Ashin Wirathu, a leading monk in the ongoing persecution of Muslims in Rakhine State, was this week issued an arrest warrant by a Myanmar court, on the basis of “exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards the government.” The warrant is significant not for the charge itself, but more as a development that could potentially disrupt the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the military junta. Wirathu’s Ma Ba Tha ultranationalist Buddhist sect is a prominent player in the racial crackdown that has targeted more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, creating a veritable human rights emergency that has spilled over into the ill-equipped neighbouring state of Bangladesh.
The international community has condemned the use of force against Rohingya minorities since reports first surfaced in August 2017. In September of that year, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for human rights, described the campaign in Rakhine State as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The local court is yet to outline the specifics of the charge, however Al Jazeera and local news outlets are reporting that it is likely in relation to Wirathu’s recent speeches, where the polarising Monk has repeatedly criticised civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her attempts to curb aspects of the new constitution that would consolidate the state’s already extensive control of public life.
Whilst the arrest in isolation is unlikely to make a sizeable impact in improving the current calamitous state of affairs in Myanmar, it could provide the impetus necessary for a resurgent call to assist the many at risk Rohingya Muslims. In recent months the situation has become even more dire. In March, the Bangladeshi government informed the United Nations Security Council that it cannot take any more Rohingya refugees. Additionally, the Myanmarese government has done nothing to create an environment in which the Rohingya feel safe to return, forcing thousands into a reality of stateless purgatory. “Not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of a conducive environment there,” said Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque when speaking to the UN. With nowhere to flee, and no place to return, the time has well and truly come for the international community to apply the necessary to pressure on the government and the military to allow greater humanitarian support.
The military has dominated Myanmar’s political landscape since the 1960s. This condition persisted for decades, until a fervent democratic movement emerged early in the twenty first century, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi became the symbol for democratic hope in Myanmar, even receiving a Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. However, as she rose to prominence amidst the democratic transition of 2012, it became clear that political power still rested squarely with the military.
Military might aside, there is another force that wields a huge amount of influence in Myanmar: Buddhism. 90% of Myanmar’s 53 million people identify as Buddhist. Recognising the potency of this faith, the Myanmarese military formed an alliance with the more hardline sect known as the Ma Ba Tha, who have set about mechanising the people’s faith as a means to a political end.
Today Myanmar functions as a sham democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to protect the most basic of her citizen’s liberties, and is yet to publicly acknowledge the insipid actions of the military. But in humanitarian crises, change is achieved when small windows of opportunity are pursued with momentum and purpose. The warrant issued for the arrest of Wirathu could provide such a moment; if internally the courage is being mustered to stand up to those abusing their power, then a subsequent reinforcement of pressure from the international community should follow.
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