Friday, March 23, 2018

Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY. Here below is her article.
Photo by David Stanley | CC BY 2.0
In the final thirty kilometers drive back to my home in the Catskills, along a vacant highway through hills of leafless winter trees colorless and devoid of any sign of life, I inexplicably recall my recent journey in a distant known-but-unfamiliar land. Just a few weeks before, I’d traversed a profoundly different landscape en route from Baghdad to Karbala city in Iraq.
A friend and I had quipped that the two hours plus required to reach Karbala that day was the time I needed to drive upstate from New York city. Except that that holy city is hardly 50 miles from the Iraqi capital. Scores—no, thousands– of military checkpoints slow every kind of movement within Iraq today.
I first traveled to Kerbala 27 years ago, visiting the magnificent Al-Hussain shrine and the city’s general hospital, also named Al-Hussain. On every visit to Iraq during the fierce 13-year embargo (from 1990 to 2003) against the nation– starting in April 1991 when evidence of a government attack against rebels hiding there was still in evidence– I made my way to Al-Hussain General Hospital. On subsequent annual visits, the hospital’s medical staff uncomplainingly helped me document the crime of sanctions, the U.S. campaign deliberately decimating Iraq’s once exemplary health system (along with the entire economy and civil structure).
The four lane highway to Karbala, the major route into south Iraq, is divided by a wide median. Unlike the vacant fields that stretch to a horizon of palm trees to my right, the median is planted with shrubs and trees.
Among the few private cars heading south, I see an occasional small bus. Most vehicles are large transport trucks, and those heading toward Baghdad carry imported goods from Basrah port, or earth from excavation sites in the south.
Although crossing through farmland, viewed from the road there’s little sign of cultivation. Perhaps this is because of the dearth of rain this season. (I would later learn Iraq’s agricultural industry is badly neglected.) Occasionally we overtake a pickup truck loaded with sheep or with vegetables. What roadside structures we pass, auto-repair stations or cafes, look unkempt and uninviting– part of the generally colorless landscape. Now and then I notice a cluster of children in uniform and toting bookpacks, strolling towards their local school.
Throughout the trip, my eyes repeatedly return to the median in the center of the highway. This is not because of anything alarming or troubling. It’s the stream of arresting, insistent images posted there:– each one a different face, each a martyr of the recent wars (most recently the costly battles against Daesh/ISIS). This silent parade constitutes a kind of running panorama of the battles for Iraq, for its sovereignty, for its honor and its history.
The faces are mainly of young men, most likely no more than 30 years old. Although occasionally the portrait of an older man, probably an officer, enters this landscape.
All the way to Karbala, and southward to Al-Najaf, and beyond in all directions, Iraq’s roads and highways are adorned with the names and faces of soldiers, a placard every few hundred feet, sometimes two or more photos on a single notice.
These martyrs’ banners are posted high, like flags, in rows– mile after mile. Each name a story, each a family’s son, each a patriot, each a sacrifice. For me, a visitor, they evidence the history of what war and nationhood means.
Today, back in the USA, I ask: Is that vista so different in its meaning and impact on Iraqi citizens from how fields of simple white plaques or crosses at French and Belgian Flanders, at Arlington Nation Cemetery, or the amassed names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, affect Europeans and Americans?
Although martyrdom may be central to Shiite history, belief and culture, it is deeply embedded in other societies. In Arab culture and thought—martyrdom is expressed in our language as well as our religion. A man can be named Shaheed (pl. Shuhadah) and street names are prefixed with Shuhadah. The portrait of a martyr has a special place in his family’s home.
A pity that people in the dominant Christian society of the West cannot grasp the universal qualities of the martyr. Was Prophet Jesus Christ not a martyr? As for those who die in battle, sacrifice for the American homeland is visibly displayed today in the high status accorded American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in inglorious wars moreover. What is “Gold Star Family” but a title honoring American military martyrs?
U.S. veterans, especially the wounded, are heaped with praise for their service and they’re given unlimited government assistance. Even radio and television features regularly tell Americans of ‘noble sacrifices’ made in by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stories of suffering hardships, trauma, and handicaps transmit a sense of martyrdom.
Then come civilians martyred in the daily racist war on American streets, deaths that awaken calls for social change. Not co-incidentally it was a religious leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who recognized martyrdom in the death of a Black child gunned down for his race: “We must illuminate the darkness with the light that comes from the martyr,”  Jackson pleaded after the death of 14-year old Trayvon Martin.
The paths of martyrs are endless and boundless.

