Burma Issues May 1996


And We Always Thought We Were Burmese Too! by KR

Around 87% of Burma's people are Buddhists. Christians (4.5%) and Muslims (4%) make up small but solid minorities, represented mostly in rural areas among Burma's many ethnic groups. An even smaller minority is Hindu (1.5%) and the Jewish congregation numbers 40 - just 8 families in Rangoon.

The western state of Rakhine which shares a border with Bangladesh, is home to a large Muslim population. The Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands in 1978 and 1991 to escape the appalling abuses being levelled against them. Forced relocations, suppression of their culture and thousands of disappearances resulted in the exoduses. Their repatriation, now under the supervision of UNHCR, fills many Muslims with fear and trepidation as the abuses continue.

Muslim shopkeepers in Rangoon have occupied the same commercial areas for generations, but in a clean - up operation for 'Visit Myanmar Year', they are being forced to sell up shop and their land (prime real estate) is being confiscated by the SLORC. Two thousand Muslim shopkeepers are being offered the choice of buying land out of town for grossly inflated prices or simply moving on. This is the third time in four years that such a land grab has occured.

In Burma, if you cannot trace your Burmese ancestry back to a time prior to British rule then you cannot claim status as an indigenous group and you are denied the rights of citizenship, such as they are. Most Muslims in Burma arrived during British rule, when the British rulers were looking for an educated middle class to be the foundation of the public service. The exoduses to Bangladesh and the confiscation of lands in Rangoon must be seen in this light. To the SLORC, these people do not belong in Burma anyway and even the flight of the Rohinga was originally described as an expulsion of illegal immigrants.

This abuse of Muslim peoples has extended to their places of worship. At three Pagodas Pass in the east, the SLORC took over a mosque with a congregation of a thousand worshippers and is now using it as a base. In the west in Arakan, a holy site, the Jamme Mosque, was demolished by the SLORC and a much more lucrative venture - a hotel and restaurant - was built in its place.

One group of Muslims - the Panthay Chinese Muslims in northern Shan state - has recently acquired indigenous status and the rights of citizenship. The SLORC has even built a new mosque in Tachilek. Why would they pull down a mosque in Arakan and build one in Tachilek? A realistic reply is that China supplies much foreign investment and most of Burma's arms. A concession to a Muslim group may also be seen as a gesture when Burma is seeking full membership of ASEAN, many of whose member states have substantial Muslim populations.

This manipulation of religious groups and the issues close to them is a trademark of the SLORC, and it is becoming a feature of many of their dealings with ethnic groups. They take with one hand and give (if it is advantageous to them) with the other. They use concessions as carrots in their negotiations and as rewards for cooperation, then they paint that cooperation with the colours of unity, patriotism and loyalty to the notion of a united Myanmar. What is sad is that many groups of Christians and Muslims are allowing this to happen. They accept the rewards - air time on television at Easter, money for projects in areas where cease fires have been signed, attendance at official events by members of the SLORC - as moves towards reasonableness and a vital source of funds, rather than seeing it all as a cynical manipulation of the whole faith issue in Burma.

Christianity came to Burma with the British. Western missionaries also helped in some areas to create a script for the notation of local languages, a useful tool in progress towards literacy. In Chin state, the local script has now been outlawed even though some names cannot be written in Burmese script. The local language can no longer be taught in schools and Chin people are lured away from their homeland to relationships and to institutions which do not allow them to practice their Christian faith.

Christianity is especially vulnerable to being associated with 'otherness' and with outside influences which threaten the stability and unity of Myanmar. It is promoted as a product of outsiders who might use their evil influence to do harm. The government paper New Light of Myanmar' is dotted with warnings, such as beware of unscrupulous persons who will use Christianity and... denounce such persons who harbour ill - will.' (951231) At the same time, the SLORC has used the Christian faith of many ethnic groups to encourage them to cooperate.

Whilst life is not all roses for the people of Kachin state, the KIA's cease fire agreement with the SLORC is bringing rewards. The actual funds for promised projects may be slow in coming but the Christian people of Kachin state are being given many opportunities to express their gratitude whether they want to or not. At a recent meeting of the Kachin Baptists Association, Khin Nyunt, first secretary of the SLORC, cited Christian doctrine which stresses 'loving kindness, endurance and forgiving' and exhorted Kachin nationals 'to constantly consolidate national unity, based on gentle - mindedness of Christianity, and to strive for prevalence of perpetual peace in Kachin state.' His loud praise of religious freedom at such events must have a very hollow ring for the Christians of Karen State.

The KNU has not yet succumbed to the efforts of the agreement and the Karen people suffer daily cruelties. They are taken as porters and forced labourers on construction projects and driven from their villages. They have their food and belongings stolen from them, suffer violent atrocities like rape and beatings and many have been killed as a result. The DKBA, breakaway Karen Buddhist group and armed SLORC columns, commit many of the atrocities for and on behalf of the SLORC.

Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi was prevented from attending a new year celebration and merit - making ceremony, on the grounds that this would be using religion for a political purpose. Yet SLORC generals make much of their own merit - making. A camera is always handy it seems when SLORC generals give alms and receive blessings. Promoting themselves as good Buddhists goes hand in hand with denigrating other religions, unless of course, there is something to be gained from taking a more patronising stance - maintenance of a cease fire agreement or another weapons shipment.

