Iran’s pack of lies
This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.
In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.
Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.
Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.
Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.
After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.
Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.
It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.
Tehran gains more leeway for meddling
This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.
From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.
With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.
In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.
In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.
“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.
The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.
“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”
And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.
“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.
The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.
This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.
Absurd criticism of Islam
This column was printed in Arab News on Dec. 27, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the recent bloody attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by terrorists claiming to be doing these in the name of Islam, discrimination against Muslims has grown worldwide.
They are targeted by these new critics, many of them American, well-educated and from the middle of the political spectrum — who reacting with horror to the violence — will say the most absurd things. “Islam is a violent religion” and “Islam needs reform to become more liberal,” are two of the most frequent accusations thrown at our religion.
And we also have the demagogue Donald Trump, the American billionaire entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate in next year’s elections. He has a long history of saying absurd and xenophobic things from calling all the illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists, to saying in a recent speech that President Barack Obama should bar the entry of Muslims into the United States until the government finds a way deal with the threat of terrorism.
This preposterous statement brought back memories of the detention camps during the World War II into which Americans of Japanese origin were forcibly sent, even if they were born in the United States.
That Trump had the courage to say what he did, and most disturbing, that he was not forced to retract his words and apologize, shows that the American public is so afraid of more terrorist attacks happening that they are willing to sacrifice some of their constitutional rights. Not that the American president would have to get permission from Congress to begin such discrimination. The US executive branch has broad jurisdiction over immigration issues, which in theory would leave Obama with the power to stop the entry of foreign Muslims simply by invoking national security. But that would be bad for the freedom of religion and expression enshrined in the US Constitution, and certainly would lead to legal challenges in US courts.
One of the exponents of the concept that Islam is a violent religion is the American writer Sam Harris, who is the darling of late-night talk shows on US television where he spreads his poison. An avowed atheist, Harris is the perfect example of a supposed public intellectual that many liberal and well-educated Americans love to cite as if he were phenomenally wise. He does not speak the truth, so I refuse to listen to anyone who is so hateful of Islam. Unfortunately, a Brazilian friend of mine who I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, asked me this week what I thought of Harris. He confessed to me that was enjoying more and more of Harris’ online speeches about the alleged “Islamic evil.” I said that Harris was wrong and tarnishing the reputation of Islam.
“But I thought all Islamists were terrorists,” he told me. I was shocked and saddened that this word has been associated only with terrorism by people in the West.
“Of course not! There are moderate Islamists and even democratic ones as those in Tunisia and Egypt,” I replied. But he did not seem convinced.
Another misunderstanding of Islam is that the religion needs a reformation such as the one Christianity underwent in Europe. Islam is an ancient religion, which is over 1,400 years old. In Islam, there are several strands of thought within the two largest branches of Sunni and Shiite followers. Just within the Sunni branch there are five schools of interpretation. Not to mention the Sufis, mystics who use poetry, music and dance to get closer to God.
As the British journalist Mehdi Hassan wrote in The Guardian in May this year, Islam has no clergy, nor a pope, as in Catholicism, for the supposed reformists to rebel against. And he says that Islam does not need to go through the bloody wars that Europe went through for 30 years in the 16th century, in which thousands of people died, only to reach a supposed “reform.” For him, Muslim extremists have to rediscover their heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect that have always been in Islam, embodied in the letter that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent to the monks of the Saint Catherine monastery, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain.
The Turkish writer, Mustafa Akyol, recently reminded us of the concept of “Irja” or “postponement” in Islam, which means that we do not have to judge whether people are good Muslims or not, but that we have to leave it up to God to decide in the next life, as He alone can judge us. This is a too liberal concept for the fanatics of Daesh, who want to judge and execute all “unqualified” Muslims here and now.
“The scholars who put forward this concept became known as the “murjia,” or defenders of the trial postponement,” Akyol wrote in his column in the New York Times. He noted that in spite of this school of thought having been dismissed as a heretical sect, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world still practice the concept. Even in the Gulf and other Arab countries the concept is used and applied regularly.
Islam is a dense, rich and complex religion. It is also full of love, peace, compassion and forgiveness. It is the beautiful side of this religion that is missing in the West’s imagination.
