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By Seema Mustafa
September 28, 2017

NEW DELHI/LONDON: “I think we are seeing nothing short of a classic genocide in Burma, long drawn out unlike the Nazi gas chambers and execution camps---but genocide nevertheless. How can it be anything else when everyone in the country, from the military to the civilian government to business to civil society, is fully engaged in a hate campaign against the Rohingyas,” said Dr. Maung Zarni, exiled dissident and scholar from Myanmar, in a hard hitting interview to The Citizen.

Based in London, Zarni has worked with Aung San Suu Kyi during her more democratic years, and has recently set up a Peoples Tribunal on the Rohingya crisis in the UK. He was a founder of the Free Burma Coalition, and has been with the London School of Economics and Harvard University, Himself a Buddhist, he is a strong voice on human rights and does not mince his words as this interview demonstrates.

Zarni said, that the hatred, racism and fear of the Rohingya’s was the result of a direct campaign of systematic hatred coming out of Military Intellgence. He said the process began in 1964 after the Burmese military introduced changes in the citizenship rules whereby Rohingya’s recognised as a legal ethnic group were deprived of this status altogether.

“Policies became increasingly oppressive, children were blacklisted in mothers womb and born stateless. Others if born in Burma can have Burmese citizenship, but not the Rohingyas who get no birth certificate and no death certificate. It is utterly immaterial to the Burmese state whether the Rohingyas live or die.”

Zarni said since 1966 there has been unrecognised, unofficial apartheid in Arakan. At the top is the military, the local administration was provide by Rakhine Budhists with the Rohingyas second class citizens subject to state directed terror. The first exodus was in 1978, he said, when 280000 Rohingyas fled the country. Most went to Bangladesh that was under a military ruler at the time. The pretext used this time was surprise illegal migration checks, used by the Burmese Army to brutalise the Rohingyas and create terror.

39 years ago “it was an information blackhole” and very few details of the horror faced by them was in the public domain. Even so Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia raised a storm of protest. And Bangladesh, Zarni said, that had received the refugees told Burma to take them, or else they would have no choice but to “train them to fight against you.”This worked and 220000 refugees returned to Burma, with the remaining absorbed in Cox Bazaar.

Aung San Suu Kyi came out in their support in 1990-91, Zarin recalled with Rohingyas backing her every step of the way. She visited the Rakhine towns, set up party offices and took their support for her fight for democratic reforms. The Burmese Army set up a Border Affairs Unit of inter intelligence agencies Zarni said, and stepped up its offensive against the Rohingyas. According to him this was prompted by the overall strategy to free Burma of the Muslims, and this Unit created security zones for the Rohingyas to restrict their movements. And also to ensure that the community did not grow in numbers, the Unit restricted marriages by introducing the system of permits that took two or more years to be issued, and made them sign documents that they would not have more than two children.

This Zarni pointed out “ took the policy of Burma on the Rohingyas into genocidal territory. Attempts to control a communitys growth rate is considered broadly genocidal.” Under this Unit there was extortion,rape, executions of Rohingyas with the oppression growing steadily. In 2012-2015 250000 Rohingyas fled Burma. By this time the propaganda of extremism had been started, with the community being branded terrorists, jihadists.

The current attack by the Burmese military has reached new levels altogether. Zarni does not believe their propaganda. And wondered at the news being released recently of bodies of 29 Hindus being found in a mass grave. He said this came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s endorsement to Suu Kyi, adding, “I do not believe it at all, not at all.” Thousands have been killed, where are their bodies, their mass graves, he asked.

The information has come from the Burmese military and government and not an independent source. If this is so then let the government bring in the United Nations to investigate these mass graves and determine whether indeed this crime has taken place at all, he said.

Zarni said that Suu Kyi was on a different page from the military on the issue of democratic reforms. But on the Rohingyas and a Muslim free Burma she has no differences with the junta at all. They are both on the same page, he said. He said that currently there are 10,000 military cadets coming out of Burma’s military schools. “Every single military cadet is assigned to engage in anti Muslim, anti Rohingya campaigns on the social media, for two hours each” he added saying that the ordinary citizen thus could not even be expected to have any resistance against this as he or she would not know the truth from the lie.

The Burmese military has used different narratives to wipe out the Rohingyas, Zarni said. Now it is the security narrative, of how the community poses a threat to national security, being extremist and jihadist under the discourse of Burma’s war on terrorism.

The scholar pointed out that the silver lining in all this is that several powerful western countries are completely against the narrative being put out by Myanmar, and have not accepted a word of it. In fact several of the lies spun by the Burmese military have been nailed, he added. However, South Asia has bit into the narrative as was visible when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went and stood beside Suu Kyi despite strong world criticism, Zarni pointed out.

“What is really scary is the Burmese military’s attempt to expand the circle of enemies against the Rohingyas,” Zarni said.

Asked about Suu Kyi’s support for the military position he said this comes from her own Buddhist credentials no, sharing the sense of entitlement that comes with being the majority community. And her willingness to accept the military narrative without question. Zarni pointed out that currently she has surrounded herself with former military officers, and Rakhine nationalists. According to him the Nobel Laureate is disdainful of international NGOs and of western governments “and uses them as a bargaining chip”.

According to Zarni, while Suu Kyi is on the same page as the Army on Burma for Buddhists, she could accept the Rohingyas as legal residents. The military will not, and wants to exterminate them, he said.

Suu Kyi, Zarni insisted, had a blind spot for her father and part of her support for the military now came from this. She admitted in an interview that she had wanted to be a soldier, and Zarni is of the view that much of her gestures towards the Burmese military comes from this ‘psychological’ admiration for her father who died when she was just two years old.

About the future of Burma now, Zarni is categorical. He said that while Nazi Germany destroyed the Jews, it also destroyed German society. “In my view we are going down the same road in history as Nazi Germany, we have joined the ranks of genocidal countries that have never had happy endings,” he said.

Burmese society, Zarni said, had lost its collective conscience, its moral compassion, and is engaged in mocking the Rohingyas, hating them, ridiculing them despite the horrific images. “So while we are destroying the Rohingays, our society is also being destroyed by its hate,” he added.

“We are on a very dangerous, slippery slope here, we in Burma and you in India, I give Burma a maximum of ten years before it starts sliding downhill towards destruction,” Dr Maung Zarni concluded.

By Kate Cronin-Furman
Foreign Policy
September 20, 2017

We've never known more about oncoming atrocities, but are still mostly helpless to stop them.

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the border between Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Bangladesh. Over the last three weeks, nearly 400,000 Burmese Rohingya have fled the country, driven out by the devastating violence unleashed upon them by the military. Their stories are horrific: parents slaughtered in front of their children, systematic rape and sexual torture, wholesale destruction of villages. Aid and advocacy groups describe the rate of population displacement as unprecedented and the human misery among the refugees as unparalleled.

The violence is shocking, but at the same time it is entirely unsurprising. For the past three years, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project has identified Burma as one of the top three countries most at risk for a mass atrocity. Other researchers argued as early as 2015 that a genocidal campaign was already underway. With such clear indications that a crisis was coming, why did the world fail to protect the Rohingya?

The question is all the more puzzling because in 2005, the member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, which obligates the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their governments are “unwilling or unable” to keep them safe. R2P was borne out of collective guilt over the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia and promised a new era of “timely and decisive” atrocity response. In pursuit of this goal, early warning efforts to identify the precursors of mass atrocities became a focus for both international and state actors.

But if the Rohingya crisis has revealed anything, it’s that early warnings were never going to be enough to prevent mass atrocities.

As the death toll mounts, many observers are asking whether Burma is committing genocide. But the question hinges on intent, not scale. The mass slaughter of civilian members of a minority group by state forces is a crime against humanity. It may also be genocide if committed with the goal of destroying that group “in whole or in part.” And, practically speaking, the distinction doesn’t matter — neither for the Rohingya, who are being subjected to a brutal and systematic attack whatever the motive, nor for the international community, whose options and obligations in the face of mass atrocity do not depend on the name of the crime.

Called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” the Muslim Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination and abuse at the hands of their Buddhist neighbors and the Burmese security forces. Although the Rohingya have lived in Burma’s western Rakhine state since the era of British colonial rule, Burma does not recognize their citizenship and insists that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. As a result of this deprivation of nationality, they have been systematically discriminated against and denied access to state services.

The Rohingya’s precarious legal status has made them particularly vulnerable to violence from other groups. In 2012, when ethnic riots erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state, 100,000 Rohingya fled their homes. Human rights groups documented the collusion of state forces in the violence, suggesting that the Rohingya’s subsequent forced relocationto squalid displacement camps and urban ghettos in the name of security was part of a deliberate plan to restrict their freedom of movement. In 2015, another alarm bell rang: The situation in the camps had become so dire that thousands of Rohingya boarded unsafe vessels on the Andaman Sea. An international crisis ensued when, in the face of the unprecedented numbers seeking asylum, Burma’s neighboring countries began turning back the boats.

When Rohingya insurgents attacked several border posts in October 2016, the government responded with unrestrained fury. Openly invoking the hate speech propagated by militant Buddhist monks, government officials have characterized the Rohingya as “dirty,” terrorists, and liars. By November 2016, human rights groups were warning that the military was systematically employing extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence against the civilian population in the name of counterinsurgency. And in February 2017, a U.N. report concluded that the so-called “clearance operations” likely amounted to crimes against humanity. The violence, already severe, escalated sharply following the deaths of 12 security officers on Aug. 25. In response, the military launched an all-out attack on the Rohingya. Credible estimates suggest that over a third of the Rohingya population has fled. Thousands more attempt to cross the border into Bangladesh every day.

The plight of the Rohingya suggests that early warnings do little to prevent atrocities against vulnerable groups. The high risk of mass atrocities was clear from the escalating communitarian violence, the documented uptick in online hate speech beginning in 2012, and the tightening of official restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and activities.

And the Rohingya are not the only post-R2P victims of long-telegraphed mass atrocities. In 2009, Sri Lanka slaughtered tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final phase of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The bloodbath was neither sudden nor unpredictable. The security forces had committed systematic abuses throughout the conflict and had expelled aid workers and journalists from the field of combat in late 2008. More recently, South Sudan’s descent into violence and anarchy was preceded by the breakdown of a power-sharing agreement and rumors of ethnic militias forming. In both cases, the threat of atrocities was clear, yet the international community took no action to prevent them.

These examples underscore the fact that a lack of advance notice is not the critical obstacle to action on mass atrocities. It’s politics. Many powerful countries are reluctant to permit action that impinges on another state’s sovereignty, lest the precedent be used against them later. This is particularly true for countries (like China, India, and Russia) fighting insurgencies within their own territory. And for those who lack these disincentives, the costs of action may still present a barrier. International actors are aware that humanitarian interventions are rarely simple exercises and often presage long-term commitments. And in the aftermath of the Libyan intervention, where R2P was explicitly invoked, they are particularly wary of the potential for making a bad situation worse.

Early warning has not saved the Rohingya because it can’t offset the countervailing interests or cooperation challenges that make preventing or halting mass atrocities difficult. And unfortunately, these dynamics are particularly pronounced in the present crisis. The Burmese government, including its Nobel Peace laureate civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has made a concerted push to brand the Rohingya as Islamic militants. Tapping into international counter-terrorism narratives simultaneously bolsters the legitimacy of the military operation against the Rohingya and undermines their status as innocent civilian victims of state abuse.

Additionally, the international community is already struggling to respond to mass atrocities elsewhere, most prominently in Syria, but also in the often-overlooked wars in Yemen, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. In tandem, these two factors mean that the Rohingya are in competition with other atrocity victims for attention and assistance — and the terrorism allegations, however far-fetched, may make them appear comparatively less deserving.

Finally, the fact that the attacks on the Rohingya are taking place against the backdrop of a singularly apathetic U.S. administration further reduces the likelihood of intervention on their behalf. Under President Trump, the U.S. has removed human rights conditions on arms sales, gutted the State Department’s human rights and democracy promotion mission, and threatened to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

However vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy the United States has been in the past, its rhetorical commitment to human rights and willingness to exert pressure has provided a constraint on repressive states that seek the support of the West. But a world in which the United States openly ignores human rights constitutes a permissive environment for the commission of atrocities. Burma knows this, and it has seized the opportunity to finally rid itself of the Rohingya with little risk of interference.

Photo credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

August 3, 2017

On March 24, 2017, the UN Human Rights Council authorized a three-member Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the country’s civilian government as state counsellor and also serves as foreign minister, has stated that the UN’s decision to establish an independent international inquiry was not “in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground.” Kyaw Tin, deputy minister of foreign affairs, said on June 30 in parliament that, “We will order Myanmar embassies not to grant any visa to UN fact-finding mission members.” Even if the UN team is not granted access to the country, the mission intends to work from abroad and produce a written report by March 2018. 

Why did the Human Rights Council set up a Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar?

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution creating the Fact-Finding Mission because it was concerned about the recent serious allegations of human rights abuses there. In a March resolution, the Council pointed to a February 2017 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that found that crimes against the ethnic Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State “seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” As a part of their violent crackdown on the community since October 2016, Burmese security forces burned at least 1500 buildings in predominantly Rohingya areas, raped or sexually assaulted dozens of women, and committed extrajudicial executions. Human Rights Watch released satellite imageryshowing the destruction caused by the arson of these buildings. Human Rights Watch also conducted research among Rohingya who fled into neighboring Bangladesh, documenting the kinds of human rights abuses that Burmese security forces inflicted on them.

What has the Human Rights Council asked the mission to examine?

The Human Rights Council requested the three-person team to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces and other abuses in Myanmar. They have been asked to focus “in particular” on the situation in Rakhine State. But in general, the Fact-Finding Mission received a broad mandate. The mission is empowered to look at all “recent” allegations of situations where the human rights of people in Myanmar have been undermined by any actor, whether they are part of the military or security forces, or non-state armed groups.

How many countries agreed to create the Fact-Finding Mission? 

The Human Rights Council resolution was drafted by the European Union, garnered 43 co-sponsors and had broad support from diverse UN regions. No country opposed the resolution when it was considered by the whole 47-member UN Human Rights Council. In recognition of the broad consensus behind the measure, the Council adopted the resolution without a vote. Myanmar and several other countries – the Philippines, India, China, and Venezuela – dissociated themselves from the resolution. While Japan did not support the creation of the Fact-Finding Mission, it nonetheless welcomed the adoption of the resolution by consensus and expressed regret that Myanmar had dissociated itself from that consensus. At the Human Rights Council, in cases where all countries agree in principle to a consensus adoption of a resolution, some choose to separate themselves from that broad agreement. Myanmar’s dissociation does not preclude it from respecting the decision of the Council and cooperating with the Fact-Finding Mission, and the Council resolution itself encourages the government of Myanmar to “cooperate fully” with the mission.

Why are international investigators needed in Myanmar? 

National or domestic investigations into alleged crimes committed by the state security forces, especially in the context of recent operations in Rakhine State, will lack credibility, independence and rigor. Human Rights Watch and others identified problems with recent national inquiries led by Myanmar's vice-president and the military, including poor investigation methodology, compromised leadership and bias of commissioners in the domestic inquiries, a history of security forces’ aversion to accountability, and a tendency for covering up rights abuses.

Have domestic investigations helped uncover the truth?

Recent Burmese government-run inquiries have not only lacked credibility, but they have put victims and witnesses to serious offenses at risk. The Burmese military published its findings into alleged crimes committed by its troops, and ignored the voluminous third-party evidence of serious human rights violations, including satellite imagery of burned villages and first-hand accounts of rape and torture. The military concluded that it was only able to find evidence of a motorbike theft and some beating of a few villagers.

The government’s other investigative body, a commission led by first vice-president Gen. U Myint Swe, only issued an interim report in January 2017. Myint Swe’s commission used methods that produced incomplete, inaccurate, and false information. Burmese investigators badgered villagers, argued with them, told them not to say things, accused them of lying, and interviewed victims – including rape survivors – in large groups where confidentiality was not provided. Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, raised concerns about the commission’s methodology in her report to the Human Rights Council, saying that the Burmese government had not met its obligation to investigate the abuses. The commission has made no further conclusions, and has yet to issue a final report.

Myanmar’s state counsellor and de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has set up an “Information Committee” that has publicly accused members of the Rohingya community of fabricating accounts of sexual and gender based violence, labelling alleged cases reported to international journalists and Human Rights Watch as cases of “fake rape.”

Given the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Commission, is an international Fact-Finding Mission still needed?

The international inquiry is complementary to the Rakhine Commission and is crucial for accountability efforts. Although the Burmese government contends that the Rakhine Commission, created a year ago, makes a UN-led inquiry unnecessary, that is not the case. When asked about the Annan Commission, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman told the media: “The [Annan] commission is serving as a shield for us. Was it not for Kofi Annan commission, the allegations would be much worse, I think.” The Rakhine Commission is mandated to look at root causes of conflict in Rakhine State. It does not have a mandate to investigate human rights abuses, nor will it address questions of justice and accountability. Additionally, the Fact-Finding Mission has a mandate to work beyond Rakhine State and address rights abuses in other parts of the country, including conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin States.

Will the Fact-Finding Mission only investigate alleged abuses by government forces?

The Fact-Finding Mission has a broad mandate that is not limited to violations by government forces. The Human Rights Council resolution specifically asks the experts to look at violations of international law by government military and security forces, but also asks the mission to examine recent allegations of abuses more broadly, which would include acts by non-state armed groups and private sector companies.

Will the Fact-Finding Mission only examine the situation in Rakhine State?

The Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate is not confined to Rakhine State. So, although the resolution directs the experts’ mission to look at Rakhine state “in particular,” it also gives the team a mandate to consider all “recent” allegations of human rights violations and abuses across the country. The mission’s three experts should also consider violations committed by government security forces in Shan and Kachin state, as well as recent abuses by non-state actors in those areas. The mission is also not restricted to conflict-affected areas of the country and is free to look at other issues of concern as well.

Who are the three experts on the Fact-Finding Mission?

As appointed by the president of the Human Rights Council, the mission is headed by Indonesian human rights expert Marzuki Darusman, and includes Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy, and Australian human rights lawyer Christopher Sidoti.

When will the Fact-Finding Mission begin its work and when is it expected to report its findings?

The Fact-Finding Mission will begin its work in August 2017. It is due to give an oral update of its findings at the Human Rights Council’s 36th session in September 2017 and present its findings in full at the Council’s 37th session in March 2018.

Has the Myanmar government officially denied the three UN experts visas to the country?

The government has indicated it will deny the experts visas but to date it has not done so. Aung San Suu Kyi has made her opposition to this Fact-Finding Mission clear during recent trips to Brussels and Stockholm. Kyaw Tin, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, told parliament on June 30 that, “We will order Myanmar embassies not to grant any visa to UN fact finding mission members.” Similarly, Kyaw Zeya, the Foreign Ministry’s permanent secretary told Reuters, “if they are going to send someone with regards to the fact-finding mission, then there’s no reason for us to let them come.” Zeya also told Reuters that visas would not be issued to members of the mission or those staffing the effort.

In July, Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, reported that she was asked to assure the Myanmar government that she would “not undertake any activities that are to do with the Fact-Finding Mission while conducting” her visit to the country. She described this request as “an affront to the independence of my mandate as Special Rapporteur.”

Isn’t the Myanmar military responsible for most of the abuses reported, and not the civilian-led government?

The government as a whole is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Myanmar meets its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, even when the violations are committed by members of the armed forces or other state security forces. This is true regardless of the constitutional division of authority between military and civilian leaders and lawmakers. The government’s obligations include facilitating the implementation of the Human Rights Council resolution to send a Fact-Finding Mission to the country. 

Has the Burmese government been cooperating with other UN human rights initiatives in the country?

The government has largely cooperated with the Human Rights Council-mandated special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who made her sixth information-gathering trip to the country from July 10 to 21, 2017. She visited conflict-affected Rakhine, Shan and Karen states but was denied access to some parts of Shan state. In her end-of-mission report, Lee noted that individuals who met with her on the mission “continue to face intimidation, including being photographed, questioned before and after meetings and in one case even followed.” Lee further said that the request for assurance that she would not conduct any activities related to the Fact-Finding Mission was “an affront to the independence of [her] mandate as Special Rapporteur."

Following Lee’s July 2017 end-of-mission report, both the State Counsellor’s office, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the lower house of Myanmar’s parliamentissued a statement and declaration, respectively, denouncing her findings.

Many other UN agencies are able to operate in the country to deliver humanitarian aid and help implement development programming. However, the current government has not allowed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish an office in the country. The OHCHR’s limited access to the country compelled it to send researchers to Bangladesh earlier this year to gather information from refugees fleeing Rakhine State.

Have other countries completely rejected UN-organized international investigations?

Only a handful of pariah countries – notably Syria, Eritrea, North Korea and Burundi – have completely denied UN investigators access to their country. Other countries that had initial reservations, including Sri Lanka, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eventually cooperated with similar investigations authorized by the Council. If the democratically elected government of Myanmar wants to avoid being linked with the rights-rejecting governments that have barred international investigations, it should change course. 

Even if barred from the country, the Fact-Finding Mission will still be able to carry out its investigation by relying on remote research methodology that allows them to collect testimonies without meeting witnesses in person. This was the case with banned international missions to

Syria, Eritrea, North Korea and Burundi. The 1998 report of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Commission of Inquiry to investigate Myanmar’s breaches of ILO Convention No. 29 on forced labor – over the objections of the military government – still stands as one of the most detailed and incisive human rights-related investigations on Myanmar even though they had no access to the country.

Is Myanmar’s political transition too sensitive to be pressing on justice and accountability right now?

The Burmese military has long avoided any accountability for its widespread and serious abuses – and the country’s failure to address them has not brought the abuses to an end. Human Rights Watch's years of reporting in conflict areas around the world has found that justice can yield short and long-term benefits to achieving sustainable peace. Continuing abuses and impunity often are insuperable barriers to ending a conflict. In contrast, international commissions of inquiry with very similar mandates in Liberia and Bosnia and Herzegovina had a long-term positive effect on peacebuilding in those countries.

Will Myanmar let the Fact-Finding Mission into the country?

A UN spokesman told the media in late June that he still hoped the Fact-Finding Mission would “be facilitated by the government through unfettered access to the affected areas.” He added that the three mission members would try to “reach out to and engage constructively with the government” to seek entry into the country. Hopefully, the Myanmar government will recognize that it is in its own interests to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission. By doing so, the government would be demonstrating its willingness to uphold the rule of law, work collaboratively with the international community to establish the facts, help identify perpetrators of serious crimes, and deter future crimes by all parties to Myanmar’s armed conflicts.

Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman who was granted citizenship in 2014, shows her ‘pink card’ at her house in Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. (Antolín Avezuela Aristu)

By Anton Avezuela & Carlos Sardina Galache
July 24, 2017

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” says Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myebon Town, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Daw Gulban has been confined to the camp since a wave of sectarian violence began in 2012. Like the overwhelming majority of Rohingya, Daw Gulban was stateless for decades, but unlike most of them, she gained her citizenship three years ago as part of a pilot program in her township.

To qualify for citizenship, Rohingya applicants had to renounce their identity and accept being labelled as ‘Bengalis’ on all official documents. They also had to prove that they could trace the presence of their family in Rakhine back three generations, something which is extremely difficult as many Rohingya lack documents or had lost them in 2012.

Daw Gulban was one of the lucky ones: she could produce the necessary papers. “I heard the word ‘Rohingya’ from my parents when I was a child, but it’s not accepted by the immigration department. They laughed at me and told me to go when I said it once in their office. Bengali means we are from Bangladesh. I am from Burma, but I’m willing to accept [this term] if I can get citizenship and rights,” she explains.

Rohingya Muslims comprise one million out of the 53 million people that live in Myanmar, forming the world’s largest stateless population in a single country. Almost universally reviled by the country’s Buddhist majority, they have been oppressed by the government since the late 1970s when the government launched a campaign to identify ‘illegal immigrants’. Serious abuses were committed, forcing as many as 250,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya ethnicity is not included in the list of 135 officially recognised ‘national races’ adopted in the late 1980s by the government. Rohingyas are labelled ‘Bengalis’ instead, implying that they are interlopers from Bangladesh despite their deep roots in Rakhine State, where most of the community lives.

The Myebon River in Myanmar, on the shores of which the town of Myebon lies. 12 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2012, a year after the government launched a process of democratic transition from five decades of military dictatorship, successive waves of sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine majority and Muslim Rohingya engulfed Rakhine State. Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence and, since then, 140,000 people have been forced to live in squalid camps, many along the Myebon River.

Bananda Phyabawga, abbot of the Pyanabakeman Buddhist Monastery, in Myebon, poses while surrounded by a group of local monks. Myebon, Myanmar, 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

Some local Rakhine and national politicians, influential Buddhist monks, civil society leaders and the government itself have all been stoking fears about a Muslim invasion of this deeply religious Buddhist-majority country for decades, resulting in sporadic bouts of sectarian violence and the progressive disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other Muslim populations in the country. The violence in 2012 was the worst in years and the situation of the Rohingya has worsened markedly ever since.

“Muslims try to impose their religion on others, so we need to handle this threat,” says Bananda Phyabawga, the abbot of a local monastery.

Maung Zaw shows the ‘pink card’ he received in 2014 in Taung Paw Camp, Myebon. 13 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2014, the government launched a pilot program to verify the citizenship of the Rohingya. The verification process was mostly carried out in the township of Myebon, where almost 3,000 Muslims had been confined in a camp since October 2012.

The program was carried out by application of the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, which establishes three layers of citizenship and makes belonging to one of Myanmar’s ‘national races’ the primary (although not the sole) criterion of full citizenship.

The way ethnic labels are applied may sometimes be arbitrary. Maung Zaw, a 45 year-old intern at the camp was branded ‘Bengali’ on the pink citizenship card he attained in 2014 but his family documents show that he belongs to the Kaman minority, a Muslim ethnic group officially recognised as one of the 135 so-called ‘national races’ in the country.

Daw Khin Thein, chair of the local chapter of the Rakhine Women’s Network, in her gold shop in Myebon. 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

The citizenship verification process was met with strong resistance from the local Rakhine population. Organisations such as the Rakhine Women’s Network staged demonstrations in the town against the move and have mobilised to prevent the provision of services to the Rohingya living in the camp.

The local leader of the Rakhine Women’s Network, Daw Khin Thein, has led these demonstrations. “This conflict is not about citizenship, but about the Muslims trying to invade our land. That’s the real problem,” she says.

Taung Paw Camp, in the outskirts of Myebon Town. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

U Tin Shwe, the general administrator of Myebon Township, was in charge of the local pilot program in 2014, which lasted for a few months. “Virtually all Muslims applied for citizenship, and none of them used the word ‘Rohingya’. They don’t use that word here. We eventually gave full citizenship to 97 people, and naturalised citizenship to 969 of them,” he explains to Equal Times in his office.

Several Muslim citizens interviewed by Equal Times asserted that permits are extremely difficult to get and they have to pay exorbitant bribes to the police to attain them. They also claim that their lives have changed very little since they were recognised as citizens. Those still confined in IDP camps have little access to education or healthcare. The local population refuses to allow them access to such services and the authorities do little to protect them. To move outside the camp, they need special permits and protection from the security forces, which comes at a price that few can afford.

“The 1982 Citizenship Law recognised as citizens those who were already recorded as such, regardless of how they were identified racially or religiously. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the government launched a process of re-registration, taking old ID cards to re-issue new ones, Muslims in Rakhine State were not issued with new cards even when they were legally entitled to them,” explains Nick Cheesman, a Myanmar legal expert at the Australian National University.

A group of Muslim women carry water at Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

“The problem in contemporary Burma is that the notion of national races surpasses that of citizenship, both legally and ideologically. The 1982 Citizenship Law may recognise that members of non-national races who held citizenship previously would keep it, but it set as the gold standard for citizenship to be a member of one of the national races,” Cheesman adds.

An ethnic Bamar from central Myanmar, Tin Shwe blamed the local Rakhine population for the restrictions of movement imposed on Muslims. “When the program was implemented, it met with strong protests from the indigenous community. I tried to explain the law to them, but it’s difficult for the government, because we found ourselves between both communities,” he explains. Beyond the apparent divergences between Rakhine nationalists and government officials like Tin Shwe, all of them seem to agree on the idea that the Rohingya are not “natural citizens” of Myanmar. Citizens or not, the Rohingya are still seen as foreigners in the only land they have ever known.

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” she says. “I don’t know what human rights are. I just know I would like to have food at my table, freedom of movement, education for my children, access to healthcare and for my family to live without fear,” she adds.

A camp in Pawktaw, Myanmar, for Rohingya displaced by violence in 2012. CREDIT: Sara Perria/IRIN

By Poppy McPherson
July 17, 2017

When Tomás Ojea Quintana made his last visit to Myanmar as UN human rights envoy in 2014, the head of the UN country mission picked him up at the airport. In the car, Quintana mentioned travelling to Rakhine State, where tensions still simmered after hundreds of people were killed in violence between Buddhists and Muslims two years earlier.

To his surprise, UN resident coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien advised against it.
“She suggested to me not to visit Rakhine State, offering no reasons why I shouldn’t go there,” Quintana told IRIN in a recent interview. “And then she tried not to be associated with any human rights approach to the situation.”

