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Posted on Fri 10 November 2017

Burma: We need to act now to save the Rohingya

The tragedy that has unfolded on the Burma-Bangladesh border over the past two months is one that was predicted, should never have happened and should have been stopped before it reached this point. Over 600,000 people – more than half the entire Rohingya population – have now fled across the border from Burma to Bangladesh. Thousands have been killed, thousands more face starvation. The crisis has been described by the UN Secretary-General as a “catastrophe”, and by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Increasingly, international experts are warning of genocide.

We should not have got to this point. A year ago statesmen like East Timor’s former President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and the European Union’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, together with human rights activist Benedict Rogers and others, warned that violence and hatred in Burma’s Rakhine State was spiraling into a crisis “with all the hallmarks of past tragedies: Bosnia, Darfur, Kosovo, Rwanda.” A year ago, Jose Ramos-Horta and Benedict Rogers wrote in the Wall Street Journal that: “A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent.” They concluded: “It’s also time for the international community to speak out. If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first. We could end up as passive observers once again wringing our hands belatedly, saying “never again.” Let us act now before it’s too late.” A year later, it is almost too late.

Yet the stark simplicity of the ethnic cleansing and religious persecution unfolding before our eyes is matched by a more complex context. For while the desperate plight of the Rohingyas is without doubt the most grave, acute illustration of religious and racial hatred in Burma, it is not the only one.

Over the past years, it seems that a warped understanding of Buddhism has arisen in Burma, mixed with extremist nationalism and populism, a lethal cocktail that has led to an outpouring of hatred against the ‘other’. This is in keeping with the horrific trends around the world, and is in part fuelled by fear of the global rise of Islamist intolerance and terror. And the tragedy is that while until recently Burma had few problems with radical Islamism, by tugging the tail of the tiger it may well have provoked one. The failure of the international community to respond adequately to the latest potential genocide may well further fuel radicalisation of Muslims, both in Burma and elsewhere, further compounding the problem. In the 1990s,I saw for myself how the West’s failure to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia gave radical Islamists a new card to further their agenda. In 2017, the West’s failure to prevent genocide in Rakhine State might well be a new recruiting sergeant.

Yet it is vital that all this is seen in a wider context. Muslims throughout Burma – who do not identify as Rohingya – have suffered persecution. There are villages now closed off as ‘Muslim-free’ zones. Muslims, who aren’t Rohingyas, struggle to obtain identity cards. In the past five years there have been sporadic outbursts of violence against Muslims in other parts of the country, most notably in Meikthila, Oakkan, Lashio and Mandalay.

The recent report by the Burma Human Rights Network – titled “Persecution of Muslims in Burma” – confirms all this. It is vital reading.

And it is not only Muslims who suffer. For decades, Christians in Burma, especially in the ethnic states such as Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni, have been attacked. The military has targeted churches, crosses and pastors. A combination of the Burma Army and politicised Buddhist monks have lured Christian children to monasteries with a promise of education, only to then forcible convert them into novice Buddhist monks. Ten years ago, Christian Solidarity Worldwide published an excellent report, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restrictions, discrimination and persecution against Christians”. While perhaps some examples may now have declined, the truth of this report prevails.

The response from the international community: pathetic minimalism at best, apathetic inaction more often. Indeed, the few people who have spoken out have mostly been religious and civil society leaders. Pope Francis, who will be the first Pontiff ever to visit to Burma next month, has spoken out repeatedly. Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo has been one of the most courageous defenders of the Rohingyas and other Muslims in the country. Their voices, as leaders of one religious community defending the rights and dignity of another, are vital. But they deserve support from governments and political leaders around the world, not least political leaders like Aung San Suu Ki, the de facto leader of Burma, within Burma itself.

Britain has led the way, and should be applauded for bringing the crisis to the UN Security Council agenda three times. But with what action? Zilch. The European Union Foreign Minister’s statement was the epitome of what not to do. Britain has suspended military training – good. The EU has suspended visits by Generals to Europe – good. But is that all? What about a global arms embargo? What about carefully targeted sanctions to ban investment in military-owned enterprises? What about a United Nations General Assembly resolution – one not led by the Islamic world, fuelled by an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, but a united resolution, led by the West and others not in the name of any one religion or race but in the name of humanity?

The apathy, the slowness, the stupidity and the inhumanity are obvious. And the counter-productiveness of the slow response has to be seen to be believed. As Edmund Burke once said, “the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Good men and women, of every race and religion, must now do something to stop yet another ethnic cleansing culminating in a genocide, with severe collateral damage for the values of freedom of religion or belief for all. The time for action is now. Today, not tomorrow. Before it is too late.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

This article first appeared in the November 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald.