The Rohingya: a tragedy decades in the making

The events unfolding in Rakhine are the consequence of years of oppression, propaganda and power games in which the Muslim minority have been cast as the villains

KUTUPALONG, BANGLADESH - SEPTEMBER 17:  Sameera, 20, looks our from a cement cylinder holding her 7 month old baby where the family are living until a shelter is built September 17, 2017 in Kutupalong, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Over 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since late August during the outbreak of violence in the Rakhine state. Recent satellite images released by Amnesty International provided evidence that security forces were trying to push the minority Muslim group out of the country. Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled her trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which begins next week, while criticism of her handling of the Rohingya crisis grows and her government has been accused of ethnic cleansing. According to reports, the Rohingya crisis has left at least 1,000 people dead, including children and infants. Dozens of Rohingya Muslims drowned when their Ill-equipped, overloaded boat capsized in rough waters. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

As Rakhine state burns and hundreds of thousands of desperate Rohingya Muslims flee into Bangladesh to avoid the Myanmar military’s scorched-earth campaign against their villages, the world is inevitably looking for someone to blame.

Aung San Suu Kyi — until recently a global icon of the struggle for human rights and democracy — has become the fall woman for the ethnic cleansing now under way, and must answer for the abuses she insists are proportionate and justified. But those still hoping she can broker some kind of solution must recognise there are many forces at play.

Unquestionably the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), whose August 25 attacks on security posts prompted the brutal military crackdown, knew what would happen when they struck: whether they did so out of desperation or to provoke a wider uprising remains a matter of conjecture.

Fear among the wider population is running high. Around 30,000 non-Muslims have also fled their homes in Rakhine and Arsa has been accused of killing a number of civilians.

But events unfolding in Rakhine are the consequence of years of oppression, propaganda and power games in which the Muslim minority — who until the recent exodus numbered around 1.1 million in Myanmar — have been cast as the villains: illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh intent on “stealing land, women and replacing Buddhism with Islam”.

Read more: UN urged to punish Myanmar military over Rohingya crackdown

Too few commentators have pointed the finger directly at Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s military who, as commander-in-chief, is the man ultimately responsible for the abuses being perpetrated. He is the one person who undoubtedly has the power to end what is happening — if he wanted to.

Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s advisory commission’s recommendations on how to resolve ongoing tensions in Rakhine and vowed to see them implemented, the senior general made it clear to the commissioners he was unhappy with the proposals, claiming they did not represent the situation on the ground.

He has since referred to the “Bengali problem” as being a “long-standing one which has become an unfinished job" — a “job” he now appears to be overseeing to a burned and bloody conclusion.

But what the rest of the world sees as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, within Myanmar is perceived as a battle against “extremist Islamist terrorists” — an attack by “foreigners” on their nation’s sovereignty. On this single issue, the military, politicians on all sides and the vast majority of the public are in agreement.

Read more: As Rohingya flee Myanmar, Suu Kyi skips UN General Assembly

With the military apparently bent on continuing its devastating “clearance operations” which have sent more than 400,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in just three weeks, Myanmar — a country so riven with ethnic and cultural divides that it barely holds itself together most of the time — is experiencing a rare moment of unity. Not only Aung San Suu Kyi, but other former political prisoners and human rights activists and even ethnic minority leaders who are still at war with the Myanmar military are backing the once-reviled generals in their actions in Rakhine.

Little wonder that the wider Myanmar public — only just emerging after decades of isolation and now negotiating a barrage of propaganda and rumours on the social media that most have been engaging with for less than two years — have bought into the message from central government, including representatives of Aung San Suu Kyi. That message is that the international media are lying and the operations in Rakhine are proportionate.

Events in Rakhine may have severely damaged the reputation of Myanmar internationally, but internally they have led to a public relations coup of remarkable and deadly, devastating proportions.

Historic oppression

Long before the recent violence, the most common response in Myanmar when raising the issue of the Muslim population in Rakhine was “there are no Rohingya in Myanmar”, as if refusing to recognise them could make 1.1 million people just cease to exist. It was not quite that easy, but denying their name — and with it their citizenship and basic human rights — has played a key role in forcing hundreds of thousands out of the country.

