Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Tin Soe: Striving for democracy in Myanmar

By A. Junaidi

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, 06/04/2008

Tin Soe knows how difficult it is to be a minority Burmese Muslim -- suffering discrimination and insecurity -- as well as a journalist working in an authoritarian country like Myanmar.

Along with other inter-faiths activists, Tin, who is also known as Mohamed Taher, the editor of Kaladan Press Network, has been struggling against Myanmar's military junta and dreaming of a democratic country.

"I'm fighting the military junta through the media. No foreign media are able to cover ... the junta are not giving permission to enter the areas," Tin said in an interview with The Jakarta Post recently on the sidelines of his visit together with a group of Buddhist monks at the Post's office in Central Jakarta.

The visit included a discussion on the recent rally in Myanmar, which thousands of people joined, including Buddhist monks in Yangon, the capital of the country.

Hundreds of people, including the monks and a foreign journalist, were reportedly killed during the demonstration after police brutally dispersed the crowd.

Through his news agency, which is based in Chitagong, a Bangladesh border town, Tin coordinated reporters inside Myanmar, particularly in Yangon, to collect information on the rally.

Tin said he was jailed twice in 2004 -- in January (seven days) and November (15 days) -- in Bangladesh for distributing news about the military junta.

"The military junta would also attack Buddhist monks if they felt threatened ... it's not just Muslims who suffered discrimination for years under the regime," self-exiled Tin said.

The muslim population of Myanmar comprises about eight percent or one million of the total population. The religious group is divided into four sub-groups: Muslims of Indian origin, from Bangladesh, India or Pakistan; Arakan Muslims, called Rohingyas; Panthays Muslims, who originate from Yunnan, China and use Mandarin language; and Burmese Muslims, of Persian origin.

Tin said Burmese Muslims in Mynamar were discriminated under an assimilation project commonly called "Burmanization", a socio-cultural project in which Muslims were not allowed to use Urdu (the main language of Muslims of Indian origin), Arabic and Mandarin, instead of Burmese language. Islamic schools, mosques and cemeteries were also closed under the project.

"We were banned from holding Islamic functions such as the Idul Adha and Idul Fitri celebrations," Tin, who received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Rangoon University, Burma, said.

Another form of discrimination, he said, was the one citizen law, which had forced thousands of Arakan Muslims (who resided in predominantly Muslim state of Rakhine) to take refuge in Bangladesh, as they were not legally acknowledged in Myanmar and not permitted to hold identity cards. Many Muslims also took refuge in Malaysia, while others sought protection in Thailand.

After graduating from university, Tin worked at a private company in Chitagong. He was also active in the Arakan Roping Islamic Front as an intern who collected information from inside Arakan on abuses carried out by the military junta from May 1982 to December 1988.

Tin, who was born on May 20, 1955, went on to study mass media and joined several training programs on various topics, such as public relations, photography and news gathering in Baguio city, the Philippines, and web design and ICT in Thailand.

From January 1989 to December 2003, he worked as an assistant (overseas) information secretary for the Arakan Rohingya National Organization in Saudi Arabia. He reported to the head office in Bangladesh on the settlement of large number of Rohingyas refugees in the Middle East, and set up networks with government officials and local NGOs.

The military junta's brutal action against Buddhist monks was an indication, Tin said, that the violence in Myanmar did not discriminate religion or ethnicity.

It was once thought that the junta supported Buddhism -- as shown by their participation in Buddhist rituals and celebrations -- and discriminated other minority religions, including Islam.

However, the junta has always claimed that a firm government is needed to prevent the country, which is diverse in terms of ethnicity and religions, from breaking up. Burmese comprise the largest ethnic group in Myanmar. Other ethnic groups, including the Karen and Shan groups, are still involved in armed conflict with the military junta.

The current military junta is dominated by Burmese (top opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi is also Burmese).

International countries, including ASEAN states like Indonesia, have condemned the brutal military action against demonstrators in Myanmar.

Tin said international support would help Mynamarmese activists to free the country from military repression. He and other activists, including monks, are now traveling overseas to seek that support.

"We have shown that we, Buddhists and Muslims, as well as people from different ethnic (groups) can cooperate. We believe a democratic country can protect their citizens without any discrimination."

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