For four days Mya Nandar Aung sat on a wooden plank and held her 2-year-old daughter. Aung was not allowed to stand or lie down. She wasn’t allowed to sleep. She ate and drank very little and her legs went numb. When her around-the-clock interrogators in the government prison center leaned in, Aung pressed her daughter close.
“I keep on telling myself that I can’t let anything go wrong with me. If something happened to me I would lose control. They would take my daughter or kill my daughter.”
This was in June 2012, after Arakanese Buddhist mobs swept through Arakan state in western Burma, an area that is home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Villages were burned and hundreds of people, mostly Muslim, were killed. Aung and her husband, Maung Maung “Tony” Than, Burmese who worked for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, were arrested as they were about to be evacuated with UNHCR staff. The couple endured 19 days of harsh interrogation and six months in prison before a judge found there was no evidence that they had committed a crime.
Aung and Than are at Colby as fellows selected by the 2013 Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights. They are spending the semester teaching and writing as they try to impart to the Colby community and America the dire situation in their country.
The violence in western Myanmar (formerly Burma) spread quickly, fueled by longstanding animosity between the Arakanese and Rohingya. That anger and hatred had been kept in check by the military junta that ruled the country until 2010. A democratic government gave citizens, especially majority Buddhists, the right to free speech and movement and, exhorted by Buddhist extremists, the Arakanese set out to force the Rohingya from the region.
The violence displaced more than 100,000 Muslims, and more than 1,000 remain imprisoned without cause, Aung and Than say, including Aung’s father, a physician and Muslim leader, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison. The government did little to prevent or stem the ethnic violence, Aung and Than say, and Muslims who defended themselves were apprehended and jailed. While there was harsh treatment under the junta, the present situation has left the Muslim minority with little government protection.
“Now you’re not safe,” Than said. “Your family is not safe. You can be attacked at any time. [Under the junta] it was a violation of rights. Now it is a physical violation.”
Than and Aung hope that increased scrutiny by the international community (President Barack Obama visited Rangoon in November and warned against continued violence) will lead the government to quell the violence and persecution of Muslims. Than, a Muslim, said the couple cannot return to Myanmar until the situation is stabilized. But he said he wanted the government to know that he and his wife, whose maternal relatives are Buddhist, want to play a role in finding a path to peace in the region. “We can help,” he said. “We know the situation.”
True reconciliation, Than said, may take a decade or more. And it will come only when there is a change in the fundamental attitudes between the ethnic and religious groups in the country. Punishing perpetrators of violence is necessary, he said, “but it’s a never-ending job. If bad people become good, it’s safe for you and them.”
Aung points to the fact that, during her interrogation and imprisonment, one prison worker was sympathetic and brought a blanket and dirty pillow for her daughter. “I have a faith,” she said, “that you will find a kind soul among bad souls.”