When I revealed my blog at a journal club meeting I also made the offer to publish writings by my colleagues. I did get one response to that in the form of a email containing some horrific images of violence from Burma/Myanmar where, in June, there were violent clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and the minority Islamic Rohingya. I’m not publishing the email here as it was just a forwarded email consisting primarily of pictures and a number of those pictures are far more graphic than I’m comfortable uploading. I did however find the topic to be worth pursuing and so below I’m posting a summary of the conflict and my take on the matter.
The majority of my summary comes from Human Rights Watch and the Wikipedia article on the riots. It appears that the incident was kicked off when three Muslims raped and murdered a Arakan woman. This incident is conspicuously absent from the account given by the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BRO-UK). In retaliation, a group of Arakan villagers stopped a bus, which they supposedly believed was carrying the criminals, and murdered 10 Muslims on board. Although the police and military witnessed the killing they did not take any action, though subsequently it has been reported that 30 people were arrested in connection with the murders.
Human Rights Watch and Wikipedia both agree that the next incident happened a few days later when the Rohingya began to riots, setting fire to a number of houses and killing some Arakan villagers. Again, BRO-UK gives a different account with no mention of any Muslim violence and characterising the event as a peaceful prayer march that was attacked by security forces. I’m far more inclined to trust Human Rights Watch than an organisation with an obvious bias and I’m putting the differing account up purely for interest’s sake. After that riots spread through Rakhine State, committed both by Rohingya and Arakan. At this point it seems the BRO-UK account starts matching the other reports in that the Burmese military does appear to have been complicit in the rape and killing of the Rohingya and the media contributed to the violence with by fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment.
In the end at least 90 people were killed (650 according to BRO-UK) and 100 000 were displaced. The displaced Arakan are in a much better position than the Rohingya who are still discriminated against by the government and Burmese authorities and Arakan villagers have hampered humanitarian aid to them. Even before this violence the Rohingya were in a terrible situation. Since 1982 the Burmese government has denied them citizenship (even though some families have lived in the country for centuries), denied them the right to own property, prevented them from travelling freely and restricted how many children they may have.
So what lessons can we learn from this? There are multiple lessons and I’m sure the few I highlight here are not the only ones.
Firstly, there needs to be pressure on Burma to improve the state of human rights in the country. It has only been democratic since 2010 so it’s not surprising things are bad but it isn’t acceptable for people to be treated the way the Rohingya are currently treated and it’s certainly not right that the military and police stand idly by as a 10 people are murdered in front of them.
Secondly, some people will no doubt be surprised that a lot of the violence was conducted by Buddhists. Some people see Islam as a violent religion and Buddhism as peaceful one but that’s not true. In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens included a chapter, There is no Eastern Solution, addressing just that. Buddhists and Hindus, just like adherents of other religions, are more than capable of violence and have been the cause of violence before. We mustn’t just ignore these events.
Lastly, we shouldn’t just blame this on religion. While that would be easy it would overlook that religion is just one of the factors involved, a convenient label. This is also a problem of nationalism. The Rohingya are not considered to be Burmese citizens and so the Arakan (who aren’t the major ethnic group in Burma either) have no problem trying to force them out of the country and discriminate against them. Most of the displaced Rohingya tried to flee to Bangladesh, where Islam is the state religion and 90% of the population practices it. You might then think that the Bangladeshi government would be prepared to help them as compassion is meant to be a central message of Islam and giving to the poor and needy (which refugees are) should fall under Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam. However what actually happened was that the authorities forced the refugees back out to see in rickety wooden boats during the monsoon, which was also in violation of international human rights obligations.
We, in South Africa, also need to look at what has happened in Burma and make sure that it doesn’t happen here as well. We also once had certain members of the population that weren’t considered to be proper citizens and we also have problems with violence directed at those from other countries. This year at least eight foreigners were injured and more than 40 foreign-owned shops and businesses have been burnt down. This isn’t just a problem with the average citizen. The Department of Home Affairs has been turning away refugees in Cape Town in violation of a high court ruling!
I’ve said it before but we need to move away from the divisional attitudes that treat people as Buddhist or Muslim, South African or foreigner. We are all human beings and we all have value. We need to learn to tolerate differences, solve problems in a way other than through violence and treat each other with some basic compassion. Would you like if someone burned your house because you had a different religion or because someone of your religion committed a crime? No? Then don’t do it to others. If you were forced to flee your country would you want to be offered a safe haven? Yes? Then do that for other people too. All you need to do is think how you would want to be treated when if you found yourself in the other person’s situation and then act in that manner.
Edit: There are also a number of pictures floating around (some of which were in the email I received) that are supposedly from the Burma riots but they are not.