15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?

Photo by Anna Hanks | CC BY 2.0
This March marked the 15th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, President George W. Bush and his advisers based their case for war on the idea that Saddam Hussein, then dictator of Iraq, possessed weapons of mass destruction — weapons that have never been found. Nevertheless, all these years later, Bush’s “Global War on Terror” continues — in Iraq and in many other countries.
It’s a good time to reflect on what this war — the longest in U.S. history — has cost Americans and others around the world.
First, the economic costs: According to estimates by the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the war on terror has cost Americans a staggering $5.6 trillion since 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
$5.6 trillion. This figure includes not just the Pentagon’s war fund, but also future obligations such as social services for an ever-growing number of post-9/11 veterans.
It’s hard for most of us to even begin to grasp such an enormous number.
It means Americans spend $32 million per hour, according to a counter by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Put another way: Since 2001, every American taxpayer has spent almost $24,000 on the wars — equal to the average down payment on a house, a new Honda Accord, or a year at a public university.
As stupefying as those numbers are, the budgetary costs pale in comparison with the human toll.
As of 2015, when the Costs of War project made its latest tallies, up to 165,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a direct consequence of U.S. war, plus around 8,000 U.S. soldiers and military contractors in Iraq.
Those numbers have only continued to rise. Up to 6,000 civilians were killed by U.S.-led strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017 –– more civilians than in any previous year, according to the watchdog group AirWars.
In addition to those direct deaths, at least four times as many people in Iraq have died from the side effects of war, such as malnutrition, environmental degradation, and deteriorated infrastructure.
Since the 2003 invasion, for instance, Iraqi health care has plummeted — with hospitals and clinics bombed, supplies of medicine and electricity jeopardized, and thousands of physicians and healthcare workers fleeing the country.
Meanwhile, the war continues to spread, no longer limited to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, as many Americans think. Indeed, the U.S. military is escalating a shadowy network of anti-terror operations all across the world — in at least 76 nations, or 40 percent of countries on the planet.
Last October, news about four Green Berets killed by an Islamic State affiliate in the West African nation of Niger gave Americans a glimpse of just how broad this network is. And along with it comes all the devastating consequences of militarism for the people of these countries.
We must ask: Are these astounding costs worth it? Is the U.S. accomplishing anything close to its goal of diminishing the global terrorist threat?
The answer is, resoundingly, no.
U.S. activity in Iraq and the Middle East has only spurred greater political upheaval and unrest. The U.S.-led coalition is seen not as a liberating force, but as an aggressor. This has fomented insurgent recruitment, and there are now more terrorist groups in the Middle East than ever before.
Until a broad swath of the American public gets engaged to call for an end to the war on terror, these mushrooming costs — economic, human, social, and political — will just continue to grow.

