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Burmas Persecuted Muslims | The Times

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Burmas Persecuted Muslims

Amid an easing of political repression, there is horrifying communal violence

Published at 12:01AM, April 2 2013

After nearly half a century of dictatorship and impoverishment, Burma suddenly embarked on internal reforms in 2010. Progress has been moderate but sustained, with greater openness, the lifting of press censorship and the freeing of political prisoners (most prominently Aung San Suu Kyi). But one distressing and brutal feature of life in Burma remains: violence against civilians. Satellite photographs released by Human Rights Watch, the campaign group, show widespread destruction in the central city of Meiktila. Riots directed against Muslims broke out last month. Over three days, more than 40 people were killed, scores more were injured and thousands were driven from their homes. The photographs show the scene before and after the riots. An area of some 24 hectares has been razed, with row upon row of houses attacked and burnt. Meiktila is only the latest instance of violent persecution of Burmas Muslims. State media have reported more than 160 outbreaks of violence in 15 townships. It is scarcely conceivable that the police have had neither warning nor the ability to pacify the violence in any of these cases, and there have been few arrests. These attacks are not some spontaneous and unpredictable uprising, nor are they adequately described as communal violence. They are evidence of what was known in Bosnia 20 years ago as ethnic cleansing itself a euphemism, whose chilling reality of expulsion and murder was nonetheless impossible to obscure. The worst attacks have happened in Rakhine State, on the Western coast of Burma. It is home to a Muslim and stateless minority called the Rohingya. After the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman a year ago, rioting directed against the Rohingya Muslims killed hundreds. As many as 100,000 Muslims may have fled their homes in Sittwe, the state capital. Refugees have been living in squalid conditions for months. The Muslim victims in Meiktila are not Rohingya but a long-established population whose descendants came from India. Though tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have existed for decades, the ferocity of the violence is something new. President Thein Sein has said that there will be a stern response,


Burmas Persecuted Muslims | The Times

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and so there must be. But the story is still more disturbing than he implies. There are strong indications that the displacement of Muslims is intended to be Share via permanent, and that the traces of Muslim life and worship are being eradicated with official connivance. That is another disturbing respect in which the Bosnian catastrophe offers an augury. Xenophobia and ethnic expulsion were tolerated and then promoted; and utter horror was in the end visited upon a European Muslim population. Burmas authorities need not only to declare that the lives and livelihoods of Muslims will be safeguarded. They should acknowledge that the Muslims in Burma are not an alien population but a people with rights, whose displacement should be reversed. So should Ms Suu Kyi, whose heroism in standing against the oppression of Burmas military regime has sadly not been matched by any vocal stand in defence of persecuted Muslims. Countries, including the UK, that have made openings to Burma in the new political environment should use their diplomatic weight. The victims of violence and arson need protection. Burmas security forces, which have so grievously failed, need to start providing it.
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Derek Tonkin

40 minutes ago

There is currently much speculation about the origins of the Muslim population of Meiktila. Recent visitors there generally agree that the Muslim families go back several generations and are of 19th Century Indian origin. But whether most of them came originally from Bengal (like the 'Rohingya') or from further north in India is not altogether clear. The 1940 Baxter Report of the Burmese Government on Indian immigration listed Meiktila as one of five towns in Upper Burma with a sizeable "Indian" population. By the 1930s there were already serious outbreaks of communal violence in Burma resulting from uncontrolled migration from India into Burma. At one point there were more Indians - Hindus and Muslims - living in Rangoon than Burmese. The Baxter Report recommendations on


Burmas Persecuted Muslims | The Times

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immigration controls were accepted by the Governments of Burma and India, but the Japanese invaded in 1941 before the new agreement could be put into effect. It is right that Britain should use its diplomatic weight with Myanmar over the failure to protect Muslim communities in Arakan (Rakhine State) and Meiktila. But let us at the same time bear in mind our historical share of responsibility for uncontrolled Indian migration into Burma. What suited the British didn't necessarily please the indigenous population.
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Alan Hawkes

3 hours ago

How sad to see that an icon of liberty can have feet of clay, once they become part of the political process.
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