By Aman Ullah

“How can people be treated in such a way — hunted down, homes torched, beaten and killed — in the name of a warped sense of nationalism? Do the perpetrators not know that we are from the same human family?” Dr. Desmond Tutu

Burma began its political transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 2011 and anti-Rohingya campaign began to intensify in November in the same year. Since then the nationalists have mobilized Buddhist Burmans for their campaign against the Rohingya by presenting Arakan state as the western gate of Buddhist Burma against ‘flooding’ Muslims from Bangladesh. A radical Buddhist groups have characterized the Muslims as “a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.” Citing Adolf Hitler, a Rakhine political party has said that crimes against humanity, even the Holocaust, are justified “in defense of national sovereignty” and “survival of a race.”

Historically, Rakhine were antagonistic to Burmans for ‘destroying’ the Rakhine kingdom in the 18th century despite the fact that the majority of both groups were Theravada Buddhists. But now Buddhism became the common ground for fostering an alliance between the Rakhine and Burmans. Discourses of anti-Rohingyas came to be made in term of safe-guarding — amyo, barthar, thartana — race/nation and religion. Religion refers exclusively to Buddhism. Thus, differences and historical antagonism between Rakhines and Burmans have temporarily faded into a common “Buddhist Burmese” identity vis-à-vis the Rohingya. This merger is obvious as the Burmese government as well as senior opposition leaders from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party including Tin Oo, Nyan Win and Win Tin jumped on the bandwagon to speak out against the Rohingyas. Well-known celebrities, scholars and well-respected writers agreed.

Since 2012 Muslim communities across Burma have suffered horrific violence, whipped up by hate speech preached by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Every aspect of their lives, including marriage, childbirth and ability to work, is severely restricted. Their right to identity and citizenship is officially denied. They have been systematically uprooted, with 200,000 held in internal displacement camps and unknown thousands have taken to sea as refugees. The UNHCR estimates that more than 120,000 people have left the area by boat from the Bay of Bengal since June 2012. The government even denies humanitarian agencies unfettered access in their internal displacement camps. Their homes, businesses, and mosques have been destroyed. Amid the destruction, many Rohingyas have been unfairly imprisoned, with some tortured to death while behind bars.

The immediate cause of the violence can be traced to a series of violent incidents, beginning with rape and murder of an ethnic Arakan Buddhist woman, in Yanbye in southern Arakan State.

Ma Thi Da Htwe, a 26 year old Rakhine Buddhist woman, was the daughter of U Hla Tin and Daw Ma Mya of Tha Pri Chaung village of Kyauk Ni Maw Village Tract in Yanbe Township. She was disappeared on her way to her home from Kyauk Ni Maw at 5 pm on 28 June, 2012. She was found dead, with some marks of having met with a violent attack, next day on 29 June at 9 am on a bank of a dam between Kyauk Taran Village and Tha Pri Chaung village. Her body was brought to the hospital by the police on that day. After examining the body the doctor confirmed that she had been raped and killed by someone. An elderly man of the that village told that he had seen Htat Htat, Rafi and Lu Yu near the area of the occurrence in the evening of 28 June. All the three are hailed from Tha Pri Chaung village and are Muslims. They are Kaman Muslim not Rohingya. The police arrested them on 30 June and sent them to the Kyauk Pyu Jail. The Kyauk Pyu district court sentenced to Rafi(18) and Lu Yu (21) to death on 18 June. According to the government press, Htat Htat took his own life on 9 June.

Within two to three days after the murder, photographs of the victim were circulated on Facebook. In early June, shots of three men named and identified as the perpetrators of the gang rape were also published. Subsequently, these photos were widely shared on the social network before being published by a Burmese media organization.

From the start, however, the details of the religious and ethnic backgrounds of the victim and the perpetrators have influenced the way this tragic incident has been viewed, with the media highlighting the fact that the victim was a Buddhist Rakhine and the alleged perpetrators were Rohingya Muslims. This has had the effect of heightening ethnic tension, turning the Internet into a virtual battleground.

In this tense atmosphere, a bus carrying 10 passengers identified as Rohingyas (they are Burmese Muslim, not Rohingyas) was stopped by an angry crowd in the town of Taungup on 3 June. The occupants were killed and two days later photos of their bodies were circulated in the public media.

