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July 7, 2012

Burma’s massacres and the world’s conscience

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

Burma is located in Southeast Asia covering an area of more 250,000 square miles and with a population of more than 60 million people. In recent history it was under British rule from 1886 until 1948, and Burma is a country that never been part of the Commonwealth after the departure of the British.

During the British rule, many people from nearby countries, especially from India, came to Burma. But many Muslims have been in the country for centuries. Burma’s main religion is Buddhism with about 4 percent Muslims and other minorities. The foreigners who came to Burma started to dominate running the services in the country.

They were met with extreme resistance and violence. Burma was and still is one of the poorest countries with one of the lowest GDP and per capita in the world. Burma never caught up with the other Southeast Asian countries in regard to development and economic advances, even thought it  far  more rich resources than some of the Southeast Asian countries. Burma drastically declined in development. It moved from a free market to a Soviet style governing body.
The economy of Burma used to be the strongest among Southeast Asian countries. They were the world largest exporter of rice and it has a lot of untouched forests with the best teak. But poor planning and mismanagement brought economic and social disaster to the people of Burma, and with poverty and lack of education, the country went into chaos.

The recent outbreak of violence is spreading even with  of Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition, who spoke to many world leaders about the situation in her country.
But the atrocities against Muslim minorities had been going on for a long time. It has to be dealt with once and for all. The northern area is only one part of the violence. The chaos is spreading and there is fear that an all out civil war can be near. The president of Burma, Thein Sein, has no control over his own armed forces. He was pressured by the west to calm down his own forces, but, the field commanders are not obeying his orders.

Now Muslim minorities started to leave Burma out of fear. Many of the refugees went to neighboring Bangladesh, but their treatment is not far better than when they were back in Burma. And many more refugees went to China, but the areas are not receiving any aid and now there is fear of wide spread starvation and diseases.

The violence in Burma is widespread with summary executions, torture and rape. The situation of the Muslim minorities is more complicated because they are not recognized as citizens and any scope of any reconciliation will not give them any protection. And it is very difficult to get any information about any solid agreement for the protection of Muslims because the country is very isolated.

The Muslim ethnic group, which is called Rohingya, has always been under constant threats and the massacres and it had been going on for so long, the world simply ignored the whole thing. The Muslims in Burma had been living like refugees in very desperate conditions and they are basically stateless people. And they are not allowed to own land and not allowed to travel outside their area (Rakhine). The world has to look at the Muslim minorities in Burma with serious steps to solve their chronic problem. The Rohingyas who live in the northern part of Burma are always called Bengalis regardless of his origin.
Because most of the fleeing Muslim Burmese are heading to Bangladesh, a country considered one of the poorest countries in the world, will not be able to accommodate or take care of the refugees. Also Bangladesh is having political problem of their own and don’t want to be dragged into a direct conflict with Burmese armed forces. The Burmese army did in fact attack the Bangladishi border in their efforts to pursue some Rohingyas.

Now, the situation in Burma is deteriorating for the Muslim minority and the official announcement about the reason behind the riots is not an excuse for many years of mistreatment of Muslims.
The Burmese government officials said the reason for the attacks on Muslims is because of the attack and rape by three Muslims of Buddhist women, but these attacks had been the norm for many years. Now the United Nations must to find a way to solve the suffering of the more than a million Muslims in Burma. There is an urgent need for medical supplies and food aid. And the only visible assistance came through some Saudi doctors who wanted to help, but there are many difficulties, which hamper their efforts. The number of people in need is very large and the access to where the refugees is very difficult to reach and hard to track. Burma is very isolated and very poor in every basic infrastructure.

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is Commodore (Retd.) of Royal Saudi Navy.