingya refugees

Pic: AP.

In August 2012 the Bangladeshi government placed a ban on charities providing aid to the Rohingya. The reason was that Bangladesh feared the aid would create a pull factor for more refugees to come across from western Burma and settle in the country. It’s the same reason why the UN’s refugee agency has only been allowed to register around 28,000 of the 300,000 Rohingya who live in camps or squatter tenements in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh. In essence, Dhaka doesn’t want Rohingya in the country, and the most effective way of driving them out, short of a pogrom that would create an international scandal, is to cut off a key lifeline.

A similar situation is now being mirrored across the border in Burma’s Rakhine State. The spokesperson for the Burmese government, Ye Htut, announced on Friday that the license for the French aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been assisting Rohingya driven into camps following several outbreaks of violence in 2012, would not be renewed. The outcome is that they will likely be kicked out of Burma, where they’ve been working since 1992. The main reason given by the government relates to MSF’s claim that it treated 22 people with knife and gunshot wounds following the alleged massacre of 48 Rohingya men, women and children in Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state in January. The government has consistently denied reports of a massacre first raised by the UN, which said security forces were involved. It asked MSF to present government officials with the victims, something MSF obviously wouldn’t do given confidentiality codes. Ye Htut also included MSF’s hiring of ‘Bengalis’ – government speak for Rohingya – as staff members as a reason for its expulsion.

In January the government withdrew resources from a hospital near to the Thae Chaung refugee camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. When I visited the hospital in February it was empty – no doctors, no equipment, no patients. The reasons are unclear, but regardless, the extra burden will have been placed on the likes of MSF, whose resources are already over-stretched. In the past, Rakhine mobs have blocked aid from entering refugee camps holding Rohingya, and MSF has been the target of frequent mass protests in Sittwe.  The anger towards the aid group among Rakhine Buddhists relates to perceptions that MSF and other bodies provide disproportionate aid to Rohingya, forgetting that in crisis situations like that in Rakhine, dispersal of aid is weighted according to the needs of recipients (some 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced, a number that far outweighs that of Rakhine, although Rakhine have certainly been victim of attacks from Rohingya mobs and many remain in camps). For the government, MSF’s treatment of those who survived the massacre makes the group’s presence in the country very awkward given it can both counter Naypyidaw’s claims that nothing happened, and counter claims that security forces have remained innocent parties in the violence – the gunshot wounds suggest otherwise.

(MORE: Another Rohingya massacre, another media problem for Burma)

Cutting aid to a group being targeted by the local population on ethno-religious grounds spells potential disaster, given there is no sympathetic public to step in and help. While the UN is still active in Rakhine state and providing aid to Rohingya, the move to expel MSF bodes very ill – it suggests the government is prioritizing the shoring up of its own image over the desperate needs of 140,000-plus people.

And it goes beyond just Rakhine state: MSF currently treats over 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients across the country and more than 3,000 TB patients, and accesses remote parts of the country where healthcare is lacking. Last year it conducted nearly 480,000 primary healthcare consultations across the country. It has been so busy because the government provides scant resources for its population, allocating only around 5.7% of the annual budget to healthcare – claims by the Rakhine state health officials today that the government can “fill the gap” created by MSF’s departure look highly dubious, given that Rohingya access to healthcare is made difficult on account of them not being citizens. Furthermore, security guards outside the Rohingya ghettos that have formed in Sittwe have said they will not let Rohingya visit the town’s main hospital unless in case of an emergency, meaning they are forced to travel to clinics in the refugee camps – clinics that until today were mainly run by MSF.

Experts have warned that all the elements of the persecution combined together – statelessness, restrictions on mobility, birth control, coordinated violence, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, and so on – signal a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Yet it’s one that doesn’t have to rely on violence to achieve its goal – conditions can be made so intolerable that Rohingya realise they can no longer live in Burma, hence the tens of thousands who flee on boats each year. Another lifeline that helped keep the heads of those who remained above water has been cut – like Bangladesh, it becomes an effective way of forcing a population out. The government’s proactive involvement in this is a signal of intent, and marks a dramatic worsening of the situation in western Burma.

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Fair or unfair, Burma’s census will drive violence and discrimination Mon, 17 Feb 2014 08:14:32 +0000

Next month the Burmese government will begin the country’s first nationwide census since the early 1980s. As preparation for the start date on 30 March gets underway, several groups have highlighted their concerns about how the census could work to further inflame violent nationalism and exclude minority groups. The International Crisis Group released a strong briefing last week that covers various important issues associated with the census, focusing in particular upon the requirement to list religion and ethnicity – a real danger at present given the recent violence directed towards the country’s Muslim population, and the Rohingya minority in particular.

As the ICG briefing notes, the problems are manifold, and affect all of the country’s ethnic groups (the number of which is contested). It says that minorities will only be allowed to field representatives for local government if their population, as recorded by the census, is above a certain number. “Groups fear that if their communities are subdivided or misclassified, they may be denied that political representation. There is no possibility to report mixed ethnicity, forcing people into a single identity, to the potential disadvantage of some smaller groups.”

Smoke and flames billow from a burning building set ablaze during sectarian violence in Meikhtila last year. Pic: AP.

It also makes a key point on the issue of how the census, even if carried out accurately and fairly (namely, allowing minority groups to record their identity according to what they believe it to be), could fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. “Currently, it is widely believed that Myanmar’s [Burma] population is 4 per cent Muslim, a figure reported in the 1983 census. However, there are strong indications that the real figure collected then was over 10 per cent, but that a political decision was taken to publish a more acceptable figure of 4 per cent. The results of the current census could therefore be mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a three-fold increase in the Muslim population in the country over the last 30 years, a potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements [emphasis added].”

There is also the issue of whether Rohingya will be allowed to label themselves as Rohingya. Various rights groups have said the census should be suspended until this category is included, or until the government agrees to remove the demand that ethnicity be listed, lest it inflame an already tense situation. But some worrying comments on this matter have been made by Khin Yi, who is heading up the census (and who, incidentally, played a key role in orchestrating the military crackdown on protestors in 2007, when he was police chief in Yangon). He has already said that “Rohingya” will not be an option on the ethnicity list. Here he is quoted recently in local media:

“They say that their race is Rohingya. When a person says that his race is “B”, because he doesn’t want to mention his race as “A”, that means that race “A” no longer exists, but the race “B” is a new race. Since race “B” is a new race, there will be questions, such as “how did the race enter (the country)?” or “are they encroaching here?” When things become radical, I worry that it could harm peace and stability …. We will record what the person says. If he says “A” then we will fill the form as “A”. The result will be, like I said before, that even if that term “A” is Rohingya, we will not recognize Rohingya as one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar [emphasis added].”

(MORE: Crisis group warns against Burma census)

It’s not just minority Muslims who stand to lose out in the census. On a recent trip to southern Chin state I met a young Baptist man who had been struck off the family registration list in his remote village by Buddhist elders who demanded he convert to Buddhism. He has already been blocked from using services in his village – including buying food and water – and has been told by the elders that he’ll be prevented from taking part in the census, of which he said family registration is a requirement. His experience, and that of hundreds of thousands of others, shows that religious persecution isn’t just about religion – one’s beliefs are being used to determine who and who isn’t Burmese.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which is providing assistance for the census, is now in a tricky position – its involvement ostensibly lends support to a project that could soon institutionalize and make official a policy of discrimination towards minorities that the UN itself has criticized. The UN spokesperson said in response to a journalist’s recent question on the issue that it was “supporting the Government to ensure that the census is fully inclusive and conducted according to international standards”. But still, as Khin Yi made clear, even if respondents are allowed to record the identity of their choosing, it will ultimately matter little – the Baptist man in Chin state may not even be allowed to fill out the form, and the Rohingya will still be regarded as non-citizens, and therefore stateless.

As the ICG further notes, “some extremist Rakhine political actors undoubtedly fear that the census would establish a baseline Rohingya population that would make it more difficult to sustain the narrative of recent migration in the future.” In light of all this it’s clear that a suspension of the census is necessary, given that carrying it out now in any form will worsen a fragile situation – if it is done fairly, it could antagonize ultra-nationalist Buddhists who see other religions, whether they be Muslim or Christian, as non-Burmese, and likely spur greater violence; if done unfairly, in its current form, it will disenfranchise minority groups and deny them political and civil rights for the foreseeable future.