The incident triggered an outbreak of violence. Clashes and vandalism spread throughout the state, including the capital Sittwe. More than 50 people were killed and more than 2,500 houses and religious buildings were set on fire, and more than 30,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

While it is unlikely that a crisis of this kind could have been premeditated, several contradictions and unanswered questions require a thorough investigation into the events that triggered the conflict and the roles played by various community organizations and the Burmese military and government.

How the photo of Ma Thida Htwe’s lifeless body ended up online is unclear. Some say a person close to the president (U Zaw Htay) posted it on the Facebook page and then removed it after it began to circulate. Similarly, the photos of the three rape suspects were also circulated very quickly online. Without help from any quarter how the general public could have such rapid access to such sensitive information. The three suspects were arrested on 30 May, just two days after the rape. Their arrest contradicts claims that the mob that lynched the 10 “Rohingyas” in Taungup on 3 June, five days after the rape, thought they were the rapists.

‘Every accused of a crime is assumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and has the right to a fair trial, even if they cannot afford to hire their own attorney. The criminal justice system is there to protect the innocent and seek the truth’ it is a standard norm of the judicial system.

Now in this case, Ma Thida Htwe was found dead near her village on the morning of 29 May 2012 and assumed that she had been raped and killed by someone. There was no eye witness or no creditable circumstances evident available at that moment. The nature and time of the occurrence were also not so clear. Only an elderly gentle man of that village suspected to the three persons because he had seen Htat Htat, Rafi and Lu Yu near the spot on the evening of 28, not at the spot. They may be or may not be, it was not only suspected. It was a doubt. Everybody knows about who is the beneficiary of the doubt according to law. As far as the doctor’s report is concerned, how far confirmation of a doctor, from a village health clinic, has such qualification to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect kill or rape the victim! Did he have expertise or special knowledge of such serious crime? The doctor must be a person who is a specialist in a subject, often technical, who may present his/her expert opinion without having been a witness to any occurrence relating to the lawsuit or criminal case.

The three suspects were arrested on 30 May and the District court sentenced the two of three suspects to death on 18 June—that is only within 19 days (14 working days).

A crime is committed, it is reported, an investigation conducted and an arrest made (these may all occur in rapid sequence if the offense is committed in the presence of a law enforcement officer).

This case was not like that. No one knows about what, how, when and why happened and who has committed. There was no single eye witness. No credible circumstance evident. Only one can assume that ought to be. These points ought to be carefully examined, in order to form a correct opinion. The first question ought to be, is the fact possible? If so, are there any circumstances which render it impossible? If the facts are impossible, the witness ought not to be credited.

According to the government press, Htat Htat took his life on 9 June. How did they believe that only a press statement is sufficient for relieving from a burden of responsibility? Where did their responsibility and accountability go to? His death body was not handed over to his close relatives. If he took his life by himself, why his body did not handed over to his family? How can he take his life in the jail so easily who was main accused of the case? Who is responsible for this, the police or the jail authority or the court or the government or any other else?

Rafi and Lu yu were sentenced to death by the Kyauk Pyu District Court on 18 June within 20 days of their arrest. How the court can pass a judgment of a murder case within 20 days (14 working days) while there is no provision of speedy trial in the Burmese judicial system? How the judge can give a fair justice to them within a very short time? Did they get the right of justice in according article 21 (a) of the existing constitution of Burma, 2008? Did they get the right of defense and the right of appeal under law, which is a constitutional right of a citizen according to article 19 (c) of the existing constitution of Burma, 2008? If, in eyes of the court, they are not citizens of this country, why the court did not prove whether they are citizen or not before bringing them to trial for murder and rape cases? In a criminal trial there are many stages to do, such as, arrest, booking, arraignment, bail or detention, preliminary hearing, pre-trial motion, trail, sentencing, appeal etc… Was the court able to follow all the procedures of trail according to law at this short time?

The killing of 10 Muslims at Taoungop was not an isolated incident. It was well- planned and coordinated attack. The top leaders of particular Raknine political party visited before and after the incident. Several gatherings and meetings were held by them with local people. The case of rape and killing was widely discussed and pamphlets were circulated. It was direct results of these activities.

