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Religion

Tag Archives | Religion

“Muslim Women Let’s Get Topless”: Off the Mark with FEMEN

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FEMEN protest in Paris. Joseph Paris/Flickr

FEMEN protest in Paris. Joseph Paris/Flickr

“If you are interested [in registering], it’s not complicated. You just have to take off your t-shirt.”

– Eloise, Femen co-ordinator in France, Sep 19, 2012

The founding of the anti-prostitution outfit, Femen, had and still does have, a genuine basis of protest. Exploitative sex-tourism in the Ukraine is something women and men would understandably take a strong stand against, and local resistance has been scanty (no pun intended). Ditto numerous countries where sexual slavery has found itself growing on the coat tails of globalisation and corrupt governments. But as has been noted by commentators in, for want of a better term “industrialised” countries, rarely does the conversation move beyond the shock photo stunts the group wishes to disseminate. In other words, the conversation becomes less a matter of revolution than a sense of whether one’s sets of breasts are better than another’s. When the message of protest gets mired in tactics rather than aims, it’s bound to get lost in the hubbub.

The attempt by Femen to project a more European-broad protest – bare-breasted, of course – has been announced, with the ladies of the group taking their tops off in various European capitals. So far the group have lacked a “base” to launch their indignation. Paris has been greeted with the Femen flavour, and the website of Femen France features “Nudité, Lutte and Liberté” in the tricolour scheme, all against a backdrop of taut, curvy flesh. Products can be purchased as well – the Femen Handbag, the Femen Hoody, and an assortment of shirts such as “F’Kamikaze.” The latter is surely ironic – a topless women’s outfit that makes money selling tops. Themes of protest do move in mysterious ways.

Paris is now the base for the first ‘training centre’ which will school feminist recruits on the art of dodging security forces. In the words of one of the outfit’s more notorious figures, Inna Shevchenko, “We’re opening the first international training centre for feminists…who want to transform themselves into soldiers.” To celebrate the occasion, the protestors marched through a largely Muslim neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement. “Muslim women, let’s get naked.”

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Malian Diaspora: A Product of the Arab Spring

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Young boy in the Dogon village in Southern Mali. John Isaac/UN

Young boy in the Dogon village in Southern Mali. John Isaac/UN

On September 10, 2012 Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouéléssébougou in Mali, and I visited the Mintao Refugee Camp located in the northern Burkina Faso town of Djibo. We left the capital city of Ouagadougou early that morning, traveling a distance of over 150 miles on potholed roads, arriving at the camp four hours later.

We passed several overloaded trucks along the way carrying precious food supplies to the destitute Diaspora that had succumbed to the washed out ruts in the road. The Mintao Camp houses 15,000 refugees who fled from Mali’s northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Reportedly there are more than 60,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, of which sixty percent are children. The camps were established by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which has been coping with the burgeoning influx of people fleeing from the conflicted areas.

The camp is divided into three sections due to the on-going clashes between supporters of a Malian unity government, and those associated with the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) separatist movement, seeking independence over half the country’s territory. I had the opportunity to meet with several Tuareg and Arab elders to discuss the issues in northern Mali, and their immediate concerns in the camp. They noted there was a shortage of tents suitable for the rainy season coming up, a lack of drinking water, insufficient food rations, inadequate toilets and showers, and classroom facilities for the large population of children.

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Protests across the Muslim World: A Deeper Meaning?

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Protest in Qatar over the YouTube video, "Innocence of Muslims". Omar Chatriwala/Flickr

Protest in Qatar over the YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims”. Omar Chatriwala/Flickr

Over the last couple of weeks thousands across the Muslim world from Tunisia to Jakarta, have staged protests, burned US flags outside of embassies and murdered an American diplomat over a video portraying slanderous and offensive content toward the prophet Mohammed and the religion of Islam. The protests spiraled out of control when the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other American citizens were killed by an unruly mob in Benghazi, Libya last week. Slowly more and more angered Muslims joined the fray across the world with some of the largest gatherings since the Arab Spring.

The film is itself laughable, displaying poor acting, cheap special effects and insinuations that are pure farce. However, no one can ignore the enormous ripple effect that it has spread across the Muslim world. Anti-US sentiments are now spilling over, as flags are regularly being torched in the streets of countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia.

