PRESIDENT Obama’s historic visit to Burma came at a time when there is mounting pressure on the Burmese government of President Thein Sein to take positive action to end the blatant and bloody persecution of his country’s 800,000 Rohingya Muslims, along with other Muslim minorities.
Obama’s aides said that the president would be raising the issue. However given the White House’s depressingly craven backing for the renewed Israeli assault on Gaza, it seems unlikely President Sein will take Obama’s protests too seriously. Sein will assume that, just as Washington has allowed Israel to declare open season on the two million Palestinians in Gaza, it is not going to be overly bothered about the savage assaults on Burmese Muslims.
Yet there is mounting pressure on the Burmese government, not only to stop the murderous attacks in the northwest of the country, but also to investigate growing evidence that the Burmese army and police have been actively involved in the slaughter and oppression of Muslims.
The latest to add their voice to the international disquiet are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), holding their annual meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan warned: “If that issue is not handled well and effectively, there is a risk of extremism.” The idea that Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists might seek to open another front in their war against civilized society is deeply disturbing. Yet wittingly, or unwittingly, the Burmese government has created just the sort of toxic environment in which terrorism can flourish. The siren message of the bigots would be that the Rohingya people are suffering at the hands of Buddhist extremists, aided and abetted by the authorities. Therefore it is entirely right that the beleaguered Muslims should fight fire with fire.
The radicalization of young Rohingya might light a fuse of violence that could burn its way to Burma’s major cities, setting off a chain of explosions and suicide bombings, which would begin to turn even moderate Buddhist opinion against Muslims. From Burma the terrorism could spill over into neighboring countries, not least Bangladesh, as Al-Qaeda’s poisonous and nihilist ambitions were embraced by an ever greater number of desperate dupes.
Obama’s opportunity in Burma was to tell its government, in no uncertain terms, that Buddhist extremists have to be brought to heel. Those guilty of terrible crimes against helpless Muslims should be prosecuted, not least those members of the security forces complicit in these ethnic and racist crimes. For good measure, he should have insisted the Rohingya be given the protection of Burmese citizenship, regardless of when these unfortunate people actually established themselves in the country. This would at least give them access to the legal system, national identity cards, passports to travel and with a vote, the chance to have their voices heard in the Burmese parliament.
Unfortunately Obama has bigger fish to fry. His second term is undoubtedly going to involve increased focus on the growing political and military power of China in Asia and the Pacific. The Chinese backed the old military junta that placed President Sein in power, and which still hovers in the background. Obama wants to secure Burma’s support in the struggle to retain US regional hegemony. In such circumstances, the disaster befalling less than a million Burmese Muslims is of marginal consequence, just as, it seems, is the fate of two million Palestinians in Gaza.