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Did the gov’t incite the racial violence targeting the Rohingya?

Following this summer’s rioting in western Burma, all eyes have been fixed on the government’s handling of the unrest in Rakhine state.  With external pressure mounting, most specifically from the Islamic world, Burmese officials – from President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw to local security troops in western Burma – have been playing ostensibly the “humanist and humanitarian” card with the Rohingya.

If the findings from various investigative missions turn out to be little more than public relations white-wash for Naypyidaw, more than a few Rohingya have expressed their concerns to me that their communities – the bulk of whom are barely surviving under the recently imposed martial law – will explode again.

When an oppressed and downtrodden people feel they have absolutely nothing more to lose but their captive lives in the iron cage of refugee camps set up by the predatory and repressive state, radicalism and violence are just a step away. After all, the Rohingyas are surrounded and outnumbered by exceedingly hostile Rakhines [Arakanese], who reportedly and repeatedly told the touring US Ambassador Derek Mitchell and his inquiry team that the Rakhines are not at all prepared to live on the same land which they in fact share with the Rohingya. Worse still, neighbouring Bangladesh has consistently slammed its gates each time there is a wave of Rohingya refugees fleeing from Burma.

Seen from the Rohingya’s perspective, the fact-finding missions – including Naypyidaw’s own team – represent more than investigative tours. They are, ultimately, the last straw for a people who feel they are drowning in the sea of Burma’s popular “Buddhist” racist nationalism.

So, naturally, the Rohingya are pinning their collective hopes on the inquiries and that the findings by the independent investigation will mark the beginning of the end of their plight as the most persecuted minority in the country and a first step towards securing humane living conditions and legal rights as citizens in Burma, where they were born and have lived for generations.

Understandably, deep anxieties over the situation remain. Already some Rohingya are expressing their concerns that Burma’s government may not be coming clean.  They point to the generals’ well-documented pattern of lying, distorting facts and manipulating domestic and international opinions during previous foreign relations crises – from the use of jailed dissidents as political bargaining chips to blocking emergency and humanitarian aid to two million cyclone victims to the slaughter of Buddhist monks during the “Loving Kindness” uprising in 2007.

For any politically and historically informed local, Rohingya victims or Burmese dissidents, Naypyidaw’s real intent behind its international cooperation with UN aid agencies, the OIC and US inquiry teams is to absolve itself of the ultimate “responsibility to protect” the most vulnerable community in the country and to reinforce its latest official spin that the plight of the Rohingya is the result of popular Buddhist racism and racial violence instigated by Rakhine nationalist extremists.

However, many locals suspect President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government was the real culprit behind the racial violence and the resurgence of the country’s popular xenophobic racist nationalism.

Independent Burmese researchers on the ground who have been engaged in below-the-radar investigations, who have spoken with local security troops made up of Rakhine and Burmese Buddhists, police officials, local eyewitnesses and Rakhine and Rohingya victims of violence, have recently uncovered fresh evidence lending credence to the Rohingya’s collective suspicion.

[pullquote] “Already some Rohingya are expressing their concerns that Burma’s government may not be coming clean” [/pullquote]

Their hitherto unpublicised evidence pokes gaping holes in the Thein Sein government’s official narrative that claims the racial violence was the result of simmering sectarian hostilities.  Most troublingly during Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to the US, she, who along with her senior NLD colleagues was the target of the regime-orchestrated mob violence at Depayin in May 2003, repeated with shocking naivety Naypyidaw’s deceptive narrative – that the latest wave of state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya was “sectarian”.   She should know better.  In fact, the findings by the team of my in-country research collaborators point to a very real possibility that Naypyidaw manufactured the trigger for the worst ethno-religious violence in Burma since the military came to power in 1962.

To start off with, what these local researchers have uncovered calls into question Naypyidaw’s official narrative about how and why the Rakhine-Rohingya ethnic conflict started.  For instance, according to the official state newspaper the New Light of Myanmar (dated 4 June) and the government’s official report entitled: “Situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar” issued by the Ministry of Border affairs, the news of the unspeakable rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman, named Ms Thida Htwe, on 28 May by three Muslim men, triggered the initial mob violence in Rakhine state five days later.

What followed was the violent murder of ten out-of-state Muslim pilgrims who were dragged onto a busy town street from an inter-state bus and slaughtered by a mob in broad day light in the predominantly Rakhine Buddhist state in western Burma.

In sharp contrast, the government doctor, a civil servant by definition, who under duress signed the official post mortem report on Ms Thida Htwe said, in no uncertain terms, to one of the in-country Burmese researchers that there was no trace of rape on her murdered body.

Why then did Myanmar’s Ministry of Information which micro-manages all official publications and broadcasts went on to characterise incorrectly the three perpetrators as ‘Muslims’ whereas in fact one of them, Mr Htet Htet, was a Buddhist?

Additionally, why did the Ministry go with the fabricated medical report about Ma Thida Htwe, which made the patently false claim that she suffered violent sexual assault before being looted and murdered?

Rape as a violent crime may be prevalent in all societies.  In Burmese society, of all the crimes, rape is considered the absolute worst. Rapists are reviled.  Once in jail, they are taunted and physically attacked even by other inmates.

So what was the rationale behind the Ministry of Information amplifying, without verifying, the fabricated local notice reportedly put out by local anti-Rohingya Rakhine extremists, that “Muslim men intentionally raped a Rakhine Buddhist woman”, when it published the fabricated story approvingly in the Burmese and English language official mouth pieces on 4 June?

