Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Editorial | Take stand against ethnic cleansing

Published:Wednesday | September 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Myanmar, formerly Burma, in Southeast Asia, is a long way from Jamaica in the Caribbean. And there is little by way of economic and political relations between the two countries.

By that measure, events in Myanmar, such as the ongoing situation with its minority Rohingya Muslims in its northern Rakhine State, ought, it may appear, to be of little interest to Jamaica. That assumption would be wrong.

For the tenets of human rights, to which Jamaica and its partners in the Caribbean Community subscribe, are not only universal, but their erosion anywhere is an opening for them to be undermined everywhere. And they are under severe attack in Myanmar in what the United Nations' human-rights chief, Ra'ad al-Hussein, called "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing". Moreover, while what is taking place is of a different order of magnitude of horror, it is not without recent echoes in the Caribbean, involving states, and a people, with which Jamaica has special relationships.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country where the Rohingya have lived, but not been welcome, for many generations. Socially, economically and politically marginalised, the Rohingya, unlike other ethnic minorities, are not categorised as citizens of Myanmar. They are usually referred to as Bengalis, aimed at branding them illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Essentially, the Rohingya are a stateless people who insist on their rights of citizenship - a campaign that periodically overflows into violence, as happened last month when militants attacked several security posts in Rakhine, killing a dozen members of the security forces. The army responded with an indiscriminate campaign that didn't only target the militants, but also Rohingya civilians. Villages were set on fire and scores of people killed and injured.

In two weeks, more than 370,000 Rohingya had scrambled across the border to Bangladesh to escape, mirroring their displacement of 2012 when tensions with majority Buddhists led to rioting, and again last October, after an army campaign against villages followed attacks by militants. Before this latest inflow, 32,000 Rohingya lived in official refugee camps in Bangladesh, but more than 300,000 of them were estimated to have fled there.

 

A PUZZLING SILENCE

 

As a restricted dissident during military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate, who is now the de facto leader of Myanmar, trailed only Nelson Mandela as an icon for democracy, human rights and non-violent challenge of an undemocratic political system. That makes her silence on the discrimination against the Rohingya, her blaming of only "terrorists" for the violence, and her implicit support of the crackdown by the military especially puzzling.

Her government, of course, has no control over the army. But by failing to condemn their actions, she provides the generals with political cover and, perhaps here, imprimatur. And we are forced to reassess not only the depth of her commitment to human rights, but the courage with which she was credited and her position on race and ethnicity.

Which brings us back to the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic, the latter where more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship. Until 2004, people born in the Dominican Republic were automatically citizens, but the law was changed to require that at least one parent be a Dominican citizen and the other living in the country legally. A 2010 constitutional change cemented that requirement. A 2013 ruling by the Supreme Court made the new citizenship standard retroactive to 1929, meaning that people born after that date, and who were outside the new regime, were effectively stateless.

In mainly brown and white Dominican Republic, the new law primarily affected black Haitians, long the subject of persecution in that country, including the 1935 massacre of 20,000 of them by the dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Whether in Myanmar or the Dominican Republic, there can be no place for such attempts of ethnic cleansing.