Lok-Dessallien’s advice at the time sums up a schism that has plagued the UN in Myanmar throughout her tenure, and has contributed to a divided and “glaringly dysfunctional” mission, according to internal UN documents provided to IRIN.

While Lok-Dessallien leads the camp that advocates working with the government and focusing on development as a solution to Myanmar’s problems, others argue that the government has done little to address many human rights issues – most significantly those affecting minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims – and they say the UN needs to stand up to the government.

The UN recently said that Lok-Dessallien will be rotated out of Myanmar, even though she is only three and a half years into a term that usually runs for five years or more. But the UN denied reports she was being fired due to her performance, announcing instead the “elevation” of her position to that of an assistant secretary-general. 

Interviews with former and current UN staff, as well as reviews of two internal documents, indicate that the new UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has decided to change the leadership structure to allow the Myanmar mission to put forward a more united front – a position that would take into account both development and human rights concerns.

A spokesperson for the office of resident coordinator Lok-Dessallien said she had “provided full support” to Quintana’s visit and added: “We have prioritised human rights as well as the other pillars of the United Nations, namely peace and security, development and humanitarian assistance.”

Former and current UN staff members disputed that, and internal reports documented dissension within the UN mission over its failure to stand up for human rights.

“It’s no secret that Renata was prioritising the development side, to the frustration of individuals within agencies whose mandate is humanitarian protection,” said one former UN staffer who requested anonymity.

Development vs human rights

In recent years, friction and antipathy within the UN team have been something of an open secret in Myanmar. Humanitarians, who see rights abuses at the root of crises that involve displacement, hunger, violence, and statelessness want to raise the alarm, according to several insider sources. They voice resentment about development people who keep quiet for the sake of relationships with the government, which they have to work with to improve people’s lives. Each thinks the other is morally bankrupt, naive, or both.

At the heart of much of the infighting has been the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine, a state on the western border with Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship, live under virtual apartheid, and have been interned in displacement camps in their tens of thousands since 2012. Rohingya accounted for the vast majority of those who were killed or were chased from their homes during violence that year involving majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

During the more than three years that Lok-Dessallien has been at the helm of the Myanmar team, she has favoured a passive approach. Others – especially as the situation for the Rohingya drastically worsened – have urged action and accountability.

Tensions between UN agencies that focus on development, and those that focus on human rights and humanitarian crises – such as the human rights agency, OHCHR, and the emergency aid coordination body, OCHA – have grown so bitter that the UN mission was condemned to “irrelevance” in a memo sent to Guterres.

Under the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, these divisions went unresolved, insiders say. Lok-Dessallien, until early this year, had a strong ally in her boss Helen Clark, the former head of the United Nations Development Programme.

Senior officials have now opted for a radical restructuring of the Myanmar country team that would remove Lok-Dessallien and replace her with someone with more political clout. Whoever fills the new position of assistant secretary-general will report directly to Guterres.

The leaked documents and interviews with current and former UN staffers, describe a country team that became so internally fractured, specifically but not exclusively over the crisis in Rakhine State, that a major shake-up was deemed necessary.

‘Growing irrelevance’

“The United Nations in-country presence in Myanmar continues to be glaringly dysfunctional,” stated an April 2017 memo sent to Guterres. “Strong tensions exist within the UN country team, the humanitarian parts of the UN system find itself having to confront the hostility of the development arm, while the human rights pillar is seen as complicating both.

“The impact of this dysfunctionality is a growing irrelevance of the UN in guiding and defining the international community’s efforts to address the challenges confronting Myanmar,” it continued, adding that donors were turning elsewhere.

The memo put the dysfunctionality down, in part, to structural problems. The role of resident-coordinator is inherently flawed, it argued: he or she does not report directly to the UN secretary-general’s office but to the UNDP, and is therefore more focused on development than politics.

“Unfortunately, the position of coordinator of the UN’s development efforts lacks the mandate, the capacity, the expertise and thus the credibility to be taken seriously as a political player,” it said.

Lok-Dessallien’s defenders stress that any resident-coordinator has a complex job, tasked with overseeing the work of numerous agencies, each with different mandates. But she was also widely described as unapologetic in the exclusion of politics from her work.

A confidential 2015 report commissioned for OHCHR described a culture of secrecy where agencies refused to share crucial information with each other, let alone make it available to the public. The report accused Myanmar’s UN team of excessive subservience to the government, and recommended the team take a stronger public stance on rights.

“Myanmar as a state has plenty of capacity to resolve the situation in Rakhine, but it is not choosing to do so,” said the internal report. “Addressing this problem of political will requires a combination of private and public advocacy.”

Human Rights Up Front

Within the UN’s recent history lies a cautionary tale about dealing with these kinds of tensions.

During the bloody final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, as the army closed in on the rebel Tamil Tigers, there were 300,000 civilians trapped between the front lines. Tens of thousands of them were killed. But the UN declined to publish mounting casualty numbers and staff members who brought up threats to civilians were punished.

An internal probe commissioned afterwards by Ban, then UN secretary-general, found a “continued reluctance” among UN staff “to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist”.

The report for OHCHR on Myanmar drew parallels to Sri Lanka. It noted that the approximately 100,000 Rohingya now living in camps are referred to as internally displaced people, or IDPs. But rather than IDP camps, the squalid clusters of monsoon-battered shelters “would more accurately be described as detention camps or internment camps, because the privations and restrictions of movement imposed on the Rohingya are so extreme.”

“The situation bears a striking resemblance to the humanitarian community’s systematic failure in the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka, during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils were held against their will in internment camps that were fully paid for and serviced by international humanitarian institutions,” said the report.

After the tragedy in Sri Lanka, Ban created an initiative intended to prevent such a situation from arising again, called Human Rights Up Front.

The author of that initiative, former UN assistant secretary-general Charles Petrie, who led the Sri Lanka internal probe, told IRIN the way the policy has been implemented in Myanmar has been “very confused” and demonstrates “a poor understanding of what Rights Up Front is all about”.

“Right now what you have is one group of human rights [advocates] and humanitarians who believe the UN should play a much more forceful role, and you have the development advocates who consider it a pain,” he said. “In actual fact you need to find something that’s a bit more common ground.”