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Another Rohingya massacre, another media problem for Burma Fri, 24 Jan 2014 06:25:58 +0000

A Buddhist monk shows an anti-Rohingya message on his palm. Pic: AP.

As more details emerge of the massacre on January 13 of at least 40 Rohingya men, women and children in western Burma, the government predictably has gone on the defensive. The UN is now claiming that police in the remote village of Du Chee Yar Tan, northern Arakan state, were among the mob of Arakanese who attacked and killed villagers, allegedly in response to the slaying of a policemen following an earlier bout of violence  in January that left at least eight dead. Even though the death toll is likely a conservative one, it stands as the deadliest single incident in Arakan state since October 2012.

The first international media outlet to report on the massacre was Associated Press, drawing on eye-witness testimonies collected by The Arakan Project, which for years has maintained an extensive list of sources on the ground in northern Arakan state. The reason why AP went to The Arakan Project for information is because the government has for years banned journalists from accessing this region (AP’s Robin McDowell last year managed to visit the town of Maungdaw, the first journalist in a long time to do so, but it now sounds like Naypyidaw has reinstated its ban). Upon publishing its report, AP journalists were summoned by the Ministry of Information. A statement on the ministry’s website said AP’s article “differed from the situation” and that AP “will be responsible if incidents that may harm the tranquility and the Rule of Law take place because of the agency’s reporting.”

This veiled threat shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the government’s continued sensitivity to reports that emerge from Burma’s various media black spots, of which northern Arakan is perhaps the most concerning. They are black spots, as appointed so by the central government, precisely because the situation there reflects very poorly on an administration attempting to claim that it has mended its ways. On top of the restrictions on access to education and healthcare that accompanies the denial of citizenship to Rohingya, humanitarian access to the townships there is severely limited, hence the argument put forward by many observers that the government is trying to starve out the unwanted Muslim minority.

So in light of this, the ministry can hardly demand that journalists “avoid at best erroneous news that are groundless and misleading” whilst denying them access to sites – that seems to be a no brainer, but we’ve become use to them. What this sort of statement attempts to do, were the world as gullible as the government might like to think, is both deny the atrocity, and deflect blame for future atrocities – should violence break out there again, it’ll be the result of AP’s report, and not ultra-nationalist Arakanese groups conspiring with local security forces to make Burma uninhabitable for Rohingya (an issue that these reports are needed to highlight).

The government’s reaction to the TIME Magazine article of June 2013 on extremist monk U Wirathu mirrors the diversionary tactics it is using against AP. Rather than engaging with the actual issues raised in the article – that monks are at the vanguard of an anti-Muslim movement that has spread from Arakan to cover the entire country – its response focused on how such reporting could affect government efforts to rebuild harmony between Buddhists and Muslims, or sully the reputation of Buddhism.

The pressure the government must now feel it is under, given the UN’s accusation that police essentially murdered Rohingya (including children in a retaliatory attack is a shocker that outdoes many of the atrocities the region has witnessed), will likely lead to it further smearing its ‘enemies’, such as AP and other independent media. Its continued unwillingness to open up northern Arakan state to foreign journalists begs the grim question of whether it intends to prolong its maltreatment of Rohingya there, hidden from prying eyes. Otherwise, why not allow journalists in?

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Why are more than 250 activists facing trial in Burma? Fri, 06 Dec 2013 04:19:21 +0000

The New York Times released a timely op-ed this week warning that investment in Burma could aid the military, whose power the reform drive is ostensibly aimed at diluting. “A central policy of the regime is to attract foreign investment into the impoverished country,” it said. “At issue now is whether Myanmar’s transition will be more than a ploy to draw in foreign money to fatten the military.”

It’s a pertinent question to ask now as increasing numbers of western firms eye ventures in the country. The army still wields great clout over the economy through military-owned outfits like the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), a vast and shady conglomerate with its roots in junta-era Burma. A quarter of the annual state budget goes to the military – any investment in Burma will inevitably contribute to this.

Police stand guard as activists march towards Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Burma last week, marking the first anniversary of a police crackdown on protesters occupying the Letpadaung copper mine. Pic: AP.

Seemingly being overlooked is an ancillary story to the debate over responsible business practice. In the past few weeks, courts in Burma have found more than a dozen people guilty of breaking Article 18, the bill enacted last year (to some loud clapping from abroad) to allow, and govern, peaceful protest. Some have been given months-long jail terms with labour, others have been fined. A number of the people were protesting sensitive economic ventures, like the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Burma, or criticising delicate matters like the arrest of a land rights activist, or poor workplace standards.

Increasing numbers of these stories are emerging – the woman who has been threatened with arrest for refusing to leave her land, on which a huge Japan-backed industrial zone is to be developed; the seven-month sentences yesterday given to activists peacefully protesting the Kachin conflict.  What seems to have gone largely unnoticed is that despite Article 18 and the government’s accompanying pledge to allow space for activism, protestors continue to be criminalized – in fact we’re in the thick of a major but silent crackdown on activists, with 253 people currently awaiting trial on politically-motivated charges, according to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The specific charge pinned on many of them is that they did not consult with the government prior to protesting.

When Article 18 was enacted last year, it was this point that critics highlighted as a cause for concern. The clause essentially gives the government ultimate control over freedom of speech, which is antithetical to the main purpose of protests – to hold the state to account. A government that curtails that right cannot be considered democratic.

The key commonality here is that many of these charges have targeted individuals and groups whose protests threaten to spotlight highly sensitive issues like the extractives industry, the Kachin conflict, meager salaries and workplace abuse of factory employees, etc – in short, the issues that are most sensitive to the government and military and its close network of business tycoons and prized foreign investors. As the brutal crackdown on the Letpadaung mine protestors showed last year, the government is willing to allow reforms to move forward until they begin to eat into the interests of this nexus. Protection of their interests currently appears to override what should be key elements of the transition.

Some will argue that things have improved for activists – what would have been decades-long sentences three years ago are now far shorter. Yet that position neglects to acknowledge the implications of the continued criminalization of protest, something that statistics prove is still happening on a worrying scale. This has important consequences, particularly if, as the New York Times warns, it stops a light being shone on the military’s continued clout over the economy and political arena. This however is evidently the precise aim of the crackdown.

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An invisible hand in Burma’s anti-Muslim violence? Thu, 03 Oct 2013 07:37:32 +0000

The latest bout of violence in western Burma, where the death toll currently stands at six, all of whom are Muslim, hasn’t taken many by surprise. Leaders on both sides of the political divide have mostly responded with empty phrases that appear to be aimed more at placating their critics, rather than cutting to the core problems of intolerance and exploitation of a crisis. As a result, houses belonging to Muslim families in Arakan state have once again turned to ash, and the body count slowly climbs.

The slaying of a 94-year-old woman marks a new low in the violence – largely incapacitated through old age, she hardly presented an existential threat to the Buddhist population there (NB: pages 24-25 of this Harvard report statistically debunks claims that Muslims are ‘taking over’ Arakan state). Instead her death is a classic tool of intimidation, a message to the country’s entire Muslim population that none are safe. This is only reinforced by the fact that the recent attacks in Thandwe were against Kaman Muslims, who are distinct from the Rohingya (against whom past violence in Arakan state has been targeted), who have citizenship and with whom Arakanese had enjoyed harmonious relations.

Residents walk through a quiet local bazaar near a mosque in Thandwe, Burma Wednesday. Pic: AP.

The speed with which the violence in Thandwe spread from Sunday onwards raises further suspicions about the degree of organizing going on behind the scenes. The trigger on Sunday last week was a petty argument between a Buddhist taxi driver and the leader of the Kaman Muslim Party, Kyaw Zan Hla. Word then spread round the district that Kyaw Zan Hla had ‘insulted Buddhism’; mobs then formed with surprising speed and torched a mosque and several houses. Attacks spread over the following days to villages around Thandwe, and as of Wednesday dozens of houses have been razed. A photo today from a local journalist showed a truckload of Arakanese Buddhists, all brandishing spears and swords, and all wearing red bandanas.