Russia extends agony of Syrian civil war
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The formal entry of Russia into the Syrian civil war last week, with its bombing of rebel targets in Homs and Hama, places which by the way have no Daesh forces, is a bad omen for the region. A visibly weakened Bashar al-Assad regime was having difficulty holding on to the smaller Syria that it still controlled and if not for Russian intervention in its favor, it may have been forced sooner rather than later to the bargaining table.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been supporting various Syrian rebel groups that are fighting for a new Syria without Assad and all of his thuggish allies. Forty-four years of Assad family rule has been far too much for the Syrian people, who emboldened by the Arab Spring revolts in the Arab world in 2011, decided to peacefully protest against their government. The regime’s answer was violence, arrests, torture and “disappearances”. It is no wonder then that the opposition soon took up weapons to defend itself from the merciless attacks of government forces.
But if you listen to the Assad regime, you hear another story which sounds like a fairytale it is so ridiculous. On Friday, the regime’s favorite cheerleader Buthaina Shaaban appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight program to stupidly claim yet again that there was no civil war in Syria, and that in fact the Syrian government was fighting “terrorists” hell-bent on blowing up schools and hospitals, not fed-up civilians who have formed rebel militias to topple a regime that has held Syria in its blood-stained hands for far too long.
The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the struggle to get rid of Assad in a speech to the United Nations on Oct. 1, lamenting that “the international community continues to be unable to save the Syrian people from the killing machine that is being operated by Bashar al-Assad. …Those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people have no place in a new Syria.”
The U.S. under the administration of President Barack Obama has been extremely reluctant to get too involved in the Syrian conflict, limiting itself to bombing Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq from the air, action that has yet to seriously affect Daesh’s capability to rule and hold on to its territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sensed this American hesitation as weakness and decided to step in by expanding an air base in Syria and stationing Russian bomber jets there. After their first bombing runs, in which they hit a rebel group that is funded by the Americans and killed 33 persons, the US government issued barely a peep in protest.
For sure the Russians are not rushing ground troops into Syria, having learned a hard lesson in the 1970s during their bloody occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Iran is rushing more soldiers and commanders into Syria to bolster the Lebanese Hezbollah forces already there. This only adds to the sectarian dimension that the Syrian civil war has taken on.
With approximately 300,000 Syrians already dead in a civil war half-way into its fifth year, the beginning of an active Russian military intervention and more Iranian troops arriving, the prospects of a peace settlement seem remoter than ever. European Union members should be at the forefront of trying to resolve the Syrian civil war as soon as possible, given the huge numbers of refugees that is has been forced to deal with this summer coming from Syria.
While the U.S. and its allies took pains not to target Syrian government forces in their bombing raids of Daesh targets in Syria, the Russians have had no such compulsions. The long talked about no-fly zones over northern areas of Syria near the border with Turkey to provide safe-havens for rebel groups and civilians, were never undertaken by the US because of Obama’s hesitation and hand-wringing over how far to get involved in Syria. For sure the many losses that Americans were subjected to in their 10-year occupation of Iraq are one of the main reasons that Obama and many other Americans were reluctant to okay no-fly zones in Syria. But if they had been implemented two years ago, the war would have taken a different turn for sure. Now, the rebels without any protection are going to be much more vulnerable to Syrian regime attacks thanks to the powerful Russian air cover and attacks that are bolstering the Assad regime.
It’s a shame really given that the US maintained no-fly zones over parts of Iraq for years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in order to protect the Kurdish population. The Kingdom footed the bill then, and perhaps could have contributed to help maintain no-fly zones over Syria, but Obama did not have the guts to do so. His administration will be remembered for that, and not kindly.
Bold steps embolden nation
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s first 100 days in office have been marked by a series of bold decisions that have left Saudis pleasantly surprised at the measures taken after what seemed a long period over the last several years where the Kingdom just seemed to be coasting along on its reputation as the center of the Muslim world.
The unrelenting march of the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, taking over the capital Sanaa last year and then forcing Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia when they bombed his Aden office, moved King Salman to decide to intervene militarily in Yemen along with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Muslim coalition of more than 10 nations. Critical to this decision no doubt was his son Prince Mohammad bin Salman, recently appointed the deputy crown prince, and our current defense minister. Only 30 years old, Prince Mohammad is known for his hard work and determination to get things done, and we are now seeing this in the campaign in Yemen to halt the advance of Houthi troops and reinstate the legitimate government of Hadi.
Our new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif, a youthful 55 years old, brings years of experience as interior minister fighting the scourge of Al-Qaeda, having survived an attack on his life by this nefarious terrorist group. The crown prince while being tough on the terrorists of Al-Qaeda has also realized that many of its members are disaffected youth that have been led astray by the deviant, hateful and bloody ideology spouted by the group, and therefore started a de-radicalization program run by the Ministry of Interior aimed at re-educating captured members of the group and offering them a way back into Saudi society by giving them jobs and marriage possibilities. For sure, some of the program’s participants have relapsed and returned to the folds of Al-Qaeda, but that is to be expected, as no program is 100 percent effective when it comes to ideology and what really stays in a person’s mind and heart.