India’s Hindu fascists intensify a religious battle over a demolished mosque

The mob of Hindu fundamentalists brought down the mosque in just a few hours, using pickaxes, rope and their bloody, bare hands. Dust swirled above the rubble, smoke from nearby torched homes soured the air, and 16 Muslims lay dead, the first of about 2,000 people who would die in riots across India in the days to come.
Twenty-five years ago, Hindus tore down the Babri mosque in this northern Indian town believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram, shaking secular India to its foundations. In the years since, Ayodhya — its name now synonymous with strife — has become a magnet for fundamentalist Hindu leaders who want a soaring sandstone temple dedicated to Ram to be built where the mosque once stood.
They are finding new energy as India’s Supreme Court prepares to begin hearing arguments this week in a decades-old title dispute over the holy site, with Hindu leaders planning a high-profile whistle-stop campaign and religious events across India. And they feel they have strong support with the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, in office at the state and national level.      
Modi’s brand of assertive, religion-based patriotism has widespread appeal — especially among India’s youths — but his tenure has also coincided with a rise in tensions between majority Hindus on one side and Muslims and other minorities on the other. Instances of religious violence, including lynchings, rose 16 percent last year, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“Modiji is a superman,” said one bearded holy man, Sreesakthi Saanthananda. “They know it’s our birthright to make a temple in the soil of the birthplace of Lord Ram.”
Muslims say that the Hindu leaders are inflaming old tensions for political gain. The global guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is trying to mediate, has called on Muslims to withdraw their claim to the contested site, warning of “contention and conflict for years to come.”
Haji Mehboob, a local resident, is one of the litigants in the court case and says the site should be a mosque: “They’re trying to create an environment of polarization and communal disharmony. There will be some trouble.”
A protracted dispute
In a large field not far from the site of the destroyed mosque, supporters of the proposed Ram Temple gathered around a flatbed truck adorned with elaborate gold pillars, a temple on wheels that would carry supporters through several states in India to rally the faithful. At the same time, the World Hindu Council, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad, will hold special religious ceremonies in villages and towns across the country this month, also designed to give fresh momentum to their movement.
Smrita Tiwari, a district leader for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said she and other devout Hindus feel a greater sense of freedom with a conservative government in office — in a country that is about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim. Previous governments dominated by the progressive Congress Party cosseted Muslims with special privileges, she said.
“We used to feel that we had come from the outside and Muslims completely controlled the country,” she said. “Now, with Modi in power, things are different. We can unfurl the saffron flag for the first time.”
“Muslims are very fanatical,” she said. “They only think about their religion. They are not good to us. We don’t go to Mecca and claim a place there. Why should they be given the land where Lord Ram was born?”
For more than a century, Hindus and Muslims have argued over the Babri Masjid, built to honor the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528. The complicated case before the Supreme Court dates to shortly after a December night in 1949 when Hindu priests sneaked into the mosque and placed idols there, prompting officials to lock down the complex.
On Dec. 6, 1992, hundreds of religious volunteers — their heads wrapped in saffron-colored bandannas — climbed the dome and demolished the structure in a matter of hours, sparking days of rioting throughout South Asia.
In 2010, the high court in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located, ruled that the mosque had been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple and ordered that the site be divided into three parcels — two for Hindu groups and the third for Muslims. Hindu and Muslim litigants have since said that such a division is unacceptable.
Modi has been largely circumspect about the temple issue as the court case goes on. But the firebrand monk from Modi’s party who is now leader of Uttar Pradesh state has been more forceful, saying that authorities could “explore other options” outside the courts to build the temple “in deference to widespread feelings on the issue.”
The leader, Yogi Adityanath, who is known for making divisive statements, has vowed to make Ayodhya a major tourist destination, and during India’s festival of lights in October, he threw a grand party on its riverbank, with thousands of twinkling earthenware lamps and an actor dressed as Lord Ram — in an enormous gold crown — descending from the skies in a helicopter.
The politics of religion
Despite the political attention, the town of Ayodhya remains a shabby place with bumpy roads leading to countless shrines, mosques and temples. As in the rest of the state, unemployment among youths is high, and many have migrated elsewhere to look for jobs.
Much of the town’s economy is driven by Hindu pilgrims coming from elsewhere in India to worship at the makeshift shrine that remains at the disputed site, an eerie place accessed by a winding, caged walkway lined with soldiers armed with machine guns.
Opposition leaders from the Congress Party have accused Modi and Adityanath’s followers of trying to revive communal discord as a tactic to energize the party’s political base in coming national elections. But, they argue, that may not work this time, because India has moved on, its youths born after 1992 anxious for the government to address a growing jobs crisis and provide other opportunities.
“They are only showing us dreams,” said Sandip Sharma, 25, a resident of Ayodhya. “This can be the only way to get votes in the next election. They don’t have any other issue to talk about — they haven’t given jobs or development projects.”
Sharma dreams of a government job, but he has struggled to find work despite a college degree and scrapes by giving tours and tutoring students. Why not build a hospital or some other public facility that would bring employment, he wonders, rather than a temple?