It took the tiniest of triggers to spark a rampage. A similar chain of events happened in April in Oakkan, when a young Muslim girl riding a bike knocked an alms bowl out of a monk’s hand. As word spread of the incident, large Buddhist mobs quickly formed and attacked a mosque and Muslim homes, eventually destroying 77 and leaving one person dead and nine injured. The month before, inhabitants of Meikhtila in Mandalay division spoke of convoys of trucks carrying ‘outsiders’ into the town as anti-Muslim violence gathered pace. Similar reports of ‘outsider’ mobs came out of Sittwe in Arakan state during last year’s rioting.

It’s easy to get conspiratorial about this, and it’s often the knee-jerk reaction of Burma observers to blame the government, or government-affiliated networks. But as well as the events listed above, the attacks on Muslims in Shan state’s Lashio in May don’t necessarily fit the picture of an upsurge of solely local public anger – a New York Times report said mobs there were heard singing Burmese nationalist songs, something that you’d be hard pressed to find any Shan person doing. Moreover, footage from the violence in Meikhtila in March showed police standing by and watching while mobs torched shops, which is consistent with local reports that security forces allowed the attacks to proceed.

Of course there’s no smoking gun in all this, no paper trail that leads all the way to the top. What President Thein Sein really makes of the miserable state of inter-religious harmony isn’t clear, though his wispy, pussyfooting responses over the past year have only sharpened the feeling that he is reluctant to put his foot down. Why? Perhaps because powerful forces close to him, who are uncomfortable with the transition in Burma, will benefit from this – particularly the military, which fears a potential waning of its influence and which can draw on these fissures to reassert its relevance. (Take the Arakanese, for instance, who were once so vehemently opposed to army presence in their state but who now ask for its protection, or prominent student activists who spent their lives fighting the army, but who now say they will join hands to repel Muslim ‘invaders’).

Moreover, is mob mentality so strong among disparate Burmese across the land that the chain of events in Sittwe last year – the speedy formation of mobs, types of weapons used, methods of destruction – can be replicated so strikingly in Mandalay division, in Shan state, and even up in Kachin state, where there’s no history of anti-Muslim hostility? And that since the Oakkan violence, the trigger needed for the attacks has in fact become weaker, and not stronger, as should be the case if the government is really tackling this?

U Win Myaing, spokesman for the Arakan state government who was interviewed by the NYT, suggests in fact that the severity of the actual event that causes these rampages is not important, but merely who is involved: “You can see in all the recent conflicts that Bengalis [reference to Muslim Rohingya] sparked the incidents. The problems always begin with them.” At the very least, by reinforcing the fear that an enemy lives among us, the government is tacitly encouraging the attacks; Win Myaing almost legitimizes them. But the eerie similarities of the nearly 10 bouts of anti-Muslim violence since June last year suggests there may be something more than merely communal violence happening here.

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The irony of Burma trying an activist for ‘negligent homicide’ Mon, 22 Jul 2013 06:04:55 +0000

In the same week that President Thein Sein told an audience in London that all political prisoners would be freed by the end of the year, several more were added. First was Brang Shawng, a Kachin farmer taken by police a year ago from a displacement camp in Burma’s north for alleged links to the Kachin Independence Army, and last week given a two-year sentence. According to reports, he was tortured into confessing a role in various bombing incidents in Kachin state, and displayed knife scars across his body and signs of peeling.

The second was Bauk Ja, a prominent Kachin activist who is now being held on charges of negligent homicide. In 2008 she had attempted to treat sick villagers in Kachin state, and one person reportedly died from her treatment – the charge was first lodged in 2010, when she was running for the opposition National Democratic Force in the elections, and later dropped. Now suddenly reinstated, the question of whether it is ethical for an unqualified person to treat the sick should be examined, but against the fact that there were no doctors in the village.

Campaigners protest Burma President Thein Sein's UK visit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, July 15. Pic: AP.

As of March 2013, the military receives around 20 percent of the state budget; healthcare gets 3.9 percent. It’s no small irony that this person died in the region in which the Burmese military has conducted its most expensive campaign to date against the Kachin army, one that on both a local level, given the mass uprooting of families, and a national level, as resources are diverted from hospitals, will have contributed hugely to fueling health problems among civilians.

Bauk Ja had stepped in where the state was glaringly absent, due to Naypyidaw’s overwhelming emphasis on needless military expenditure (it has no external enemy), to the detriment of almost every other sector. That patient’s death is surely the result of government neglect, and it is they who should brought in front of the judge, not Bauk Ja. Conveniently, however, it will help to silence a vocal opponent of rights abuses by the government in Kachin state.

The third arrestee is Kyaw Hla Aung, a prominent Rohingya lawyer and community leader who was taken by police from a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sittwe last week. His charges of inciting unrest mirror those of Kyaw Myint, another community leader from the same camp who was detained in April after protesting attempts by authorities to register the Rohingya as Bengali, which would sound a death knell for any hope of them gaining citizenship in Burma.

Not to be deterred, the British government was full of praise for Thein Sein, who delivered a rousing speech at Chatham House whose more farcical elements the UK glossed over. Indeed it later emerged that Britain had agreed military-to-military ties with Burma, and had approved $5 million in arms export deals, despite an EU arms embargo and warnings from anyone with the slightest insight that Burma’s military is perhaps the least reformed of the state’s institutions, as the Kachin and others will testify.

For those recent additions to the country’s jail cells, the London speech will ring hollow. It may be that the concept of a political prisoner is being repackaged for future use – the more overtly political charges, for example the Video Act or Unlawful Association Act, may be sidelined in favour of seemingly more legitimate ones: negligent homicide or inciting public unrest, for example – ones that other democratic countries like the UK use, and who would therefore have more trouble criticizing the Burmese government for using.

Bauk Ja’s arrest is particularly saddening, given her tireless campaigning for land rights for farmers. That issue, so sensitive because of its exposure of Burma’s powerful business-government-military nexus, is probably why her punishment is so cynical – blaming her for the death of someone she attempted to help, and whom she no doubt still mourns.

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Abolishing Burma’s feared border force: PR or reform? Mon, 15 Jul 2013 09:58:04 +0000

Surprise news arrived on Sunday with a statement from President Thein Sein’s office announcing the disbanding of NaSaKa, the feared security force that has manned Burma’s border with Bangladesh (and previously the Chinese and Thai borders), and attracted fierce criticism for its treatment of civilians in western Burma. It was always seen as symbolic of the Burmese military’s evil – a force that acts with total impunity and indifference towards the suffering of those it is meant to ‘protect’. Formed of a toxic marriage between the police, army, customs and immigration offices, it has long been unclear to whom it answers, and likely deliberately so.

So the announcement appears a positive step. A quick Google search of the word will give an idea of why it’s held in such fear in Arakan state, and why its departure would bring much relief: razed villages, mass rapes and extrajudicial killings are included in its repertoire. It’s the kind of shadowy group with a malleable remit that can induce, to great effect for a central government whose control of the peripheries has always been shaky, perpetual terror among civilians.

The disbanding of NaSaKa was timed to coincide with President Thein Sein's UK visit. Pic: AP.

But as with any ‘development’ in Burma, there is equal cause for concern. The timing of the announcement, coinciding with Thein Sein’s trip to the UK, is clearly tactical. The UK government has been quite explicit with its feelings about Naypyidaw’s treatment of the Rohingya, who along with Arakanese have felt quite brutally the agenda of NaSaKa. “Disbanding the NaSaKa is a good way to soften the blows he [Thein Sein] will receive on that, without really having to do anything substantial to improve the situation of the Rohingya,” says David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch.

The fear is that it could just be a name change – that the personnel could regroup under a different banner. Burma is no stranger to this – see the Border Guard Forces in the country’s east, for example, who are merely members of formerly government-aligned militias brought into the ‘legal fold’, with little done to reform their bad ways.

