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Rohingya children wait for their parents to receive aid earlier this month at the Balukhali food distribution center near the town of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than 646,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. (Tracey Nearmy / EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock)

By Shashank Bengali
December 26, 2017

Myawady Sayadaw, a crimson-robed monk whose eyes dance behind round spectacles, casts himself as a genial warrior in Myanmar’s long struggle against military rule.

Inside his monastery stands a tall stone monument to students killed in pro-democracy protests. In 2007, he and tens of thousands of monks marched peacefully in streets nationwide, staring down columns of soldiers in what was dubbed the Saffron Revolution.

Today, with the military having yielded some powers to an elected government, Myawady Sayadaw peppers his sermons with references to human rights and interfaith understanding. But when it comes to Myanmar’s most explosive political issue — the army-led purging of Rohingya Muslims — the outspoken monk becomes taciturn.

“Buddha loves all people and teaches us to try to resolve suffering, but we have a duty to protect our country at the same time,” he said at his simple monastery outside the northern city of Mandalay.

“Most of the Muslims,” he went on, “are extremists.”

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, hatred for the Rohingya runs far deeper than the fears over Islamist terrorism that the army has used to justify a ruthless, four-month crackdown in the western state of Rakhine. Soldiers have killed, raped or maimed thousands of Rohingya, according to international human rights groups, and more than 640,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The antipathy toward the small Muslim minority — in a country that is 90% Buddhist — is a virulent brew of ethnic, economic and religious nationalism promulgated for decades by the military, and spread easily via social media across a population with some of the lowest education levels in Southeast Asia.

It is built fundamentally on racial differences: The Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar, are physically and culturally more similar to the peoples of Bangladesh and India than to Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority. Scholars say they descend from Arab and Persian traders who arrived in what is now western Myanmar more than 1,000 years ago.

Those differences have driven a deep wedge through this country of 50 million. Of all the monks, student activists, ethnic guerrillas and other dissidents who once opposed the army’s abuses, almost none have spoken up for the country’s most beleaguered people.

“All these democratic activists, when they talk about human rights and citizens’ rights, they have a prejudice — the Rohingya are not included,” said Thet Swe Win, director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, a Myanmar nonprofit.

“No one is on the Rohingyas’ side. That is the tragedy here.”

Myawady Sayadaw, abbot of a monastery outside Mandalay, says "most of the Muslims" expelled from Myanmar are extremists. (Shashank Bengali / Los Angeles Times)

For years, Myanmar’s army has rallied Buddhists by claiming a Muslim plot to overtake the country. It rewrote the country’s arcane citizenship laws to exclude the Rohingya, and routinely ignored hardline monks who spewed hatred toward Muslims.

The propaganda was seemingly confirmed after a small insurgent group — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA — rose up last year and began attacking Myanmar security forces. Now monks such as Myawady Sayadaw freely reconcile Buddha’s nonviolent teachings with a military offensive that some call a possible genocide.

“Once ARSA emerged, it allowed even pro-peace, pro-interfaith people in the country to write off the Rohingya as a terrorist threat, no matter how implausible that is,” said Matthew Walton, a professor and Myanmar expert at the University of Oxford.

“In this case, government officials have a very good sense of what public sentiment is, so almost no one is going to object to something nasty about the Rohingya.”

There was little outcry in October after one of the country’s most influential monks, Sitagu Sayadaw, gave a speech at a military base in which he appeared to justify ethnic cleansing. He invoked a parable about an ancient Sri Lankan king who was advised not to grieve for the many Hindus he killed in battle because non-Buddhists were not human beings.

Myawady Sayadaw said his fellow clergyman’s words were “dangerous.” But in the next breath he accused the international media of exaggerating the violence against the Rohingya.

“Outsiders shouldn’t blame our country so easily,” he said. “We need to search for the truth in Rakhine state. I don’t believe the media reports, and our people don’t believe them either.”

Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque, seated at right, and his Myanmar counterpart U Myint Thu reaffirm their commitment on Dec. 19 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to begin repatriating Rohingya in January despite rights groups warning that their safety is still not assured. (Sam Jahan / AFP/Getty Images)

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent years under house arrest and now heads the civilian government, has been pilloried internationally for defending the military, but remains Myanmar’s most popular politician.

Of the dozens of ethnic minority groups that long battled the army for greater rights, only one — a women’s organization representing ethnic Karen, many of whom are Christians — has issued a statement condemning the military’s campaign against the Rohingya.

As one of the few Myanmar activists to champion the Rohingya cause, Thet Swe Win, 31, has come under attack on social media. Nationalist groups have labeled him “a maggot” and accused him of taking bribes from Muslim countries.

His mother said she couldn’t support his work. Friends have deserted him.

