Rakhine conflict proof of Burma’s ingrained racism, says academic


20 August 2012, ABC

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the setting up of a commission in Burma to investigate recent sectarian violence in the country’s west.

Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has announced an inquiry into the clashes in Rakhine state, where scores of people were killed and tens of thousands displaced by the violence in May and June.

He had earlier rejected United Nations calls for an independent investigation.

The establishment of the government commission came as news emerged about fresh clashes in the region.

Correspondent: Katie Hamann

Speaker: Dr Muang Zarni, London School of Economics

HAMANN: Whilst the west has gleefully embraced the idea of a Burmese democracy an ugly struggle has been building in the country’s west. At least ninety people are thought to have died since fighting broke out between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine in June.
Burmese scholar Dr Muang Zarni is a visiting fellow at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics. He is also a practising Buddhist and says the conflict in Rakhine state is symptomatic of deeply ingrained racism within Burmese society.

ZARNI: The NLD leadership, even the most senior people, who’ve spent years in jail, are racist, without knowing they’re racist and anti-Khalar. Khalar is the Burmese equivalent of the word ‘nigger’. And this is at the very top of the NLD leadership. From their perspective, it’s all about illegal migration from Bangladesh, that is suffering from population explosion.

HAMANN: In a report released earlier this month Human Rights Watch accused security forces of failing to defuse growing tensions between communities and standing by whilst mobs raised villages and attacked each other. They say the conflict has displaced as many as 100,000 people who remain in dire need of food, shelter and medical assistance.

Dr Zarni says there could be a more sinister explanation for the failure of the security forces.

ZARNI: There is evidence, very strong evidence emerging, from different sources, that the Burmese regime in Naypyidaw itself has a hand in whipping up this conflict.

HAMANN: Nobel Peace Prize winner and Democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for her failure to openly comment on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. When asked if they should be granted Burmese citizenship during her recent trip to Europe, Ms Suu Kyi said she didn’t know. Many Rohingya Muslims have been settled in Burma for generations. Despite this, they need permission to marry, have more than two children and travel beyond their villages.
Dr Zarni says Ms Suu Kyi is now an elected representative and focussed on re-election in 2015.

ZARNI: If Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were to beat the military-backed proxy political party, in the 2015 elections, they will need to win in a landslide. Nothing short of a landslide will give them a chance to attempt to change the Constitution. So in other words, Ms Suu Kyi needs to keep the Burmese majority happy, ideologically, and that requires that she stays clear of the Rohingya issue, regardless of whether it’s a direct challenge to her image as a human rights champion.

HAMANN: The conflict threatens to engulf the region as yet more Rohingya refugees pour over the border into Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s Awami League-led coalition government has declared it wants to empty its overcrowded camps and send the Rohingya back to Burma. Meanwhile, much of the global response has come from the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has accused Burma of embarking on a campaign of ethnic cleansing and Islamic hardliners in Indonesia and Pakistan have threatened attacks against the government.

Dr Zarni says the world must act, because no one inside Burma is interested in protecting the Rohingya.

ZARNI: The racism against the Muslims in general, in Burma is pervasive across the majority, minority, civilian, military and class lines. And that is one of the scariest and most troubling aspects of this social transition in Burma. And the West has not spoken out against this issue, because the West is desperate to push its own strategic and commercial agenda in Burma. So what we have heard over the past one year or so, is that "Burma is a modern transitional democracy." And so now, the Burmese democratic transition is bringing about not necessarily concrete and irreversible democratisation process but the most ugly racism the world is witnessing.

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