Anti-Muslim Riots in Sri Lanka

By Irfan Engineer
The recent anti-Muslim riots in Kandy, Sri Lanka, once again demonstrate that religion is becoming more salient in public domain, including politics, in South Asia. My recent visit to Sri Lanka and talking to a cross section of people from different religions, including some people in the Government underscores this fact. Anti-Muslim riots were witnessed in Ampara town in Eastern Province on 26th February and in Teddeniya and Udispattuwa in Kandy district from 2nd March. Riots in Ampara were triggered off when Sinhalese customers in a restaurant found lumps of wheat flour in the meals served to them by a Muslim chef which they suspected to be contraceptive pills. A video of the Muslim chef nodding (whether out of fear or misunderstanding) on being asked whether it was contraceptive was uploaded. Instead of conducting proper inquiries or reporting the matter to the authorities, mobs mobilized by extremist Sinhalese organizations attacked mosques and properties belonging to Muslims. Investigations later established that it was a false suspicion, and indeed there aren’t any tablets that can cause permanent sterilization.
Riots in Kandy were sparked when a Sinhalese truck driver was assaulted on 22nd February by four reportedly drunk Muslim youth after a traffic accident. The truck driver died on 2nd March due to injuries inflicted on him. The accused youth were arrested on the day of the incident itself and remanded till 7th March. Sinhalese mobs began attacking Muslim properties in the region, resulting in widespread damage to property. According to the government, 465 houses, businesses and vehicles were damaged. The Sri Lankan Government declared emergency, which some felt was over reaction of the Government, clamped down on social media and imposed curfew. Emergency was last declared in 2011 during the civil war.
Both the incidents show the widespread fear, suspicion and prejudices prevalent against the Muslim community. Muslim community is diverse including the Moors, Malays, Bohras, Khojas and Memons, constituting 9.66% of the population of Sri Lanka according to 2012 census. Moors speaking Tamil are the largest ethnic group within Muslim community constituting 9.30% of the population of Sri Lanka, while few of them speak Sinhala as primary language. Islam arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka since 7th century C.E. along with Arab traders who married and settled on the Island. They adopted the local Tamil language and culture. Sri Lankan Moors are descendants of Marakkar, Mappilas, Memons and Pathans of South India.
The LTTE targeted Moors when they resisted the claim that Moors were Tamils converted to Islam. Moors claimed their separate identity as progeny of Arabs. Few hundred Moors were killed while hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes and their properties destroyed by the LTTE as they claimed the northern and eastern territories for Tamil Elam. Sri Lankan Moors and Sinhalese then joined hands during the 26 year civil war. Under attack from LTTE on one hand, and rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism on the other hand, the Muslim community turned to Islam for stronger bonds among themselves. Prior to May 2009, the principal adversary of extreme Sinhalese Buddhist movements was the Tamil ethnic community. The Moors were not on their radar. However, after the threat from Tamil Elam was subdued, the extreme Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism turned its attention to new adversaries. New adversaries are necessary to project themselves as saviours, nay, custodians of Sinhalese Buddhist community and achieving hegemonic power over not only ‘others’ but also within the Sinhala Buddhist community itself. They now turned to already besieged Muslim community with Islamophobia on rise to find an adversary in them. A Buddhist monk asked this writer, why the Muslims who had assimilated into the Sinhala culture were asserting their Islamic identity since the 1980s? They had ‘vanquished’ one – Tamil Elam which resisted assimilation and, the ones who were part of Sinhala culture were now posited as those ‘asserting’ separate identity.
Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – Buddhist Force Army was founded by monks Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara after they parted away from Jathika Hela Urumaya. In their first national convention held in 2012 problematized Islamic identity. They demanded a single legal system, opposed halal food and Muslim women wearing abaya or burqa, Buddhist monks to teach history and other subjects and preferential treatment in university admissions. They demanded ban on birth control measures for the Buddhist community. They were demanding privileges for Buddhists on one hand, and cultural assimilation of Muslims or rather, de-Islamization on the other hand as post civil war future of the island. The BBS stands for strong centralized authoritarian state which would ensure protection of Sinhala Buddhist cultural and religious traditions and were against multi-racial, multi-religious and multicultural nature of Sri Lanka.
The extreme Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism seeks to mobilize the majority Buddhist Sinhala community by instilling fear of the minority Muslim community which is less than 10%. They argue that Sinhala Buddhists have only one country where they belong to unlike Muslims, Hindus and Christians who have other countries. Moors too have only one homeland and so do Sinhala Christians! They problematize ‘mosques springing up everywhere’, ‘faster growth of Muslim population’ and ‘conversions by Christians’.
The BBS General Secretary Gnansara welcomed the victory of Narendra Modi Govt. in India. He claimed they were in discussion with the Hindu Supremacist organization RSS in India to form what he called ‘Hindu-Buddhist peace zone’ in South Asia and including Myanmar’s extremist Buddhist nationalist Wirathu Group 969. Though Ram Madhav, General Secretary of the BJP denied that they were in talks with BBS, he posted comments appreciating BBS. He wrote, “The Bodu Bala Sena essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions”. RSS too claims to do that replacing ‘Hinduism’ for Buddhism. Wirathu Group 969, BBS and RSS have common imagined enemies in followers of Islam and Christianity, and profess a duty to save their respective ‘only homelands’ from being predated by Islam and Christianity. The three Buddhist and Hindu Supremacist organizations posit imagined threat from imagined enemies and hype up fear within the majority community in order to project themselves as protectors of their respective cultural heritage. They have little respect for truth, established procedures and democratic institutions. In the case of recent anti-Muslim riots in Kandy, the Muslim youth had already been arrested by the police on the charge of beating up the truck driver on the same day of the incident on 22nd February; and in Ampara, prejudices against Muslims led the Sinhala customers of hotel owned by Muslims to imagine contraceptive pills in meals served to them, notwithstanding the fact that there are no contraceptive pills that cause permanent and irreversible sterilization. They did not wait for investigation of their suspicion. Even if their suspicion were to be true, who should inflict punishment upon whom and in what measure?