What’s also apparent with the NaSaKa incident is some face-saving on the part of the government. Thein Htey, the general recently sanctioned by the US for coordinating ongoing weapons deals with North Korea, had been the former Minister for Border Affairs, ostensibly the NaSaKa boss. “It’s nothing more than removing a target organization that became too controversial and a PR liability,” says Burmese academic Maung Zarni. He suggested it might also be a way to divert attention from a press bill just approved by the Lower House that does little to break with past censorship laws, and effectively bans criticism of the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

And in turn, it works very well for the UK, which recently announced it would begin military engagement with Burma. The abolishment of NaSaKa takes away some of the controversy surrounding the engagement, which is probably more to do with geostrategic concerns, but still cloaked in human rights chat.

And again, it offers the pretense of a reform effort in the Burmese military that is not actually happening. Those NaSaKa personnel won’t be retiring from active duty, but will probably be reassigned. And even if they’re withdrawn from Arakan state and placed elsewhere, the same police and military that have made life so miserable for Arakanese and Rohingya will remain, guided by the same mentality towards civilians that really should be the target of reform. “In the absence of accountability for the crimes committed by Nasaka soldiers, the utility of their disbandment is highly limited,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International. “There is nothing to prevent the next security force from simply replicating Nasaka’s abusive ways, particularly if it comprises the same soldiers.”

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Wirathu, Time Magazine, and the power of propaganda in Burma Tue, 25 Jun 2013 11:58:09 +0000

When I and two colleagues interviewed radical anti-Muslim monk Wirathu in April this year, a youthful man in his late twenties accompanied us to the monastery in Mandalay. A former monk himself, he had met Wirathu some time before and was able to arrange the meeting fairly easily – Wirathu, it is now known, is very eager to speak to media and get his message out. An English teacher at a local school, a law graduate in her late twenties, acted as translator.

In the taxi to the monastery, we began picking the young man’s brains about Wirathu. At first it was done cautiously, but as it became apparent that he opposed the monk’s extreme anti-Muslim views, we were able to relax and gain a rare insight from a Burmese who knew the monk personally.

Controversial Burmese Buddhist monk Wirathu. Pic: AP.

The interview with Wirathu took close to two hours, much of it taken up with his lengthy observations about the Islamic peril afflicting Burma – mobs of rapists, thieves and proselytizers terrorizing villages as they swept inland from the western border with Bangladesh. Some statements were so outlandish they drew incredulous smiles from us interviewers. Afterwards he handed over a batch of DVDs and booklets that he said explained his position in greater detail. We left the building, walked past the enlarged and gory photos of Buddhists supposedly killed by Muslims, and towards the taxi.

The translator delivered the first shock. “It’s amazing how much information he has,” she said, evidently impressed by the monk’s measured delivery and wealth of statistics. Asked whether she believed everything Wirathu said (“100 percent of rape cases are by Muslims,” being one choice quote), she said she wasn’t sure, but understood that there was a significant threat facing Buddhism in Burma.

Several days later I received a text message from the man who arranged the interview. He had apparently u-turned. “I watched Wirathu CD. I feel very angry – they take our air, water, land; they make terrorism!” he wrote.

It took only a presentation by Wirathu to cause the man to flip positions on Muslims, and so spectacularly. The power of the propaganda Wirathu produces – delivered in his monotonal, almost soporific, voice; a stony emotionless face – is chilling, and those are but two people among possibly millions of Burmese that have bought into his campaign to vilify Islam. For those who dismiss his words as the ramblings of a sociopath, the extent of their reach is something to really think about.

The reaction to the recent Time Magazine interview with Wirathu also speaks volumes about the psyche of the anti-Muslim movement, and/or those who cloak their prejudice in the rhetoric of democratic advancement.

Preident Thein Sein and his spokesperson Ye Htut have personally weighed in on the furor surrounding the interview. Their concern is that it could affect government efforts to rebuild harmony between Buddhists and Muslims (quite where these are I’m not sure), or sully the reputation of Buddhism. Nowhere do they address the actual parts of the interview that are cause for alarm, such as Wirathu’s dictate to followers that, “Now is not the time for calm. Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.”

It seems the journalist who wrote the piece is the greater of two evils. It reminds me of an article that appeared in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper several weeks after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed close to 140,000 people. ‘The enemy that is worse than the cyclone’ was the headline, and the article an indictment of the work of journalists who had circumvented government restrictions to report on the true extent of the disaster, which the junta had tried to hide. They were deemed worse than the death toll of the cyclone. Unfortunately, it seems the general attitude to reporting that challenges entrenched power or perceived wisdom, in whatever shape or form, remains.

There is also the matter of the Time front cover, a portrait of Wirathu with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. This has caused endless uproar, and local media in Burma has fired back with copycat front covers that replace Time’s words with, “The Rights of Buddhist Defenders”. What this speaks to is (a) an inability by sections of the Burmese Buddhist population to acknowledge that Buddhism could have extremist interpretations, and (b) that Wirathu’s quest is one born of spiritual goodness. Both are wrong, and need to be corrected.

The rapid spread of the anti-Muslim campaign has logged its fair share of mutations and contradictions. Take the example of a friend’s cleaner who was ordered to exit a bus in Rangoon a couple of months ago in the wake of Buddhist-Muslim unrest on account of the fact that she “looked Indian”. She was in fact a Burmese Christian, but somewhere in the mind of the accuser, being (or looking) Indian meant being Muslim. The fact that the Buddha came from India had been lost somewhere on the way.

Sometime soon Time Magazine will be hit with a petition from online campaigning platform Avaaz demanding that it withdraw the edition featuring Wirathu. It’s already received 50,000-odd signatures, helped along by the monk’s bold claim that the magazine has committed a “serious human rights violation”. A ‘We Boycott Time magazine for their choice of Wirathu as “Buddhist Terror”’ group on Facebook has nearly 14,000 likes.

It’s both testament to the power of the man’s persuasive sermonizing, and the speed at which the government can latch onto an issue and turn the world’s attention away from its own major shortcomings. The focus now is on one article, yet the serious problems the journalist dealt with continue unabated, as does the government’s inability to spearhead attempts to rebuild peace between the Buddhist and Muslim.

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Is ‘nationalism’ solely to blame for Burma’s latest anti-Muslim violence? Thu, 30 May 2013 07:20:17 +0000

The town of Lashio in Burma’s northeastern Shan state has become the latest victim of anti-Muslim violence. At the time of writing, one person was reported dead and four injured after Buddhist mobs rampaged through the town, torching a Muslim orphanage and mosque. The violence broke out in the wake of the alleged burning of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man.

Pople watch a burning mosque in Lashio, northern Shan State. Pic: AP.

Observers have been quick to raise the spectre of the spread of Burmese nationalism, which has caused so much damage elsewhere in the country. The mobs cavorting around Lashio branding mallets are seen as the ideological kin of those in Meiktila, Bago and Oakkan who have razed Muslim neighbourhoods and killed dozens over the past few months.

Yet something about that narrative doesn’t sit too well in Shan state. Anti-Muslim sentiment certainly exists there, but Shan nationalism grew in response to Burman designs on Shan culture and society. Their animosity towards the dominant ethnic group in Burma is well known. This is why a report in the New York Times that described groups of men gathering in Lashio “’shouting, cheering and singing Burmese nationalist songs’ as they destroyed shops” becomes quite perplexing.

(READ MORE: Buddhist mobs spread fear among Burma’s Muslims)

Lashio hasn’t seen any such violence before, although in Namkham a few months ago, anti-Muslim 969 stickers began appearing on shops, despite the town having a very small Muslim population. I wrote at the time: “Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.”

The involvement of higher powers certainly seems applicable to Lashio. Mobs there beat up journalists attempting to report on the situation, while reports have circulated that communications to Lashio were cut when the violence first started on Tuesday. The attacks on journalists suggest a level of complicity that needs to be obscured from the public. The New York Times also quoted an eyewitness who said:

“The first police units arrived two hours after groups of men set fire to a mosque and began destroying shops. The police stayed for only a few minutes, he said, and when a larger contingent of police and military units returned later in the night, they closed off the streets but did not confront the rioters.”

A seasoned observer I spoke to had this to say about the Lashio violence, and I have to agree with him.

“If you connect the dots, you can see that the “Arakan model” is being implemented again – stirring up violence and destruction to such an extent that local people, despite their hatred of Burmese military rulers, end up asking for more “protection” (and centralised control) to stop this from happening again.”

