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Abdul Salam, a 47-year-old Rohingya Muslim, asks a friend in Malaysia for advice from an internet hut in Thae Chaung village, home to thousands of displaced Rohingya near Sittwe, Arakan State, on 29 January 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

April 25, 2017

"Revolutionary" app aims to increase public empathy toward the plight of refugees

KUALA LUMPUR - A ping on Kathijah's phone. The Rohingya girl picks up the message, it is from her brother Ishak in Myanmar.

"Kat, r u safe?" he writes. "It was a raid, they found us. Had to run," he said, before sending a video message of him running in a jungle that was abruptly cut off.

It was a conversation between Kathijah, a fictional character, and her brother in Myanmar on a new smartphone app that gives users a glimpse into the daily struggles of Rohingya refugees who flee political persecution back home.

The "Finding Home" app effectively takes over one's phone by recreating the mobile operating system of Kathijah's handset, prompting users to answer phone calls, text messages or scroll through her photo gallery.

Advertising agency Grey, which built the app in partnership with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said the "revolutionary" app aims to increase public empathy toward the plight of refugees.

"We wanted to find a way of getting people to really empathise what these people go through, to feel it as if they were going through it," Graham Drew, Grey Malaysia executive creative director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The app focuses not just on her life back home, but also on how the 16-year-old Kathijah is trying to build a new life in Malaysia.

One conversation involves her talking to a friend about how she is taking classes in English and Malay.

There are some 150,000 refugees in Malaysia, about a third of whom are Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence and apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Many are children who experience struggles similar to Kathijah's.

"The refugee story is often a deeply personal one, and difficult for people to understand," UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle said in a statement on the launch of the app on Tuesday.

"We hope that this application will allow a viewer to walk a mile in a refugee's shoes in order to understand what they go through every day in order to find safety."

The interactive conversations featured in the app were constructed based on interviews with refugees, according to Grey.

The plight of the Rohingya hit international headlines again in recent months after Myanmar security forces were accused of carrying out mass killings and gang rapes during their campaign against Rohingya insurgents. It sparked international criticism but a senior Myanmar government official denied there was any ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.

(Writing by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Ros Russell)

Rohingya refugee children play at Balukhali Makeshift Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh earlier this month. (REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN)

By Reuters 
April 25, 2017

Around 69,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since October.

DHAKA - China offered on Tuesday to help tackle a diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the flight of minority Rohingyas, two Bangladesh foreign ministry officials said.

Around 69,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since October, straining relations between the two neighbors who each see the stateless Muslim minority as the other nation's problem.

Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang, beginning a four-day trip to Bangladesh, urged Dhaka to resolve the row with Myanmar bilaterally, but also said Beijing stood ready to help in the matter, a foreign ministry official in Dhaka told Reuters.

Sun made the proposal during a meeting with Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque, the official said. He declined to be named, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"The envoy told us at the meeting that they were ready to help if necessary," the official said. Another foreign ministry official confirmed the information but also asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

China has strong ties with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, helping in infrastructure development in both countries. Relations with the former have warmed further since Myanmar President Htin Kyaw struck a deal in China on an oil pipeline between the neighbors after almost a decade of talks.

Beijing has established a strong presence in Bangladesh, building roads and power stations and supplying military hardware.

During the talks on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Haque told Chinese envoy Sun that Bangladesh welcomed Chinese efforts to tackle its problems with Myanmar stemming from the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh, the officials said.

Dhaka has proposed that Sun travel to Cox's Bazar near the border with Myanmar to see the plight of the tens of thousands of people camped there. China's ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, visited a Rohingya camp there in March.

Myanmar has faced growing international criticism over the latest eruption of violence against the Rohingyas. Myanmar's government has conceded some soldiers may have committed crimes but has rejected charges of ethnic cleansing.

(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Mark Trevelyan)

A woman who says she belongs to the Rohingya community from Myanmar, washes clothes in a New Delhi camp, September 13, 2014.

By Anjana Pasricha
April 25, 2017

NEW DELHI — Accessed from a dusty, unpaved path, a shanty type settlement housing about 70 Rohingya families on the outskirts of New Delhi presents a squalid but quiet picture as children play, women fill water from a tanker and an elderly man patiently sifts through piles of waste material to pick out strips of wood for the household stove.

But underneath the calm, tension runs high among the refugees following reports that authorities plan to identify and deport the mostly Muslim minority that fled Myanmar due to alleged persecution.

Nurfatimah, now 30, who crossed over into India a decade ago, fears the life she slowly pieced together here might again be about to fall apart.

Cramped but safe

Despite living in a cramped, dirty room with her three children who were born in India, she has no complaints because she feels safe. The fear of venturing out of her home in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been the victim of sectarian violence, has become a distant memory. “India is better for us,” she said.

In the New Delhi settlement, she and the other refugees live on a small patch of land given by a charity, the Zakat Foundation, and eke out a living working mostly as daily wage laborers.

People from the Burmese Rohingya Community from Myanmar, sit in an open air madrasa, or a religious school, at a camp in New Delhi May 14, 2012.

Rohingyas fear deportation

But amid growing calls from Hindu groups for their deportation, uncertainty hangs over her and the estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims scattered through several Indian cities. 

“Everyone is thinking what to do. I keep thinking why did this happen to me? Why is this in our destiny?” she asked in despair.

Less security further north

Apprehension is even higher among the approximately 6,000 Rohingya refugees who have settled in the northern city of Jammu, where calls to oust them have been the loudest.

After several shacks of Rohingya Muslims in Jammu were burned in recent days, a deep sense of insecurity has gripped the refugees.

Random acts of violence

In a separate incident, a community leader, Karimullah, alleges his little shop where he had kept scrap to sell was set on fire, some of his family members were beaten by unidentified men and his landlord is pressuring them to vacate their small rooms.

The incidents have shaken the Rohingya refugees. Wondering why they suddenly became unwanted, Karimullah said, “It is the first time in 10 years that I have faced this. After this I am really scared,” 

Police say they are investigating the incidents.

Chamber of Commerce

Among those calling for their eviction is the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which fears the presence of the Muslim minority poses a security threat in a region that has long grappled with Islamic militancy. 

The head of the industry body, Rakesh Gupta, said they are pushing for their deportation because of worries that “they can be used by militants or anti-national forces to create communal atmosphere… The chamber wants peace because the economy depends on peace.”

Gupta was quoted earlier as warning they will launch an “identify and kill” movement if the refugees are not deported, but later retracted, saying his remarks were taken out of context.

Security analyst Ajay Sahni at the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi said there are fears that the Muslim minority may be radicalized by Pakistan-based terror groups. “This is our concern, this is our problem.” However he added, “We have not seen as yet any major or significant attempt by Rohingya Muslims to engage in any kind of terrorist activities in India.” 

Sahni said the refugees are being identified as “part of a broad movement against all illegal migrants in the country,” but added the move so far “has been hugely unsuccessful.”

A struggle for Rohingyas in India

The United Nations Refugee Agency in New Delhi has given identity cards to about 14,000 Rohingya refugees, making it possible for them to send their children to school. But Elsa Sherin Mathews at UNHCR points out that being poor and unskilled, the refugees only find low-skilled jobs and sometimes face exploitation.

She also said they often live in poor and unsanitary conditions with limited access to water, toilets and electricity.

However, at the camp in New Delhi, the refugees are prepared to cope with squalor and poverty because they enjoy a sense of freedom.

A Rohingya refugee girl wipes her eyes as she cries at Leda Unregistered Refugee Camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, Feb. 15, 2017.

But India is better than Bangladesh

For some of them, their first stop was Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of Rohingyas have fled. But tough conditions in that country prompted them to cross over into India. 

