Persecution of Muslims in
Myanmar and the Role of the OIC
Dr. Mozammel Haque
Rohingya Muslims who have been living in Myanmar (Burma) for centuries, are declared foreigners by the enactment of new Citizenship Law. This citizenship law is the root cause of the present religious persecution against and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
“The claim that the Rohingyas are foreigners is a despicable lie — the first written mention of Rohingyas in Rakhine dates back to 1799,” wrote Gwynne Dyer. Still on the flimsy and unsubstantial ground of citizenship, Burmese governments are throwing them out of the country. Only two-thirds of the country’s 60 million people are actually ethnic Burmese, living mostly in the Irrawaddy river basin. All around the frontiers are large ethnic minorities — Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin — most of which have fought against the centralizing policies of the military dictatorship in the past.
The Muslim 5 percent, Chinese 2.5 percent and Indian 1.5 percent minorities live right amongst the ethnic Burmese majority. So far only the Muslims have been targeted; first, sectarian violence erupted in western Rakhine state last year killed hundreds and drove more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes, intensifying long-running persecution of the stateless minority group. In an ominous development, Muslim-Buddhist violence spread in March last year to central Myanmar.
Persecution of Rohingya Muslims
Last year at least 180 people were killed in the western state of Rakhine in clashes between local Buddhists and Rohingya. Scores of Muslims have been killed and their homes and properties burnt, in addition to the burning of eight mosques and a number of schools. More than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee the ethnic cleansing and took shelter in the neighbouring countries. There are many Rohingya Muslim refugees in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr. Wakar Uddin, Director-General of Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU), the voice of Rohingya for political and human rights in Myanmar, said that among all the refugees around the world, Saudi Arabia is the only country giving residency to over 500,000 Burmese refugees. Malaysia is also trying to give the Rohingyas a better status as also Pakistan, which has more than 400, 000 refugees.
The resurgence of religious persecution in Meikhtila was the first of its kind in Myanmar (Burma) since two similar bouts of bloodshed shook Western Rakhine state last year and its spread highlights the Government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country, where even monks have staged anti-Muslim rallies and called on their supports to drive out opponents with arms. Meikhtila is a trading town of 100,000 people at the centre of the country, with an army base and no history of sectarian violence. The town's Muslims of Indian descent, who make up 30 per cent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have no links to the stateless Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, they have a long and peaceful lineage here.
State media in Myanmar reported on 30 March 2013 that the death toll from communal violence in the centre of the country over the past 10 days has risen to 43, with more than 1,300 homes and buildings destroyed.
History of religious violence
Myanmar's Muslims – largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent – account for an estimated four per cent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted census in three decades. Religious violence has occasionally broken out in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions. Since violence erupted there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingyas including a growing number of women and children have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.
Occasional isolated religious violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred in the country for decades, even under the authoritarian military government that ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011. During the long era of authoritarian rule military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes had occurred elsewhere. But tensions have heightened since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the Western state of Rakhine last year that killed at least 180 people and more than 110,000 displaced.
Rohingya Muslims and the Role of the OIC
“Such violence cannot continue. It is unacceptable and provides a clear indication of the negative approach the Myanmar government is adopting in addressing the ethnic tensions,” said Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Pan-Muslim organisation, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He pressed the government of Myanmar “to put an end to the Buddhist extremists and hate campaigns, as well as ethnic cleansing that they have launched against Muslims in the country.”
Professor Ihsanoglu blamed the Myanmar government for being uncooperative with the international community's request to end the violence and come up with solutions. “We have knocked on every door to raise awareness and let the international community know about it. Last week, I addressed that issue at the Arab League Summit,” he said.
The OIC Secretary General said the Organization was “ready to take all necessary measures and actions” in dealing with the impending crisis. “The OIC intends to raise the issue in the Security Council and the Human Rights Council to find a solution that contributes to putting an end to religious persecution against Muslims in Myanmar. The OIC has previously tried to contact government officials in Myanmar to no avail. There has also been an Egyptian proposition to send a special delegation headed by the Secretary General of the OIC, and includes a number of foreign ministers of member countries to Myanmar, but this visit has been postponed. The OIC attempted to open an office in Myanmar over the past year to supply aid to Muslims in Myanmar but extremist Buddhists demonstrated against this attempt,” an OIC official told Arab News, an English daily of Saudi Arabia.
“There’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” President Barack Obama said last year while addressing students at Yangon University. Obama’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a serving US president, came after two major outbreaks of violence beginning in June 2012.