Arakan state is proof of what this venomous hatred towards a minority group does for the military-led government – the Arakanese, a fiercely nationalist ethnic group who have long resisted colonizing by the Burman, have created a situation whereby the Burmese army, surely the most potent colonizing tool in Naypyidaw’s armoury, have become de facto protectors of the western state against the manufactured ‘Muslim peril’. The state now has a heavier troop presence than ever before, and this supposed threat has been amplified so much that even the likes of democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi, who has dedicated his life towards diluting the power of the military, said last year that “his organization and its followers are willing to take up arms alongside the military in order to fight back against ‘foreign invaders’” – meaning the Rohingya.

This plays so perfectly into the hands of those who want to keep the army an all-powerful force in Burma. Even its strongest adversaries – the Shan, the Arakanese, the stoic democracy activists – are now on its side.

Another concerning development has occurred since the Lashio unrest. A friend in Yangon said this morning that her cleaner, a Christian but with dark skin, had been told to get off the bus today on account of her ‘Indian’ appearance. This may be related to early reports that the man who set the Buddhist woman alight in Lashio was Indian (and, as was pointed out on Twitter today, there’s no small irony in a Buddhist person berating someone for looking Indian).

Note also the eyewitness in Lashio who told Reuters that, “I got a light for my cigarette from one [Buddhist attacker] and he told me to kill all Bengalis while waving this 18-inch blade around.” There are no ‘Bengalis” (i.e., Rohingya) in Lashio – it seems the target has become confused. Both are prime examples of how fast this racist ripple effect can take hold, and suggests the ‘enemy’ is becoming increasingly ill-defined, which holds entirely new dangers of its own.


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Cyclone could seal fate of displaced Rohingya in Burma Mon, 13 May 2013 12:55:19 +0000

Update: A boat being used to evacuate around 100 Rohingya IDPs from Arakan state’s Pauktaw prior to cyclone capsized on Monday evening after hitting rocks, according to UN agency. Unknown number are missing.

The tropical cyclone currently heading over the Indian Ocean in the direction of Burma and Bangladesh is expected to make landfall on Thursday. In humanitarian terms, the coastline that it will smash into is currently one of the most fragile in the world: up to 140,000 displaced refugees are located in flimsy camps close to the water, already seriously under-resourced – an expected sea surge will instantly flood these sites, and the subsequent gales and rainstorms should ensure they are not fit for habitation.

With only 60-odd hours to go, the Burmese government has begun moving some to higher ground. As an article in DVB today points out, however, many of these are not being moved to safe areas, but merely safer areas – camps slightly further inland, or villages which still lie well within the storm path. Troubling reports are also emerging that authorities are refusing to relocate unregistered IDPs, and are not adequately informing all of the looming dangers, with few government broadcasts having reached the camps.

An armed police officer guards as Muslim refugees stand behind him at a refugee camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Burma. Pic: AP.

The IDPs struggled during hot season – food was woefully lacking, as was medicine. If the hot season was bad for them, then the looming monsoon, whose rains arrive will harder and faster as a result of the cyclone, could be disastrous. I visited Ohne Daw refugee camp outside Sittwe in October last year, when the shelters were still flimsy wooden structures with rags stretched over them for roofs. The water, over which Thursday’s cyclone will come roaring, is only a paddy field away.

Displaced Arakanese will also be hit on Thursday, and towns and villages are likely to suffer heavy damage. The hope is that a sense of solidarity will emerge; that the threats from Arakanese towards aid workers who helped the Rohingya, and which proved such an impediment to delivering aid, will dissipate as the indiscriminate winds approach.

(READ MORE: Burma starts evacuations ahead of cyclone)

One also hopes that we will not in any way, shape or form see a repeat of the tragedy that followed Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when the regime’s denial of aid to victims contributed significantly to the 138,000-plus death toll. The UN has said that it is not directly involved in preparation for the cyclone, with the government opting to lead the efforts. Given recent accusations from Human Rights Watch that the government is involved in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, this does not bode well.

(READ MORE: Future looks grim for Burma’s Muslims despite Thein Sein HR vow)

The picture beyond Thursday is also worrying. Will aid, which the government with the help of extremist Arakanese has limited, be stepped up? And where will the displaced go if camps are rendered uninhabitable? They cannot go back to their homes, because for many, they were turned to dust last year. Reintegration into Buddhist-majority communities is dangerous, given that the government has made no attempt at fixing the deep wounds; in fact quite the opposite has happened, and Rohingya are still the same Untermensch they have always been. Will they set up new sites, or will existing camps become even more overpopulated? All options are on the table, and none look good.

Scrutiny of the government’s response to the cyclone is of the utmost importance, and could shed some light on its long-term intentions for the Rohingya. Let’s not forget that all in the cyclone’s path will suffer; it’s just that for one group, the timing really could not be worse, and the potential for certain elements to exploit the disaster for their own gain is certainly there.

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Burma reimprisons activist, shows ‘contractual’ freedom of political prisoners Thu, 09 May 2013 06:16:32 +0000

The decision by Burma’s government to overturn an amnesty granted last year to a political prisoner is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. Nay Myo Zin was originally jailed for 10 years in March 2011 on media-related charges, making him President Thein Sein’s first political prisoner. Ironically, he now carries the equally unhealthy distinction of being the first former political prisoner to be returned to jail.

The 38-year-old charity worker, a former army captain, will have to serve out six years of his remaining sentence. The charge he is being held on, of defaming a police officer following a land rights protest in January, carries only a three-month sentence. However, all political prisoners freed in a series of amnesties last year were forced to sign an agreement, glossed over by the legion of western countries who hailed the amnesties, that stated they could return to prison at any time if they were deemed to have broken a law.

The gates of Insein Prison in Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

Burma’s legal system is inherently corrupt, and its laws made deliberately malleable in order that it can penalize the opposition when real justification is lacking. This is why a prominent activist like Nay Myo Zin, who tackled land confiscations ordered on behalf of a powerful business elite, can find himself back in prison for six years on spurious and minor charges.

More than anything, the conditions attached to the amnesties last year show that released political prisoners are far from free; they are shackled by statutes that ensure they cannot exercise the right to challenge authority, which should be a cornerstone of a functioning democracy.

What will grate the powers that be in Burma is that Nay Myo Zin was one of them, a former military man who turned his back on the army and took up charity work. His mother had said of his time in the military upon his first arrest in 2011 that ““he didn’t enjoy it there – he is a morally strong kid”. Last year he founded the Myanmar Social Development Network, and joined students as they marched to Kachin state earlier this year in protest at the military’s offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.

His re-arrest is one of several examples of the glaring limitations of new protest and freedom of speech laws, which it seems can only be exercised until they begin to cut into the interests of the government and elite. Other examples include the crackdown on anti-copper mine protestors last year; the hounding of a journalist who criticized parliament’s grip on the judiciary; threats by the mining ministry towards a journalist who lodged accusations of corruption, and many more.

The release of political prisoners was one of the key benchmarks set by the EU in terminating sanctions. Despite around 200 remaining in prison, and thousands more facing the daily threat of being returned to prison, the EU last month saw fit to end sanctions and begin serious moves towards investing in the country. The constant promises of vigilance and pressure from foreign powers are wearing thin. Those who have been courting the Burmese government over the past two years are guilty, through dint of their blind support for the government, of abetting the darker elements of this transition, of which Nay Myo Zin is but one casualty.

It is not in the interests of Burma’s political and business leaders, still intensely wary of opposition after half a century of dictatorial rule, to allow influential activists to do as they see fit to alter the structures of power in the country. It is similarly unclear whether it is in the interests of the EU to scratch beneath the surface and really understand what one man’s sentencing means for the wider transition and future promises of reform.

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International Crisis Group makes a mockery of ‘peace’ in Burma Mon, 22 Apr 2013 09:46:08 +0000

At a glitzy dinner tonight in New York, where the cover charge for a table can reach heady six figure sums, Burma’s President Thein Sein will be honoured with the International Crisis Group’s top peace award. Across the pond he will receive additional applause from the EU in the form of a termination of all sanctions on Burma, except for its arms embargo.

Yet away from the pomp of the ICG awards ceremony, a starkly different picture has been painted. Human Rights Watch released a report Monday that wholly implicates Burma’s government in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Arakan state. This isn’t the conclusion of an investigation into the former junta’s rights record, but instead something very current, and for which Thein Sein bears responsibility.

“The Burmese government and security forces are responsible for attacks on the Rohingya [last year] in which crimes against humanity were committed,” said Matthew Smith, a consultant with HRW. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said in a statement that the government “engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement”.

The emphasis of the report, which the group put together using extensive testimonies collected on the ground in Arakan state, is official complicity in the displacement of 125,000 Rohingya, and the deaths of hundreds. The intended end result of this campaign of violence, which has involved local politicians, NGOs and security forces, as well as civilians, is the removal of an entire ethnic group, either through death or displacement.

Burma policemen walk towards burning buildings in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state during sectarian violence in June 2012. Pic: AP.

To date, the government has denied any responsibility for the two major waves of violence in June and October last year. It said in response to HRW’s accusations of complicity by security forces that the claims were “unfounded and not true information … [security forces] took security measures day and night without taking sides and without discrimination of race and religion”.

Eyewitnesses in Arakan state tell otherwise – police, army and the NaSaKa border security group were directly involved in razing houses and escorting violent mobs of Arakanese into Rohingya areas. In Yan Thei village in Mrauk U, police “assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves,” HRW said. It also details an incident in which a government truck dumped 18 Rohingya bodies outside a Rohingya camp, a practice that is consistent with the campaign of intimidation that is often an ingredient in ethnic cleansing.

(READ MORE: Burma: Democracy veteran Win Tin warns of dark times ahead)

Over in Meiktila in central Burma, where entire Muslim quarters were razed by Buddhist mobs last month, footage has just emerged that shows police watching as Muslim-owned properties are destroyed.

In this context then, one struggles to fathom how ICG could honour Burma’s president. To be sure, Thein Sein has overseen positive developments in several spheres, such as media and opposition political participation. Yet this award is about peace, an area in which he has failed disastrously. “International Crisis Group’s goal is as ambitious as it is vital: to mobilise leaders around the globe to prevent and end deadly conflict,” the statement introducing the award says.

But since Thein Sein came to office, civil war has broken out in Kachin state, fierce rioting has erupted in Arakan state, and several waves of deadly anti-Muslim violence have rocked central Burma, while a huge increase in internal displacement of civilians has occurred, as has unprecedented refugee flows from western Burma to other Southeast Asian countries. The list goes on. He has demonstrably failed to respond to evidence that prominent parliamentarians, such as Dr. Aye Maung from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, have called for the removal of the Rohingya; indeed last year Thein Sein asked the UN to resettle all 800,000 Rohingya. In ICG’s own words, however, the man should be applauded for his “efforts to bring us closer to a world free of conflict”.

The EU’s decision to drop sanctions is also highly contentious, and for similar reasons, yet it has maintained an arms embargo precisely because of substantial ongoing concerns about the military, which has shown no sign that it intends to mend its ways. ICG, which pins the award to positive developments towards an end to armed conflict, appears to refute those concerns.

The award is especially galling for Burma because ICG has backed a war crimes investigation into the Sri Lankan conflict. ICG is undoubtedly aware of what has occurred in Burma in the two years since Thein Sein became president – it follows the developments there closely, but is evidently guilty of sidelining the negatives and myopically homing in on the positives, despite the scales currently tipping in favour of the former.

It’s hard to tell why exactly they’ve chosen such a controversial position on Burma. Burmese academic Maung Zarni has some very useful thoughts here, while past observers have talked of groups like ICG wanting to become part of a “pacted transition” in Burma, with a pro-trade and aid stance that ultimately reaps significant economic benefits for stakeholders, ICG included. This commentary accuses them of being “democracy manipulators” headed by men and women with key ties to the US elite who would have considerable personal interests in a Burma that is open to business. Either way, one would be wise to take the award with more than a pinch of salt – it’s woefully misguided, and carries the potential to induce a dangerous naivety among those not versed in the major pitfalls of this transition.

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This is militant Islamophobia in Burma, rooted in history Mon, 25 Mar 2013 09:29:37 +0000

In November last year, a piece I wrote on the potential for the Arakan state violence to evolve into wider anti-Muslim conflict in other parts of Burma was met with accusations of sensationalism and a misreading of the root causes of the Arakan unrest. The piece had argued that the first obvious signal that this wasn’t just ‘communal’ or ‘inter-ethnic’ violence, as many observers were calling it, was the targeting of Kaman Muslims in Arakan in October, who are distinct from the Rohingya.

Half a year on from the first attacks on Kaman Muslims, and despite the current rioting in Meikhtila and surrounding areas, there still seems to be an attempt in Burmese ultra-nationalist circles to write this violence off as a series of isolated incidents. This reading suggests that the first wave of attacks on Rohingya in June last year are not linked to the first attacks on Kaman Muslims in October, and that the targeting of Kaman has nothing to do with the more recent Meikhtila riots. Instead, individual groups are reacting to provocation from Muslims, which happens to have increased in frequency since June 2012.

Smoke billows from a burning mosque following ethnic unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila Thursday. Pic: AP.

The stance is being used to counter accusations that the violence is born of anti-Muslim sentiment – that beyond just confronting ‘terrorists’ or ‘land-grabbers’, as the Rohingya were branded, an entire ideology is being targeted. This is obviously much harder to justify, and portrays Burma’s militant nationalist movement in a primitive and ugly light, which it doesn’t want.

The signs however are clearly there. In fact they’ve been there for decades, but religious persecution was never really part of the Burma story during the dictatorship, which the world viewed through a very black and white lens. Go back to the civilian government of U Nu, and you’ll see that he expelled the Burma Muslim Congress and made Buddhism the state religion; General Ne Win carried out several pogroms against Rohingya, and deported hundreds of thousands of Indian Hindus and Muslims. The army has for decades attacked sites of Christian and Muslim worship in the ethnic states in a deliberate attempt to Burmanise (“Buddhicise”?) the entire country.

Yet this latest wave of attacks on Muslims is so troubling because of the involvement of civilians, who have otherwise been tolerant of the Christian beliefs of their countrymen. (To be sure, it is highly likely that hardline elements in the government are driving this, and using civilian groups as proxies.)

It’s unclear why fear of Islam is so pervasive, and theories abound, but the geographical spread of this animosity is both hugely concerning and underreported. In Karen state for example, pamphlets were circulated last year ordering locals to cease all interaction with Muslims – trading, marriage, and so on. In the state capital of Pa’an there are reports that stickers bearing ‘969’ are now frequently appearing on buildings (‘969‘ signifies Buddhist precepts, and has been used recently as a label by the militant nationalist movement to counter the ‘786’ stickers used to identify Muslim buildings – which should of course also be debated). The Karen Human Rights Group has also documented massive forced relocation of Muslim communities by the army in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Meikhtila violence should be seen as the latest manifestation of an historic Islamophobic streak in Burma. Of course there is bitter irony in reports of civilians and monks colluding with security forces in last week’s attacks; that a monk threatened violence against a photographer who wants to shine a light on persecution in Burma; that agitators are roaming the streets of Rangoon provoking Muslims into attacking. It’s ironic because these monks and civilians, evidently suffering from some acute form of historical amnesia, can only embolden the military to recast itself as “protectors” of the nation.

The signs of a major pogrom against Muslims are now visible. This isn’t mass hysteria from ‘foreign anti-Buddhist saboteurs’, as anyone who comments critically on this issue is called, but is very real and evident. Of all the photos and videos of the Meikhtila riots, the charred bodies and the woman shouting “Kill them, kill them!” that circulated last week, it was this one that I found both effective in capturing the state of play in Burma now, and incredibly disturbing: Muslims being marched out of town by police with their hands above their heads and a child looking back in the crowd. They are being sent to a football stadium where the government will tell them they are being held for their own protection, under armed guard. Given there appears to be no attempt by the government to try to rebuild community cohesion (we only need to look to Arakan state for evidence), we must keep a close watch on whether these relocation sites become permanent, and the implications of this.

