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Burmese man in exile in Boulder County speaks out on Rohingya 'genocide'

U Kyaw Win kneels in front of wooden carvings of Burmese tribal people at his home Wednesday in Boulder County. (Photo; Jeremy Papasso)

By John Bear
Daily Camera Boulder County News
December 28, 2017

Doctors Without Borders estimates more than 647,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August

When U Kyaw Win traveled to Bangladesh at the end of November, he was afforded the opportunity to speak with a Rohingya man who recently fled across the Naf River from his home in Myanmar and was living in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. 

U Kyaw had traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to attend a conference on the crisis — the International Conference Ending the Slow Burning Genocide of Rohingya by Myanmar — and took a side trip to Cox's Bazar. 

The man relayed that five Myanmarese soldiers came to his home and three of them raped his daughter. When his son tried to intervene, the soldiers slit his throat and, once they had finished their assault on the man's daughter, they also slit her throat.

The man ran for his life and eventually crossed into Bangladesh, where he would join hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, many of whom have fled Mynamar — also called Burma — to escape escalating violence being waged against the Rohingya. 

"He was crying," U Kyaw said. "I couldn't do anything for him. I gave him a hug." 

The Rohingya are a minority Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the western Myanmar state of Rahkine. The country's military — which has controlled the impoverished southeast Asian nation since the 1960s — has persecuted the group for decades. 

U Kyaw, who has lived in Boulder County since 1998, said the latest campaign of violence waged against the group began in August when a militant group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked a handful of police stations. The Myanmarese army retaliated with land mines, artillery and arson, driving hundreds of thousands toward Bangladesh. 

The refugees, he said, often have to hide for days before they can make it to the Naf River, where they hope to catch a ride on a boat or walk across a shallow part of the river. 

Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch show that Rohingya villages have been set ablaze, but the Myanmarese military has denied any such attacks have occurred and cleared itself of any wrongdoing. 

"These things going on, we call it genocide," he said. "The United Nations is tiptoeing around it and calling it ethnic cleansing. What the hell is ethnic cleansing?" 

Humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders estimates that more than 647,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August and into makeshift refugee camps. 

The organization estimates that it has treated more than 142,980 patients in the area of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, including 160 women and girls whose injuries point to sexual and gender-based violence. Measles and malnutrition have also been reported.

U Kyaw is a native of Myanmar. Although he had been studying in the United States, he found himself in exile in the early 1960s when the military overthrew the government. He had his citizenship stripped, but has returned occasionally.

He said that Burma, as he still calls it, was not a unified country prior to its 1948 independence from the United Kingdom but more of a collection of tribal fiefdoms. While the country is multi-ethnic and religious, the military is largely made up of Buddhist ethnic Burmans, and a strong drive exists to purge the nation of Muslims, Christians and other ethnic groups considered undesirable. 

U Kyaw said he is half Burman and half Karen and a Christian. The Rohingya, he said, are considered "illegal" outsiders in their own country, although westerners first made note of their presence in Burma in 1799, and they were likely living in the area long before that. 

"They have a right to remain in their land," he said. "They were born there. They been there at least that long. It's written in documents. Those are things that speak louder than the government." 

U Kyaw added that much of the ethnic violence in Myanmar also stems from an underlying current of greed. Myanmar military officials have cut deals with the Chinese government to run oil and natural gas pipelines south of Rahkine. It's also possible that the areas the Rohingya occupy are rich with titanium, and the people are being run off to clear the way for mining exploration. 

"Burma is a very rich country in national resources," U Kyaw said. "The people at the top, the generals, are just milking the country. They are the colonizers of their own people."

Bangladesh, like its neighbor, is a poor country and unable to permanently absorb the Rohingya refugees (although many have lived in camps for years), and the two countries signed a deal earlier this year to "repatriate" the refugees. U Kyaw said it's unlikely the Rohingya will ever be allowed to return to their land.

Doctors Without Borders has also called the agreement premature, because there is no guarantee for the safety and rights of the Rohingya.

"They have no homes to return to," U Kyaw said. "The Burmese will put them in what they call refugee camps. They are nothing but concentration camps." 

He said that he wants people to know what is happening in his home country, which is insular and largely shut off from the rest of the world. Journalists are not allowed to operate freely, and even the United Nations is having trouble entering the country to monitor the situation. 

Democratic elections in 2015 saw 1991 Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi become the country's de facto leader, although the military still retains most of the power in the country. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has long been considered a civil rights icon and champion of non-violent resistance, has drawn criticism for not condemning the attacks on the Rohingya.

U Kyaw said he is friends with Aung San Suu Kyi, and he understands that her power is limited, but he is disappointed that she has not spoken out forcefully against the violence. 

"Your hands might be tied, but your lips aren't sewn shut," he said. "She is walking a tightrope. We know it's difficult, but she is free to talk. ... She is more or less siding with the army. We have a feeling she is also against the Muslims. 

"By remaining silent — silence is acquiescing. I'm brought back to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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