“I could not roam around outside the camp, they would put us in jail, the camp was overcrowded, so we came here,” said 27-year-old Jafar Alam. “I want to live in India”, he said. “People (in Myanmar) are still being persecuted, they are in trouble. Rather than leave us there, it is better to put us in jail, punish us here.”

The eldest resident of the camp, 60-year-old Amanullah, also questioned where they will go if the government presses ahead with plans to deport them. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as its citizens, calling them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. However, it has long denied allegations of widespread abuse and mistreatment of the Muslim minority. 

He said although 70 families are now cramped in a plot that would have accommodated only two families back in his village, they have been content so far because they feel secure. Amanullah, who often spends time ensuring that the refugees live in harmony, said, “We can only go back if there is peace.”

TAKE WHAT YOU CAN: Rohingya children rummaged last October through the ruins of a village market that was set on fire during the army's "clearance operation" in Rakhine state. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Antoni Slodkowski, Wa Lone, Simon Lewis and Krishna Das
April 25, 2017

In November, Myanmar's army swept through Rohingya villages in Rakhine state. Hundreds of Rohingya were killed and some 75,000 fled to Bangladesh. The violence has presented Aung San Suu Kyi with a major crisis.

BALUKHALI CAMP, Bangladesh – When army helicopters fired on Rahim’s village in northwest Myanmar one day last November, the Rohingya schoolteacher told his pregnant wife to take their three young daughters and leave. He stayed behind with his 72-year-old mother.

At dawn the next morning soldiers encircled and then entered the village. Rahim and his mother crept into a rice field. Crouching, Rahim said they saw the soldiers set fire to homes and shoot fleeing villagers.

“I thought we were going to die that day,” said Rahim, who like many Rohingya identifies by a single name. “We kept hearing gunshots. I saw several people shot dead.”

His account, told in a Bangladesh refugee camp where thousands of Rohingya are sheltering, was corroborated by four people from his village.

The attack on Rahim’s village, Dar Gyi Zar, on Nov. 12-13, claimed dozens of lives, Rohingya elders said. The killings marked the start of a two-week military onslaught across about 10 Rohingya villages in northwest Rakhine State, a Reuters reconstruction of events has found.

Rohingya elders estimate some 600 people were killed. A United Nations report from February said the likely toll was hundreds. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed, Human Rights Watch satellite imagery shows. Countless women were raped, eyewitnesses and aid workers said. Doctors in Bangladesh told Reuters they treated women who had been raped.

It was the latest round of ethnic bloodletting in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country where the roughly one million Muslim Rohingya are marginalised, often living in camps, denied access to healthcare and education and uprooted and killed in pogroms.

Myanmar’s march to democracy, beginning in 2011, uncorked long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine’s Buddhists and the Rohingya. Clashes between the two communities in 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000, mostly Rohingya.

This latest eruption of violence drove some 75,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, the United Nations said. Myanmar's government has conceded some soldiers may have committed crimes but has rejected charges of “ethnic cleansing.” It has promised to prosecute any officers where there is evidence of wrongdoing.

The military assault involving a little under 2,000 soldiers has presented Aung San Suu Kyi with the first major crisis since her party won elections in late 2015. Many hoped Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, would bring a new era of tolerance after five decades of military rule. While generals remain in control of a significant part of the government, she now faces accusations of failing to oppose human rights abuses.

Suu Kyi’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said some individuals may have committed abuses “in the heat of the confrontation.” But he stressed the government did not approve of such conduct. Suu Kyi did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

The army began its “clearance operation” in Rakhine after Rohingya militants attacked border posts there on Oct. 9. For a month, it tried to pressure villagers to hand over the rebels, without success. That approach changed on Nov. 12-13 in Dar Gyi Zar and the neighbouring village Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, marking a sharp escalation of the military operation.

SWEEP: A graphic showing the progression of the army operation. Click here

This article pieces together how events unfolded, drawing on interviews with Rohingya refugees, diplomats, aid workers and Myanmar government officials. Reuters also gained rare access to Myanmar security officials and spoke with a Rohingya militant leader.

The reconstruction of the military operation contains previously unreported details about army negotiations with villagers over the insurgents, a shift in military strategy and the army units involved. Reuters also learned new details about investigations into alleged atrocities that are being conducted by Myanmar's army and by the home affairs ministry.

The violence was brutal. A 16-year-old girl assaulted in the village of Kyar Gaung Taung, said two soldiers raped her. Speaking in a Bangladesh refugee camp, she said she still suffers anxiety and trauma after the attack.

“I am angry with myself for being Rohingya,” said the teen, whose name Reuters is withholding. “If I had been Bangladeshi or American, I would never have been raped. But they did it to me because I was born Rohingya.”

The army has denied there were widespread abuses and said it was carrying out a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. The army and the ministry of home affairs did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

“It is possible that individual security officers or individual policemen may have reacted in an excessive manner,” Thaung Tun, the security adviser, said. “But what we want to make clear is that it’s not the policy of the government to condone these excesses.”

After years of persecution, some Rohingya have begun to fight back. A militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement”, was formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after the 2012 violence, according to the International Crisis Group. Its leader, Ata Ullah, said hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the ranks of the group, which now wants to be known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Myanmar’s government estimates it has about 400 fighters.

“In 2012, they killed us and we understood at that time, they would not give us our rights,” said Ata Ullah, speaking by video link from an undisclosed location in Myanmar.

Before dawn on Oct. 9, Rohingya militants staged attacks on border police. The army set about trying to capture the rebels. For a month, it attempted to pressure villagers to give up the insurgents, according to Rohingya elders and villagers.

The village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, located on the main road north to Bangladesh in northwest Rakhine, was one of the first to draw the army’s attention on Oct. 13, according to a military intelligence source. Insurgents had used logs to erect roadblocks near the settlement of 1,300 houses, blocking the way for military vehicles, residents and the military intelligence source said. In retaliation, about 400 soldiers burned down a part of Kyet Yoe Pyin and shot several people, according to four villagers. Officials have blamed insurgents and villagers themselves for the burning of homes.

After a few days of trying unsuccessfully to capture the insurgents, the soldiers asked village elders to negotiate. The meeting took place in western Kyet Yoe Pyin. About 300 soldiers crowded the road while four commanders led the talks with five Rohingya men, according to a village elder who attended the meeting. The talks, confirmed by the military intelligence source, were an example of the army's attempts in those early weeks to pressure the villagers to help identify the rebels.

“Their first question was: ‘Who cut the trees?’ We told them we didn’t know,” the village elder recounted. “They told us: ‘We will give you a chance: You can either give us the names of the insurgents, or we will kill you’.”

The officers visited Kyet Yoe Pyin on several further occasions, asking about insurgents and taking money in exchange for leaving the remaining houses untouched, the villagers said. A variation of this scene was repeated in other villages in the weeks leading up to Nov. 12, residents said.


On Nov. 12, this low-grade violence escalated abruptly when the army clashed with rebels north of two villages in northwestern Rakhine – Rahim’s village Dar Gyi Zar, a settlement of more than 400 houses, and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, with some 600 houses.

Muhammad Ismail, another Rohingya teacher from Dar Gyi Zar, said the army spotted insurgents a few kilometres to the north of his village at around 4 a.m. After a two-hour shootout, the militants fled towards neighbouring Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, where fighting resumed in the afternoon. The area is densely forested, and residents could not say how many militants there were.

The leader of the insurgents, Ata Ullah, said he and his men found themselves surrounded. “We had to fight,” he told Reuters. He did not say how many insurgents were involved in the clash.

During a day-long battle, some villagers joined the insurgents, fighting the security forces with knives and sticks, according to Ata Ullah and the military. A senior officer was killed and the army brought in two helicopters mounted with guns as back-up, according to official accounts, which described the incident as an ambush by the insurgents.