Sources: Bangkok Post 960305,950418 The Nation 950915, 951115

Attention Burma Activists Worldwide

"STOP THE REPATRIATION: justice NOW for Rohingyas."

From the Burma-Tibet Group, OPIRG-Carleton, Ottawa CANADA:

Time is short: please adapt this letter to your needs and copy as widely as possible. (You may want to change the "ALL CAPS" to underline) This letter only scratches the surface of the situation. It is the first in a series of actions. We are pushing this campaign forward through meetings, phone calls, faxes and letters like this, aiming to promote dialogue and positive pressure between refugee/human rights groups, and government/UN agencies.

We urge you to do the same. GET THE REPORT referred to in the letter from the US Committee for Refugees. It is well-documented and comprehensive, with excellent photos. It may be on E-mail soon, or you can write USCR at 1717 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Suite 701, Washington DC 20036, USA. tel 202-347-3507, fax 202-347- 3418.

The Burma-Tibet Group OPIRG-Carleton 326 Unicentre, 1125 Colonel By Dr. Carleton University Ottawa ON K1S 5B6

25 March 1995

The Honourable Andr Ouellet Minister for Foreign Affairs Rm 312, West Block Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

BY FAX: 613-996-3443

Dear Mr. Ouellet:

We urge Canada to speak out immediately and forcefully against the coercion and abuses committed against the Rohingya refugees that fled to Bangladesh from Burma (Myanmar), under the "volun- tary repatriation" program run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

We have mailed to you the recently released report by the US Committee for Refugees. USCR supports the Sep 94 report by Medecins sans Frontieres - France (MSF-F) that the UNHCR and Bangladesh government engage in "refoulement" of the refugees. As recent as Feb 95, MSF-Holland said, "few refugees seemed to be aware of the possibility and the right to say no to repatri- ation."

MSF-F added that the Bangladesh authorities are using less coercion now, but only because the refugees think they have no choice but to repatriate. Since last August, when the abuses reached their peak, just the threat of brutality from the Bangladesh government has proved enough to gain the submission of the Rohingyas. A more subtle pattern of coercion remains. Should refugee protests escalate, undoubtedly so would physical retali- ation from camp authorities.

Before last July, all refugees could count on receiving an interview with the UNHCR. Then UNHCR abandoned this practice under pressure from Bangladesh, and commenced "repatriation promotion" seminars and mass registration. At the time, USCR consultant Curt Lambrecht interviewed 49 refugees, who expressed "feelings of frustration and betrayal at what they viewed as UNHCR officials' indifference" to the beatings, torture and threats occurring regularly in the camps. At that point, the rate of repatriation rocketed; it has now reached some 4,000 weekly. By July 1995, all may be repatriated.

Both the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government have resisted attempts by NGOs to inspect the camps and gauge the real situ- ation. This has served to stymie action until this very late date, when most of the Rohingyas have been sent back to Burma. Former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary M. R. Osmany, now Bangladesh High Commissioner to Canada, brands this program a "foreign policy success." UNHCR asserts the "excellent cooperation" by SLORC - but at what price?

UNHCR offers no evidence that the massive human rights abuses in Burma have abated, except that SLORC is now willing to accept refugees back, and allows a UNHCR presence. According to USCR, "IT SEEMS UNLIKELY THAT ANY ORGANIZATION COULD ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THE RETURNEES, GIVEN THE SLORC'S RECORD." SLORC reportedly targets returnees for further mistreatment. For instance, UNHCR mentioned a "tailoring course for 50 returnee girls" as part of its reintegration program. USCR reports that such courses separ- ate girls from their families, "placing them under the control of military forces that are notorious for rape."

Canada has a special responsibility since it contributed $1.5M to this program. But your staff at CIDA [Canada's bilateral aid agency] and Foreign Affairs inform us that there can be no bilateral involvement in monitoring the situation inside Burma. Yet the credibility of both UNHCR and the UN Commission on Human Rights (which recently commended the "free and voluntary" Rohingya repatriation) depend on having another witnessing party sympathetic to refugees. The UNHCR should never have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the two host governments, BOTH WITH A LONG HISTORY OF ABUSING THE ROHINGYAS, unless they provided for independent monitoring agencies in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and among returnees back in Arakan State in Burma.

We applaud CIDA's decision to maintain funds to UNHCR for "care and maintenance" in the refugee camps. But we urge CIDA to continue to withhold funds for UNHCR's repatriation program until it is proven "voluntary" by international standards. Canada must go public with these decisions.

We further urge your government to support USCR's recommenda- tions, including that "donor governments insist that repatriation be fully voluntary." Our immediate concern is that Canada:

a) CALL ON THE BANGLADESH AND SLORC REGIMES to reaffirm the Rohingyas' rights, and permit independent monitoring to ensure their rights are respected.

b) CALL ON UNHCR to cease its "repatriation promotion" sessions, and mass registration of refugees, and return to its former practice of individual interviews with ALL refugees, not just those who speak out against repatriation.

We ask you to respond as soon as possible. We are informing our counterparts in other donor countries, with the firm intent of gaining the international support so long denied the Rohingyas.

Sincerely, Corinne Baumgarten Reid Cooper Terry Cottam Mike Buckthought

Burma-Tibet Group, OPIRG-Carleton

cc. Dr. Sein Win, Prime Minister, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma M. R. Osmany, Bangladesh High Commissioner to Canada Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Len Legault, Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN Office in Geneva US Committee for Refugees, and other refugee groups


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