Violence in the Gaza of Southeast Asia: Arakan (2) by Emrah Usta*

August 13, 2012, Monday/ 17:19:00

Despite the decline in violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan province (Rakhine) in the west part of Myanmar, there is still a visible flow of Muslim Arakans towards Bangladesh in pursuit of hope and survival.

However, the recent announcement by the Bangladeshi authorities that they are unable to admit further migrants and refugees due to financial and geographical constraints exacerbates the overall situation in the region. The Arakan Muslims who manage to escape the campaign of massacre and annihilation, which started in June, have to deal with additional problems during their refuge including rape, persecution and hunger. Lack of humanitarian aid and the geographical difficulties disable the proper flow of information from the region. It should be noted that photos depicting the massacre in Myanmar have been discredited for not being genuine. However, this does not necessarily mean that there is no violence in the region, and there are also many attempts at misinformation.

The policies that the Myanmar government has been pursuing vis-à-vis the Arakan Muslims are similar to those implemented by the Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories in the 1980s. The Burmese troops do not rely on violence and repression against the people who had to leave their homes due to increased brutality by the Buddhists; instead, they allow them to leave so that their lands will be vacant. The problems that the Arakan Muslims experience in terms of communication, shelter, food and health are similar to those the Palestinians experienced in Gaza. The Palestinians faced more serious problems in terms of communication, but there are similarities between the practices imposed by the Israeli forces to prevent passage of food, equipment and drugs to the people in Gaza who were suffering from extreme poverty and hunger, and the current conundrum that the Muslim people in Myanmar face. The silence of renowned Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama towards the tragedy in Arakan raises serious doubts as to whether he has any real eagerness to achieve global peace.

Why should Turkey be interested?

The Turkish people have become acquainted with the Arakan Muslims via the killing campaign in the region. Why is Turkey relevant to this region and to these people? Or, why should Turkey be interested in what has been happening in the region? There are some historical facts that can answer these questions. The first interaction between the region and the Ottoman state was in 1904; a document dated 1905 submitted by the Rangon Islamic Community expressing their loyalty to the Ottoman state proves a historical connection. In celebration of the introduction of a new constitution in 1908 after a popular uprising during the reign of Abdülhamid II, the Muslims in Burma held ceremonies and took to the streets. It is also known that the troops who were taken as prisoners of war in the Basra Gulf in 1915 were transferred to the prisoner camp in Thayemyo in Myanmar, which was called Burma at the time. The archives show that high-level Turkish commanders were treated badly in these camps. It is also argued that there are 1,500 Turkish martyrs buried in Myanmar and that the graveyard of these martyrs needs to be restored and renovated.

What should be done? Will Turkey rely on diplomatic measures and options to address this problem? It could be said that Turkey may deploy resources to this region and rely on public diplomacy tools to attract the attention of the world to the region as it has done in Somalia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s emphasis upon Arakan in the fast-breaking dinner for ambassadors in Ankara was extremely important, he called on all states, international institutions including the UN and civil society organizations to remain attuned to the issue and take action to address the problem. The proposal made by Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Gaziantep deputy Ali Şahin, who is also an expert on Southeast Asian affairs, is interesting. He invited the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to act as a sort of caliph. Şahin, who notes that the UN reports do not reveal the truth, also stresses that Turkey is a source of hope for the people in the region.

Hearing the following sentence in the refugee camp where the Arakan Muslims stay will better suffice to help understand the ongoing tragedy in the region. The Arakan Muslims say: “A bullet is more valuable than us, they do not shoot us to save money, but instead they bury us alive.” Recently, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 56-page report on the Myanmar tragedy indicating that the persecution and massacres are still happening. The report gives extensive details and depictions of the massacres committed over the last two months against Muslim people. In addition, the report also indicates that the security forces who did not take proper action during the massacres also stood by and watched the incidents of brutality, including rape, looting and arrests, later on engaging in violence against the Muslims themselves after the attackers left the Muslim villages.

The report, which gives eyewitness accounts from 57 Buddhists and Muslims, also indicates that the government prevents humanitarian aid workers from entering the region. On the other hand, the International Religious Freedom Report 2011 has been released by the US State Department. The report makes references to the Arakan issue. The report indicates that the Muslims in the region are denied citizenship. However, it would be wrong to expect that the report will make a strong emphasis upon the ongoing situation considering that it covers the incidents in 2011. It should be noted that the current and continuing violence started in June 2012.

Indifference by Turkish media

The Muslims in the region have been subjected to massacres since June, however, the Turkish media started reporting on the incidents as late as July. This proves an attitude of indifference by Islamic countries, including Turkey. The Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) has been active in the region, attracting attention to the issue and providing humanitarian relief. However, as in Gaza, the İHH faces serious bureaucratic obstacles that seriously influence their humanitarian work. On the other hand the only Turkish TV station that initially reported on the brutal campaign the Muslims in Myanmar have been subject to was the A Haber team. A Haber has been pretty active in the region, reporting the incidents of massacre and eyewitness accounts despite the conditions and serious obstacles imposed by the Myanmar government including bureaucratic problems and strict rules of accreditation, A Haber played a great role in reporting these incidents. Foreign News Editor Fatih Er commented on the massacre:

“We have reported only the tip of the iceberg. We have covered the stories of the people who escaped, not the stories of the people who were murdered. I am not an emotional person, but I cried when I did the shooting on the refugees down there. It was unbelievable. I have worked in many conflict areas, and am well aware of what it is like being a refugee. But these are the kinds of refugees we are not familiar with; they are people who are running from murder, not just towards hope.”

Türkiye daily correspondent Osman Sağırlı said: “I have seen many refugee camps in the world, but I have not seen such brutality. Won’t UNICEF extend help to the kids there?” More journalists should travel to the region to cover the incidents, and Turkey needs to rely on tools of public diplomacy so that the issue becomes known to people in the world. This could be part of the solution like what the government is attempting to do in Somalia.

*Emrah Usta is an İstanbul-based political analyst and op-ed writer. He can be followed on Twitter @Emr_Usta