The helicopters swooped in around 4 p.m., hovering low over the road connecting Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, according to eyewitnesses. The villagers dispersed in panic as one of the helicopters sprayed the insurgents with bullets. The other helicopter fired indiscriminately on those fleeing, five eyewitnesses said. The military intelligence source confirmed that the helicopters dispersed the crowd but denied they shot at civilians.

LABOUR: Rohingya refugee workers carrying bags of salt this month in a processing yard in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

It marked the start of an offensive across a section of northwest Rakhine that lasted about two weeks, according to villagers, aid workers and human rights monitors and a review of satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Security and administrative officials confirmed the scope of the sweep but said they were not aware of abuses.

Whole communities fled north towards larger villages and then west to Bangladesh, pursued by the army. Women who were raped said the soldiers shouted “go to Bangladesh.”

Three doctors from small clinics near refugee camps in Bangladesh have described treating some three dozen cases of Rohingya women whom they say were raped.

“I treated one woman. She was so badly raped she had lost sensation in her lower limbs,” said John Sarkar, 40, a Bangladeshi doctor who has worked with Rohingya refugees for eight years.

National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said a commission, set up by Suu Kyi in December and chaired by vice president Myint Swe, a former head of military intelligence, needed time to investigate.

“We find it really difficult to believe that the Myanmar military would use (sexual violence) as a tool, sex slaves or rape as a weapon. In Myanmar this is repulsive, it’s not acceptable,” he said.

The Suu Kyi appointed investigation is one of several. The army is conducting an internal probe and the ministry of home affairs, which is controlled by the army, is also carrying out an inquiry. Separately, the United Nations has ordered a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of human rights abuses.

A senior government source and a senior military source said the commander of the army division that led the operation, Major General Khin Maung Soe, had been questioned by investigators in the army probe. The army did not respond to Reuters questions about Khin Maung Soe’s role and Reuters was unable to contact him directly.

The ministry of home affairs, meanwhile, is examining 21 cases, including five suspected murders, six rapes, two cases of looting and one case of arson and seven unexplained deaths, according to police colonel Shwe Thaung. Investigators were seeking the army’s cooperation to interrogate soldiers.


When the sun went down on the villages of Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son on Nov. 12, the fighting stopped. “The night was tense. Some people sneaked out to neighbouring villages. Others were preparing to move first thing in the morning,” said Muhammad Ismail, the Rohingya teacher who witnessed fighting.

But at dawn the next day, soldiers encircled the two villages and set the houses on fire, five eyewitnesses said.

Those who could, fled. But the elderly and the infirm stayed. From the rice field where he hid, Rahim said he saw soldiers shooting indiscriminately.

Police reports from the period confirm that security forces focused their attention on about 10 villages - Dar Gyi Zar, Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son and other settlements nearby. They detained nearly 400 people between Nov. 12 and 30, according to a senior administrator in the state capital of Sittwe who received the daily dispatches.

The administrator, who briefed Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the reports described a lawful counterinsurgency operation.

One of the villages that bore the brunt of the post-Nov. 12 crackdown was Kyar Gaung Taung, a settlement of about 300 houses in northwest Rakhine.

Residents say that for five days starting around Nov. 16, security forces swooped in, searching for men. As in neighbouring villages, they arrested or killed most working-age men, and gathered the women in groups, carrying out invasive body searches.

Reuters talked to 17 people from Kyar Gaung Taung from November through March by telephone and in person in Bangladeshi camps, including five rape victims, three close relatives of those raped and several village elders. They corroborated one another’s accounts.

Shamshida, a 30-year-old mother of six, was ordered to come out of her house.

ASSAULTED: Shamshida, 30, a rape victim, puts on a Burqa before going outside this month at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

“One of the soldiers put a machete to my chest and bit me on the back. Then, they started picking women from the group gathered on the road. I was selected and pulled inside the house. I knelt down thinking that may help and the last thing I remember was one of the soldiers kicking me in the head,” said Shamshida, who identifies with a single name.

When her husband and her sister found her several hours later, she was stripped naked, unconscious, covered in bruises and bleeding from her mouth and her vagina.

They carried her to the neighbouring village of U Shey Kya several hundred metres away, where she regained consciousness, was showered and taken care of by a village doctor.

After eight days, she returned to her village, where there were no men left and many houses were burned down.

Doctors in Bangladesh said the Rohingya women they treated had torn vaginal tissue and scars inside their mouths from having guns inserted. In some cases, the women couldn’t walk and had to be carried by relatives to the clinics. Many were covered in bruises and bite marks.

Sarkar, the Bangladeshi doctor, and others administered abortion-inducing kits, painkillers and antibiotics. In cases where the kits didn’t work, they referred the women to regional hospitals for abortions.

As thousands of Rohingya were fleeing across the river border to Bangladesh, Suu Kyi was not in the country. In early December she went to Singapore, attending meetings and a ceremony to have a purple orchid named after her in the city-state’s botanic gardens.

POWERFUL GENERALS: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander-in-chief, shakes hands with National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi in December 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Suu Kyi’s defenders, including some Western diplomats, say she is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that left the army in control of key security ministries and much of the apparatus of the state. Suu Kyi may be playing a long game, these diplomats said - back the military for now and coax the generals into accepting a rewriting of the constitution to reduce their power.

During her trip, Suu Kyi gave an interview to state broadcaster Channel News Asia, in which she accused the international community of “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” adding it didn’t help “if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation.” She appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities, and said the world should not forget that the military operation was launched in response to the Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on border posts.

Rahim, the village schoolteacher, and his family were among thousands of Rohingya who made the 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) river crossing to Bangladesh.

On April 8, in a Bangladesh refugee camp, Rahim’s wife Rasheda gave birth to their first boy, Futu, or “little son.” Rahim doesn’t know whether Futu will ever see his homeland.

Simon Lewis and Wa Lone reported from Naypyitaw  


Command structure of the Myanmar army’s operation in Rakhine

By Wa Lone

On the ground, the military operation in Rakhine State has been overseen by Major General Maung Maung Soe, the chief of the army’s Western Command, one of 14 regional commands operating across Myanmar, said a military intelligence source and a senior army officer familiar with the operation.

The Western Command is overseen in turn by the Bureau of Special Operations in the capital city of Naypyitaw, which reports to the office of the Commander in Chief of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The office of the Commander in Chief did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about the Rakhine operation.

The Western Command is divided into three main divisions. One of these divisions, the 15 Light Infantry Division (15 LID), is stationed in the region of Buthidaung, next to the Maungdaw region where the army’s “clearance operation” has taken place. The 15 LID has led the fighting, said the army officer and the military intelligence source.

That division is further broken down into 10 battalions, each with an estimated fighting force of about 400 soldiers.

Each of the battalions has four companies and one artillery section and is led by a commander in the rank of lieutenant colonel, the senior army source said. Each battalion also consists of units in charge of first aid, logistics, transportation, communications, engineering and construction.

The key groups leading the operation against the Rohingya have been battalions Nos. 352, 551, 564 and 345, the sources said. The senior army source said a little under 2,000 soldiers operated in the area.

A senior government source and the senior army source said the commander of 15 LID, Major General Khin Maung Soe, had been questioned by investigators conducting an internal military probe into alleged abuses.

The army did not respond to a question about Khin Maung Soe’s role and Reuters was unable to contact him directly.

The senior army source said military investigators have also questioned the general’s deputy and other soldiers with key responsibilities on the ground. The source cautioned that investigators were still gathering preliminary information and no charges have been brought against Khin Maung Soe and others.

Rohingya Exodus
By Antoni Slodkowski, Wa Lone, Simon Lewis and Krishna Das
Photo editing: Thomas White
Graphics: Simon Scarr, Weiyi Cai, Wen Foo and Jin Wu
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet McBride, Peter Hirschberg and Richard Woods

By Donita Jose
April 24, 2017

For the Rohingyas, who often face hostility from Indian neighbours, football seems one way to turn the tension into camaraderie.

