By Laurie Gerhardt
The Government of Myanmar calls them terrorists, Jihadists, Mujahideen, Bengalis – sometimes just ‘Muslims’. Anything, except the name they give themselves. To let them have their own name would be to acknowledge their right to exist, something that Myanmar simply refuses to do. For the Rohingya, a persecuted minority group living on the western coast of Myanmar, the right to exist has never been a given.
Though technically a stateless people, the Rohingya are a majority-Muslim ethnic group who have lived in rural villages across western Myanmar since at least the 8th century. Some sources indicate they may even have been there for millennia. Yet in the face of all historical evidence, and even their own prior records, Myanmar’s government claims that the Rohingya are recent migrants from Bangladesh.
In 2015, Myanmar went through what was widely regarded as a political revolution. For the first 50 years of its independence from colonial Britain, it was ruled by a series of military dictatorships. This appeared to change when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party swept to power with a shocking 86% of the vote, an election widely regarded to be the ‘dawn of democracy’ for Myanmar. It’s easy to see why: 50-year military dictatorships don’t end every day, and usually not through a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian government.
Aung San Suu Kyi was a widely idolised figure. She was the daughter of Major General Aung San, the revolutionary leader who fought to give Myanmar (then known as Burma) its independence from British colonial control. Most of her early life was spent fighting for democratic reforms, and as a result she was frequently detained, imprisoned and harassed by the state. By 2015, the time of her party’s groundbreaking victory, her popularity with Myanmar’s people – including the hundreds of different oppressed ethnic groups across the country – was unparalleled.
Soon after the election, international political leaders joined the people of Myanmar in singing Aung San Suu Kyi’s praises. David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande sent their formal congratulations to her, and British Speaker of the Commons John Bercow called her ‘the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity’. Economic sanctions on Myanmar were lifted. The American news network CNN questioned whether she might be ‘The Nelson Mandela of Myanmar’. Even the Rohingya, who were historically demonised by the state and had little reason to have faith in national politicians, believed in her:
“The Rohingya had been campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi because we had great expectations of her. If she came to power, we thought she would look after our people.”
– A representative of the British Rohingya Community
Those who didn’t share in this spirit of optimism cautioned that while Aung San Suu Kyi technically led the country, Myanmar’s constitution required that selected officers of the Tatmadaw – Burma’s military forces – must retain a minimum of 25% of the seats in both houses of the country’s parliament. This is not an insignificant amount of political influence, and their grip on political power remains clear.
In 2016, only one year after the National League for Democracy’s victory, rumours began to spread from the rural western region of Myanmar that the Tatmadaw were mass-executing Rohingya villagers. The world looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the violence. Surely, the great visionary of Burmese democracy would speak up for the rights of the oppressed minorities who had helped her gain power. They were met with a resounding silence. Months later, a government-appointed commission declared that they had investigated the rumours and concluded that in fact no such killings had ever occurred, and even if they had, the Tatmadaw could certainly not be responsible. Aung San Suu Kyi would later say that the Tatmadaw’s top generals were misunderstood, and were actually ‘rather sweet’.
One year later, over 700,000 Rohingya villagers fled across Myanmar’s border over a period of two months. Rowing on ramshackle makeshift boats out into the Bay of Bengal, walking through jungles packed with landmines that had been laid by the military in anticipation of their exodus, the majority of Myanmar’s entire Rohingya population fled their homes in Rakhine State, the only lands they had ever known, to cross the border into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
The World’s Largest Refugee Camp
Once a trading post of Bengal administered by the British East India Company, Cox’s Bazar was named after its colonial-era Governor, Captain Hiram Cox. In 1798, Cox oversaw the resettlement of thousands of refugees from the Arakanese Kingdom (what is now Rakhine State) into southern Bengal. The British East India Company thought the area might bring in a tidy bit of tax if the refugees were allowed to establish fisheries along the coast, which is the longest natural sea beach in the world. Cox’s Bazar district has changed in many ways since this time – it’s now a popular tourist destination – but true to its colonial-era history, it also contains Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp.
Today, approximately 1.3 million Rohingya refugees – a greater population than the city of Birmingham – live in Cox’s Bazar. Despite the prominence of having the world’s largest refugee camp located in their country, the Government of Bangladesh refuses to call the Rohingya encamped there ‘refugees’. They worry that to do so could lead to the Rohingya eventually being able to claim Bangladeshi citizenship. For their part, the Rohingya have stated very clearly that they don’t want to live in Bangladesh. They want to go home as soon as it’s safe – but the reality is, that’s unlikely to be anytime soon.
The mass exodus of 700,000 Rohingya people over two months began in response to a military-led program of systematic ethnic cleansing. But the Tatmadaw didn’t act alone. First, they rallied thousands of ethnic Rakhine people from villages across Rakhine State to join them. The Rakhine villagers were primed for involvement in the military operation after years of anti-Muslim government propaganda had instilled in them a visceral hatred of their Rohingya neighbours.