Other appointments by King Salman to his Cabinet have injected new blood into the highest echelon of the Saudi government, giving a much younger generation of Saudis the chance to have a say in how the country is governed. My good friend Adel Al-Toraifi, who is only 36, is now the culture and information minister. I was very glad to hear of his appointment, remembering our many conversations about Middle East politics over cups of coffee whenever he used to visit Jeddah from Riyadh. Likewise, it was exciting to hear of the appointment of Adel Al-Jubeir as our new minister of foreign affairs, who at 53 is only a few years older than me. I still remember working with him at the end of the 1980s when I helped cover a Saudi exhibition for Arab News in Washington and he was just starting his career at the Saudi Embassy there.
But perhaps most intriguing have been the recent sackings of several officials by the king after they misbehaved in public and their shenanigans were caught on video and quickly posted on social media on the Internet for all to see. In April the then health minister, Ahmed Khatib, was caught on video having a heated argument with a citizen who was complaining that his sick father was getting poor treatment at a private hospital. Khatib could be heard dismissing the man’s complaints. After the clip was posted online there were many angry reactions and King Salman sacked the minister. The crown prince decided to treat the father of the man in the video.
Later in April, King Salman banned Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman from speaking to all media and from taking part in any sports activities after he made racist remarks on a live sports television program against a Saudi sports journalist, denigrating him for being of foreign descent. Online commentators praised the king for his action, saying that it showed that all Saudis should be treated the same and with respect. Indeed, in March King Salman stressed how all Saudis are the same in a speech he gave: “There are no differences among Saudi people or areas,” he said. “We are determined to address the roots of the divergences and the causes of divisions so that we can eliminate the categorization of the society in a way that harms national unity. All Saudis are equal in rights and duties,” he said.
This month the king replaced the head of royal protocol after the official was caught on camera slapping a photojournalist in the face at the airport in Riyadh when he was covering the arrival of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI. Happening just a few meters away from where King Salman was warmly greeting the Moroccan king, Mohammad Al-Tibaishi, the royal protocol official in question, was caught on camera slapping the journalist. While I know that journalists can be quite pushy and aggressive while trying to cover such important events, nothing ever justifies physical violence in such circumstances.
With all of these actions, King Salman is showing immense resolve to show the Kingdom’s determination to defend its strategic and national interests by intervening in Yemen and sacking Saudi officials who disrespect the Saudi people. This has given much pride and hope to the average Saudi citizen, who feels happy that the Saudi leadership is taking charge of our country’s destiny instead of allowing it to be too affected by foreign powers. We are a strong nation that can and should decide its own future. The time has come and all Saudis should rise to the challenge.
We’ve had too many years of complaining and expecting that others will solve our problems. We can do it ourselves, and we should be proud that we are able to do so.
Why we need a deal with Iran
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
As the deadline looms for the announcement of some sort of nuclear deal between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other, there has been much agonizing in the Middle East and in the US of how this may be a bad deal for the Gulf countries, Israel and the US. Bad because US President Barack Obama is allegedly being too soft in the negotiations with the Iranians, in the hope of reaching a landmark agreement that will be a lasting legacy of his presidency, even if it is detrimental to American interests.
First we had the shameless appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the US Congress on March 3, lecturing American politicians on the dangers of a bad deal with Iran. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House of Representatives, visibly displeased by his remarks said his speech was “condescending” and “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
Then we had the letter written by 47 Republican senators on March 9 addressed to the leaders of Iran warning them that any nuclear deal reached between Obama and Iran, that was not approved by the US Congress, could be revoked by the president who is elected to office in 2017, and that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement.
For sure the growth of the Iranian nuclear program, and the discovery of a secret, military component of it in 2002, has led many critics to be wary of Iran’s true intentions. No one really doubts that the country needs nuclear energy to produce electricity, just as Gulf countries are investing in nuclear energy for the same reasons. By doing so, both Iran and the Gulf countries will be able to divert much less crude oil to produce electricity, and be able to export that oil where they can get much more money for it.
In 2006, Iran had only 164 centrifuges that it uses to produce uranium. Today it has more than 15,000. Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the US, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine recently that the reluctance of American hawks to reach a nuclear deal with Iran over the past ten years is what has allowed, in part, the Iranian nuclear program to expand so aggressively. “One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another – but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a ‘better’ deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us,” writes Lewis.