“Most of the people inside Burma, all the information they get is from government propaganda and from nationalist groups,” he said. “So this is how most Burmese people believe that those Rohingya are not from our country.”

When the army took power in 1962, it began pushing the narrative that the Rohingya had been brought into Myanmar illegally by British colonial rulers, who used laborers from present-day India and Bangladesh to build roads and infrastructure. The generals created an educational system that inculcated bigotry in generations of schoolchildren.

One Rohingya, Wakar Uddin, remembers such lessons from his days as a sixth-grader in Rakhine in the late 1960s. His class read a story that described Indians as filthy street-sweepers with monstrous features; Uddin recalled liberal use of the slur kalar — used to describe dark-skinned people — and that when the teacher read from the book, Buddhist students laughed and applauded.

“That book was poison,” said Uddin, a biology professor at Penn State who directs the Arakan Rohingya Union, an advocacy group.

“Over 50 or 60 years, the army provided fertile ground for hate, and putting that into the mind of a third- or fourth-grader brings you the results we are seeing today,” he said.

Rohingya refugees on the move near the Bangladesh and Myanmar border in October. (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP/Getty Images)

Even as the Myanmar government and Bangladesh pursue a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees starting in January, the state-supported climate of hate makes it all but impossible to imagine that many could return.

“If we were Buddhists, the whole Bamar majority would take our side. But we are Muslims,” said Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist who fled Myanmar 16 years ago and now lives in Germany. “They don’t want this population in the country. This is the national policy.”

Public officials can say just about anything about Rohingya without fear of it diminishing their stature. In 2009, Myanmar’s consul general in Hong Kong wrote a letter to foreign diplomats calling the Rohingya “ugly as ogres” with “dark brown skin.” (By contrast, he said, his own skin was “fair and soft … and good looking as well.”) The remark did not hurt his career; the military government later appointed him ambassador to Switzerland.

This year, when a Rakhine state lawmaker was asked by a BBC journalist about soldiers sexually assaulting Rohingya women, he giggled. Soldiers could not have committed mass rapes, he explained, because Rohingya women were “very dirty.”

A Rohingya reporter photographs a man allegedly shot by security forces in Rakhine. Photo: Noor Hossain/Rohingya Mobile Reporters

By Maliha Khan
December 9, 2017

How Rohingya citizen journalists have been documenting the crisis over the years and what's changed now

For years now, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar has been broadcast to the world largely through volunteers who use smartphones to send photos, audio and video clips out to the Rohingya diaspora, larger Muslim community and the world. In the camps in the south of Bangladesh, refugees show images and videos of scenes of violence back home on their phones. Members of these WhatsApp or Facebook groups include the Rohingya diaspora in countries as wide-ranging as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK.

Rakhine state has been “closed” to the outside world with the government restricting access to the region to independent observers, journalists, rights groups, and the UN. “Due to the denial of access to the region, it is essentially impossible to get information,” says Rohingya refugee Mohammed Rafique, founder of The Stateless, a Rohingya community news portal.

What little has come out has been through social media, community outlets, and blogs. Two prominent sources of news online include the Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless.

Nay San Lwin, based in Germany, runs the Rohingya Blogger. The blog has become an important news media outlet for documenting human rights abuses against the Rohingya as well as featuring major international articles doing the same. Lwin's father, U Ba Sein, founded the website in 2005 and Lwin himself has been blogging since 2012. “We have gathered a great deal of evidence which arguably amount to show genocide has occurred against the Rohingya,” stated Lwin recently at a conference organised by the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU) in Dhaka.

The year 2012 marked deadly riots between Buddhists and the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine, with allegations that the subsequently deployed military committed human rights abuses in Rohingya villages. As the national media largely ignored the violence, Rohingya community leaders and members of the diaspora set up their own media outlets to document and report on atrocities being committed in the state.

It was at this time that both Rohingya Blogger and The Stateless came into being. Lwin formed a team of volunteers based in northern Rakhine state. His team members keep tabs on all the villages in the area to document actions of the Border Guard Police (BGP), military and civilian authorities against the Rohingya.

“We also have volunteers in central Rakhine state who are reporting about the situation of refugee camps,” says Lwin. Around 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya have been interned in camps across Rakhine State since 2012 with the government restricting the UN and aid groups from distributing vital food aid or providing healthcare services.

Rohingya Blogger also has volunteers this side of the border, who have covered several incidents in the camps. They do not have problems recruiting, says Lwin, because they are well-known and many are willing to cooperate for the sake of getting information of their plight out to the world. 

The Rohingya Blogger team works discreetly, even among the villagers who are their sources. They are also anonymous online as they could all be sentenced to long imprisonment for their activities, says Lwin.