The right wing extremists use insignificant everyday incidents like scuffle over truck-rickshaw traffic incident or tablet like stuff in the meal served to them as an excuse to inflict collective punishment on all members of the community and those who have no role or control over the incident. In order to purge the ‘other’ from their midst, they hype up the conflict to the level of continuous and ongoing war with the ‘other’. In this war however reluctant, weak and insufficient protection afforded to the ‘other’ by law is immediately stigmatized as appeasement of the ‘other’. The extremist supremacists are more at war with democracy and rule of law and war with the ‘other’ is the route. At a rally in 2013 attended by 16,000 people, including 1,300 Buddhist monks, the BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara unveiled the ‘Maharagama Declaration’. He stated, “[t]his is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race”. He called upon the Sinhalese Buddhist attending the rally that they “must become an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism. These so-called democrats are destroying the Sinhala race”. The Wirathu Group 969 has always supported the Military Junta in Myanmar and the RSS was always unhappy with the Indian Constitution which they say was based on western traditions, a veiled attack on equal citizenship rights.
The BBS has also learnt a tactic or two from the RSS. In a rally held in Kandy on 17 March 2013, BBS announced that the 10th-century mosque at the Kuragala Buddhist monastery complex in Ratnapura District had been constructed on a Buddhist heritage by Muslim fundamentalists. While India was ruled by Muslim Emperors, for the Sangh Parivar to claim that Babri Masjid was built after destroying Ramjanmabhoomi Temple, Sri Lanka was not. It was a Portuguese Colony and later a British Colony. BBS general secretary Gnanasara also accused the Muslim owned Fashion Bug and No Limit retail chains of converting its Buddhist Sinhalese employees to Islam. The Muslim owned Fashion Bug clothes shop in Pepiliyana, Colombo District was attacked on 28 March 2013 by a mob led by Buddhist monks. While these right wing supremacists problematize foreign cultural influences, they themselves freely borrow from foreign political ideologies, including more than a leaf from Nazis and Fascists.
However there are inherent contradictions and inconsistencies in their ideologies. While they complement each other’s electoral victories as good for the stability of the region and share common ‘enemies’ in Islam and Christianity, and have ‘held high level talks’, their political goals would actually pit them in war against each other in the long run. While the BBS talks of protecting Sinhalese Buddhist homeland, RSS’s goal is Akhand Bharat with common culture and religion, whose boundaries not only include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, but also Myanmar and parts of China! Sri Lanka is a land wherein Lord Ram waged war and rescued his wife Sita from Ravana’s custody.
Through their hypes, the right wing supremacists create even stronger insecurity among the marginalized minority practically abandoned by state, which in turn pushes them (the ‘othered’ minorities) to seek refuge in stronger unity around their exclusive symbols. The halal food being problematized after 2012 is not a new cultural practice and does not concern non-Muslims how they chose to consume their food. Halal meat only means that they let the blood of the slaughtered animal flow out fully before it is consumed. The extremists push the ‘other’ towards more exclusivism rather than creating an environment of cultural exchanges and dialogue.
Musthafa Nihmath, member of Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) told this writer there were about 3,000 mosques in Sri Lanka and all services were being conducted in Tamil. However, in the recent past, 5 mosques have begun their Friday sermons in Sinhala language in Colombo in rotation. The Moors are hard working and higher proportion of them are business entrepreneurs. The cab driver told this writer that every other shop or business belongs either to Moors or Tamils. That may have been exaggeration. That is why their business and mosques are targets.
The extreme right wing nationalists in all the countries are able to exploit the feelings of relative deprivation that the poor among the ‘majority’ community feel and convert it into hatred against others belonging to more or less same class but following different cultural traditions and hatred into violence. These feelings could be checked by appropriate education and dialogue between and within communities. The Constitution of Sri Lanka, as indeed to India mandates state to treat all citizens regardless of their religions equally and afford all citizens adequate environment and space to freely practice their religion. However, the executive of these countries fail to administer the law in letter and spirit and impartially. As a Sri Lankan minister told a group among whom this writer was present, few people involved in violence are put to trial and even fewer are convicted. The impending violence can be prevented if hate crimes are checked in time, intelligence strengthened and acted upon and bureaucrats are made accountable. Though the Sri Lankan Govt. took stern steps by declaring emergency to control riots and clamped down upon social media, the executive misused emergency provisions against the minorities. As the levels of inequalities in Sri Lanka are increasing, the economic elite fund right wing nationalism to problematize perceived or factual growth of poor from the ‘other’ marginalized communities and take gaze off them and structures that enrich them with corruption occasionally becoming political issue.