Myanmar, a country of remarkable ethnic diversity, has 135 officially recognised “national races”. The Rohingya are not one of them. Authorities repeatedly refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali”, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Historians disagree strongly on how long the group who call themselves Rohingya have lived in Myanmar, but while there was notable migration under British rule, there was undoubtedly a significant Muslim community living in Rakhine long before that.

As in any border region, migration and cultural, religious and linguistic differences led to communal tensions which were at times manipulated and exploited for various political ends. But it was under the military dictator Ne Win, who seized power in 1962, that a series of policies aimed at promoting race-based Buddhist nationalism led to increasing discrimination and targeting of the Muslim minority.

When in 1982 the Burmese government enacted a new citizenship law which named the 135 recognised “races” deemed to have been in Burma before British occupation in 1824, the Rohingya were left stateless and vulnerable to abusive policies restricting their movements and basic human rights.

Heated academic arguments about exactly when the Rohingya emerged as a recognised people often ignore the key point: vast numbers of people born into families that have lived in the country for generations are being denied citizenship and basic rights under a law that breaches numerous international protocols.

Recent violence

The images of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into Bangladesh in the past three weeks have shocked the world. They are mainly women and children, some bearing bullet wounds or bodies missing limbs and ravaged by landmines that appear to have been laid by Myanmar forces to deliberately target them as they flee.

Their stories of what they are fleeing from — mass arson attacks, groups of men burned alive, children beheaded by ethnic-Rakhine vigilantes operating alongside soldiers — are harrowing and horrifying.

With journalists and other outside observers largely barred from the area, it remains impossible to independently verify reports. It is likely that some are the result of rumours and panic among a terrified population, and certainly some of the more graphic accusations appearing on social media are blatantly false.

But the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar estimated 1,000 people were killed in the first two weeks after August 25. Bangladesh — which admittedly is diplomatically furious with Myanmar — has put that figure closer to 3,000.


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What is unfolding now has been building for years and in reality world condemnation about the Rohingya’s plight has almost certainly come too late. Those in Myanmar who wished to rid their country of the Muslim minority are close to seeing that wish realised.

Sporadic incidents of violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and their Rohingya neighbours have happened over decades. At various points some sort of armed Rohingya resistance has existed, but until Arsa — then calling itself Harakah al Yaqeen or Faith Movement — emerged in October last year, there had been no notable signs of violent insurgency in more than 15 years.

There was always tension, however. In 2012, just as Myanmar was opening up to the world under the reformist military government of then-president Thein Sein, a major outbreak of violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya left more than 2,000 dead and 140,000 — mainly Rohingya — displaced.

Read more: Myanmar operation against Rohingyas textbook ethnic cleansing, says UN rights chief

Around 100,000 Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still confined to camps around the state capital Sittwe living in terrible conditions and barred from leaving by Myanmar authorities. International observers long warned such conditions were fertile ground for a violent insurgency to emerge.

But until the appearance of Arsa last October no such uprising occurred — thanks in part, at least, to Rohingya community leaders who sought to quash signs of unrest, knowing the backlash that any sign of armed resistance would release.

Aung San Suu Kyi

When Aung San Suu Kyi swept to victory in November 2015 the world hailed it as a victory for democracy.

Like most of Myanmar’s minority populations, Muslim communities and individuals largely saw her as the best hope for ending the persecution so many had suffered under the junta. While the Rohingya were denied voting rights, they too widely declared their faith in her ability to end their plight.

But even ahead of the historic 2015 poll — Myanmar’s first democratic elections in decades — there were clear signs that Aung San Suu Kyi was less committed to religious and ethnic equality than might be expected from a human rights champion.

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) did its best to portray Aung San Suu Kyi as “pro-Muslim”. With the backing of hardline Buddhist nationalist monks, anti-Muslim sentiments and paranoia were stirred, instigating bouts of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims outside Rakhine as well.

Her political rivals spread the message that Aung San Suu Kyi would promote the rights of Muslims, opening the door to the much feared potential for “Islamic takeover” — a fear deliberately stoked by those same rivals.

Debate continues as to whether Aung San Suu Kyi had the power to change the narrative at that time. Anti-Muslim sentiment that was deeply ingrained in Myanmar and Buddhist culture made it extremely difficult for people to question the authority of the monks who spouted anti-Muslim rhetoric and tried to undermine her.

