Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the world’s most vulnerable minority groups, have frequently been likened to snakes, savages, and mad dogs. One of the predominant causes of violence against minority groups is the belief that those of the minority group are lesser human beings; hate speech is a tool that helps fuel this belief. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were called “cockroaches,” and during WWII, Jews were compared to “vermin.”
In Burma, hate speech is currently being used by the state to marginalize religious and ethnic Muslim minorities and has incited anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State and beyond.
Monk Wirathu’s anti-Muslim tirades constitute some of the most flagrant examples of hate speech. He has compared Rohingya (whom he derogatorily refers to as illegal Bengalis) to African carp, which he describes as violent, cannibalistic, and rapidly breeding, and he preaches that Buddhists ought to be relieved of the “burden” of Burma’s minority Muslims.
Wirathu’s vitriolic hate speech has directly contributed to mass violence against various Muslim groups throughout Burma, including both Kaman and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, and Burmese Muslims in central Burma. Far from intervening in Wirathu’s anti-Muslim propaganda, Burmese President Thein Sein has defended him, censoring publications that criticized his bigotry and calling him the “son of Buddha.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma has documented how hate speech was wielded against Muslims via sermons and the distribution of videos and leaflets prior to the Meiktila violence in March 2013 that killed dozens of Muslims, including at least 32 schoolchildren. He also saw police intentionally failing to intervene during the first two days of violence to protect local Muslims and control the violent mobs.
Social media and mass protests in Burma have propagated hate speech against Muslims as well. Freedom House’s 2013 “Freedom on the Net” report noted that people in Burma are using Facebook as a tool to spread hate speech against Rohingya. At a February 3 protest in Arakan State, an Arakan crowd demanded that Rohingya be stripped of voting rights and access to humanitarian aid, and demanded that police forces be given authority to use force against Rohingya.
The Burmese government complicity endorses these public forms of hate speech, and it also actively supports hate speech by means of the legal code. Laws such as the 1982 citizenship law, which does not recognize Rohingya as citizens, propagate a legal discourse that says that Rohingya are not worthy of basic human rights. Other discriminatory policies against Rohingya include strict travel, construction, education, and marriage restrictions, denial of land ownership, and a two-child limit in certain areas of Arakan State.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief writes in his December 26 report that in corrupt authoritarian political environments, one of the main remedies to hate speech is reconciliation through forums of discussion. But Burma’s religious challenges cannot be remedied solely through inter-faith dialogues and seminars on cross-cultural understanding. These soft power strategies may be effective for long-term reconciliation, but in the short-term, the Burmese government must enforce justice and accountability measures to protect the rights of Rohingya.
Without justice and accountability measures, soft power strategies are powerless to stymie anti-Muslim violence and promote community and religious reconciliation. Hate speech will remain state-condoned. Burma must immediately provide legal redress for victims, arrest and prosecute perpetrators, and impartially investigate violent incidents.
But government unwillingness to enact justice for the Rohingya is abundantly clear. Thein Sein, who allows apartheid and ethnic cleansing policies to continue unabated in Arakan State, has said directly, “There are no Rohingya among the races. We only have Bengalis who were brought for farming [during British rule].”
Thus, Rohingya victims have been victims twice – first victims of their rapists and killers, and then again victims of government complicity. Rather than seek genuine justice and reconciliation, the Burmese government has rejected calls for international officials to sit on its investigation commission, deeming this an intrusion in domestic affairs. The government rejected the UN’s January statement that Rohingya had been killed in Du Chi Ra Dan village and, when the government finally consented to investigate the incident, did so in an entirely unethical and discriminatory manner.
In fact, Burma’s “independent” National Human Rights Commission reported that it had “found no solid evidence of any massacre taking place” whatsoever. Following this ludicrous report, Thein Sein appointed a second investigation that was instructed to look into the alleged death of an Arakan policeman and entirely ignore reports that an Arakanese mob massacred 48 Rohingya. These two biased investigations make clear the need for an international investigation implemented through UN mechanisms.
Waiting on the Burmese government to conduct its own impartial investigation into the January massacre when it does not even recognize Rohingya as a legitimate people of Burma, or release Rohingya sex slaves being kept on military bases, or allow displaced and disenfranchised Rohingya IDPs who are facing a completely avoidable, manmade humanitarian crisis to return home, or release the hundreds of politically arrested Rohingya who are languishing in Arakan prisons, is an international failure of justice.