Irfan Engineer
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

Rohingya who remain in restive Rakhine face uncertain future

Those that stayed behind battle food shortages and pray for peace

Rohingya who remain in restive Rakhine face uncertain futureMinority Rohingya Muslims gather behind Myanmar's border lined with barbed wire fences in Maungdaw district, located in Rakhine State bounded by Bangladesh on March 18. (Photo by Joe Freeman/AFP)

March 23, 2018

Mohammad Salim and his family were packing their belongings and getting ready to flee when the violence erupted in the north of Rakhine State on Aug. 25, 2017 as Myanmar's military sought to target Rohingya Muslim militants.
However, unlike hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have left the strife-torn state to live in camps in neighboring Bangladesh due to fear of ethnic persecution at the hands of the Myanmar army, Salim decided to stay put.
"We would have left if the situation deteriorated any further because we were living in a state of fear," says the 71-year-old from Myo Ma Ka Nyin Tan village near the town of Maungdaw.
Salim's village was not unscathed by the troubles, as the army razed homes and made what rights activists claim were arbitrary arrests to scare the Rohingya into leaving. But the village escaped the brunt of the campaign.
While a third of its residents opted to leave and make their way to Bangladesh 800 of the original population of 1,200 people, elected to stay and brave it out.
Salim's daughter, who is married and living in a separate village, decided to join the legions of refugees after seeing so many people's homes burned down by security forces and fearing her house could be next on the list.
Salim bases his livelihood on the crops he grows on four acres of paddy, bolstered by the income produced by his son's grocery shop.
But he says supplies often run low and fears of hunger and state-sanctioned violence prey on the villagers' minds despite Myanmar and Bangladesh inking a repatriation deal that Dhaka recently delayed.
As Salim's community faces food shortages, the government has dispatched aid there in the form of rice sacks on two occasions since August in collaboration with the International Red Cross.
"We fight for our daily survival and right now we have just about enough food to get by. But we can't tell what will happen in the future," the former schoolteacher told
A Myanmar border guard is posted at the Friendship Bridge across from Bangladesh in Maungdaw district of Rakhine State on March 18. (Photo by Joe Freeman/AFP)
No stranger to violence
He recalls similar episodes of violence that erupted in the state in the late 1970s and the 1990s, when masses of Rohingya also fled across the border.
But Salim described the current situation as setting a new precedent in terms of scale and terror.
"In my life, this is the worst situation I've ever seen," he says.
Over 671,000 Rohingya have left the state since the army's brutal crackdown began last summer following alleged attacks on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Hundreds are reported to still be fleeing the ravaged area on a weekly if not daily basis as reports emerge that the military is setting up security outposts on top of razed Rohingya villages.
Critics see this as a sign the refugees are not welcome to return. Myanmar refuses to recognize the term "Rohingya" or grant them citizenship status. It refers to the Muslim minority as Bangladeshi migrants.
Mohammad Furuk, a Rohingya Muslim from Pan Taw Pyi near Maungdaw, said he watched over 1,000 people scramble to leave the village in a panic but he decided to stay, a decision he doesn't regret.
"The situation is normalizing and the local authorities have urged us not to leave," the 60-year-old told
The father of 10 owns a few acres of farmland but he says this is not enough to feed his family. Fortunately, the government has helped to provide rice sacks which have until now managed to bridge the gap.
"We are surviving, for now, but I can't say what will happen tomorrow," he adds.
Furuk refuted rumors that Rohingya Muslims were being forced to leave by Rohingya insurgent groups.
"The ARSA's name has come up a lot since last August, but to be honest we don't know who they really are," he said.
In a sign of recognition for the plight of Furuk's community, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi visited the village on Nov. 2.
There were an estimated 1.09 million Rohingya in Rakhine State who were not enumerated in the 2014 census, according to a government report on religion released in July 2016.
Diplomats estimate that not more than 100,000 Rohingya remain in the three major townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in the northern part of the state. The Irrawaddy reported on Feb. 23 that only 79,000 Rohingya are still living in the state. It cited statistics provided by the local General Administration Department (GAD).
The GAD put the total Rohingya population before the latest crisis at 767,038, meaning the number has since dwindled by almost 90 percent.
The news report added that Rohingya accounted for 93 percent of the population in Maungdaw, 84 percent in Buthidaung and just 6 percent in Rathedaung as of last summer.
The center of Rakhine State has not been so badly affected by the violence. Here, over 120,000 Rohingya remain in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP). Another 150,000 have been scattered among villages in various townships such as Sittwe and Myauk-Oo.