The spokesperson for Lok-Dessallien’s office said the Human Rights Up Front policy has been rolled out across all UN agencies in Myanmar and “its implementation by the resident coordinator and the UN country team has been praised by the UN headquarters in New York.”

New strategy

Whatever its approach, the UN has little to show for its efforts in Rakhine.

In the more than 20 years the organisation has been in the northern part of the state, conditions have never been worse. Thousands of Rohingya have been brought to the brink of starvation. The World Food Programme said this month that it expects about 80,500 children to need treatment for acute malnutrition this year in Rohingya-majority areas where the government and military have blocked access to aid groups. 

Security forces began carrying out counter-insurgency operations in those areas last October, following deadly attacks on border police posts by a new group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Rights organisations have compiled evidence of military abuses of Rohingya civilians – including mass rapes, killings, and torture – which OHCHR said in a February report were “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity”. 

The dramatic escalation of violence in Rakhine State likely caught Lok-Dessallien offguard, said Quintana, the former human rights envoy to Myanmar. While she continued to favour a development-led approach, her colleagues at OHCHR were issuing strongly-worded statements and reports critical of the government and the military.

“It seems that, in the country, what is required is at least a common strategy,” he said.

Recent statements from UN headquarters in New York indicate that change is afoot.

In a 5 July speech, Guterres laid out plans for reform of the resident coordinator position throughout the UN. He said the “consultations and analysis” done by his office indicated the role should report directly to the secretary-general and not to UNDP.

Myanmar may serve as the test case.

By Paul Gregoire
July 7, 2017

At around 3.30pm on June 26, a group of seven people were arrested by Myanmar authorities at a military checkpoint in the country’s conflict-ridden northern Shan state. Three local journalists were among the group who were detained in Namhsan township in the north of the region.

Democratic Voice of Burma reporters Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing were arrested, along with the Irrawaddy’s Thein Zaw, also known as Lawi Weng. The journalists were returning from a drug burning ceremony marking the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

The event had been organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of more than a dozen armed ethnic minority groups that have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s armed forces – for decades now.

The TNLA were not one of the eight armed groups that were a signatory to the October 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. However, the group did attend the second round of the Panglong Peace Conference held in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw in May this year.

Modern laws silenced by relics of the past

After initially being held at an undisclosed location for three days, the journalists are now being detained in Hsipaw prison and have since been charged under colonial-era security laws, that the Myanmar government still routinely uses, despite international pressure to cease doing so.

Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act provides that anyone who’s a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings with or contributes to such an association, “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term” of up to three years.

The arrest of the reporters seems at odds with Myanmar’s News Media Law, according to Human Rights Watch. Enacted in June 2015, section 7(a) of the law provides that a journalist “shall be exempt from being detained” by security forces “where wars break out and conflicts… take place.”

Volatile border regions

Conflict has been escalating over recent years in the north of Shan state. The fighting involves a myriad of ethnic minority groups and government security forces.

All of the armed groups are involved in the profitable local drug trade. Along with being a major opium producer, Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamine in the world.

Meth pills are widely produced in the northern border regions of the country. These drugs are relatively cheap and readily available across Asia. The pills – popularly known as yaba – contain a concoction of crystal meth and caffeine.

Research carried out by Amnesty International outlines that since late 2016 the Myanmar security forces have been carrying out torture and extrajudicial killings in the region. While groups like the TNLA have been documented abducting civilians and imposing “taxes” on villages.

Amnesty International Australia’s Crisis Campaign Coordinator Diana Sayed has called on the Australian government to demand that Myanmar authorities end restrictions on humanitarian access into these areas, and bring a halt to the ongoing human rights violations in the region.

A crackdown on reporters

The three journalists currently being detained are not the first to have been silenced over recent months. In late October last year, journalist Fiona MacGregor was sacked by the English-language Myanmar Times for reporting on alleged rapes perpetrated by government security forces.

An article by MacGregor was published on October 27 about the alleged rapes of up to 30 Rohinygawomen in the north eastern state of Rakhine. At that time, the region was in lockdown, as Myanmar armed forces were carrying out a counterinsurgency operation in Maungdaw township.

The journalist said the paper had informed her that she’d “breached company policy by damaging national reconciliation.” And some of the senior staff at the paper led her to believe that the government had put the pressure on to dismiss her.

The silent Nobel laureate

Press freedoms in Myanmar are still uncertain after the nation recently emerged from decades of military rule. Despite the National League for Democracy party winning the country’s first free elections in 25 years in November 2015, the military still maintain key government positions.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now Myanmar state counsellor, which is the de facto head of state. However, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been criticised for her slow approach to condemn the current detention of the three journalists, as well as a number of other infringements on media freedom.

Ms Suu Kyi has also come under widespread international criticism for her initial lack of response, and then for her approach, to the escalating violence that was unravelling in the state of Rakhine in October last year.

A question of genocide

Sectarian riots broke out in Rakhine state in June 2012, as extreme factions of the Rakhine Buddhist population began violently attacking and burning down villages of the Rohingya Muslim minority. This drove an estimated 120,000 Rohingya into internally displaced people camps that line the Bay of Bengal.

In October last year, Myanmar forces launched sweeps in the north of the state, after members of an alleged militant group known as Harakah al-Yaqin attacked three police posts along the Bangladeshi border, killing nine officers.

Ms Suu Kyi said in April that the ongoing violence and persecution of the stateless Rohingya was not ethnic cleansing. And last week, the state counsellor again rejected a decision by the UN to send a fact-finding mission into the region, ordering that visas not be issued to delegates.

A stateless people

There’s an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya people living in Rakhine, making up about a third of the state’s population. However, the Myanmar government doesn’t recognise them as citizens. It refers to them as Bengalis, and classes them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The recent unrest in the state has led more than 75,000 Rohingyas to flee across the border to Bangladesh, while another 23,000 have become internally displaced within the state. And reports of systematic rape and human rights abuses carried out by the Myanmar military continue to emerge today.

