Written for The Diplomat
U Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk from Myanmar, publicly insulted a United Nations human rights envoy who was visiting the country to assess the progress of reforms initiated by the government. The video of Wirathu insulting the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, has gone viral in Myanmar.
Wirathu called Lee a whore for allegedly meddling in the affairs of Myanmar. “Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honorable woman,” he said.
Wirathu is the leader of the 969 Buddhist national movement that has gained popularity in recent years. It believes that the Rohingya and other Muslims are plotting to dominate Myanmar, which has a predominantly Buddhist population. The Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, according to the U.N. They are mostly Muslims living in Myanmar and other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, but the Myanmar government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Many are also denied of basic rights and access to welfare services. There are an estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas living in the country’s Rakhine State.
During her recent visit to the country, Lee said she saw no positive progress on either the conditions of the Rohingya or the tension between many radical Buddhist and Muslim groups. “The atmosphere between Buddhists and Muslims remains hostile. I saw internally displaced persons in Muslim camps living in abysmal conditions with limited access to food, health care and essential services,” she said.
She also warned against the passage of “race and religion” bills that “will legitimize discrimination, in particular against religious and ethnic minorities, and ingrain patriarchal attitudes towards women.” She was referring to bills relating to population control and healthcare, monogamy, religious conversion, and interfaith marriages involving Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.
Lee’s objection to the proposed legislation angered Wirathu, who denounced the U.N. envoy in a mass assembly for being allegedly biased in favor of the Rohingya.
But Wirathu was quickly criticized for his “sexist” and “insulting” language against Lee. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the religious and political leaders of Myanmar to “unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack” against a U.N.-appointed envoy.
Lee herself reacted to the speech, writing in her official report that she was “personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues.”
Wirathu’s remarks also upset people in Myanmar. Presidential spokesperson and Minister of Information Ye Htut urged the Buddhist monk to focus on the topics of compassion, love, empathy, and good ethics. U Pandavunsa, a famous monk in the country, said that promoting hate speech is against the code of ethics of Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, U Thawbita, a monk who participated in the 2007 Saffron protest, said that Wirathu’s words “could hurt Buddhism very badly.” Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, expressed disappointment that “trouble is being fomented by extremists within the Buddhist clergy (but) the government is doing nothing about it.”
Wirathu, however, defended his decision to attack the U.N. envoy. “That was the harshest word (I could think of), so I used it. If I could find a harsher word, I would have used it. It is nothing compared to what she did to our country.” He added in an interview that he was simply “defending” Buddhism, and that he “should be glad that [he] succeeded in making this particular comment.”
“I am delightfully proud,” he added.
The Myanmar government announced that it will investigate the speech of Wirathu against the U.N. rapporteur. Perhaps after conducting a probe on this matter, the Ministry of Religious Affairs can also look into the past activities of nationalist monks that have inflamed communal hatred and violence in various parts of the country. Hopefully, and more importantly, this incident should embolden the country’s leaders to aggressively pursue meaningful and peaceful conversations and initiatives on religion, ethnicity, and civil rights.
Refugee Crisis on Myanmar-China Border
Written for The Diplomat
The renewed hostilities between Burmese troops and the Kokang armed rebel group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have killed more than 130 people since February 9. According to the government, the fatalities included 61 military and police officers, and around 72 rebels. The casualties could be higher since the situation in other remote areas has yet to be determined and clashes are still ongoing after the government rejected calls for a ceasefire in the conflict areas.
The last time Kokang was besieged by armed attacks was in 2009 when the army successfully pushed the rebel force out of the region. Many believe that the February 9 offensive in the Laukkai regional capital was an attempt to reclaim the political influence which the rebels lost six years ago.
The government responded by deploying troops in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone; and later, declaring a state of emergency and martial law.
“Launching offensives against a self-administered zone to oust the mandated Kokang autonomous body is an offence to the sovereignty of the zone. We can’t let this happen. We have no plans to negotiate a ceasefire,” said U Zaw Htay, who is a director in the office of the president.
But in an interview with the independent media group Democratic Voices of Burma, rebel spokesman Tun Myat Linn denied that his group is responsible for the chaos and violence that suddenly engulfed the region. “We did not attack the government administration in Laogai. The director of the administration fled on his own initiative. Our troops are quite a distance from the town – we can’t even get close to there,” he said.
The army is also looking into the involvement of other ethnic rebel groups whom they suspect of providing assistance to the Kokang rebels. In particular, it accused the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army-North of joining the combat operations against the army. Some former Chinese soldiers were also allegedly recruited as mercenaries to support the rebels in Kokang. Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief urged these groups “to take responsibilities for themselves since the sovereignty of our country is being infringed upon.”
But pinpointing the culprits who instigated the violence in Kokang should take a backseat for now so that the government can focus its efforts on restoring normalcy in the area and addressing the refugee crisis which has already spilled over in the Myanmar-China border.
Estimates vary of the number of civilians forced to flee their homes when the fighting started two weeks ago. Some reports pegged the number of residents who escaped to China at 30,000. But according to a local Laukkai Township MP, more than 40,000 refugees from Kokang have set up temporary shelters in the Myanmar-China border. Meanwhile, The Myanmar Times was able to interview ethnic Han Chinese refugees who claimed that at least 100,000 people had fled Myanmar to escape the fighting.
Among those who were displaced by the clashes were teachers of Kokang. A middle-school teacher was able to share her ordeal with the Eleven media group: “We had to walk for 12 hours to the border region. We met Kokang rebels near Tharmannaw. They seized motorcycles and our mobile phones. We were transported to the border.”
The Irrawaddy also narrated the story of Naing Oo, a refugee worker from Pegu Division: “We had to sell some of our belongings to make some money. Some of us couldn’t even carry clothes or blankets, even though they are sick. We just want no war. Because of war, we lost our jobs, earning no money and instead having to run for our lives.”
Kyaw Myo Tun, also writing for The Irrawaddy, described the situation in the capital of the region: “Abandoned vehicles are riddled with bullet holes. Most apartment buildings and shops are shuttered and locked, with no signs of life inside. Except for the occasional muffled footsteps from one or two people furtively walking down the streets, the silence during the day is deep and lingering.”
There is difficulty in distributing aid to refugees especially after a Red Cross convoy was attacked a few days ago. This prompted Renata Dessallien, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, to ask both the government and rebel forces to prioritize the welfare of innocent civilians: “I appeal to all parties to the conflict to ensure that civilians are protected, and to allow civilians who remain in the conflict zone safe passage out of the Kokang area.”
Perhaps the government should reconsider its earlier position and declare a temporary ceasefire in order to reach the civilians caught in the crossfire and deliver humanitarian relief to thousands of refugees in the border. Peace advocates should also persuade the government to continue to follow the roadmap for peace, especially the signing of political agreements with other ethnic groups in the country.