Infrastructure investment in Myanmar: Open for business?

     Op-ed by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein 
On 20 March 2018, investors, the business community, development financing institutions and other stakeholders will meet in Yangon, Myanmar, for the fourth Myanmar Infrastructure Investment Summit, organised by the government under the title: “Building an Inclusive, Integrated and Modern Myanmar.” 
Apparently, no irony was intended in the choice of this title to refer to a country where there are strong suspicions that genocide may have recently taken place, bulldozers are now allegedly being employed in an effort to eradicate the evidence, and where ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State – through killings, sexual violence and deliberate starvation – appears to be continuing. Rohingya refugees are still arriving in Bangladesh, which now houses the largest refugee camp in the world
The Summit, which is likely to be attended by officials from major development financing institutions, will showcase Myanmar’s infrastructure plans and seek funding. This is a worthy objective. Well-conceived infrastructure projects are vital for development, connecting producers to markets and people to sources of education, healthcare and jobs. Only 20% of Myanmar’s roads are paved, and only 35% of the population is connected to the electricity grid: the need is clear. But the shocking violations of human rights which have driven hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country should heighten the vigilance of any investor.
Infrastructure projects can be laden with unassessed social risks, in any country. They include gender-blindness in project design; increases in communicable diseases; child labour; human trafficking and sexual violence; forced displacement and livelihood destruction; land seizures; abusive labour practices, and siphoning off vital public resources for private profit.
Poor stakeholder engagement is another common problem, exemplified in the failure of the Myitsone Dam joint venture between China and Myanmar. Telecommunications tower construction and fibre cable projects have been associated with child labour, debt bondage and other labour rights violations. A major highway project in Kayin state – part of the East-West Economic Corridor backed by the Asian Development Bank – has been associated with forced displacement, poor consultation practices and environmental damage. Land occupied by up to 20,000 indigenous people was confiscated during the construction of an oil pipeline between Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine state, and Kunming, China. In Myanmar, or any militarised state or weak governance environment, project revenue streams may easily find their way into the pockets of the perpetrators of human rights abuses.
Myanmar’s clampdown on the freedom of the press is particularly troubling in this context. In December, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested for reporting on the massacres in Rakhine state; they could face up to 14 years in jail. This is one among many such incidents. Journalists are now fearful of travelling to ethnic areas and reporting on events in non-governmental controlled regions. Oppression of this kind is one small manifestation of the contagion of authoritarianism sweeping many parts of the world. It is also a fundamental obstacle to infrastructure development: how can infrastructure investors and financing institutions be sure that they have appraised all relevant risks fully, with due regard to their fiduciary, legal and ethical duties and sustainability objectives, if independent information and free expression are suppressed?
The recent wave of murderous violence unleashed against the Rohingya raises the risks for infrastructure investors. Strong vigilance is needed for redevelopment projects in areas from which Rohingya have been displaced; the government's acquisition of “burned lands” under Myanmar’s Natural Disaster Management Law should be ringing loud alarm bells.  If infrastructure plans for Rakhine state in any way frustrate the safe, sustainable return of refugees, those financing or investing in those projects may be complicit in ethnic cleansing. Elsewhere in the country, investors also need to be mindful of human rights risks.
I would strongly urge those seeking investment opportunities in Myanmar to undertake in-depth, regular human rights due diligence in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, guided by a clear human rights policy commitment. Multinational companies, in particular, should analyse and communicate their human rights impacts throughout their value chains, and use maximum leverage to encourage national authorities to “do no harm,” end unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression, and ensure the safe repatriation of displaced Rohingya populations. And UN human rights monitors must be granted full access to Rakhine State and other areas where violations have been reported.
These measures are vital for informed investments in infrastructure, and for inclusive, sustainable development. They are also vital for accountability. Myanmar cannot be considered “open for business” otherwise. Moreover, though the experience in Myanmar is extreme, it is not unique – and should serve as a reminder to all international investors that human rights and discrimination are everybody’s business. 