Although the message of the video is clearly offensive, the naivety that this is the belief of the common US citizen, or that it represents the position of the US government and therefore their embassies should be the target of the violence is absurd. One independent filmmaker does not represent the feelings of an entire nation composed of over 300 million citizens, and it’s not unreasonable for many Muslims to know this already.

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Somalia: Is Political Change a Panacea?

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Copies of the Koran are laid out ahead of an inauguration ceremony for members of Somalia's first parliament in twenty years at Aden Abdulle International Airport. Stuart Price/UN

Copies of the Koran are laid out ahead of an inauguration ceremony for members of Somalia’s first parliament in twenty years at Aden Abdulle International Airport. Stuart Price/UN

Exhausted by prolonged anarchy, chronic dependency, cancerous corruption, and humiliating subjugation, the Somali people demanded change. Not just a change of guards or principled actors, but a total overhaul of the political order of the day. On September 10, 2012, the newly appointed parliament heeded the calls of its citizens and elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the President of post-transition Somalia.

That historic date will be remembered as the one that underscores two significant realities: the resilience of the Somali people as they demonstrated their unwavering commitment to reclaim their nation, and how the will of the people enhanced with consolidated political objectives changed the course of national history. The former would not have been possible without the persistence that motivates the Somali nomad to overcome adversities and to survive severe drought by migrating to greener pastures, and the hope that motivates the farmer to plow the field and sow the seed and have faith in the germination process that takes place beneath the earth.

And the latter would not have been possible if it were not for the foresight, agency and negotiations of various grassroots political activists who were determined to pave a new political pathway against all odds. How likely is that pathway to lead to transformation and to the salvation of the nation, or bedbaadinta Maandeeq?  The answer depends on two critical factors. First, whether the following principal actors will work in cooperative cohesion or will carry on in a similar disarray and frustration that has lately been the norm in Somalia. Second, whether or not they will embrace these or similar priorities.

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A Call for Understanding: Observation of the Middle East

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President Barack Obama greets State Department employees after speaking at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In light of the recent horrifying attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, this commentary is intended to help anyone who is struggling to understand what has happened in the Middle East this past week.

President Barack Obama greets State Department employees after speaking at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

A book used in leadership development for U.S. government officials working in international affairs with Muslim countries is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.  It is the chosen reading of Dr. Kamal Beyoghlow, Professor of National Security Strategy and Middle East and North Africa Studies at the National War College. Dr. Beyoghlow also teaches at the Federal Executive Institute delivering lectures including Understanding and Building Relationships with the Islamic World, as well as teaching U.S. government leaders across defense, intelligence, and other agencies. This book is a place to start for a quick tutorial. Websites are readily available online with maps and statistics of world religions, and these assist in personal study.

We live in a complex world. American style sound bites are insufficient for the level of responsibility we carry as a nation - and frankly for the role that we have taken upon ourselves in the world as a people. We hear politicians throwing current issues around like footballs in their own very partisan ways which will ultimately result in a win-lose scenerio.

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Romney’s Contribution to the Unrest in the Middle East

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Mitt Romney campaigning in New Hampshire. Photo: Marc Nozell

Mitt Romney campaigning in New Hampshire. Photo: Marc Nozell

Among the things that are consistent about Mitt Romney are the chameleon-like nature of his political character, his incessant pandering to the small-minded among his political constituency, his frequent flip-flopping on major policy issues throughout the course of his political career, and his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. None of this would serve him well as president in a country as divided along ideological lines as the United States of America today, but even less so in a world convulsing with political change and yearning for thoughtful leadership.

Mr. Romney’s reaction to the terrible events in Benghazi provide good insight into what may be expected of a Romney presidency. A Romney supporter may be inclined to justify his ill-advised response to the tragedy to the fever pitch of the political campaign, but this is further evidence — as if any were needed — that Mr. Romney has a tendency to speak without thinking much about the consequences of his actions.

His trip over the summer to the UK, Israel and Poland provided ample indication of Mr. Romney’s ability to put his foot in his mouth with allies. Benghazi has demonstrated that Mr. Romney has the ability to further inflame already volatile situations abroad, and little comprehension of the nuance required to conduct foreign affairs.

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Death in Benghazi: The Dark Side of the Citizens’ Revolt in Libya

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A U.S. flag lies among the debris of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Source: EPA

A U.S. flag lies among the debris of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Source: EPA

“Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi.”