Nevertheless, to most of the population she was almost a deity. While it would probably have harmed her campaign — and therefore the only real hope of any significant democratic process — if she had outright backed widespread citizenship rights for the Rohingya, she could have done much, much more to direct the people of Myanmar towards tolerance, and spoken out against what were clearly gross rights abuses being perpetrated in Rakhine.

Muhammad Yunus: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi should tell the Rohingya that Myanmar is as much their home as it is hers’

She chose not to. Instead she ignored years of dedication and devotion by Muslim members of the National League for Democracy Party to put forward a candidate list without a single Muslim on it.

When the question of what was happening in Rakhine arose in international circles, she repeated the mantra that "there were two sides". Undoubtedly Rakhine people had suffered during the violence of 2012 and at other points in history, but her stance was in fact not a neutral one. It ignored the continuing state persecution of the Rohingya and served to further justify the belief within Myanmar that this was basically a communal conflict and that ethnic Rakhine Buddhists were somehow equally oppressed.

When, after her election victory, one of her key spokesmen said the Rohingya were “not a priority” for Aung San Suu Kyi, it made headlines in Myanmar’s English-language press. But in fact her position on the beleaguered minority was already clear.

What now?

Those trying to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued unwillingness to speak out against the military’s campaign in Rakhine need only look to recent years to see that it is entirely in keeping with her past actions.

The current violence is intense and on a massive scale, but it is the culmination of ongoing abuses that she has consistently refused to tackle.

Though she has challenged the generals on numerous key issues, on this one she has consistently backed them.

True, she instigated the Kofi Annan commission to come up with long-term solutions to the situation in Rakhine and gave every sign of supporting them. But how much of that was out of genuine sympathy for the Rohingya and how much a means to resolve an internationally damaging and nationally troublesome situation is unclear.

It was said by UN officials that she was visibly shaken when presented with their initial findings on the “crimes against humanity” inflicted on the Rohingya, including mass rape and the killing of children, after the Arsa attacks last October.

But her official webpage continued to boast a banner declaring “Fake Rape” for weeks after receiving the UN report. That same site has consistently berated foreign media, rights groups, and international NGOs for reporting on those and more recent abuses.

Aung San Suu Kyi has insisted that Myanmar will not support a UN investigation into last year’s military action in Rakhine. She has clearly expressed her belief that the Rohingya situation is an internal matter for Myanmar, and she has accused the international community of exacerbating the situation by trying to interfere.

Attempts to berate her into changing her position now are unlikely to work. During her time as a political prisoner she was renowned for her intransigence. At that time her unwillingness to bend was a stand for human rights and democracy; now she stands firm for a far less noble cause.

But ultimately, it is not she, but Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who must be the target of those who wish to see an end to the assaults.

For now the military is winning on pretty much every front. It is clearing the country of a population it wishes to get rid of from an area of key geopolitical importance. Its popularity within Myanmar has probably never been higher, and the person taking the fall for its abuses is its old enemy Aung San Suu Kyi. It is not only justifying to the people the continued need for a powerful military, but as it unites the country behind it against the Rohingya it positions itself as a crucial “defender of the nation” ahead of the elections in 2020.

Rohingya crisis: From India to Malaysia, refugees face hardship and uncertainty

It must be remembered that Myanmar’s move to democracy was not spurred by popular protest, nor was it achieved by Aung San Suu Kyi. It was begun by the generals themselves amid the realisation that their self-inflicted global isolation no longer served them economically.

As recently as April, Min Aung Hlaing was in Germany visiting aircraft factories. German diplomats insisted he was not “shopping”. Unsurprisingly, many observers find that hard to believe.

If the international community really wants to halt the abuses happening in Rakhine it might consider focusing less on its sense of betrayal by one-time icon of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi and look seriously at its engagement with a country where the military is constitutionally guaranteed 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and three key ministries including defence and home affairs. A military that is currently inflicting what the UN says is “ethnic cleansing” on the Rohingya.

Whatever action is taken needs to happen fast.

On Wednesday the Myanmar government acknowledged 40 per cent of Rohingya villages targeted by the army in northern Rakhine had been emptied. Of 471 villages hit by the army's “clearance operations” since late August, 176 were now empty and at least 34 others partially abandoned.

With more than 400,000 already in Bangladesh and thousands still pouring over the border, it is likely half Myanmar’s Rohingya population will have been pushed out of the country within one month of the August 25 attacks.