Bipartisan Resolution Condemning Burma

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Passes Bipartisan Resolution Condemning Burmese Ethnic Cleansing, Supporting the Rohingya

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  U.S. Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.) today announced that a bipartisan Senate resolution condemning the Burmese campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya and calling for the “safe, dignified, voluntary and sustainable return” of the refugees who have been displaced by this violence was voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a bipartisan vote with unanimous support.

The senators introduced the resolution in January, as planned repatriation from Bangladesh to Burma was postponed amid fears that the repatriation as planned would be neither safe nor voluntary.

“I am pleased that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed our bipartisan resolution condemning the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Senator Young. “The resolution will now advance to the full Senate, and I will continue working with the administration and the international community to hold the perpetrators accountable and ensure refugee returns are voluntary, safe, and dignified.”

“The crimes that the Burmese military perpetrated against the Rohingya are horrific and will haunt us for generations to come,” said Senator Merkley, who led a congressional fact-finding mission to Burma and Bangladesh in November. “In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees described to me systemic campaigns of rape and murder. Women showed me the scars on their bodies from burns they suffered as their homes burnt around them. Children showed me their drawings of the Burmese military shooting innocent villagers as they fled. After a campaign of such violent ethnic cleansing, we must ensure that any repatriation of the Rohingya to their homeland is voluntary, safe and dignified. And with monsoon season approaching and 100,000 refugees immediately at risk, we have no time to delay in tackling this life-and-death issue.”

“The situation in Burma remains dire as the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and  violence has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh,” said Senator Kaine. “Though Bangladesh’s efforts to protect these vulnerable individuals have been extremely generous, any plans to repatriate the Rohingya to Burma should be done in a voluntary and dignified manner.  Our resolution makes clear that the U.S. Congress will continue to closely monitor the Burmese government’s treatment of the Rohingya to ensure that the atrocities against them stop and the refugees are safe and treated fairly in Bangladesh or upon their return to Burma.” 

“The systematic human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya people in Burma have shocked all people of conscience,” said Senator McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Nearly 700,000 innocent men, women, and children have been forced from their homes by the Burmese military’s bloody and brutal campaign. Now, as the governments of Burma and Bangladesh move forward with plans for repatriation, many Rohingya fear their return home will be met with more violence. Rohingya refugees should not have to return to the same brutality they once fled. The United States and the international community must ensure that their return home will be safe, voluntary and dignified, and that those responsible for the violence will be held accountable.”

The resolution is cosponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.).