05/16/2013, 00.00
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Religious conflict and drama Rohingya "destabilize Myanmar’s reforms”

by Dario Salvi
AsiaNews speaks to Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The situation of the Muslim minority is "tragic and potentially devastating." Some internal elements maneuver to hinder democratization. The Catholic Church has a "key role" as a 'force for peace. "

Rome (AsiaNews) - Even in the face of  "some long advocated reforms," which must be "recognized and supported," in Myanmar " a culture of impunity remains that must be faced with decision." "The protection of ethnic and religious minorities, dialogue between different faiths" and the birth of a true "culture of peace" are among the priorities to be solved. This is the conclusion of a report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a British organization that has been fighting for years for religious freedom and human rights around the world.

Recently a CSW delegation, led by the East Asia manager Benedict Rogers, took a four-week trip across the country, including the most critical areas. Among these, three are the most problematic: the escalation of the conflict in Kachin State between the Burmese army and the local rebel militias and the plight of the Rohingyas (linked to conflict between Buddhists and Muslims), which since last June has caused hundreds of casualties and displaced at least 130 thousand, and finally the political prisoners, with at least 300 prisoners still being held in Burmese prisons for crimes of opinion. And now there is another, new emergency in Rakhine State, where the arrival of a devastating cyclone it is expected that threatens to cripple an area already plagued by inter-confessional conflict. Thousands of refugees are stationed along the coast, less than 24 hours before arrival of tropical storm.

To better understand the current situation in Burma, through the eyes of an expert who for years has been closely monitoring the political, social and economic situation, AsiaNews interviewed Benedict Rogers,
CSW team leader for the East Asia:

From the evidence you have gathered, what ideas have you formed regarding the conflict between the Burmese Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority Rohingya?

This conflict is tragic and potentially devastating for Burma as a whole. It is based on deep misunderstandings and it will not be resolved easily. There is a religious and a racial element to the conflict, and the perception that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingyas are among the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world, and they are facing the possibility of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, perhaps even genocide. To resolve this will require painstaking efforts to establish the truth about their historical claims to their right to citizenship in Burma, persistent efforts to counter the misinformation that is spread about them in Burma, and inter-religious and inter-racial dialogue.

Is there anyone fuelling the violence and endangering the reforms? And who would have an interest in doing so?

It is widely believed that there are forces working to orchestrate religious conflict in Burma, both between the Rakhine and Rohingya and between Buddhists and Muslims more widely. It is unclear precisely who these people are, but it is likely that they are forces within the army, the government or the intelligence services who are trying to destabilise the political reform process, possibly to create the conditions by which, as a result of serious instability in the country, the army can retake direct power. It is also possible they are deliberately trying to undermine and destabilise Aung San Suu Kyi's political position. However, it is also very important not to ignore the fact that deeply rooted racial and religious prejudices are quite widely held within Burmese society as a whole, and these attitudes should also be addressed.

Does the military junta, in government until 2011, still hold the balance of power in the country?

It is important to remember that the "new" government is made up almost entirely of members of the former junta. Almost all the ministers are former Generals. President Thein Sein was Prime Minister in the old junta. So the old junta is not just behind the scenes, many of them are in the new government. And yes, while no one knows exactly how much influence Than Shwe and others who have retired from the old junta now have, they probably still wield some influence. While we do not know exactly the degree of pressure exerted by figures such as Than Shwe - the commander in chief, for years father and master of Myanmar, ed - and others who seem to have retreated from the public eye, even if it is not wrong to assume that , even today, they still exercise a margin of influence.

Can the Catholic Church contribute to easing tension in the country?

Yes, I believe the Catholic Church has a key role to play as a voice of peace, love, justice and harmony. Within society, there are serious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, but generally good relations between Buddhists and Christians, particularly with the Catholic Church. Therefore the Catholic Church can play a mediating role in promoting and facilitating inter-religious dialogue.

The Church is vibrant and active, and plays an important role in society. However, it does need to work in a way that is sensitive to the Buddhist majority, and it has to be careful that it does not provoke the militant Buddhist nationalist movement to turn its attention onto the Church.

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