In a broad day light, a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop town, in the presence of police and army personnel and a bus load of passengers, had beaten ten of the passengers to death. The authorities of that township neither tried to intervene nor to give protection, only the action they have done was collection of dead bodies.

At the time of the attack on the bus, three Muslim men suspected of involvement in the rape and killing were in the custody of authorities in Kyauk Pyu, near Yanbe. The three were found guilty of the offenses. One suspect reportedly committed suicide in prison, while the other two were sentenced to death on June 18. In contrast, there have been no convictions in connection with the killing of the 10 Muslims in Toungop, despite hundreds of witnesses to the attack.

In a broad day light, a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop town, in the presence of police and army personnel and a bus load of passengers, had beaten ten of the passengers to death. The authorities of that township neither tried to intervene nor to give protection, only the action they have done was collection of dead bodies.

According to a central leader of Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), a big deal of kick-back was done between the Chinese authority and Aye Maung, the chief of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), chiefly for the Kyauk Pyu Economical Zone. Kyaukpyu is crucial to China’s most strategic investment in Burma: twin pipelines that will carry oil and natural gas through the town on the Bay of Bengal to China’s energy-hungry western provinces.

Although Aye Maung and his party denied the kick-back but he did not deny their involvement in the Kyauk Pyu arson of October 2012 where more than 811 buildings and houseboats were razed, forcing many Rohingya to flee north by sea toward the state capital, Sittwe, and is a very suitable place for the said Economic Zone.

The Kyauk Phyu Economic Zone is a specially designated area in which foreign companies will construct and operate petrochemical plants and oversee the export of Chinese made products. This Economic Zone will serve as the endpoint for the Yunnan-Arakan railway, and will be the site of new naval facilities and a deep-sea port. It will occupy over 50% of the land in Kyauk Phyu Township.

Special Economic Zones in Burma are governed by the Special Economic Zone Law, which was decreed by the military junta in January 2011 and has been upheld by the current military-dominated government. This law regulates various aspects of the zone, including investor privileges, land use, insurance, bank and finance management, and labor matters.

Since Burma’s reforms have been skewed so that the central government and the USDP hold the upper hand, RNDP politicians feel that they need to fight hard to gain electoral dominance. For instance, the President has the right to select the Chief Minister for each state from members of the state Parliament, including a quota of military appointees as well as elected representatives. The Chief Minister of Rakhine State is a retired colonel who was the lead USDP candidate in the local elections of 2010.

Basic electoral arithmetic suggests that forced removal of Muslims would benefit the RNDP. Increased anti-Muslim sentiment among the wider population decreases the scope for the government to offer voting rights to a greater number of Muslims. Many repeatedly pointed to local RNDP activists as promoters of anti-Muslim violence.

The party has courted significant controversy over its role in fuelling hostility between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state, since violence first erupted in June. Their leader Dr Aye Maung has repeatedly emphasized that Rohingyas are “illegal Bengali immigrants” and cannot be accepted in Burma.

Some analysts speculate that the RNDP is exploiting nationalistic fervor to secure broader political support in a region currently dominated by the majority Burma and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Conflict is still ongoing in Rakhine State. All groups have suffered but the State’s beleaguered Muslim population has been most heavily affected. Deeply entrenched bigoted attitudes have been awakened by recent political changes and the opening of democratic space. Tensions are likely to continue. Neither of the two large mainstream political parties, the military–linked USDP and the opposition NLD, has shown much concern for Muslim victims of communal violence across Burma. In Rakhine State, the locally dominant party that aims to represent the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist constituency, the RNDP, has electoral interests in marginalizing Muslims and in exacerbating tensions.

The Burmese media, especially the domestic journals, also launched a media war by supporting attacks and expulsion of the Rohingya from Arakan state – all in the name of protecting the nation.

The most disturbing statement came from President Thein Sein who announced that the “only solution” was to send Rohingya to other countries or to refugee camps overseen by UNHCR. UNHCR promptly rejected the proposed plan.

All these are a reflection that those who dominate Burma’s political and social lives express and engage in political actions based on deeply ingrained nationalist sentiment, however deadly and violent.