– President Obama said of Ambassador Chris Stevens

The American delegation in Benghazi has been left reeling by the deaths of four of its staff, amongst them Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The deaths occurred in an effort to evacuate the consulate, which came under attack from a heavily armed mob. History is tinged with irony. It was only last year that President Barack Obama, along with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saw Benghazi as a place of promise against a vengeful Gaddafi regime. Having been seduced by the humanistic garble of philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a military intervention began to save the rebels from imminent slaughter. The rebels, in time, came to form what is now a rickety, patchwork democracy. The language itself suggests the problem US missions tend to have – their purpose is always promoted as messianic. The US presence in Libya is there, not for self-interest, but for Libya. That has not proven to be the easiest sell for Washington.

Liberation narratives are always awkward and rarely accurate. Those who assist in toppling dictators tend to leave the ground fresh for another insurrection. The flipside of the Arab Spring is fundamentalist usurpation. Chatter about democracy is meaningless when the institutional will is absent. The new Libyan regime has been supported by Western governments, but it lives precariously. All that mob violence generally requires is a vague pretext to bolster a lynching. What that pretext was in the Benghazi killings is not entirely clear. Was it the noxious video “Innocence of Muslims,” made by a real-estate developer and promoted by Koran-burning preacher Terry Jones? Or was mob violence a gift on the anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks, orchestrated with devastating effect?

US officials have taken it upon themselves to investigate what motivated the attacks. It will not require the gifted and the intelligent to discern some of the causes. “Innocence of Muslims” is merely a sideshow to both the way American power is projected and the Muslim world’s own problems, though it provides a pungent distraction for troubled communities. It also shows that mobilised groups of revolt can be formed rapidly, bypassing official channels and imperilling stability.

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Patience and Doubt amidst Gradual Reforms in Myanmar

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Aung San Suu Kyi with Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo by Roger Harris

Aung San Suu Kyi with Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo by Roger Harris

Myanmar has been called a country frozen in time, usually in reference to Bagan’s historic temples or Yangon’s state-run taxi fleet of 1980s automobiles. Five months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won forty-three of forty-five seats in a parliamentary bi-election, the phrase fits the country’s politics as well.

Long-time military ruler Than Shwe has given way to reformist Prime Minister U Thein Sein. Suu Kyi has made formerly unimaginable appearances in European capitals. The United States and the European Union have suspended economic sanctions effective since the military regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Yet with the next concrete step toward democratization promising parliamentary elections in 2015, Myanmar finds itself on the frustrating precipice of a still unrealized democracy.

Some are not waiting for democracy to come to them. In the National League for Democracy’s Nyaung Oo headquarters, men in polo shirts and customary longyis sort through stacks of party registration papers. U Myant Khine, a 63-year old retired police officer and NLD volunteer, eagerly explains that the party is using the time before the elections to build a rural base outside its traditional stronghold in Yangon.

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My Mission to the Republic of Mali

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Villagers drawing water at a well near Bandiagara, in southern Mali. John Isaac/UN

Villagers drawing water at a well near Bandiagara, in southern Mali. John Isaac/UN

Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougou and I had become acquainted over a year ago. Since then we had met on a number of occasions. I was impressed with him — a breath of fresh air in Africa’s young up-and-coming political leaders. In the presidential elections scheduled for April 29, 2012 he was a major contender.

The campaign however was cut short by a military coup, that has since destabilized Mali. More than half the country is under siege by radical Islamists, both home grown and imported.

Although I visited Mali in 2000, I felt it was necessary for me to return and understand the “real” conditions taking place in this destabilized fledgling democracy. Yeah had put together an agenda that would allow me to meet with government and military leaders, and visit the surrounding refugee camps.

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Burma: Legacies of Political Activism and Authoritarian Rule

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Source: State Department

In the past 18 months, Burma, also known as Myanmar, unexpectedly released more 600 political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and de facto leader of the opposition movement. Internet websites such as the BBC and Gmail have ceased to be blocked. Parliament passed legislation that included a labor law that allows unions, illegal since 1974, and laws outlawing forced labor. The Press Censorship Board no longer requires publications to have all articles approved in advance. The National Human Rights Commission was established by President Thein Sein to investigate current incidences of rights violations by the government.

And while the security apparatus that can incarcerate anyone who speaks out against the government – rules, regulations and the authorities that enforce them—remains intact, such laws are currently not being enforced in Rangoon and Mandalay. These are important signals, not yet institutionalized, that demonstrate that political space is broadening in Burma’s core areas. Less change is seen in the ethnic periphery areas of the country. Recent anti-Rohingya rioting, continued active military conflict in Kachin state, and lack of political freedoms outside of large cities, continues and is at odds with this new Burma.