(Photo: Donita Jose)

“Did you see Barcelona beat PSG?” asks Abdulla joyfully. His voice betrays an irresistible obsession for the game. I watched, and rooted for Barca, and somewhere through the historic match, Abdulla’s own monumental journey as the person behind the Rohingya Football Club in Hyderabad began making sense to me.

It was early in 2012, when the violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims reached its peak. Over 400 people lost their lives in the ethnic cleansing. Those who survived in oppressive conditions tried persistently to escape.

“We didn’t have electricity at nights. We didn’t know what human rights were,” recounts Abdulla. In Class 10 then, Abdulla’s dreams about becoming the first Rohingya football player in his country came crashing down when curfews seized the evenings. The schools stopped and so did free movement. He says, “I lived in Thoun Bazar but didn’t know what Buthidaung looked like, and it was just 12 kilometres away.”

When his family decided to flee the country, they were unsure of the dangerous journey ahead. They had to cross a raging river, climb dangerous mountains, trespass two international borders, all dodging various armies and their bullets. “It took many days, anybody could have killed us thinking we were terrorists. They didn’t know we were ourselves running away,” says the 21-year-old.

When Abdulla finally made it to Bengal, he had relatives for shelter. Many others just asked a passer-by which was the safest place for Muslims in the alien country. “Hyderabad” was one of the replies, while some others were told Delhi and Kashmir. Armed with just this advice, over 3,500 (according to recent registrations by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Rohingyas found their way into Balapur, in south eastern Hyderabad.

Football first

In 2016, Rohingya FC cropped up on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in Balapur. When the refugees slowly gained the control they had lost on their lives, football seemed to be a good outlet to wash the trauma away.

The team consists of players of all ages, from as young as 11 to 35, all united by the passion for football. Some are vendors, casual labourers, carpenters or stall boys mostly earning less than Rs 600 a day. A few young boys like Omar are the bread winners of their family. Abdulla, their captain is a painter by profession and manages to earn 500 a day.

“I started off as a painter. When I got time off work, I would wander over to the ground nearby. After hanging around with the players, they began including me,” says 21-year-old Abdulla on how he conceived the idea for the club. After honing the skills for his game, he decided to start a team.

The club has yet to make a real mark for itself, with a quarter final finish in a local tournament, and a 2nd place finish in another. The Rohingyas achievements maybe few, but in light of their past troubles, seem to shine brightly.

New neighbours, old problems

A simple ID card (Long Term Visa) declares the Rohingyas as refugees from Myanmar. Physically they don’t look much different from the native population. Despite this, once branded, they become susceptible to hostility from their Indian neighbours.

A walk across the camp in Balapur, which is propped on land rented out by locals, the fallout with neighbours becomes apparent. These settlements are in patches, where about 30-40 tents huddle together sharing one toilet and one bathroom with no proper sewage system. Each hut-dweller pays about Rs 500 as rent for occupying an area no bigger than 11x11 square ft.

Water connections and electricity were brought in through constant deliberations by NGOs like COVA (Confederation of Voluntary Associations), who negotiated with local authorities for services. This is probably what irks the locals the most; the ‘outsiders’ getting amenities while some of them have to go without.

Football, though, seems to be one way to integrate. Once on the field, hostility changes into camaraderie or friendly competition. Keeping this in mind, Shabeer, the President of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, lobbied for a friendly tournament sponsored by a company named LehLeh Sports. 

The company organises corporate sports events for companies like Google and Accenture and this year for the first time, the Rohingyas were invited to the tournament on April 15 and 16. Specially handpicked for this were players from settlements in various states.

The team, called Rohingya FC of India, made it all the way to the finals before settling for second place. They’re now set to join another tournament organised by LehLeh Sports at the end of the month, and this time Abdulla joins the team as the forward lead.

“Sports is a good way to educate people about our presence and our lives as refugees,” says Shabeer. He explains that the Rohingyas often get misunderstood as terrorists. “In Kashmir, the kind of persecution we face is worse than what Myanmar did to us,” he says. Most recently, parties like the Jammu and Kashmir National Panther Party put up hoardings in Jammu, demanding it to be cleansed of Rohingyas. The national Rohingya FC team features one player from Kashmir.

It’s not just Indians who are unsure of how to deal with the Rohingya identity, the Rohingyas themselves are in a constant dilemma. “Are you a player of Myanmar or India?” The question raises discomfort and silence amongst the players.

Abdulla’s younger brother, who has probably assimilated the best (thanks to his schooling in a local Hyderabad school) has the best answer. “We came from Myanmar, we are from there. But we want to play for India and make it proud. We want to show that we Rohingyas are not weak, and as good as you all.”

India’s refugee policy

India was not party to the UN’s Treaty of 1951 Convention on Refugees. This makes India’s policy on refugees ad-hoc, Shailesh Rai, senior policy advisor at Amnesty International India told This leaves room for uncertainty and arbitrariness.

For example, in 2016 the cabinet introduced new facilities opening of bank accounts, permission for purchase of property for self-occupation, issue of driving licence, PAN card and Aadhar number and so on for refugees on Long Term Visas. But these facilities are for refugees from various faiths other than Islam, and applicable only in certain states where the Muslim population is low. Since Rohingyas are Muslims and reside in states with larger Muslim populations like Hyderabad, they are deprived of these.

World sports and the refugee

65.3 million people were displaced in 2015, which is higher than the number displaced during World War II according to UNHCR’s statistics. This makes about 1% of the world’s population living in a state of flux. To acknowledge this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to pitch a Refugee Olympic Team against the rest of the world, with players from Syria, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Outside of this single effort, though, little has happened in the way of integrating refugee populations through sports. Collectivize, a Delhi-based organisation, is the only notable organisation that is working on local level sports diplomacy in Delhi’s Rohingya settlement.

A representative from the organisation, who didn’t want to be named, admits it is too nascent an idea to be taken up on a policy level, but argues that it comes with great potential. “Sports is a good tool for spreading a positive message as it is non-political. It also helps in self-empowerment.” 

Of course, sports diplomacy may work for the Rohingya. But it still leaves out the women. Abdulla admits that it’s harder to draw women out through sports, given the boundaries tradition imposes on them.

Still, given where the Rohingyas have come from, what Abdulla and Shabeer have undertaken seems nothing short of a revolution. In India, they might still face bans on their travel abroad, and no permanent statehood. But, there’s still the freedom to play football. For Abdulla and his friends, that’s no mean difference. “Burma mein maine democracy nahi dekha, India ake maine jana kya hai democracy (I never saw democracy in Burma, I realised what democracy is after coming to India),” says Abdulla.

One NGO source estimates around 150 Rohingya children have made the journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh unaccompanied. (J. Owens/VOA) 

By John Owens
April 23, 2017

KUTAPALONG CAMP, BANGLADESH — A spate of disappearances among the children of displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh is raising fears the children have been abducted into the region’s human trafficking networks. 

In the past seven months, about 70,000 Rohingya have fled a military onslaught in their home country of Myanmar, and there are concerns the newly arrived status of the latest refugees makes them particularly vulnerable to abduction and exploitation. 

Meanwhile the presence of unaccompanied minors, and the statelessness of the Rohingya refugees, could mean the problem is being significantly under-reported.

A talented child

When Rashida thinks of her 10-year-old son Muhammad, she thinks of his curiosity about the wider world.

A photo of Rashida’s son Muhammed (right), with his sister, Hosneara. (J. Owens/VOA)

“He used to read any kinds of paper, or paper cutting, he could get,” she says, eyes glistening. “He was a talented child, if a bit naughty.”

Rashida tells VOA that her husband was fatally shot during an offensive carried out by the Myanmar military during a lockdown of the country’s northern Rakhine state, home to the nation's Rohingya Muslim minority. 

