The United Nations has described them as one the most persecuted minorities in the world. The suffering of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims has increased dramatically. Hundreds of Rohingyas have been killed in western Burma in clashes between Rohingya Muslims and security forces, a striking escalation of the crisis that had plagued the country’s transition to ‘democracy’ and has exposed its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Violence involving the Rohingyas has been going on for a long time. However, the Northern Rakhine state was convulsed in large-scale violence two months ago, causing the international community to finally take notice. Almost 480,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since renewed clashes between state security forces and the minority group.
The disruption began on August 25th 2017 after Rohingya fighters attacked police posts in Rakhine, on Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) western coast, triggering a military crackdown. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya fighters claim it stands up for the more than 1 million stateless Rohingya Muslims in Burma. The government calls ARSA a terrorist organization. Rohingya activists and monitors say many of the dead are non-combatants and that massacres have taken place by members of Myanmar’s security forces. They also argue that the death toll is much higher. It is not clear how many people have died. The military gave a toll of 400 on 1 September and said most of those were militants. But a UN human rights official said a week later that she thought the number could be over 1,000, many of which were deliberate attacks by members of Myanmar’s security forces.
The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. In the decades after WWII, tens of thousands fled an increasingly hostile Burma. For decades ethnic tensions have simmered in Rakhine state, with frequent outbreaks of violence. In 1950, some Rohingya staged a rebellion against the policies of the Myanmar government. They demanded citizenship; they also asked for the state that had been promised to them. Ultimately the army crushed the resistance movement.
In October 2016 nine police officers were killed by armed men, believed by officials to be Muslims. Amid the ensuing violence, 87,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh and government troops expanded their presence in Rakhine state.
There are about 1.1 million Rohingyas in Burma who have been denied citizenship, forced into manual labour on government projects and forbidden to marry without official permission. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.
The Government’s Narrative:
The Rohingya, most of whom reside in Rakhine state on the border with Bangladesh, are deeply unpopular in Burma, which is 90 percent Buddhist. The government insists they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite generational roots. Burma disputes the term “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” or “Muslims in Rakhine state.”
Authorities in Myanmar said a group of Rohingya militants attacked dozens of police posts and an army base on August 25, reputedly in an attempt to retaliate against persecution. The government said its forces were engaged in a military counter-offensive against alleged “terrorists” involved in the attacks. Security forces have claimed that members of the Rohingya community burnt down their villages themselves. The government has also accused international aid workers of helping terrorists besiege a village in Rakhine state.
Suu Kyi’s Defence:
The current wave of violence has put the Burmese government under intense scrutiny. Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s state counsellor and de facto leader, claimed that the situation is being twisted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation.” Suu Kyi argues that tensions were being fanned by “fake news” promoting the interests of terrorists. She further added: “We make sure that all the people in our country are entitled to protection of their rights as well as, the right to, not just political but social and humanitarian defence.”
Well aware of the accusations, Suu Kyi finally felt the need to speak out. In her address on the 19th of September 19, 2017, Myanmar’s de facto leader claimed that the government is unaware of the root cause of the crisis, and she and her government are determined to get to the bottom of it. While she condemned “all human rights violations” she made no acknowledgement of the fact that large-scale violence was taking place at the hands of the military and Buddhist mobs.
She also argued that her government is well aware of the sharp focus on Myanmar, but she does not fear international scrutiny. “If you are interested in joining us in our endeavors, please let us know,” she added. “We can arrange for you to visit these areas and to ask (those who have stayed) why they have not fled, why they have chosen to remain in their villages.”
Suu Kyi continued by stating that the vast majority of Rakhines in the state have not joined the exodus. As mentioned earlier, the UN estimates that over 400,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since August 25. The government said 176 out of 471, or 37.4% of all Rohingya villages were empty of people, and an additional 34 villages were “partially abandoned.” During her speech, Suu Kyi claimed, “50% of the villages of Muslims are intact.”
Suu Kyi didn’t stop there. She said that all people living in Rakhine State have access to education and health care services. The Nobel Prize winner went further by claiming that there had been no “clearance” operation carried out since September the 5th.
Suu Kyi’s Speech Cracked Open
If Suu Kyi thought her detractors would back down after her speech, she was sorely mistaken. Throughout those 30 minutes, it was evident that Myanmar’s military continues to call the shots. Her arguments lacked substance and conviction, and her critics were quick to pounce.
Suu Kyi’s denial about not knowing the root of the crisis is extremely dubious, especially since she continuously referred to the Annan Report, the last report of the Advisory Commission of Rakhine State. The report highlights glaring issues that are present in Rakhine, including the lack of citizenship for stateless Rohingya Muslims as well as severe socio-economic difficulties, and police and military action in the state. The report clearly indicates that attacks on border police posts in October 2016, “subsequent military and police operations led to tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief said that the conditions in Myanmar seem like a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” a claim which has been made a number of times by world leaders and human rights agencies.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released scathing reports on the causes of the exodus, including accusations the Myanmar military has intentionally set Rohingya villages on fire in order to ‘cleanse’ the country of its helpless minority. They backed up this conclusion with satellite imagery of fires, photos and videos from the ground, and witness testimony of human rights abuses by the Myanmar authorities.