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Whitewashing the crackdown on Burmese protestors Wed, 13 Mar 2013 07:35:23 +0000

In December last year, as the extent of the casualty toll from the crackdown on copper mine protestors in Burma became apparent, Human Rights Watch released a damming statement calling for full accountability of the perpetrators of the violence. “The government’s response to the Letpadaung crackdown will be crucial for determining whether military-invested projects still operate above the law in Burma,” HRW’s Phil Robertson said.

The encampment occupied by protesters burns at the Letpadaung mine following a crackdown on the morning of November 29 last year. Pic: AP.

In the early hours of the morning of 29 November, riot police fired incendiary devices into a tightly packed protest camp in Monywa in Sagaing Division. According to subsequent testimonies from victims, who numbered close to one hundred, plumes of fire shot up and torched tents and the skins of those close by. It was the most aggressive response to popular dissent since the September 2007 crackdown, and wholly contradicted government moves to gradually open up the space for free protest in Burma.

In the following weeks a government-led commission chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi was set up to investigate the crackdown. On paper it appeared the most progressive of several rights-based initiatives by the government – the National Human Rights Commission, for instance, is deemed ineffective given the domination of pro-military figures, while the team tasked with probing the Arakan state violence includes outwardly racist and/or ambivalent characters. The hopes for a robust investigation into the Letpadaung crackdown were therefore high.

That all came crashing to the ground this week with the release of its report, which had been delayed several times. Some key conclusions have been drawn that beg serious questions of the mindset of the team behind it.

A Buddhist monk who was injured in the crackdown seen in hospital last November. Pic: AP.

The first is the claim that police fired the devices, said to be smoke bombs, “without knowing what their effect would be”. Two issues arise from this: the first is the acknowledgement by the government that its security forces are woefully inept at handling highly dangerous equipment. Given the low quality of training and resources available, this isn’t really surprising, yet it appears to have been used to excuse the disproportionate reaction to the protest. Moreover, the report made no mention of action to be taken on the perpetrators, and referred to the injuries as “unnecessary”. Considering the brutality of the response, the language used is particularly soft.

The second is that, according to the report, riot police fired 55 devices into the camp. It’s not clear how many caught fire, but eyewitnesses spoke in plurals when they described the flames shooting up into the sky: “They fired 10 rounds; five at a time,” one told the Democratic Voice of Burma. “And the sparks that landed on people’s clothing couldn’t be shaken off; they burst into flames when they attempted to do so.”

The fact that it was night time would have made it easier to see that these smoke bombs had become more than just smoke bombs. If the police want to claim that they intended no harm, then why did they not stop after the first sign that things had gone wrong? Yet more and more were fired into the camp. We can’t say whether or not the riot police had malicious intentions, but the results don’t look good.

Aung San Suu Kyi waves to her supporters as she arrives in Monywa town. When she returns this time, she may be the subject of protests. Pic: AP.

The feeling across the board is one of anger at the report’s findings, particularly its conclusion that the mine operation should continue, despite acknowledging the environmental damage and that it brought only “slight” benefits to Burma. The mine however is particularly sensitive for the government, given heavy investment from powerful military figures and China (more on that here). In this instance at least, HRW’s statement appears to have been answered – military-invested projects remain above the law, as do security forces tasked with ‘protecting’ them.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become the target of the widespread anger over the report, will travel to the site today. Protestors said previously that they would continue their actions if the mine were to continue (as the report recommends). We don’t know what role she had in the final conclusions of the report, or whether her own recommendations were overruled, but in the end her name is attached to it, and her position in the commission is a senior one. For the first time in her life, Suu Kyi risks becoming the target of protests from Burmese when she travels to Letpadaung.

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Rohingya flee as Burma tightens restrictions on Muslims Mon, 18 Feb 2013 09:41:51 +0000

Two stark choices now face the Muslim population in western Burma: the first is that they take to the high seas on over-packed boats bereft of navigational equipment and adequate supplies to last them the journey to Malaysia, or Australia, or wherever they hope to find refuge and respite. The voyage is perilous: the UN says that last year, 485 of around 13,000 Rohingya who fled Bangladesh and Burma on boats drowned, equivalent to one in 26 people. The chances of survival are not favourable.

The second is that they stay in Arakan state, which for the non-Buddhist community is increasingly resembling a vast open-air prison. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya are now living in either refugee camps or in towns in northern Arakan state that are strictly off limits to foreigners. Inhabitants of towns like Maungdaw and Buthidaung are starved of outside assistance, in a country that denies them the most basic of social protections.

A boat carrying 73 Rohingya refugees is intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand last month. Pic: AP.

Contrary to the narrative of a country lessening restrictions on its inhabitants, quite the opposite is happening in Arakan state. DVB last week quoted local authorities in the town of Sandoway (Thandwe) who said they had been ordered to block all Muslims from leaving their townships, Kaman included. Previously the restriction had been applied only to Rohingya without ID cards – now it is a blanket ban, and suggests the discriminatory policy that until recently targeted only Rohingya has evolved into something more sinister.

The refugee camps are another story. Many sprung up in the aftermath of the June 2012 rioting and quickly became overcrowded as Rohingya fled urban areas, later to be joined by Kaman as attacks from Arakanese nationalists widened. Close to 120,000 Muslims are thought to be living in camps of varying quality: some are clusters of flimsy wooden frames covered by rags that qualify as the most basic and fragile of shelters, and will not withstand the coming rainy season.

Others, like the newly built huts at Ohne Dawgyi, are much sturdier. They are in dire need, but have been built as if they are there to stay – one may wonder whether the government intends their inhabitants to stay put too. UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana touched on this in a statement last week in which he said that despite government assurances to the contrary, “the information among stakeholders is that this [return of displaced to their villages] won’t take place and the current settlements will become permanent”. Past fears that an apartheid state is developing are given extra strength.

An immigration officer fills out forms during an operation to verify the citizenship of Muslims living in the western Burma village of Sin Thet Maw late last year. Pic: AP.

Quintana added that one camp he visited “felt more like a prison than a camp”, and warned that lack of freedom of movement for inhabitants lessened the chances of “rebuilding trust between communities through interaction”. Outside of the camps, the prison theme gets worse – reports have emerged of children as young as 10 being held in jails in northern Arakan state on charges of inciting the unrest that has plagued the region for eight months.

Most would consider this environment, and the physical and psychological burden it carries, uninhabitable. But the other option is equally dire. The Sri Lankan navy is currently searching for around 100 ‘boatpeople’, in all likelihood Rohingya, adrift at sea. They may have been on the water for up to two months. Each day matters hugely, given how scarce supplies, particularly food and water, often are on these boats.

Now we are well into the annual ‘boat season’, a perversely evocative term for the time of year when thousands of Rohingya set sail, often to their deaths. The timing coincides with an apparent worsening of conditions in Arakan state, so expect the number of drownings to rise.

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Burma’s military-backed MPs handed power over courts Wed, 23 Jan 2013 08:17:11 +0000

'Democracy' at work? Military representatives attend Burma's parliament. Now they have power over the judicial system. Pic: AP.

Every day we see reminders about the shortcomings of Burma’s democratic reform: conflict in Kachin state, ethno-religious violence in Arakan state, continued incarceration of political prisoners, and so on. But the more technical issues often don’t get the media attention they deserve, despite their potential to have a more ingrained and lasting effect on the country’s future than the above examples.

A case in point is the fiasco that unfurled in parliament this week: President Thein Sein (apparently reluctantly) signed a bill that gives parliament a degree of influence over the judiciary that calls into serious doubt the independence of Burma’s legal system.

“Legal analysts say the changes constitute a cynical attempt by parliament, which is dominated by former military cronies, to exert pressure on the tribunal without having to alter Burma’s controversial 2008 legislation,” writes DVB. “The new law hands parliament the authority to challenge the tribunal’s decisions, and greater input over the appointment of its chairman, who would in turn be required to report back to them and the president on his work, raising questions over his independence.”

Under the former junta, there was no judicial independence – the country’s courts were essentially processing rooms for the ‘criminal’ opposition, where verdicts were foregone conclusions. Yet a supposed transition to democracy should have at its core an overhaul of the key operating mechanisms of a dictatorship, of which control of the judges is one. This week’s move suggests that the pressure on Thein Sein to maintain this hierarchy is stronger than he is.

The Burmese public’s ability to question parliament’s bloated powers in this ‘democratic’ era has also been placed under the spotlight. Last week a blogger, known only as Dr Seik Phwa, wrote that the country’s legislature was acting “above the law” in its attempt to gain greater control of the legal system.

But so sensitive is this issue that one MP tabled the creation of a special committee to investigate the blogger. His motion was passed by 347 votes to 157, suggesting that an overwhelming majority in parliament want judicial control.

This should be cause for great concern, given that the most MPs are either uniformed military, or military-aligned, elitist members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) whose political outlook was shaped by their careers under the former junta. Their interference in, and potential sabotaging of, court cases that could threaten the military’s social and economic standing – human rights abuses, land confiscation, corruption and so on – would bode very ill for the country’s future.

Thein Sein’s reported defense of judicial independence should be noted and commended. Why he buckled however is not clear, although it again raises questions as to how much power he actually has, particularly given ongoing military attacks in Kachin state despite several calls for their cessation. Australian academic Nicholas Farrelly makes an interesting point in the New Mandala blog: “Parts of the emerging story suggest that within the regime Thein Sein needs to bolster wavering support by letting the army off the leash to prosecute its war.”

This may also account for why he has capitulated to the hawks in parliament over the constitutional tribunal law. At the same time, however, we really don’t know Thein Sein: he was a key architect of much of the former junta’s policies, and so the argument could still be made that the progressive wave he is riding on is a front to distract the world while business continues as usual in Burma. Either way, unless he takes bold steps that hinder parliament’s attempts to snatch undue power, we could see a continuation of Burma’s ugly past.

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Thai PM: Rohingya ‘might join southern insurgency’ Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:09:30 +0000
Yingluck Shinawatra

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Pic: AP.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra indulged in some loaded conjecturing yesterday when she warned that the 840-plus Rohingya in detention in Thailand “might join the southern insurgency rather than seek asylum in a third country”. The men, women and children in question were found in Songkla’s Sadao district over the course of several raids last week on smuggling dens run by human trafficking rackets.

Their future is now the subject of a tussle between Thai authorities and the UN refugee agency, although Yingluck made clear her feelings that they are a threat to Thailand and should be deported back to Burma (a veritable lions’ den for the stateless Muslims). That had anyway seemed likely until the UN intervened and stalled the deportation, and Thailand now appears to be feeling the pressure of several years of international condemnation following other grisly episodes involving the Rohingya.

The Prime Minister’s statement, apparently unsubstantiated, is a reckless one, based mainly on the hackneyed assumption that any disenfranchised Muslim is automatically a terrorist threat. It risks directing anti-Muslim sentiment at the Rohingya, who are in Thailand in part to escape that branding.

Many of these people have suffered similar treatment in Burma, where Arakanese politicians and a worrying cross-section of the Burmese population brand them ‘terrorists’ and have embarked on a witch-hunt to expose Rohingya ‘sympathisers’ among Arakanese.

Thai media’s labeling of the group as “illegal migrants”, while technically true, also distorts the picture somewhat. Given the reasons why they are in Thailand – to escape abject poverty, racial and religious persecution, vicious ethno-religious violence, bans on accessing state education and healthcare, and much more – the line between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ is heavily blurred. Deporting these ‘migrants’ could in fact amount to refoulement (international law-speak for returning a victim of persecution to a place of danger), which is illegal.

Close scrutiny of Thailand’s actions is now of the utmost importance, with the Thai navy having been placed on alert for signs of more boatloads of Rohingya. In 2008 the navy towed a boatload of Rohingya back out to sea and left many to dehydrate to death – the subsequent media coverage sparked international condemnation that shone a spotlight on Thailand’s apathetic attitude towards refugees (it is not a signatory of the UN convention on refugees). This focus must continue.

Among the 840 Rohingya was a 10-year-old boy: “According to his story, Nu Rahasim’s parents and siblings all were brutally killed by authorities,” said the Bangkok Post. “The orphaned Nu, who showed scars he said came from beatings and slashes by Myanmar troops, then joined a group of 140 Rohingya who sought help from an affluent man in the violence-plagued [Arakan] state, in the hope of getting out of the country.”

The last thing he needs is for a world leader to suggest he may become a terrorist – it could happen, but no more so than any other disenfranchised youth, whether they be white, black, Muslim or Christian. People aren’t born with extremist tendencies. The 10-year-old probably thought he was one of the lucky ones when he made it to Thailand. Now he is in detention, slandered by a prime minister, and awaits possible return to the country he risked death to flee.

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Suu Kyi’s links to notorious Burmese weapons dealer exposed Tue, 15 Jan 2013 05:25:28 +0000
Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi. Maybe not as squeaky clean as people had hoped. Pic: AP.

A very interesting piece ran in The Times (UK) today under the headline, ‘Suu Kyi under fire for taking money from cronies of the former regime’. The paper cited sources from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party who admitted to “receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from companies owned by the reviled bosses”, who reportedly include Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, two of the country’s most notorious tycoons.

According to a recent Irrawaddy article, the Tay Za-owned conglomerate, Htoo Trading, donated $82,353 to NLD education and health initiaves. Suu Kyi responded to the criticism by saying that the businessmen had contributed to a good cause. “What is wrong with that? … People may have become rich in different ways. What must be investigated is whether they were involved in any illegal action to make themselves rich,” she said.

That final statement is a bizarre one for her to make, given the notoriety of the cronies. A US cable from 2009 states: “Rumors abound that Tay Za has long smuggled Chinese weapons into Burma via his aviation and trading businesses.” Another donor, Kyaw Win, who gave $158,824 to the NLD via his subsidiary company Sky Net, is closely linked with recent land confiscations, while Zaw Zaw, like the rest, had been under US and EU sanctions (the magnate’s Max Myanmar consortium is one of Burma’s biggest, and helped build the new capital Naypyidaw). Considering the backgrounds of the donors, the money may well be tainted.

Suu Kyi is believed to have met with both Tay Za and Zaw Zaw several times between her release from house arrest and election to parliament in April 2012, although it is unclear what the nature of the meetings was. The NLD has not revealed whether it probed how each donor generated the funds.

Prior to becoming a politician, the opposition icon had long supported sanctions against the former junta and its cronies who dominate the economy. In a 1997 interview she said: “Unless there is free and fair competition, there can’t be healthy economic development. And what we have in Burma now is not an open-market economy that allows free and fair competition, but a form of colonialism makes a few people very, very wealthy. It’s what you would call crony capitalism.”

The use of Tay Za’s donations are particularly irksome, considering the relationship between Burma’s military and the opposition. As well as the alleged procurement of Chinese weapons, his Myanmar Avia Company is thought to have close business ties with Russia’s major state-owned military aircraft manufacturer, MAPO. “Opposition groups and military analysts say Tay Za’s position at Avia Export made him instrumental in the military’s purchase in 2001 of 10 MiG 29 jet fighters valued at US$130 million,” said Asia Times in 2008.

At a time when the Burmese military is using air strikes on Kachin army positions in the north, and yesterday’s shelling of the town of Laiza, which killed three civilians, Suu Kyi’s attempts to shrug off the controversy will grate. During a UK parliamentary session yesterday on the attacks in Kachin state, an MP said that “the planes [used by Burmese army] are of Chinese origin and the gunships are Russian.”

The Nobel Peace Laureate has been criticized for failing to speak out on behalf of the Kachin, and her recent statements on cronies (“Give them a chance to reform”) and the military (“I have a soft spot for the army”) won’t help. Benedict Rogers, from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, thinks the revelations “disappointing for many who viewed her as a moral leader in the mould of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.”

A feeling is growing that the democracy icon is treading on increasingly thin ice – she has refused to condemn army assaults in Kachin state, and speak out on the ethno-religious crisis in Arakan state. She would do well to really tackle head on the recent criticism she has received, rather than the high-handed responses she is increasingly deploying to answer critics.

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