Over the last year and a half, I have been very vocal about the terrible situation facing the Rohingya (predominantly Muslim) people in Burma. During that period and now, most people and most of my constituents have been very supportive of my stance in favour of strong action to defend the fundamental human rights of these persecuted people.
At the same time, I have observed an uptick in negative commentary about Rohingya, from trying to blame the situation on the Rohingya community to even justifying the atrocities being perpetrated. Some of those advancing this contrary narrative are obviously never going to change their minds, because it reflects deep-seated prejudice. But I felt that it was important to write this post all the same, to clarify the situation for those who are watching and wondering what the truth is.
Although the official name of the country in question is Myanmar, I prefer to use the original name Burma, because the name change from Burma to Myanmar was initiated by the military dictatorship without the consent of the people. Burma is the name used by the people, including the minority communities, as well as the democracy movement.
First of all, as a parliamentarian who is involved in human rights work, I have the honour of being able to speak to people with direct experiential knowledge of these kinds of situations. I obviously follow the news on these issues, but my opinions are shaped by independent reports and direct conversations — conversations which in this case confirm what is being said in the media.
Some of the anti-Rohingya commentary is rooted in presumptions about different religions. They associate Buddhism with non-violence, and they associate Islam with violence. These are common stereotypes.
I have a great deal of respect for Buddhists, and I have the honour of serving as the vice-chair of the Canada-Tibet Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group. Many people's strongest associations with Buddhism include the non-violent struggle of the Tibetan people. As it happens, however, there is such a thing as violent extremism within Buddhist communities elsewhere — not just in Burma, but also Sri Lanka, where the victims have been predominantly Christian and Hindu.
The problem of violent extremism within the Muslim community is well known, but Muslims can be and often are victims of violence as well, perpetrated by extremists in different faiths, non-religious political extremists, and their co-religionists.
I believe that we must stand up for the innocent victims of violence, regardless of their religious community, and regardless of crimes committed by extremists within their community for which they are not responsible. The Burmese army has been waging a campaign of systematic ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya — that is, they are killing women, children, and men, often after raping and torturing them. These facts are not seriously disputed by anyone other than the Burmese authorities. Despite a lack of access to the region, satellite images bear clear witness to the horrific destruction.
My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. At the time of the Holocaust, many countries were infected by anti-Semitism, and this limited their response to the Holocaust. I worry that general suspicion of Muslims is limiting our response to these horrible crimes in Burma as well. Fundamentally, whatever you think about Islam, it should be clear that these crimes are unacceptable.
Fundamentally, whatever you think about Islam, it should be clear that these crimes are unacceptable.
In response to these points, some anti-Rohingya voices on social media have sought to highlight a recent massacre of Rohingya Hindus and blame that on Muslim Rohingya militants. Here are the facts — I'll let you be the judge. The Burmese military has consistently not been allowing independent media or humanitarian aid into Rakhine where the Rohingya communities are.
But as international pressure has been ramping up on Burma, the military organized a media trip, where they took interested journalists to visit the site of this massacre and see a collection of bodies. The military informed the journalists that these were Hindus who had been massacred by Muslims. The Rohingya militant organization fiercely denied the allegation. The Burmese military knew where the bodies were to be found and could provide specific detail about how, allegedly, the massacre happened, but was not able to provide any evidence for their claim as to the involvement by the Rohingya militant organization.
Some have suggested that the Rohingya are characterized by high levels of militancy and violent extremism, but this has not at all been supported by evidence. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya do not have anything resembling the capacity to fight back. The militant organization mentioned is engaged in a violent campaign against the army, but professes strong opposition to murder, sexual violence, or anything that would constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity. Professing so is not enough, of course, but we certainly should not take the Burmese government at their word about this group either.
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There is a potential risk that, in the long run, there will be a rise of more radical militancy of the form seen in places like Syria and Iraq, but that has not emerged in any serious way over decades of anti-Rohingya persecution and violence. And there is always a greater risk of radicalization when people have seen their families tortured and slaughtered, and when the rest of the world has done very little in response. In Burma, Syria, and elsewhere, oppressive regimes would tell us that they are the only alternative to chaos, but the reality is that oppression breeds chaos over the long term by destroying civil society and making people feel that fanaticism is their only alternative.
When I highlight the persecution of Muslims, some people ask me why so little is said about Christian persecution. I frequently speak out about anti-Christian violence and persecution. (Paradoxically, every time I do that, online critics also go after me for allegedly "only speaking out for Christians.")
But, as a Christian, I believe that I have a moral obligation to speak out for all people, including for the Samaritans of our time, not only for those with whom I agree. In this, and otherwise, I seek to follow the example of Jesus.
I hope this information is helpful to those who are asking questions about the situation in Burma. I hope that Canada, and all countries in the western world will do more to isolate Burma and compel them to stop this slaughter.
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