Read the rest of Linnea M. Beatty’s dissertation by clicking here.

The Crisis in Mali

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A cholera hospital close to the Mali border in western Niger. Photo: Sean Smith

A cholera hospital close to the Mali border in western Niger. Photo: Sean Smith

The reports filtering out of Northern Mali are appalling: a young couple stoned to death, iconic ancient shrines dismantled, and some 365,000 refugees fleeing beatings and whippings for the slightest violations of Sharia law. But the bad dream unfolding in this West African country is less the product of a radical version of Islam than a consequence of the West’s scramble for resources on this vast continent, and the wages of sin from the recent Libyan war.  The current crisis gripping northern Mali—an area about the size of France— has its origins in the early years of the Bush Administration, when the U.S. declared the Sahara desert a hotbed of “terrorism” and poured arms and Special Forces into the area as part of the Trans-Sahal Counter Terrorism Initiative. But, according to anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, who has done extensive fieldwork in Mali and the surrounding area, the “terrorism” label had no basis in fact, but was simply designed to “justify the militarization of Africa.”

The U.S. military claimed that when the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, terrorists moved west into the Horn of Africa, the Sudan and the Sahara. But Keenan says, “There was absolutely no evidence for that…really a figment of imagination.” The real target of enlarging the U.S.’s military footprint was “oil resources” and “the gradually increasing threat of China on the continent.” The U.S. currently receives about 18 percent of its energy supplies from Africa, a figure that is slated to rise to 25 percent by 2015. Africa also provides about one-third of China’s energy needs, plus copper, platinum, timber and iron ore. According to the Financial Times, new gas fields were recently discovered on the Algeria-Mali border

There have been terrorist acts in Africa. In 1998, hotels were bombed in Kenya and, in 2002, a synagogue in Tunisia. The 2004 Madrid train bombers were associated with the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, an organization that set off bombs in Casablanca in 2003. But these groups had no affiliation with international terror groups like al-Qaeda, and the only one that could be said to be Sahara-based was the Algerian Salafist Group for Fighting and Preaching. That group later renamed itself “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM).

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Mali: Not on Clinton’s Farewell Agenda

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing a gathering of African youth

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing a gathering of African youth

On August 10, 2012 Secretary Hillary Clinton ended her ten day trip to nine sub-Saharan African countries: Senegal, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Benin. The trip was publicized as her last to the continent, as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. The common thread throughout her structured remarks was on the building blocks for democratic institutions, good governance, rule of law, corruption, security, and trade.

In the August 12, 2012 All Africa article, “Africa: Clinton Concludes African Trip”, Kimeng Hilton Ndukong noted that Mali’s security issues were briefly alluded to in several speeches, but no concrete solution to stabilize the country was offered. During Clinton’s visit the crucial situation in northern Mali has only become worse, with over four hundred thousand Malians being displaced, escaping to refugee camps in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Mali has a limited interest to the United States, and has not been on our radar screen since the March 22, 2012 coup d’etat which destabilized the country. The northern region, the size of France, is now under the control of radical Islamists. This democratic country of fifteen million people should have been the poster child for Clinton’s tailored remarks on building democratic institutions, good governance, and security concerns in sub-Saharan Africa. A stop in Mali to meet with transitional government leaders, and offer meaningful support to underpin the democratic regime, would have given Malians hope for the future; with countless lives being saved along the way. It would have also sent a clear message to other sub-Saharan African countries that the U. S. will support democratic regimes in their fight against radical Islamists — to maintain their freedom.

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Sectarian Violence in Balochistan

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A local family inside a tent camp in Quetta, Balochistan province, Pakistan.  Amjad Jamal/UN

A local family inside a tent camp in Quetta, Balochistan province, Pakistan. Amjad Jamal/UN

In the last four years, more than 65 attacks have occurred on the Hazara people in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, and in the first six months of 2012, more than 22 alone. The attacks have led to countless killings and have left thousands wounded. 2003 marked the first time that there were attacks against the Hazaras in Balochistan and this coincided with the insurgency movement in Balochistan. Many attribute these killings as part of the sectarian divide that has existed in Pakistan since the 1980s as a result of the widening Shia-Sunni fault line.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has not been able to consolidate as a nation state or create a single national identity. Infrequent attempts by fundamental Sunni sects to bandit the practice of Shiaism have fueled violence and divided the Pakistani society along sectarian lines. The sectarian divide breaks down roughly to 75 to 85 percent Sunni and 15 to 25 percent Shia.  Since the partition of Pakistan, the Hazaras have been a neglected community. The persecution of the Hazaras has forced them to seek asylum in many countries like Malaysia, Australia and Iran. There are nearly 20,000 Hazaras in Australia.