The lockdown followed an attack by Rohingya insurgents that killed nine policemen in October. Since then, there have been widespread accusations of mass rapes and murders as part of a broader campaign against Rohingya civilians — charges denied by the Myanmar government.

Rashida at home with a suitcase containing the clothes of her son Mohammed, 10, who vanished a month ago. (J. Owens/VOA)

Like many others, Rashida fled and made her way to Kutapalong Camp, near the border with Myanmar in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.

She sent her son off to study a nearby religious school while her 7-year-old daughter Hosneara remained with her in the camp. 

A month ago, she got a call saying Muhammad had gone missing, having never returned to the school after a short trip to get food. 

All efforts to find out what happened have so far failed. All Rashida has is a suitcase of his neatly folded clothes and a picture of him and his sister.

“My daughter is always crying, she says that she’ll never see her brother in the future,” Rashida tells VOA.

Speaking out

The disappearance of Mohammed is far from unique.

Attention is being called to the problem by Action Against Hunger, an NGO that has been helping Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar since well before the arrival of the latest refugees.

Thousands of Rohingya flocked to Kutapalong Camp after crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh. (J. Owens/VOA)

As many as 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are thought to now be living in Bangladesh. NGOs operating in the region and focused on Rohingya issues are often reticent to discuss their plight publicly because of political sensitivities. However, the child disappearances have prompted country director Nipin Gangadharan to speak out.

Gangadharan, whose NGO has created a series of "safe spaces" for youngsters, says his group has recorded the disappearance of 16 children since January. 

He said most of those children came with the newly arrived Rohingya families, who face a “new context” and are cut loose from the community structures they had established in Myanmar. 

”They don’t have any support … so they have some kind of set-up where they're leaving the children assuming it's safe and they're going to try to earn some living," he says. "Those kind of separations heighten the risk."

Rohingya children at Kutapalong Camp in Bangladesh. (J. Owens/VOA)

One humanitarian worker who did not want to be identified told VOA that that aid groups are aware of roughly 150 Rohingya children who had made the crossing into Bangladesh unaccompanied.

Trafficking fears

Little is known beyond the fact of the disappearances themselves — which have taken place both inside and outside the camps.

However, Gangadharan said human traffickers are known to have a strong network across the Cox’s Bazar region and to target both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. 

A report in 2014 on child abductions in Bangladesh revealed that of 49 children who had been recovered, the highest number — 15 — came from Cox’s Bazar. Last year, local media reported that trafficking syndicates in Cox’s Bazar involved around 2,000 people.

Children at a care center set up near to the Rohingya camps and run by an NGO called Action Against Hunger. (J.Owens/VOA)

The traffickers are known to force children to work, beg or smuggle drugs, and have even harvested their organs. Gangadharan said the recently disappeared children "could be used as part of this network.”

A U.S. State Department report on trafficking released last year noted the vulnerability of the Rohingya in particular, and added that while the Bangladesh government does “not yet fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” it is “making significant efforts to do so.”

Questioned on human trafficking, Abuzar al-Jahid, captain of a Bangladeshi government-backed border guard team operating around the Myanmar border, said his team “would not allow those kind of activities,” adding it took a “zero tolerance approach.”

Gangadharan agreed that Bangladeshi authorities have been “positive and understanding” in response to the disappearances.

However, he emphasized that because of their lack of citizenship or relationship with the Bangladesh state, there is a chance such disappearances are going under-reported.

Word spreads

Word of the disappearances has spread.

Rohingya men hang out in Kutapalong Camp, where rumors of child abductions have spread among the residents. (J. Owens/VOA)

Mohammed Idris — a teacher at a recently built religious school within Kutapalong who is also a father of seven — is fearful and has heard rumors of ransom demands.

“We’re very sad about losing these children,” he says.“We’re even hearing that they are taking the kidneys from some of the children.” 

For Rashida, these fears have already been realized. 

Now, all she can do is try to protect her daughter, continue to search, and look to her faith for consolation.

“I expect that I'll get him back if Allah wishes,” she says.

Some 2,000 Rohingya refugee families live in the Balukhali camp in southern Bangladesh, according to the camp's leader. (Photo: Michael Sullivan/for NPR)

By Ashley Westerman
April 23, 2017

Can all hope be lost?

I used to think not.

I used to think that no matter how tough life gets for people, they always have hope to cling to – to get them through it.

Then I met some Rohingya refugees on a trip to Bangladesh last month. Reporter Michael Sullivan and I were there to report on the latest wave of the Muslim minority group to flee over the border from Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

We spoke with Rohingya living both inside and outside of the refugee camps that have taken root in southern Bangladesh. Working through interpreters, they told us the stories of how they'd fled from their homeland late last year during the latest Myanmar military crackdown against them. How their villages had been sacked and their homes burnt to the ground. How they'd faced a brutal military campaign of torture and mass rape. Tens of thousands of them had been displaced.

After hearing these distressing accounts, I had wanted to know: Given all that they had been through, what were their hopes for the future?

A Puzzling Question

We asked about a dozen refugees. And I was shaken by their answers.

I asked one woman, Shajada — a name she chose for herself to protect her identity and her family back in Myanmar — what she hoped for her future. She responded via the interpreter: "Do you mean in terms of food?"

I tried to clarify and re-clarify the question through the interpreter. Shajada, who had suffered an injury to her legs and hips while fleeing the Myanmar army that's left her almost immobile, finally did answer: "I don't hope anything for me. I don't hope for me because I cannot even more from one place to another because if I move, I fall down."

Another young woman, Roshida — also not her real name — flat-out didn't comprehend the question at first.

"We do not understand," Roshida responded, speaking for herself and her cousins. After I asked the question a couple of different ways, Roshida did finally say that if she could eat and Myanmar was peaceful, she would go home and try to get married.

That's an extraordinary hope for the future given what she'd been through. When the Myanmar military came to her village, Roshida was raped by four soldiers. In that part of the world having been raped can ruin a woman's prospects of finding a husband.

I thought perhaps the question of hope was getting lost in translation, so I tried asking: "How do you still go on?"

A woman who called herself Zubaida — again to protect her identity — answered by listing the things she needs to do to survive in the camp: sell rice, find a job, learn to speak Bangla (the Bangladeshi language).

What Is Hope?

These conversations made me wonder: What exactly is hope?

"Hope is what we want to happen," says neuroscientist Dr. Tali Sharot, who directs the Affective Brain Lab at University College London and does research on optimism, emotion and decision making.

Hope — and optimism — does not come from any particular part of the brain, she says. Instead, a person's ability to hope and be optimistic is part genetics and part experience.

"So you can be born with a certain way of processing information that makes you more likely to be optimistic and you do learn from things that happen to you, you do learn from the world around you," says Sharot.

In other words: a person's outlook on life comes from both their genetic predisposition and life experiences. If a person has many negative experiences, they may come to believe that negative things are always going to happen, she says. And that would be a reason for someone to just not feel positive anymore — to lose hope.

This could explain why the Rohingya refugees we interviewed had difficulty talking about their future. For decades, the Rohingya have been terrorized and persecuted by the Myanmar military simply for being an ethnic and religious minority — something the military mostly denies. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in waves. It is estimated that some 500,000 Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh alone.

"I know that for many, many refugee populations like the Rohingya who've been living for years in situations of great uncertainty there's an erosion of hope," says Pindie Stephen, who works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to help refugees move out of camps.

Stephen, who worked with refugees for 12 years in Kenya, says it's hard for people to think about the future when they're concerned about immediate needs — identity papers, school for their children and safe housing.

"So I think a question like, 'What are your hopes?' takes them off guard," says Stephen. "A lot of our refugee population lives in this limbo for such a long time that I think they no longer even have the luxury of being able to hope."