OIC Launches Global Rohingya Centre
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) officially launched on 14 April, 2013 the Global Rohingya Center (GRC) to advocate for the rights of the Rohingya people and to improve their living conditions in their places of residence. The GRC was launched under the aegis of Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the pan-Muslim organization, who expressed deep concern at the spreading violence against Muslims in Myanmar at the hands of extremist Buddhists. He said violence in Arakane, in the west of the country, continues uninterrupted since last June and has spread to other cities, particularly the city of Meikhtilar in Mandalay region.
The center will also be a media resource providing crucial knowledge and up-to-date information to facilitate an accurate and in-depth reporting on Rohingya issues. The center will also assist international organizations in developing plans to deliver assistance to alleviate the plight of the persecuted community.
In his speech at the emergency OIC Contact Group meeting on Rohingya Muslim minority, Ihsanoglu called on member states of the Contact Group to take action through communication with the international community to implement recommendations of the OIC Islamic Summit held in Makkah. “Despite our attempts to establish communication with the authorities in Myanmar by selecting a prominent figure from a neighboring country to visit Myanmar and open discussions with officials, the government was not responsive,” he said. OIC chief Ihsanoglu also suggested requesting OIC member states which are members in the Contact Group and which have diplomatic missions in Myanmar to use their good offices to put this issue forward, expressing readiness of the OIC to continue coordination and render necessary support to improve the conditions of Muslims in Myanmar until they regain all their legitimate rights.
Professor Ihsanoglu told Jeddah-based English daily, Saudi Gazette, that the OIC will ask the United Nations Human Rights Council to send fact-finding mission to investigate all human rights violations in Myanmar.
OIC Secretary General wrote letter to
In a letter sent through his special envoy, OIC Secretary General Ihsanoglu told Myanmar President Thein Sein that the organization, on behalf of the 57 heads of the member states, is ready to assist in reaching a long-term solution to problems of Muslims in Myanmar. In the letter, the secretary-general said the OIC is ready to assist in any way to reach a long-term solution for the existing and emerging problems of all Muslims in Myanmar, who deserve nothing less than the basic rights accorded to any citizen of Myanmar, including access to urgent humanitarian assistance.
The special envoy delivered the letter to Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and during the meeting discussions focused on the importance of the Secretary-General’s visit to Myanmar and the Contact Group on Myanmar. “We believe that a long-term solution to the problems of the Rohingya Muslims can only be found through the restoration of their legal status and the recognition of their birth right, including citizenship,” said Ihsanoglu.
Professor Ihsanoglu said the targeting of Muslims in central Myanmar during the last week of March and last week of April has been a particularly worrying development for the reason that unlike the Rohingya Muslims, the recent events involved Muslims who are integrated in the Myanmarese society with full citizenship rights in areas outside the Rakhine region. “We are concerned that what was once considered as a case of inter-communal violence confined to one part of Myanmar now has the danger of spreading throughout the country,” Ihsanoglu said.
The OIC chief said that with the cooperation of the authorities in Myanmar, OIC member states would be willing to establish a collaborative mechanism with Myanmar to provide economic and humanitarian assistance to all those in need, confidence building between communities, interfaith dialogue and technical expertise to assist Myanmar in its democratic transition and integration into the international community Ihsanoglu said the organization will continue to support all efforts and national and international initiatives that aim to find permanent and peaceful solutions to problems in Myanmar. It calls for the return of refugees and the reinstatement of their rights.
Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) Conference in Jeddah
In July, 2013, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation held the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) Conference at its headquarters in Jeddah. The charter of the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) was submitted to the members for discussion in preparation for its adoption. The agenda of the conference also included introduction of the current and new members of the Union, which was established by the OIC in May 2011 to unite the Rohingya refugees around the world.
Waqar uddin, Director General of the first session of the Union, presented his report on ARU’s achievements. The conference looked into the strategy and action plan of the Union in the next session, in addition to electing officials and the formation of the Supreme Council, the committees and advisory board.
OIC Delegation to Myanmar
Last November, 2013, the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and his accompanying delegation from seven-member states met with Ney Pyi Dew, the Vice President of Myanmar and the Chairman of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace and Solidarity and Development in Rakhine state, Dr. Sai Mank Khan, and the Vice Speaker of the People’s Parliament, Nanda Kyawswar . The meeting was attended by seven parliament members including two Muslims.
The visit came at the invitation of a government that has largely remained silent about the repeated attacks on minority Muslims. Professor Ihsanoglu said he received assurances that the government was seeking to resolve issues of citizenship for its 800,000 Rohingya, but gave no details.
Professor Ihsanoglu, the OIC Secretary General, urged both Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar to build confidence and mutual trust in each other for a peaceful co-existence. He made this comment while speaking to residents at the internally displaced people’s camps in the restive Rakhine state in Myanmar.