Tatmadaw soldiers marched through western Myanmar, supplying the Rakhine villagers with weapons and informing them they had free reign to take vengeance on the Rohingya, who they had been told were all evil terrorists, conspiring to kill them. Hand-in-hand, the military and villagers enacted a methodical operation of brutality across the state. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were murdered, though the true number is unlikely to ever be known, as mass burnings of bodies and evidence took place immediately following the massacres. Hundreds of villages and thousands of homes were burnt to the ground. Rape and brutal sexual violence were used as a strategy to dehumanise and demoralise tens of thousands of women, men and transgender people. At least 34,000 people were reportedly thrown into fires while alive, including children. Those who tried to flee were shot in the back as they ran. A video smuggled out of Myanmar by a survivor shows the aftermath in his village, where nothing but smoking, charred wood remains:
Those who survived but couldn’t make it out of the country were later interned in concentration camps across Rakhine State, where at least 130,000 of them live today, over 50% of whom are believed to be children. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court have said the event was a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ and has ‘the hallmarks of genocide’.
But genocide isn’t usually a single event; it’s a process. In the case of the Rohingya, it was a process undertaken over decades to systematically weaken the population, stripping them of their rights and isolating them until they could be more easily erased. In 1982 their citizenship was formally revoked. Later they were prohibited from worship and marriage, and each family was restricted to a maximum of two children. Eventually they were barred from entering certain spaces, subject to random detention, and their freedom of movement was tightly controlled by military police. Ultimately, their homes were burnt to the ground and they were forced to flee.
A report by the Southeast Asian human rights organisation Fortify Rights found evidence that preparations had been made for the 2017 massacres for nearly a year. One element had been the construction of a mass propaganda campaign of fake names and social media accounts which had over 1.3 million followers in Myanmar, run by a military unit named ‘True News’. Through publishing incendiary posts accusing the Rohingya of being Islamic Jihadists who were raping and killing ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the Tatmadaw had successfully rallied thousands of free conscripts to take up arms and kill their neighbours.
Just as they had done before, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government claimed that the August 2017 massacres had never occurred and that the Rohingya villages were still standing.
Beyond witness testimony, there was initially little evidence to show the scale of what had happened in Rakhine State. Yet with the help of open source satellite imagery, various outlets have shown irrefutable proof of the erasure of the Rohingya’s homes. Anyone who wants to can check this for themselves using some pretty simple open source investigation skills and Google Earth.
The following four Google Earth images show the Rohingya forest village of Kan Kya as it existed before the attacks; the burning of the village and forest around it; the clearance of the burnt forest; and finally, the construction of a new development project believed to be a base for Myanmar’s regional security services. In other cases, evidence has shown that the government has built concentration camps for the Rohingya on the very land they had been forced to leave.
January 2017: Rohingya village rooftops visible poking out through the forest canopy
September 2017: The village and forest destroyed, scorched red earth remains
December 2017: All remnants of the village and forest visibly cleared
December 2018: New roads and buildings erected, believed to be a military base
After satellite imagery revealed the scale of the destruction to the world, the government’s story changed. They decided that while the villages had indeed been burned, the Tatmadaw had no part in what had occurred, and actually it was the Rohingya themselves – who they called ‘Jihadi terrorists’ and ‘religious extremists’ – who had burned down their own villages. Aung San Suu Kyi published a Facebook post to her followers warning that ‘the terrorists’ were spreading fake news to the world. While the worst of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing operations occurred in the latter part of 2017, the erasure of the Rohingya people is far from over. Approximately 400 of their remaining villages were burnt down in the first half of 2019.
The Spectre of Terrorism
It’s clear that Aung San Suu Kyi was not the reformer the world imagined her to be. Her denial of reality, reliance on protestations of ‘fake news’, and use of War on Terror rhetoric aligns her more closely with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin than it does Nelson Mandela. It’s also evident from her actions that the rhetoric of the War on Terror is still seen as an effective way to justify military policies. By stripping Muslim populations of their individuality and transforming them into an abstract mass of extremists to be feared, a state can unite their people against a common enemy and, in many cases, use popular anger to justify seizing control of land from that enemy. It should come as no surprise that Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw have been eradicating the Rohingya, is extremely resource-rich.
While the language of the War on Terror had its popular origin after 9/11, when it was used to unite Americans around the need for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (and subsequently Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen) its use is clearly no longer limited to the western world. The Russian government recently discovered its relevance to their war in Syria, where the global fear of extremism was used to project the message that the hundreds of different rebel groups (and first responders) fighting the Assad regime were all simply terrorists, thereby legitimizing the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian areas they operated in. China is now following suit, raising the spectre of terrorism to justify the internment of between 1-3 million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province. George W. Bush’s legacy certainly lives on in the most unexpected of places.
International Accountability and Assistance
The Rohingya genocide stands as one of the most egregious violations of international human rights law today, at a time when the constraints of those laws are regularly tested by states. One of the few states showing solidarity with the Rohingya is Gambia, who recently declared their intention to bring Myanmar to the International Court of Justice. And yet for the most part, instead of facing international justice for their crimes against humanity, Myanmar’s military has received international assistance. The Australian government currently provides military training to the Tatmadaw; the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Israeli governments supply them with weapons, and while the UK hasn’t authorised arms export licenses to Myanmar, an Aberdeen-based tech company supplies them with ‘sophisticated navigation technology’. Ultranationalists don’t always bear a swastika or an iron cross on their flag, and War on Terror fanatics aren’t always draped in the star-spangled banner. As Myanmar demonstrates, nationalism, Islamophobia and authoritarianism can find a home anywhere in the world. Tragically, the same cannot be said for the Rohingya.