Traumatized And Trapped

A recent trauma can also have an effect on a person's ability to hope, says Peter Ventevogel, a psychiatrist also with IOM.

"We often see at the beginning very high stress levels and levels of uncertainty," he says. "They [newly arrived refugees] don't know what are their options, they don't have enough information to make decisions about what they want."

Ventevogel is part of a team that conducted interviews with Rohingya in the two government registered refugee camps in Bangladesh. The team's forthcoming article, expected to be printed next month in the journal Transcultural Psychiatry, details findings of high levels of mental health concerns, such as PTSD and depression, among the 148 Rohingya interviewed. With those feelings comes a feeling of being trapped, he says.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are truly trapped. They are stateless. Their home country of Myanmar does not want them, nor does Bangladesh — or any other country they flee to. In Bangladesh the Rohingya are not allowed to leave their camps, get a passport in order go to another country or even legally work because they aren't citizens. They have no good options.

"They had to leave their country because of the troubles they were in and [move] into an environment that they don't perceive as welcoming and they can't get out," Ventevogel says. "And that's not good for your mental health. That creates demoralization and loss of hope."

But Ventevogel says in his experience talking to refugees who have been displaced for many years — whose shock and trauma is not fresh — he's found they have a lot of hope for the future.

"Often it is framed in indirect ways," he says. "People hope their children can get a good education or they can get a resettlement [to another country] and build a new life, to get back to the country they came from," he says.

Ventevogal believes the humanitarian community can help the hopeless find hope again. It starts, he says, with helping refugees regain control of their lives. Then they're more likely to see prospects for the future.

"Sometimes it's very simple, it's just giving people a piece of land and materials to build their own house again because people can recreate something that's their own," he says, pointing to refugees in Uganda and Tanzania who are allowed to farm.

One Man's Hope

Near the end of our time in Bangladesh I spoke with a Rohingya who backs up Ventevogel's claim that refugees who have been displaced for a longer time are better able to think about their future.

Twenty-five-year-old Mohammad Nur, a name he chose to protect his identity, has been a refugee his whole life. He was born in a government-run refugee camps. When I asked if he had any future in Bangladesh, he replied: "I think not. Not at all."

He said he knew if he didn't leave, his brain would die.

"I will not die, my body will not die but ... I will be like a disabled guy," he says. And so in this hopeless situation, he has one clear hope for the future: "I must leave."

Ashley Westerman spent a week and a half in Bangladesh in March producing radio stories on the Rohingya with reporter Michael Sullivan.

By Alice Cowley and Maung Zarni
April 21, 2017

“Send us as many birth control pills as you can. They (Myanmar troops) are gang-raping our women. They are arresting and killing all our men. There is nothing else you can do. Just pray to Allah and to wish us speedy deaths! This is just simply unbearable,” said a Rohingya woman talking from her mobile phone from Myanmar’s predominantly Rohingya region of Northern Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.[1] [See Figure below right.] She was talking to her brother, an unregistered refugee living and working in a poor and rough neighborhood called Salayang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Among the handful of Burmese eager for updates, listening to the phone conversation on speaker phone was U Maung Maung, a respected Muslim leader and activist from Mandalay, also making a living in Malaysia. Maung immediately posted this on his Facebook timeline on November 20, 2016,[2] hoping to alert people to the shocking events unfolding. Western experts on the region note there is an “information blackhole,”[3] owing to the Myanmar government’s lockdown of Northern Rakhine State for its ‘security clearance operations.’ As such, Myanmar authorities have barred access to humanitarian aid groups and local and international media. This latest lockdown was a result of the killing of nine Myanmar police officers which was believed to have been instigated by Rohingya hoping to form a resistance group.

However, Maung’s attempt to alert the world via Facebook came to naught. The post was in Burmese language. But more importantly, his alert — like many others conveyed by ‘locals’ — had not been vetted by any Western organizations or international human rights ‘experts,’ who have become the standard bearers of facts or “truth-conveyors” relating to other peoples’ experiences of atrocities. Victims and their accounts need first to be vetted by these mediating agencies — a system understood only too well by the Burmese government with its blanket denials of the allegations coming out of the information black hole it created. Aung San Suu Kyi Government’s Information Committee referred to the atrocities on many occasions, “fake rape”[4] and “exaggerations” or “fabrications.”[5]

Following hundreds of similar allegations and coordinated documentation by Rohingya groups of mass killings, mass rape, and destruction of whole villages, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) sent a team to interview Rohingya refugees who had recently fled to Bangladesh — 70,000[6] of whom had arrived in four months. Based on over 200 interviews, OHCR issued a damning Flash Report (Feb 3) complete with harrowing tales of burning elderly Rohingya men alive and slitting children’s throats.[7] The U.N. estimates that Myanmar may have killed as many as 1,000 Rohingya men in recent violence alone.[8] This information, presented at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council,[9] did not result in the much-hoped-and-lobbied-for U.N. Commission of Inquiry with a view towards the International Criminal Court. The result was a compromise — a ‘Fact Finding Mission’[10] — which both the military[11] and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government[12] are determined not to accept or cooperate with. 

We have previously argued that far from being a new phenomenon, waves of state-directed violence and communal destruction such as these have been occurring since 1978 and are part of a process of ‘slow-burning genocide.’[13] Two other independent studies published a year later reinforce our findings.[14] Over these decades, Rohingya experiences and sufferings have been tossed across multiple discourses that deny the central role of the military such as “communal violence”[15] or since the October 9 raids, “Muslim insurgency” pregnant with potential for escalations involving “international terrorism.”[16] In recent years, these have run concurrently with human rights bodies and organizations framing the situation as “ethnic cleansing”[17] and “crimes against humanity”— U.N. Special Rapporteurs and the OHCHR included.

Despite these shifting narratives, the fundamental nature of the problem has remained constant. The military-controlled state has attempted to “cleanse”the nation of the largest Muslim minority in Myanmar, unique with legitimate claims to Northern Rakhine as their ancestral home. Firstly, this has been attempted through legal, bureaucratic, and administrative means — such as removing their rights to citizenship, destroying and revoking documents in Rohingya possession, refusing to register thousands of Rohingya infants, household checks, as well as subjecting them to a web of criss-crossing security grids by which the freedom of movement of the Rohingya population is severely restricted and monitored.[18] Secondly, it has been attempted through denial of their history/identity and propaganda campaigns that serve to de-nationalize them.[19] Where these two attempts have not been achieved, communities have also been subjected to physical destruction through methods such as burning property, evictions, and killings.

However, this has not always been the case. In 1961, the Burmese co-author’s late great uncle, Zeya Kyaw Htin Major Ant Kywe, a decorated nationalist solider, was the Deputy Commander of the administrative district of Mayu in 1961, which was effectively established as a homeland for Rohingya in Rakhine State in order to maintain law and order[20] in the region where the central government was confronted with rebellions from two different fronts: Muslim Rohingya separatists and Buddhist Rakhine nationalists clamouring for statehood. 

On Myanmar’s Independence Day (January 4, 1948), even as the Union Jack was lowered at the colonial Secretariat in Rangoon, the Burma Army was engaged in ferocious battles against armed Rakhine (Buddhist) rebels[21] who wanted to reclaim the sovereignty they had lost to the militarily dominant Burmese Buddhist group in 1784. 

