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Burma Monk Protests of Rohingya Denounced by Rights Groups

  • Daniel Schearf

Buddhist monks stage a rally to protest against ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims, Mandalay, Burma, September 2, 2012.

Buddhist monks stage a rally to protest against ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims, Mandalay, Burma, September 2, 2012.

BANGKOK — For a third day, Buddhist monks in Burma are leading demonstrations supporting deportation of Muslim minority Rohingya, raising concerns of rights groups. Sectarian clashes between Rohingya and Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state this summer left 90 people dead.

Burma this week is seeing its largest Buddhist-monk-led demonstrations since a 2007 democracy uprising.

Hundreds of monks began marching Sunday through Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay, dressed in traditional saffron and orange colored robes. But this time the monks were supporting President Thein Sein’s call for a Muslim minority, the Rohingya, to be segregated and deported.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson says the monks' moral authority raises the stakes in the sectarian tensions.

“The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices,” he says.

Buddhist monks supported students and political activists during the 2007 uprising. So many monks were involved that it became known as the Saffron Revolution. It was put down by military force.

Rights activists note the disturbing irony of monks marching in support of President Thein Sein, who was then acting prime minister.

“It was very sad to see such kind of actions taken by the monks who have been heavily oppressed and killed in many cases in 2007 during Saffron Revolution,” says Soe Aung, a spokesman for Forum for Democracy in Burma.

This summer violent clashes broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya in Burma’s western Rakhine state. Sectarian riots began in June after Rakhine Buddhists murdered a busload of Muslim Rohingya over an alleged rape. At least 90 people were killed, thousands chased from their homes, and villages burned to the ground.

Human Rights Watch says security forces stood by, and in some cases participated, in the violence. Authorities deny the charges and have appointed a commission to investigate the incident.

But Robertson says there are questions whether the commission can independently investigate the clashes in Rakhine state, also called Arakan.

“There cannot be a whitewash, there needs to be accountability in addition to a sort of far-sighted vision for a way that both of these groups will be able to live in peace in Arakan state,” says Robertson.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rejected the government’s proposal to resettle the nearly one-million Rohingya.

Burma refuses to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, despite some living there for generations, and brands them as illegal migrants. They have few rights in Burma and the United Nations considers them one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking up enough for the Rohingya, despite a campaign promise to support reconciliation with ethnic minorities.

Robertson says on this issue the NLD leader’s voice could provide a clearer direction for society to follow.

“I think that she should put her weight behind the issue," says Robertson. "You know, this is the time to do it. This is the time to step up and demonstrate leadership. And, we hope she will do it.”

Robertson says the international community needs to see the Rohingya issue as the first test case for a multi-ethnic Burma.

Burma has 135 legally recognized minorities under a 1982 citizenship law that left out the Rohingya.