Cross-Border Activism

Pakistan’s Afghan policy in the 1980s and 90s aggravated sectarian violence. Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union in the 1980s resulted in the proliferation and easy availability of small arms in Pakistan. The emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s and their support of Sunni organizations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen influenced sectarian violence.  Sipah-i-Sahaba cadres were trained in Afghanistan and most of them fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Shias inside Pakistan. The Hazaras played an important role in the Northern Alliance in denying the Taliban total control over Afghanistan.

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After Libya, the Focus turns to Syria

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Syrian rebels with a captured government tank in Aleppo, Syria. Source: Freedom House

Syrian rebels with a captured government tank in Aleppo, Syria. Source: Freedom House

In 1995, I had a rare opportunity to spend some time in Syria, where the Damascus Trade Fair was taking place. A normally secretive Arab country had opened its doors to a select group of Western journalists, businessmen and officials. The event was aimed at showing glimpses of a rich mix of civilizations going as far back as between 9000 and 11000 B.C., described as a Hidden Pearl of the Orient. Syria today has Muslims, Shia and Sunni; Assyrian-Syriac Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkmen in the north; Druze in the south.

People of all ethnic and religious groups live in Aleppo, the country’s most populated city. For centuries, Aleppo was the largest urban center in Greater Syria and the third largest in the Ottoman empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.  Ancient Syria included today’s Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. According to the Torah, on the other hand, God promised the “Land of Israel” to the Jewish people. And on the basis of scripture, the first Kingdom of Israel was established around the eleventh century B.C. Such ancient claims, religious or secular, are at the heart of Middle East politics, in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. A civil war fueled by foreign intervention has turned large parts of the country into ruins.

Damascus is no longer the city where, despite a heavy presence of state security, Syrian families could be seen spending a moonlit evening on a picnic while children played hide and seek in the rocky terrain until well after midnight.  Like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq above all, Syria has been fragile since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. All three states, and others, were artificially created amid the rubble of the Ottomans’ Arabian domain, in a manner that split communities. The Druze, the Kurds and the Palestinians, each divided and enclosed in different national boundaries drawn by Britain and France under the legal instrument called “Mandate” are part of the legacy of the First World War.

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Ethnic Strife in Burma: A History of Violence

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Rohingya refugees in the Nayapara refugee camp. Ruben Flamarique/Austcare

Rohingya refugees in the Nayapara refugee camp. Ruben Flamarique/Austcare

For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a month of peace and calmness. That is hardly the case for the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The ethnic rift between them and the ethnic Buddhists since June has spiraled out of control, leaving scores of Rohingya Muslims dead and homeless. Many have crossed the border into Bangladesh. Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawacki said the latest violence has been “primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingya specifically the targets and victims.”  Branded by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities of the world, Rohingya’s live in the Rakhine State, located in west of Myanmar. With a population of 3 million, the Rakhine state borders Bay of Bengal to the west and the majority of its residents are Theravada Buddhists and Hindus.

The suppression of the Rohingya Muslims dates back to the Second World War. On March 28, 1942, Rakhine nationalists brutally massacred 5,000 Rohingya Muslims in the Minba and Mrohaung Townships. Since then, the Burmese government has refused to grant the Rohingya Muslims citizenship.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the lack of full citizenship rights means that the Rohingya’s face restrictions on their movement and limitations on access to education, arbitrary confiscation of property, and even marriage.

Because of the discriminatory treatment by the government, some 300,000 Rohingya’s have so far emigrated to Bangladesh and 24,000 of them also escaped to Malaysia in search of a better life. Many of them have also fled to Thailand.  Bangladesh is negotiating with the Burmese government to return the Rohingya’s and Thailand has sporadically rejected receiving them.  There have been instances where boats of Rohingya’s reaching Thailand have been towed out to sea and allowed to sink, sparking outrage from the international community.  Human Rights Watch says that the government authorities continue to require Rohingya Muslims perform forced labor. According to HRW, those who refuse or complain receives severe physical punishment. Further, children as young as seven years old have been forced into child labor.

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