Last week, human rights group Fortify Rights called on the Myanmar government to drop charges against Muslim men on discriminatory grounds. There has been continued persecution of the Muslim community in the country – particularly against the Rohingya, who are subject to arbitrary arrest, institutional discrimination, detention, harassment, and killings.
The recent injustice against Muslims in Myanmar involves six men charged for publishing a calendar that described the country’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya as a recognized ethnic minority. According to Fortify Rights, on November 24, police chief Major Khin Maung Lat arrested the men and they were charged under Section 505(b) of the Myanmar Penal Code for creating material with the intent to cause “fear or alarm to the public.” The law has historically been used by the Myanmar junta as a tool to silence and arrest political dissidents.
“It’s a blatant violation of freedom of expression and a flagrant example of anti-Rohingya discrimination that cannot be permitted to stand – so the courts should dismiss these charges, and the prosecutors and other government officials involved in bringing this case should be severely disciplined,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia told The Diplomat in Bangkok.
Ma Ba Tha, an ultra-nationalist extremist Buddhist monk group, led meetings where they spoke out against the calendar and called for the arrest of the people involved in its production. Ma Ba Tha issued a complaint to a local administrator in Shwe Pyi Thar Township about the calendar, which helped lead to the arrests. Ma Ba Tha’s involvement here should come as no surprise – the group, formed in 2013 after outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence took place throughout the country, has been spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric and creating a climate of fear.
“Such an action against a disadvantaged ethnic and religious group like the Rohingya is profoundly dangerous in a highly diverse nation like Myanmar,” said Robertson. He went on to say that “it encourages extremists like the Ma Ba Tha, and convinces Muslims that they cannot expect a free and fair trial in the Myanmar’s courts.”
Nay San Lwin, a writer for the Rohingya Blogger, told The Diplomat in an email, “the publishers were arrested because of the protest of Ma Ba Tha monks and extremists.” He added that “the law in Myanmar is not protecting Muslims.”
The men appeared before the Yangon’s Pazundaung Township Court for the third time on December 17. The court proceedings were witnessed by the group Patriotic Myanmar Monks’ Union, under orders from Ma Ba Tha. The next hearing will be held on December 23.
Myanmar Muslim Army Case
Another extremely worrying case involves a dozen men convicted for supposed links to an armed group. All 12 have been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison by Aung Myay Thar San Township Court in Mandalay Region. The Myanmar government was called out on December 6 by Fortify Rights for failing to provide a fair trial and present evidence of the existence of the “Myanmar Muslim Army,” which the defendants allegedly received training from.
One of the defendant’s lawyers, Nandar Myint Thein, told The Intercept that the prosecution didn’t submit any “real evidence.” Matthew Bugher, a Fortify Rights representative in Myanmar and formerly a Global Justice Fellow at Harvard Law School, told The Diplomat, “Frankly, we have no clue what motivated the government to arrest these individuals… the only thing that we can be certain about is that the government failed miserably to support its case against the defendants.”
He added, “The Myanmar government regularly invokes national security as a justification for curtailing rights and freedoms.”
Fortify Rights monitored court hearings and studied some 170 pages of court documents relating to the case. On September 17, Soe Moe Aung said that authorities tortured him, fed him pills, deprived him of food, as well as gave him an unknown injection. He was held and interrogated for one week.
The dozen men were charged under section 5(J) of Myanmar’s Emergency Provisions Act of 1950. Specifically, they are charged with the intent “to affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order.”
Once the verdict was read, many of the families outside the court began to cry, voicing anger and grief. Bugher told The Diplomat, “I was outside the courtroom when the verdict was read, and the shared sense of injustice among family members and observers was palpable.”
Chronic State-Sponsored Persecution of the Muslim Rohingya
In the midst of the convictions and court cases, eleven Rohingya groups have protested the shooting of a 25-year-old Rohingya man on December 7, near Buthidaung in Rakhine State. The man was shot by Border Guard Police (BGP) at a checkpoint. There have been three killings of Rohingya men this month.
“In my opinion, according to the situation there, the Rohingya man was targeted based on race and religion,” said Nay San Lwin in an email correspondence with The Diplomat.
There are more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Many of the Rohingya have fled persecution by boat to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to seek refuge. This caused a major refugee crisis in Southeast Asia back in May.
The 1982 Citizenship Law provides a structural basis for government repression of the Rohingya Muslim community by denying them basic human rights and social services. This law has been used as a tool of systematic abuse against the Rohingya, making them second-class citizens. Court convictions, prison sentences, and killings are believed to be a part of state-led persecution against the Muslim community, particularly the Rohingya.
In the wake of the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s sweeping electoral victory, NLD leader (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aung San Suu Kyi should call for an end to persecution of Muslims. Suu Kyi and the military-backed civilian government should work with the Muslim community to bring about reconciliation and work to amended repressive laws.
Yet, as Penny Green, director of International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London, told The Diplomat, “The NLD remain indifferent and as a consequence implicit in the annihilation of the Burmese Rohingya.”
“The recent arrests and violence demonstrate that November’s election results hold little hope for a change in the official treatment of the Rohingya. Institutional harassment and discrimination continue unabated,” she added.
A report released by ISCI, “Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar,” states that the Rohingya face the final stages of genocide – as defined by Daniel Feierstein, who shows that genocide is not just a moment in time but a long term social process.
Thomas MacManus, an academic lawyer and Research Fellow at ISCI, told The Diplomat in a written statement that “the military-government seem more than willing to allow further stigmatization and terrorizing of the group and even use the criminal legal system to deter anyone from using the word ‘Rohingya.’”
Earlier this year Al Jazeera‘s Investigative Unit found strong evidence of a genocide perpetrated in Myanmar against the Rohingya by government forces. Furthermore, WikiLeaks released a leaked cable from 2005 showing government involvement in creating divisions between Buddhists and Muslims.
Muslims in Myanmar face unprecedented vulnerabilities and discrimination. They are killed with impunity, tortured, taken to court on false charges, and denied citizenship. The use of courts in a discriminatory way by the government should be stopped. The Myanmar government is using the court as a tool of oppression against the Muslim community. That could have consequences not just for Muslims themselves but the country more generally as well. As Bugher told The Diplomat, “The serious and unsubstantiated claims made by the government could heighten tensions in the country.”
John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, refugees, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and Thailand.