Rohingya rights activist Aung Win lives in the state capital of Sittwe. He told Sydney Criminal Lawyerslast November that at time the government couldn’t find any terrorists, so they were arbitrarily “arresting people and burning houses.”

But if the authorities continue on causing the Rohingya people so much “frustration and depression,” Mr Win warned, it could actually lead to the establishment of some form of militant group.

A homeless Rohingya female is wandering with her orphan child in a temporary refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, on May 11, 2017.  Sushavan Nandy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

By Steve Shaw
The World Weekly
June 18, 2017

The Muslim Rohingyas of Myanmar is one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s role deserves more attention, argues journalist Steve Shaw. 

When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years, it was hailed as a landmark result and a huge step towards democracy. The NLD’s 2015 victory was expected to bring sweeping changes to a country that had suffered through decades of civil war and human rights abuses under a military government.

But two major uncertainties loomed over the party and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader. First, questions were quickly raised over how the new government could bring peace and stability while the military continued to operate in a political role. Second, it was unclear where the new government stood with regards to the minority Rohingya population, dubbed the most persecuted ethnic group in the world by the UN.

Both of these uncertainties were put to the test when a small Islamist militant group known as Harakah al-Yaqin in October 2016 attacked police outposts in the Rohingya-majority Rakhine State, near Myanmar’s northwestern border with Bangladesh, killing several policemen.

Instead of launching an investigation into the attacks, a ‘clearance operation’ was launched in Rakhine state and security forces, led by the military, were deployed. Human rights groups, aid agencies and journalists were all shut out from Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.

In the months that followed, Rohingya people began fleeing to Bangladesh in their thousands, each of them arriving with their own harrowing story of violence, atrocities, rape. A senior UN official told the BBC at the time that Myanmar appeared to be, “seeking the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority from its territory”.

“The situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse for the Rohingya in the north,” Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights Group, told The New Republic. “We were talking with a group of people today, conducting interviews. In a group of nine or 10, every single one had witnessed family members being killed, every single one coming from different villages.”

The world soon looked to Aung San Suu Kyi but Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader kept quiet even after more than a dozen of her fellow Nobel Laureates published an open letter warning that “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” were being perpetrated.

The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable - what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother's milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her.” 

 - Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein , UN high commissioner for human rights

Until today nearly 75,000 people from the persecuted minority have fled to Bangladesh but authorities are planning to relocate them to an island which is almost completely uninhabitable as regular flooding makes it impossible to grow crops or vegetation. In the meantime, the refugees are living in squalid conditions in camps where they are at risk of further abuses, such as child labour, sexual abuse and trafficking.

A history of persecution 

Ms. Suu Kyi has chosen to reject a decision by the UN’s human rights council to investigate the allegations of crimes in Rakhine State, saying she did not agree with the allegations.

“Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military or security services so in that regard is not responsible for the latest round of human rights violations which began in October,” says Mark Farmaner of the UK rights group Burma UK. “But she does have moral authority and could have used that to bring domestc and international pressure to bear on the military to halt their abuses.”

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech at the Swedish Parliament on June 13, 2017. CHRISTINE OLSSON/AFP/Getty Images

Divisions between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority have existed in the country for many decades. Some of the most damaging measures came in the 1980s, starting with the passing of a law in 1982 which revoked the Rohingyas’ citizenship.

The government argued this was justified because the Muslim minority are illegal immigrants who only came to the country at the beginning of the British occupation of Rakhine State in 1823. Evidence points to Rohingya families settling in the region before that date.

Once they had been deemed stateless and unwanted by their own country, the government was able to remove some of their most basic civil entitlements, including the right to education, healthcare, employment and land ownership.

In 1988, the military government adopted a later leaked document known as the Rohingya Extermination Plan. In 11 points it laid out a blueprint for the persecution and eventual destruction of the Muslim population while attracting as little international attention as possible. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of the Muslim countries,” the document read.

Land grabs and geopolitics 

A civilian-led democracy has allowed the generals to become business owners with financial stakes in the domestic violence. Many of them are now linked with some of the largest businesses that exploit the country’s abundance of natural resources, including gems, industrial minerals, oil and offshore natural gas reserves.

Renowned Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen believes that business and economic development has become the new driving force behind the violence. A turning point, she says, was an outbreak of violence in Rakhine in 2012.

“The military went in and killed, but perhaps most significantly they also forced all of the Rohingya out of particular areas, off of their land and into camps,” she told The World Weekly. “And that pattern has multiplied - it is not just killing, it is removing them completely from their land and burning down the villages.” The main problem, she adds, is that the rest of the country has been over-exploited, leaving land scarce.

Illegal land seizures, or land grabs, are seen as one of the most prevalent human rights abuses against the Rohingya, as well as other ethnic groups in Myanmar. Those who refuse to leave their land when ordered may face being charged with criminal trespass and there have been accounts of entire villages being burnt to the ground as punishment.

A Rohingya girl carries a water jug in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 7, 2017. Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rakhine’s value is diplomatic as well as economic. A large section of the state was recently designated as the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone, a Chinese-Myanma joint venture that aims to increase trade and investment and create jobs.

It is estimated that nearly 40 villages and more than 200,000 people will need to be relocated for the construction of a wide range of industrial projects, including a new port, the expansion of an airport and oil refineries.

‘Ruthless power’ 

The US has fully backed the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi and in the past few years strengthened its strategic and trading relationship with Myanmar.

In September, just one month before Rakhine descended into brutal violence, then-President Barack Obama announced that he was lifting longstanding trade sanctions, a move met with numerous objections from rights groups which said it came too soon.

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, thinks sanctions have been crucial in pressing the military to end abuses and transfer power to civilians, and should not be fully lifted “until the democratic transition is irreversible”. But international pressure is likely to lessen further under President Donald Trump, who has shown little interest in advancing rights abroad.

For many though the key to ending the Rohingya plight lies closer to home.

In her 1991 essay ‘Freedom from fear’ Ms. Suu Kyi wrote: “Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

Rohingya Exodus