Aung Sun Suu Kyi Can't Save Myanmar (Burma) Alone

Interview with Elias Molnar from Diaconia ECCB- Center of Relief and Development about the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma.

Author: Eliáš Molnár

Magdaléna Fajtová

5. 12. 2016 | 7. 12. 2016 0:04

Translation: Jeremy Ault, Diaconia Connections

The following interview with our colleague Elias Molnar was conducted and published by the Czech news magazine RESPEKT on 12/7/2016. Diaconia has been working in Burma since 2015, providing aid and relief to Rohingya (an ethnic Muslim minority) who are currently living in displacement camps.

Once again, the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma (Burma) is escalating. The northern regions of the Arakanese state, which borders the country of Bangladesh and contains a large Muslim population, has been isolated by the government with reports of violence. The social standing of Muslims, a majority of whom are of the Rohingya ethnic minority, is very poor in Burma, with many of them living in makeshift displacement camps situated on the outskirts of regional cities. The United Nations (UN) has accused Burma of attempting to “systematically clean” the country of its Muslim minority, with Democratic Leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi being accused of passively presiding over the abuse of the Rohingya ethnic minority.

Elias’s responses are italicized.

I was in Burma throughout the entire month of November. Earlier this year, along the border of Bangladesh, unknown individuals attacked a government outpost, killing nine border officers. Suspicions fell on the minority Rohingya. The Rohingya, as has been stated, are a Muslim minority. After the attacks, many in the Rohingya feared a violent response from the military, so thousands began to flee to Bangladesh. Borders, however, have been closed. Journalists and humanitarian aid organizations have been completely shut out. The only information that the global community has been able to receive from the area is from the government. The only organization that has been allowed to provide humanitarian aid to the Rohingya in Arakanese state has been the United Nations, and they were only allowed in on two occasions and for very short amounts of time.

Do you have any idea who received the aid from the UN representatives who were afforded access to Arakanese state?

From my personal contacts, I have heard that they were only allowed in for 40 minutes. In total, we have very little information.

From your experience and knowledge, what do you believe is happening there?

On social media there are a lot of conflicting reports. For example, it has been posted that ISIS has infiltrated Arakanese state. On the other hand, we have seen reports from other humanitarian organizations stating that an ethnic genocide of the Rohingya is underway. Both of these reports cannot be taken as factual. We simply do not have enough information to know what is happening. We have to meet with the government to try and figure out what is happening, and if we accuse them of genocide without knowing the facts, our work to assist those in need will be compromised. Our primary task is to provide aid and ensure safety to those people who are in need. The government is an important partner for us, with whom we must work to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.

Where in Burma were you working?

We were in the central regions of Arakanese state. The northern parts of the state are predominantly Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims. The population of the central region of Arakanese State is a mix of Buddhists and Muslims. Muslims there are living in oppressive and impoverished conditions. Many of them were forcibly moved from cities and are currently living in displaced-people's camps. We were in one of the camps, Pauk-Taw. It’s located on an isolated island off the coast.  It took nearly 50 minutes by boat to reach the camp. Up until recently, humanitarian aid groups were prohibited from distributing food and aid to the people living there. Today, however, the situation is different in that we’re now allowed to provide aid, but the government is now moving more people from various parts of Burma to the camps. There are now internally-displaced people--Muslims, minorities, etc.--and also what we would call economic migrants, those people who migrate in search of better economic opportunities.  A majority of the economic migrants are Buddhists.  We are currently assisting all people in need, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

What is life like in the camp?

The camp is organized and managed by the government, but the living conditions are terrible. To be honest, I’ve never seen such poverty in my life. The people living in these camps have no opportunity to work or make a living; they are completely dependent upon outside sources of support. Part of our work has been to organize a type of “management council” that represents the people living in the camp and who will assist us in distributing aid. As residents of the camp, the council will have a better idea of the material needs and the amount that should be distributed.

One day, the man who had been my guide through the camp sat down next to me and pointed to his lungi (the male traditional dress in the region) and then held up two fingers. He looked at me as if he expected an answer. I was confused. It took me a while to figure out what exactly he was trying to communicate and then I realized what it was: he was asking me how many pairs of pants I had at home. I felt ashamed. I had no idea what to say.

Are there schools in the camp?

Yes. We are also providing school supplies and textbooks to teachers and students. Together with elementary school students in Prague, we organized a collection of arts supplies and crayons, which we distributed to schools in the camp.  In the camp, however, there are only elementary schools. The residents of the camp do not have the opportunity to pursue a higher education.

The conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma is an entrenched problem. How has the situation changed in recent years?

I would say that it has gradually worsened. However, there have been some small successes, which make me hopeful for the future. Aside from providing aid and school materials to those in the camps, our work has been effective because now, unlike in years past, the government is willing to work with us and communicate. Recently, we were able to organize a meeting between the Minister of Arakanese State and the Czech Ambassador to Burma, Jaroslav Dolecek. The meeting didn’t bring any major breakthroughs, but just the fact that we were able to meet and express our concerns is a step in the right direction.

Are neighboring countries helping?  

Not really. The countries around Burma have their own problems. The most economically-advanced and pro-active partner helping in Burma is Thailand. The Muslim minorities of Burma are simply attempting to flee to safer countries, which, unfortunately, seems to be their only real option.

How long has the conflict been active?

In 2011, Burma had their first free elections. In 2012, violent protests erupted in the northern parts of Arakanese state against the Rohingya. The most recognizable person in Burma is the leader of the democratic opposition Aung San Suu Kyi, who is an international advocate for democracy and human rights. With her growing power, it was believed that Burma would experience a period of relative peace. However, we must remember that Burma’s borders, as they are currently situated, was a construct of colonial England. It is a very diverse nation of over 7 states and perhaps more than 130 ethnicities. Between them, there are differences of history, language, culture, and religion. This can be seen in the Arakanese state, which has its own rebel movement that has for years fought against the national army and government.

Do you see things improving in the future?

The global community must continue to fight for the rights of all Burmese, specifically minorities, but it’s going to take a while. Aung Sun Suu Kyi can’t save the country herself. We are all to blame for ignoring the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya. The President of Burma is from the same party as Aung Sun Suu Kyi, so it seems as if the country is currently being led by a pro-democratic government, but like many nations in Southeast Asia, the government is still closely tied to the military. I think it is really important for us to instead ask what can we do for Burma and the Rohingya now? We in the Czech Republic are still on the path to democracy and have made some mistakes along the way. And in this experience, I see an opportunity for us to bring our “know-how” to the people of Burma and help them take their first, difficult steps towards a freer, more equal, and more democratic society.


Original link:

Jeremy Ault