Even with limited access for human rights groups and journalists, enough information has been gathered to determine that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority is a classic example of ethnic cleansing. It makes it easier for observers and world leaders to crack into Suu Kyi’s defence when her government has denied access to humanitarian authorities. Officials fear an aid blockade could become permanent in the region where Rohingya Muslims have reportedly been massacred by soldiers. Senior officials and Human Rights Watch have said they believe the move could become permanent, ending vital food and health programmes run by international agencies.
The most alarming aspect of her speech was that she refused to refer to the persecuted Muslims by their name Rohingya, revealing the government’s official position of not recognizing the minority as nationals. The only time Suu Kyi said the word during her speech was when she referred to the ARSA militant.
Another shocking claim made by Suu Kyi was that the citizens of Rakhine have access to education and health care services. This is simply false. Rohingyas are denied citizenship and access to essential government services in Myanmar. Medical care is highly restricted. Many are unable to attend school or university, especially Rohingya living in internal camps where they need special permission to leave. Suu Kyi’s argument was contradicted by the Annan report. “Movement restrictions have a wide range of detrimental effects, including reduced access to education, health and services, strengthened communal segregation, and reduced economic interaction,” the report said.
Suu Kyi’s untruths continued to pile up when she stated that there had been no ‘clearance operation’ since the 5th of September. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own office reported on its Facebook page that security personnel have conducted “clearance operations” since then. According to Human Rights Watch, 62 villages were torched between August 25 and September 14. It is surprising that Myanmar is unaware of the fact that satellite imagery provides conclusive evidence of burned villages and horrific atrocities across Rakhine, and it is clear exactly who the culprits are.
Brutality of the Worst Kind
The Rohingyas have been persecuted for decades by Myanmar’s government. The United Nations are usually cautious when they publicly discuss human rights violations, so you know the evidence is overwhelming when they call this a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The UN chief, Antonio Guterres, said the displacement of hundreds of thousands of the Muslim minority can only be described as ethnic cleansing. “When one-third of the Rohingya population has got to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?” Guterres said when he was asked if the term ethnic cleansing applied to the plight of the Rohingya. The UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein echoed Guterres’s opinion also terming the security operation as ethnic cleansing. As mentioned earlier, Myanmar’s military accused ‘militants’ and the Rohingyas of burning their homes. However, there is enough evidence to prove that Myanmar’s narrative is total hogwash, which is why Al Hussein told the military to “stop pretending” that Muslims are burning their homes.
Reports are continuing to emerge of mass rape and murder by the armed forces and mobs of Buddhist ethnic majority villages in the western Rakhine state. Buddhist nationalists, led by firebrand monks, have operated a long campaign calling for Rohingya to be pushed out of the country. Rohingya refugees that fled to Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch that Myanmar government forces had carried out armed attacks, and burned down their houses. They beheaded men, raped women, and murdered children.
Those that have fled to neighboring Bangladesh are still not safe. A CNN report showed even a step in the wrong direction can be deadly. Accidently crossing the border into Myanmar results in certain death as security forces waste no time gunning down refugees who unintentionally crossover.
The refugees pushed past barbed wire fences to make it to safety in Bangladesh. It has also been reported that Myanmar’s military has placed mines along the border with Bangladesh. The violence the Rohingyas left behind still feels dangerously close.
It is grossly evident that the Rohingyas have been battered by unwavering carnage at the hands of a gruesome military and blood thirsty mobs. This is no more than simple old-fashioned racism against a minority group that look different from the majority. The treatment of the Rohingya is a stark reminder that the animal is just beneath the skin, even if it has won a Nobel Peace Prize. San Suu Kyi knows exactly what is going on. After all, she used to say herself that she would keep the military in check and make sure that every citizen in Myanmar receives equal rights, regardless of their caste, colour, or creed. She has fallen woefully short.
The Nobel Prize winner has abandoned her principles in order to remain in power that she fought so long for. Her speech was a clear indication that the military determines the government’s narrative. While that is undoubtedly the case, it is difficult to fathom why Suu Kyi, who was once a symbol of courage and resilience, was comfortable telling a pack of lies to protect herself and her military- ironic, since she has spent most of her political career fighting them.
Perhaps the only silver lining to this crisis is that the world has finally put the atrocities in Myanmar in sharp focus. It is no longer a back-page story. Important players are fully aware of the sorry state of the Rohingya Muslims. The International community is clearly sympathetic to the Rohingya’s cause. It is now time to take action.
by Ali Gauhar