If the deal is agreed to, Iran would freeze its nuclear program at current levels for the next ten years, allow more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the US and the UN would lift many of the economic sanctions that have made life so difficult for all Iranians. Some critics are worried that the Iranians are only bluffing in the current negotiations, claiming that their only goal is to get the sanctions lifted, and that as soon as they are the Iranians will ramp up their nuclear program once again. In order to avoid this happening, the US could lift some of their sanctions temporarily for six months, subject to inspections of Iranian nuclear installations. If they passed, then the sanctions would remain lifted for a further six months. That way the threat of the sanctions returning, and the use of regular inspections, could be a good way to keep the Iranians on their toes and make them stick to the agreement. It would also allow the US to retain the stick of sanctions, which are notably easier to lift than to impose.
For sure, Iran’s continued expansion of influence in the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is extremely worrying to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and is unacceptable. Already in Iraq, a vast network of Shia militias from Iran have been deployed to ostensibly fight the menace of the Islamic State forces, but many see it as a strategic move to effectively make Iraq a satellite-state of Iran.
In the end, a nuclear deal with Iran, even one that is not liked very much by all parties, will be better than no deal. A deal allows the continued presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran and keeps Iran engaged with the rest of the world and the expectations that come with it of acting reasonably responsibly. We all know that a nuclear deal will not necessarily mean renewed diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, as the Supreme Leader of Iran still believes that America is the Great Satan. So all of us in the Gulf can breathe easy again and not worry that a nuclear deal with Iran will suddenly eclipse the relationship that the US has had with Gulf countries for decades.
When a hero falls
This is my column that was published in Arab News on Nov. 16, 2014:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The scene of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrapping her arms around US President Barack Obama following their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon on Friday was sickening on several levels.
First, it smacked of desperation. Barred by the generals, who still run Burma from behind the façade of a civilian government, from running in the 2015 general election, Suu Kyi must be worried that the decades of isolation she endured locked up under house arrest may have been in vain. But more importantly, it is her revolting silence in not criticizing the state-sponsored genocide unleashed against the Muslim Rohingya people of her country by the Buddhist majority that has seriously damaged her alleged commitment to democracy and freedom for all the Burmese.
The Rohingya have long suffered severe discrimination in Burma and denial of citizenship by the government. Many may have thought that with the handover of the government to a nominally civilian leadership two years ago that loosened media censorship and released many political prisoners; things would improve for Burmese Muslims. But instead they have gotten much, much worse.
In 2012, horrific anti-Muslim riots broke out in Rakhine state in which whole Muslim villages were burned to the ground by angry Buddhist mobs and Muslim women, children and the elderly were beaten, speared and shot to death. It is estimated that 650 Rohingyas were killed, 1,200 went missing and up to 140,000 displaced. In response to the riots, the central government declared martial law in Rakhine and intervened with military troops, setting up internment camps in which Muslims were forced to move to. Today, more than 100,000 Rohingyas remain stuck in these camps, from which they are forbidden to leave.
Buddhist monks, who were once so celebrated for their role in resisting the dictatorial rule of the military from the 1960s through the 1990s, have played a key role in stirring up sectarian strife in Burma. I watched an excellent documentary a few months ago about this that featured the radical monk named Wirathu, who is the head of an extremist Buddhist group called “969.” It showed him traveling around Burma in a private jet to give lectures to groups of Burmese, warning them of the dangers of Muslims and telling them not to not allow their women to marry Muslim men, as there was an alleged Muslim plot to take over the country. In the film, Suu Kyi is asked about this and she refuses to explicitly condemn such fear mongering, only keeping to her usual mantra that it is the duty of the government to protect all Burmese.
Thankfully, Obama raised the plight of the Rohingyas several times both in private and public in his talks with Burmese President Thein Sein and in his speech at Suu Kyi’s residence. “Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be,” said Obama.
American officials remain baffled by Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out more forcefully against the anti-Rohingya violence, according to the New York Times, which notes that this persecution of Muslims is the biggest blot on Burma’s reputation and if not dealt with could jeopardize western aid to the country.
Perhaps Suu Kyi being a devout Buddhist has much to do with her reluctance to openly criticize the radical monk groups that keep attacking Muslims in Burma. She is known to wake up early every day and spend several hours in Buddhist meditations before starting the rest of her day. Yet for a woman who has sacrificed so much, most notably her not being able to see her British husband when he was dying of cancer because the military regime would not give him a visa to enter Burma to see her and she could not leave Burma as the military said they would not allow her back in, to hardly say anything now when hundreds of thousands of her own countrymen are being killed and run out of their own homes is unforgiveable.