Deep shame on Myanmar

FEW people have ever heard of Myanmar's Rohingya people. Not many more could find Myanmar on a map – particularly after its name was changed some years ago from Burma to Myanmar.

The exception is Burma's sainted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a worldwide celebrity and Nobel prize winner. The media loved her, a sort of Burmese Joan of Arc versus its brutal military junta.

But now, tragically, the Rohingya are headline news thanks to Myanmar's brutal ethnic cleansing of one of the world's most abused, downtrodden people.

Almost as revolting is the world's failure to take any action to rescue the Rohingya from murder, rape, arson and ethnic terrorism. In recent weeks, over 270,000 people have been driven from their homes in Rakhine State in western Myanmar and now cower in makeshift refugee camps just across the border in Bangladesh in the midst of monsoon season.

Rohingya have lived for centuries in Myanmar. Some of their ancestors may have been brought as coolies or indentured labourers from neighbouring East Bengal (Bangladesh today) by the British rulers of the region. Once again, the British Empire was behind yet another world problem.

Myanmar is a hodgepodge of peoples and ethnicities. The largest, about 60%, are Buddhist Burmans, but there are many other important groups like Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Shan.

About two million Burmese are Muslim Rohingya from Arakan state. They have been savagely persecuted, denied education, health care and even food. Those who fled to wretched Bangladesh – surely the last place on Earth one would want to seek refuge – have been starved, herded into camps and fall victim to human traffickers or become stateless boat people.

Myanmar denies that its two million Rohingya are Burmese citizens. Bangladesh also denies them citizenship. The Rohingya are the world's most unwanted people – and through no fault of their own.

Myanmar wants an ethnically pure state, though its border regions are filled with rebellious Thai and ethnic Chinese minorities.

I covered some of the wars waged by the central government against regional separatists that have flared on and off since 1945. To me, Myanmar is a sort of Asian Yugoslavia, filled with inimical peoples seeking independence.

What about the sainted Aung San Suu Kyi? She, shamefully, has mutely watched the ethnic cleansing and atrocities. This so-called champion of human rights has not made a peep because she shares power with the powerful army which is conducting the pogroms. And she fears losing popularity with majority Burmans.

The official Myanmar line is that the current violence was caused by Rohingya gunmen attacking army posts. This is a lie. Myanmar has been persecuting and trying to expel the Rohingya for decades. Few saw and none cared.

Particularly not the three nations that could provide significant help: China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. China is trying to crush Muslim peoples in its western regions and is thus in no mood to help.

Pakistan can't mount a long-range operation. Saudi Arabia is too busy massacring Yemeni civilians with US and British help to give a hoot about the Rohingya.

The Saudis could provide food, money, shelter, even soldiers to help protect the Rohingya. Two important Muslim majority states, Turkey and Malaysia, have spoken out and warned Myanmar to halt its persecution. Turkey's mighty armed forces could do much to stop the attacks. President Recep Erdogan of Turkey is clearly out of patience with Myanmar's government.

Suu Kyi should have her Nobel prize revoked. The world must demand that Myanmar's military and police immediately stop the killing.

The crimes being committed in Myanmar, a beautiful country to which I am very attached, are an affront to the entire world and a massive crime without any possible justification.

Madame Suu Kyi, I once risked prison in Yangon to go visit you. I wish I hadn't. Go hide your head in shame.

Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com