In the years following Myanmar independence in 1948, the central government, specifically the Ministry of Defense, strategically sought to embrace Rohingyas as a bona fide ethnic minority of the new Union of Burma,[22] with equal and full citizenship rights, along with multiple other minorities with armed revolts against the ethnically Burmese central government. It is essential to see the root of the Rohingya persecution not simply in the sectarian ethnic conflict between the two main co-habitant communities in Rakhine state of Western Burma, namely Rakhine Buddhist majority and Rohingya Muslim minorities, but in the ethnic triangle involving also the majority Burmese in ultimate control of the state (both the military under General Ne Win and the civilian political coalition headed by PM U Nu).[23]

Although the Burma Army was fighting battles on two fronts in West Myanmar, it was the Rakhine rebellions that presented a more serious threat to the central government than the simultaneous Muslim/Rohingya armed movements, some of which sought, with no success, to join with the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan (East Pakistan). During the Rohingya surrender ceremony of 290 Muslim rebels, held on 4 July 1961 in Northern Rakhine town of Buthidaung, the Commander of the Border Area Administration and Territorial Forces Colonel Saw Myint promised “absolutely no religious or ethnic discrimination” against Rohingyas — vis-à-vis Rakhine Buddhists —and guaranteed “equal protection under Law for all those who abide by the law and live in peace.”[24] Saw Myint’s superior and the second in command, after General Ne Win of the Burma Army Brigadier Aung Gyi, presided over the ceremony and explained the need for Rohingyas as an ethnic minority group to recognize and accept the primacy of political allegiance to the Union of Burma over their kinship, cultural, and religious ties in exchange for the full citizenship rights and ethnic equality which they were offered.[25]

In addition, as early as May 1960, the Ministry of Defense agreed to the Rohingyas’ request to carve out the predominantly Rohingya geographic pocket in Northern Rakhine State and establish a new district named after the local river Mayu. The co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the then-young Lt-Colonel Tin Oo, was tasked with establishing the Mayu District, which was to be administered centrally from the Burmese-controlled Rakhine Military Command.[26] Rohingyas’ request was precipitated by the moves made by Prime Minister U Nu’s re-elected civilian government in order to fulfil its election pledge of granting Rakhine Buddhists a separate statehood, within the Union of Burma.[27]

Within eight months of the establishment of the May-U District, General Ne Win and his deputies staged a coup against U Nu’s government on the pretext that Nu’s opportunistic electioneering and weak leadership were emboldening ethnic minorities’ demands for devolution of power away from the Burmese centre. While the coup leaders continued to honour the arrangements with Rohingyas, the policy orientation of the military leadership shifted towards racist, isolationist, xenophobic, and socialistically doctrinaire. The more liberal and less radical military leaders such as the Deputy Commander in Chief of Army Brigadier General Aung Gyi and Colonel Chit Myaing were sacked in 1963 and 1964.[28]The remaining military leaders under Ne Win’s commandership began to marginalize and eventually cleanse the Armed Forces of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu officers unless they agreed to convert to Buddhism. Having remade this once-multiethnic, multi-faith national institution of unrivalled power and control over society, the military leadership turned its sights to society at large.[29] Most important, the army leadership initiated, promoted, and sustained the process of radically reimagining ethnic and political histories, national identity, and the society at large along the army’s new “purist” Buddhist vision.[30]

In 1978, Ne Win launched a centrally organized, violent operation against Rohingyas of both Southern and Northern Rakhine, under the pretext of surprise immigration checks. Known as Operation King Dragon, the events of 1978 are carved into the consciousness and the inter-generational memories of Rohingya communities. It was conducted as an interagency campaign of terror involving Immigration, Religious Affairs, Police, Courts, Army, Navy, and police intelligence, as well as local administrations made up of anti-Rohingya Rakhine.[32] Myanmar’s former chief of military intelligence until 2004, Ex-General Khin Nyunt, who was operationally involved on the ground as a young major from Special Operations Bureau, Ministry of Defense, serving as the Commander of Infantry Regiment No. 20 based in Rakhine, wrote that a total of 277,938 fled, between February 12 and June 3, from Western Burma into the neighboring Bangladesh.[33] Shut off from the outside world by an isolationist military regime, the Burmese public — the Burmese co-author included — was misinformed of this operation as an act of national defense, under the slogan “the (Buddhist) race could be swallowed up by other (alien) race”[34] — an understanding that still resounds today. This was the first of the chronic waves of state-sponsored and state-condoned violence against Rohingyas which have resulted each time in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing “unbearable life on land.”

Following Ne Win’s coup in 1962, the nation’s vision fundamentally changed — from one that sought to establish peace through a unified multiethnic nation based on equality, to one which harnessed and mobilized the Buddhist public’s anti-colonial sentiments, and along with this their anti-Indian (subcontinent) and anti-Muslim racisms, which emerged out of the colonial-era political economy in which locals were subordinated to Indians.[31] It was a vision which sought to ‘cleanse’ the nation through systematic attempts to subjugate some ethnic minorities whilst removing others (such as Rohingyas) from the national fold.

The now internationally infamous 1982 Citizenship Act was one part of a long process of stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship and the rights of future generations of Rohingya to obtain Myanmar citizenship. It was accompanied by eviction, land confiscation, and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya. Although this controversial law does not mention Rohingyas by name, viewed within the historical context of large scale forced repatriations from Bangladesh, and based on accounts of those involved in drafting the Act, it can be concluded that the primary aim in drafting the Act was to exclude Rohingyas from citizenship.[35] The law — and its application regarding 135 fixed ethnic nationalities excluding Rohingya, on the basis of their absence in the dubious colonial censuses, who in fact existed in Myanmar prior to the first British Annexation of Western Burma in 1826 — has not simply left Rohingya vulnerable to multiple discriminatory policies aimed at non-nationals, it has also fed popular anti-colonial racisms in society that have led to pervasive social ostracism of Rohingya and violence in which Rakhine Buddhists and state security forces have worked hand in glove. 

Despite annual U.N. human rights monitoring in Myanmar since 1992[36] and the UNHCR having a presence on the ground in northern Rakhine State since the early 1990s, violent persecution of the Rohingya has continued unabated and indeed increased. This persecution was largely perceived as a part of the authoritarian regime’s general pattern of rights violations, for the Myanmar military was notoriously repressive towards ethnically Burmese opposition movement under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership across the country, as well as other non-Bama ethnic groups in the country’s North and North East regions.

Myanmar’s rights abuses in Rohingya regions of Western Myanmar weren’t seen as something that demanded special attention. Today, while the anti-historical and institutionally amnesiac discourses such as “humanitarian concern,” “communal conflict,” “security and terrorism,” “lack of development,” and “livelihood creation” float through the ether world of foreign embassies, development, and U.N. agencies, the decades of facts relating to the instrumental role of the central Myanmar State in the abuses of Rohingya are buried alongside very real human corpses — again — waiting to be verified and validated by the right kind of foreign experts and the right kind of U.N. process. People and processes that never come. As Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine wait and their diasporic relatives post desperate calls for U.N. peacekeepers and intervention on Facebook, “Never again!”— the foundational myth of the United Nations — must sound bitterly hollow.

Fifty-five years ago, the Myanmar Ministry of Defense and its military leaders officially embraced Rohingya as an ethnic minority, granted them equal rights, and full citizenship while enabling them to make contributions to the country’s politics, society, and economy. Today, the military’s radical reversal of Rohingya policy created the space in society where Rohingyas are commonly seen as “leaches,” their identity and history “a hoax,” and their presence a demographic and jihadist threat to the Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, over the same period, under the same national visions, other ethnic communities along the country’s strategic, resource-rich borderlands including Kachins, Shan, Karenni, etc., were offered promises, pledges, and agreements by generations of military and civilian leaders, only to have them reneged when powerful stakeholders changed their strategic calculations. Under the military regime, those that refused to be co-opted into the military’s national vision complete with its Burmese dominance, were and still are subject to persecution, oppression, and war. They are victims of the same ideologies that cleanse the nation of Rohingyas and all those that oppose or live in contradiction to the state’s centralized control and organization of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

With NLD elected to government and with Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto leader, one would hope for at least a dilution of the military leadership’s post-1962 purist ideologies, or at best for a radical re-imagination of the Burmese national community incorporating her late father’s (Aung San) vision of post-colonial Burma as a secular, progressive, multi-culturalist, multiethnic nation. Tragically, it is not only the armed forces that have implemented internal cleansing of their institutions. NLD is now also without a single Muslim representative from the population. Every time the government calls rape ‘fake’ on the military’s behalf or refuses to cooperate with U.N. bodies' attempts to unearth and validate atrocities, Aung San’s multiethnic vision of Burma is trampled further into the ground.