In his dialogue with members of the Rakhine Buddhists, Ihsanoglu repeatedly stressed that the OIC is not a religious organisation and was not in Myanmar to spread Islam or to help Muslims only, but to help all peoples affected by violence without discrimination.” The statement said.
The OIC delegation expressed its readiness to contribute to the ongoing humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance to all affected people and communities, including Rakhine State. They also stressed on the need to clarify the misunderstandings on both sides.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is keen on opening direct channels of communication and dialogue with Myanmar, and as the official representative of the Muslim world, is in a position to cooperate and contribute to the socioeconomic development programme in Myanmar, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu has said.
Ihsanoglu, currently in Myanmar leading a seven-member delegation to the country, also emphasized the need to promote human rights and expressed concern over the violations of Rohingya and other Muslims' rights.
The OIC delegation members pressed for unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all affected people and communities, including Rakhine State, without any discrimination. The delegation also had a meeting with the Interfaith Friendship Group, which had two representatives of four religious groups in Myanmar — Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian. They exchanged views on the root causes of the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine and how to work together to build trust and harmony in the community.
The Associated Press reported from Yangoon, Myanmar that the Secretary General of the world’s largest bloc of Islamic countries said emotional visits with members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim community — chased from their homes in Myanmar by Buddhist mobs and arsonists — brought him to tears. “I’ve never had such a feeling,” Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said, as he and other delegates from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation wrapped up a three-day tour to Myanmar that included talks with the president, government ministers, interfaith groups and UN agencies.
It was also reported that many children in displacement camps have not gone to school for more than a year. Those who wish to leave — for medical treatment or otherwise — have to pay hefty bribes. Humanitarian aid workers face constant threats by Buddhist Rakhine, who accuse them of being biased in favor of Rohingya.
Ihsanoglu said that while visiting the Sittwe camps, he and other members of the IOC delegation were met by crowds of 5,000, but due to the language barrier, they were unable to communicate. “They were desperate. They were afraid. They were happy we were there, but it was a happiness expressed in crying,” he said, adding that he was eventually able to offer the Islamic greeting, “Assalam Alaikum,” or “May God grant protection and security,” and the crowd responded in kind.
The Rohingya Muslims are facing persecution at the hands of the majority Buddhist community. The perpetuation of a ruthless ethnic cleansing which has been going on in Myanmar is barbarous to say the least. It is so strange that the international community and organisations particularly the United Nations is doing nothing to address the issue. According to various reports available on the internet, a slow burning genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is under way.
Expressing serious concern over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the UN General Assembly has recently urged Myanmar government to take action on the reported abuses of human rights there. A month before, the UN body in a unanimous resolution had called upon the government of Myanmar to take affirmative action to bring about improvement in the situation of the Rohingya Muslims including their right to nationality. Unfortunately, even a purely humanitarian appeal was termed by the Myanmar government as containing a “litany of sweeping allegations, accuracies of which have yet to be verified.”
There have been outcries from the international humanitarian bodies, human rights groups, some governments in Europe and North America over the issue. Such pressure from the international quarters should persuade the Myanmar government, which is on a democratic path, to treat Rohingyas fully and squarely as their citizens.
Reform Citizenship Laws
As I said at the beginning of this wrote-up, the root cause of this present violence and persecution is the citizenship law which should be reformed to accommodate the people who have been living in Myanmar (Burma) for centuries. “Yes, the crux of the problem lies in denial of “dignity” or citizenship to Rohingyas. In fact, continued denial of citizenship for the Rohingya and discriminatory practices against them are two sides of the same coin, editorially commented by Saudi Gazette, Jeddah and added, “Far too long, the world community has behaved as though this is a Bangladesh problem because Rohingya are mostly of Bengali origin. Far too long, the UN has been indulgent toward the junta in Myanmar just as the government in Yangon has been turning a blind eye to the activities of Buddhist extremists.” (Ethnic Violence in Myanmar, editorial, Saudi Gazette, 01 April, 2013.)
“This has to stop. The UN has to do some plain speaking to Myanmar backed by credible threats if it continues to fail in its primary duty: Giving protection to the person and property of its most vulnerable sections of the people,” the editorial urged.
The perpetual suffering of the Rohingya people must end. They should be given their due rights and dignity. No normalization with Rangoon when innocent men, women and children are being burned alive in their own homes. This injustice needs to be known to the world and serious, organized and determined efforts must follow to bring the persecution of the Rohingya people to an end.
International community should use their leverage on the Myanmar government to respect UN resolution, allow humanitarian aid to reach the victims of riots and consider giving them citizenship sooner rather than later.