Even more curiously, the authorities declared that Htet Htet committed suicide in police custody, awaiting his trial.  Burmese jails and police interrogation centres are infamous for the torture and deaths that occur in their halls, not inmates’ successful suicide attempts.  Thousands of the country’s former political prisoners will attest to the impossibility of taking one’s own life behind bars.

Something even more mysterious seems afoot.

Three days after President Thein Sein authorised the formation of a Rohingya-Rakhine Riot Inquiry Commission made up of prominent public figures including dissidents and academics, Htet Htet’s widowed wife was found dead in a well.  Did she accidentally fall into the well and drown?  Or was there something dodgy going on?

Furthermore, according to the official narrative, the Buddhist Rakhine mob killing on 3 June of ten Muslim pilgrims during the former’s return bus trip from Rakhine state to Rangoon was in response to and as a retaliation against one Rakhine woman being gang-raped by “three Muslims” on 28 May.

According to local eyewitnesses interviewed by Burmese researchers, there were altogether six buses travelling on the same route at about the same time on 3 June.  And yet, the mob – about 300 men, according to the estimate by the official Myanmar News Agency (New Light of Myanmar, 4 Jun) – seemed to have known exactly which bus to attack.

Recently, I pressed an official from Burma as to why no one has been arrested, tried or charged by the authorities for the slaughter of the ten Muslim men.  According to the local official, the Rakhine refused to collaborate with any police investigation.  No one would come forward to share any information about who might be involved in actual killings of the ten innocent Muslim men.

But successive military regimes in Myanmar have never needed eyewitnesses to arrest and jail political dissidents.  For they spend an inordinate amount of resources, in monitoring, photographing and videoing any mob formation or mob action.  In 2005 and 2006, I spent a little over one month in total as a “guest of the military government” in officers’ guesthouses in military intelligence depots in Rangoon and Mandalay.  Every morning I saw young intelligence agents leaving various units, carrying point-and-shoot digital cameras in small shoulder bags in order to record the day’s events – especially in public spaces such as markets, bus and train stations and other surveillance spots.

Why have the authorities not tried to access photographic evidence or video records of the 3rd June slaughter of Muslims on the streets in broad day light, which they must certainly have in their police and intelligence archives? Perpetrators who would have been most certainly caught on either intelligence digital cameras or video cameras could easily be identified.

Judging from Naypyidaw’s official inaction, the regime doesn’t want to see justice carried out, insofar as the slaughter of the Muslims is concerned.  There is then little wonder that President Thein Sein’s government is said to be stonewalling any and all attempts even by its own Riot Inquiry Commission to conduct proper investigation into the racial violence.  Deceptively, during his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, Thein Sein showcased the multi-faith, multi-ethnic make-up of his Inquiry team, emphasing how esteemed the bulk of the presidential commissioners are.

According to the sources close to the Commission, the Ministry of Border Affairs in charge of Rohingya matters has so far failed to grant the Commission’s request to allow unfettered access to security forces stationed in western Burma. They have also failed to provide immunity for any Rohingya and Rakhine interviewees and have blocked access to the two remaining Muslim men behind bars who were convicted of the alleged rape and murder of the Rakhine woman.

Instead, Naypyidaw has transferred many key commanders and officers in charge of various security units from western Burma to remote areas such as Hpa’an in Karen state, thereby making it more difficult for the Commission to do a thorough job before its November deadline.

It seems as if Thein Sein’s government has decided that a serious investigation led by Burmese nationals on its own official commission has greater potential to get to the bottom of the racial violence that erupted in western Burma. Local Commissioners are certainly best positioned to excavate not only the mass graves, if there are any, but also to uncover the ugly truths about how President Thein Sein’s government may have manufactured the triggers that prompted the sectarian violence.

More specifically, the government wouldn’t want its direct involvement exposed, domestically and internationally, in terms not only of the security forces opening fire on the Rohingya, slaughtering them in the hundreds, but also in its central role in lighting the fire of sectarian violence that targeted the Rohingya.

One regime official recently told me, “the bottom-line is we don’t want any more ‘Mus’ (a coded reference to the Muslims amongst military officers) in our country.  But we can’t possibly kill them all”.  So, did the reformist government in Naypyidaw decide to outsource the job of cleansing the Golden Land of Burma of the unwanted Muslim Rohingyas to the extremist Rakhines?

Whatever the findings by various independent investigative missions concludes concerning how and why the worst racial violence in the country’s modern political history kicked off, the OIC’s fact-finding mission and Burma’s own Presidential Riot Inquiry Commission should demand that Burma government cooperates fully with both its own national fact-finders and all independent international investigators.

Further, they should press President Thein Sein’s government to guarantee the physical safety of fact-finders, especially the Burmese locals; provide unfettered access to security troops for interviews; offer the local Rakhine and Rohingya eyewitnesses unequivocal and official safeguards; and make available all relevant intelligence reports.

It is in the all-around interest of Burmese society and the government, as well as the international community to prevent any political and international scenario where Rohingyas feel, quite rightly, the world has abandoned them at the hands of the racist majority and their militarist government now wearing civilian garb.

Truthful reports by various inquiry commissions and missions can and will go a long way towards restoring a glimmer of hope in the world’s most persecuted minority community, if the investigators are able to get to the bottom of the recent large-scale racial violence, which left nearly 100,000 both homeless and hopeless.

– Dr Maung Zarni is one of the veteran founders of the Free Burma Coalition and a Visiting Fellow (2011-13) with Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics

Editor’s note: At the request of the author, Myanmar and Burma have been used where appropriate in the eyes of the author rather than either Burma or Myanmar exclusively.

– The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.



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