[1] Amartya Sen, the foremost scholar on famines, explains why Burma’s intentional measures to deny, severely limit, or block Rohingyas’ access to livelihoods, nutritional opportunities, and essential medical services is an act of “institutionalized killing,” a slow genocide, not like Khmer Rouge’s genocide, Rwanda or the Holocaust. Conference on the Plight of the Rohingya, Harvard University, November 4, 2014, accessed April 5, 2017,

[2] Ibid.

[3] International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), Queen Mary University of London, “Genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar may be entering a new and deadly phase, October 17, 2016, April 3, 2017,

[4] Myanmar State Counsellor Information Committee, “Information Committee Refutes Rumours of Rape,” December 26, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017, See also “Aung San Suu Kyi is making war time rape easier to commit,”, December 26, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[5] “Aung San Suu Kyi laughs out loud at Rohingya genocide allegations while in Singapore,” The Independent, January 5, 2017, April 3, 2017,; and Jonah Fisher, “Myanmar’s Rohingya: Truth, lies and Aung San Suu Kyi,” BBC, accessed April 3, 2017, Accessed 3 April 2017.

[7] “Devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men detailed in UN human rights report,” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), February 3, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, Accessed 3 April 2017. See the full report at 3 April 2017. 

[8] “Exclusive: More than 1,000 feared killed in Myanmar army crackdown on Rohingya - U.N. officials,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[9] U.N. OHCR, “Statement by Ms. Yanghee LEE, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council,” March 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[10] “Rohingya issue: UN to send fact-finding mission to Myanmar,” ANI News, March 24, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, 3 April 2017.

[11] “Myanmar Military Chief Defends Crackdown Against Rohingya in Rakhine State,” Radio Free Asia, March 27, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[12] “Myanmar rejects UN call for rights probe,” Bangkok Post, March 25, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017,

[13]Maung Zarni and Alice Cowley, “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal 23, 3 (2014): 683-754, accessed April 3, 2017, (Hereafter “The Slow-Burning Genocide”). 

[14] See Penny Green, Thomas MacManus & Alicia de la Cour Venning, “Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar,” International State Crime Initiative Report, Queen Mary University of London, 2015, accessed April 3, 2017,; and “Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State?: A Legal Analysis,” Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, October 2015, accessed April 3, 2017,

[15] See, for instance, Jim Della-Giacoma, “A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar,” International Crisis Group, March 28. 2013, accessed April 3, 2017, See also “Why is there communal violence in Myanmar?” BBC, July 3, 2014, accessed April 3, 2017,

[16] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group Report No. 283/Asia, December 15, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,; Tim Johnston and Anagha Neelakantan, “The World's Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma,” TIME, December 13, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[17] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: End Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims,” April 22, 2013, accessed April 3, 2017, See also Jocelyne Sambira, “Myanmar minorities suffer 'systemic' discrimination, abuse: UN,” United Nations Radio, June 20, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[18] See “The Slow-Burning Genocide.” See also Widney Brown, “Where there is police There is persecution, Physicians for Human Rights,” Physicians for Human Rights, October 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[19] In addition to the state-controlled mass media and official speeches by the generals and ex-generals, Myanmar Military Intelligence Services spread deliberately false historical information through teachers’ refresher courses at the Civil Servant Training School at Hpaung Gyi, which thousands of Burmese state school teachers are required to attend, according to Daw Khin Hla, former Rohingya Middle School Teacher, from Myanmar, who spoke at the conference on Rohingya Persecution, November 4, 2014, accessed April 3, 2017,

[20] “Finally, peace has prevailed in Mayu Borderlands District,” Editorial, Special Issue on Mayu, Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 5. (Burmese Language publication).

[21] Tape-recorded Interview in Virginia, U.S. (July 1994) with retired Colonel Chit Myaing, former member of General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council (1962). As the Deputy Commander of the Burma Rifle Brigade 5, Chit Myaing led the government’s military campaign against the armed Rakhine rebellion in January 1948.

[22] The full text of the official Burmese language transcript of the speech delivered by Brigadier General Aung Gyi, Vice Chief of Staff (Army), at the Surrender Ceremony of Mujahideen Rohingya troops, Maung Daw Town, Northern Rakhine State, 4 July 1961. See “Special Issue on Mayu”, Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 8-10 & 23-24. (Hereafter Brigadier General Aung Gyi’s speech).

[23] For the detailed records of this triangular politics amongst Rakhine-Burmese-Rohingya see the book-length Burmese language publication, Kyaw Win, Mya Han and Thein Hlaing, “Myanmar Naing Ngan Yay” (Burma’s Politics), Volume 3 (years 1958-1962), (Rangoon: Universities Press, 1991), in particular Chapter 12, pp. 167-250. (Hereafter “Burma’s Politics,” 1991).

[24] The full text of the official Burmese language transcript of the speech by Colonel Saw Myint, Chief of the Border Areas Administration and Commander of the Territorial Forces, “Special Issue on Mayu,” Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 15.

[25] Brigadier General Aung Gyi’s Speech, 1961.

[26] Transcript of the Current Affairs magazine discussions with Prime Minister’s Private Secretary-2 U Khin Nyunt, “Special Issue on Mayu,” Current Affairs (or Khit Yay), Ministry of Defense, the Union of Burma, 12, 6 (July 18, 1961): 16-20.

[27] “Burma’s Politics” (1991), 230.

[28] Interview with retired Colonel Chit Myaing, 1994, op cit.

[29] Within Myanmar Armed Forces – and in the society at large – it is widely known that non-Buddhist military officers no longer get promoted beyond the ranks of Major. 

[30] Wa Lone, “Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pledges to help safeguard Buddhism,” Myanmar Times, June 24, 2016, accessed April 3, 2017,

[31] Maung Zarni, “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

Institutionalized racism against the Rohingya Muslims led Burma to genocide”, Feature, Tricycle, Spring 2013, 3 April 2017.

[32] Personal Testimony delivered by U Ba Sein, a former Rohingya civil servant – now a refugee in London, UK - who lived through this King Dragon Operation in N. Rakhine, Permanent People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, Queen Mary University of London. March 6-7, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, (Ba Sein’s testimony begins at 7:55 minutes).

[33] Ex-General Khin Nyunt, Naing Ngan Ei Ah Nauk Hpet Ta Gar Pauk Ka Pya Tha Na (or The Crisis from the Western Gate of Burma), (Rangoon: Pan Myo Ta Yar Press, 2016), particularly Chapter 3, pp. 21-43.

[34] Although race/ethnicity and faith are two different “things,” the majority Buddhist Burmese public collapse the two. The Burmese popular saying sums it up: “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist.”

[35] The Burmese co-author and a key drafter, the late Rakhine historian Dr Aye Kyaw, were friends and fellow exiles for years in the United States. A few years before the two bouts of violence against Rohingyas in 2012 Aye Kyaw gave a Burmese language interview to the influential Irrawaddy News Group wherein he explained in details the internal discussions among the Drafting Committee members, that focused on the best ways to de-nationalize Rohingya through the citizenship act. Irrawaddy has since removed Aye Kyaw’s Burmese language interview. 

[36] See the mountains of Human Rights Situation Reports on Myanmar for the last 25 years beginning March 3, 1992, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed April 3, 2017,

Rohingya Exodus