“Two of our team members were arrested two years ago but they managed to get released by themselves. We didn't publicise that they were our members as they would have been sentenced to imprisonment for their work. Some non-members who sent reports to us were arrested as well and four people from Buthidaung township have been sentenced for six years,” says Lwin.

Mobile phones have been available in the villages of Rakhine state only since 2014. Even without, says Lwin, his sources are tenacious. Lwin says of his experiences over the years, “I used to receive handwritten information. They know how to send information and they know how to reach me. I have even received handwritten reports from prison cells.”

What's changed in 2017? For one, half of Lwin's team is now in Bangladesh, having fled there since the most recent spate of violence August onwards. The rest of the volunteers remain in their villages but mobility is no longer an option. Many of their contacts, too, have fled across the border. This has led to a change in focus for the blog. “As the atrocities against the Rohingya are mostly known to the world by now, we are shifting our attention to writing news updates in Burmese to better inform Burmese Buddhists,” says Lwin.

Lwin and his news site have come under attack by the government. An article published in January of this year was dismissed by the Information Committee of the State Counsellor's Office as “fabricated”. “Our work has been publicly attacked by the government and the military. The official Facebook page of the Office of the President has attempted to attack and discredit us. They claim that our evidence and reporting was fake news,” stated Lwin at the RMMRU conference.

The Stateless is also run by a member of the Rohingya diaspora, based in Ireland. This, too, is run with the help of volunteers based within Rakhine State who operate with no pay and undertaking enormous risk.

A Rohingya mobile reporter takes photos and video footage of a burning village in Rakhine state.

Mobile journalism has been crucial for the persecuted Rohingya to get information out, using social media groups in WhatsApp and WeChat among others.“We normally go through a process in the groups to verify the authenticity of information by confirming with other members and video or imagery evidence. Then we proceed in writing the report,” says Rafique.

Recently, there have been reports of journalists documenting the Rohingya crisis going missing, targeted by the military. Since October 9 of last year, nine out of 10 of their mobile journalists have either disappeared or been killed, reports Rafique.

Since August 25 of this year, hundreds of villages have been entirely destroyed by the military with over 600,000 having sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. The Stateless is currently starved of information with no sources left in the villages of Rakhine, says Rafique. This draught of information also has repercussions for human rights activists and international media outlets which depend on community sources in the otherwise “closed” state for information from inside.

Burmese journalists have not been spared, even on this side of the border. In September, Minzayar Oo and Hkun Lat, two photojournalists from Myanmar, were detained for almost 10 days. According to Bangladesh police, they were arrested for conducting their journalist work while on tourist visas. Ironic, considering that the rest of the world's journalists have been going about their work in Cox's Bazar without the threat of arrest.

The international media have finally taken a sustained interest in the matter due to the influx of over a million refugees into Bangladesh over the last year. But the work of these Rohingya mobile journalists remains as important as ever. With Rakhine still closed to the outside world, information from the epicenter of the crisis is vital to the fight of the Rohingya both inside and outside Myanmar.

Maung Zarni poses with a Rohingya gentleman and a former leader in the Ruling Burma Socialist Party.

By Matthew Gindin 
November 28, 2017

Burmese Buddhist and pro-democracy activist Maung Zarni recounts two days he spent in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in early November.

"A young boy showed me his gunshot wound,” Maung Zarni tells me over the telephone. “Everyone had lost a loved one.”

Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and academic, recently came back from spending two days in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in early November, where he met with about two dozen survivors of the ethnic cleansing campaign against them by the Myanmar government. It is a campaign some are calling genocide. “I call them survivors, not displaced persons or refugees,” Zarni says.

The horrors Zarni heard of there have been thoroughly documented by others. According to an interview that researcher Skye Wheeler gave to Human Rights Watch, following a report she wrote on the systematic use of sexual violence against the Rohingya for the same organization, “People said their villages were surrounded, and then the shooting started, with soldiers launching what we think were some kind of rocket-propelled grenades and setting roofs on fire. Soldiers shot villagers as they fled. They pushed others into burning houses. In other villages, people were gathered together, and then women were raped, and men were shot or beaten. Almost all the rapes I documented were gang rapes.” The report continues, outlining the emotional and physical pain of women walking tens of miles into Bangladesh with swollen and torn genitals.

A young Rohingya girl in a displaced person’s camp demonstrates how her hands were tied behind her while she was raped; one of her fingers was cut off for resisting.

Zarni, who has dedicated the last several years to drawing international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, pointed to two interviews in particular that filled him both with grief and a renewed commitment to international activism on behalf of the Rohingya.

“I spoke to one Rohingya man who had been made a village administrator in Myanmar due to his eighth-grade education. In Myanmar 80 percent of adult Rohingya are illiterate. The Burmese government deprives them of nutrients for the intellect, medicine for health, food for the body. He answered to Rakhine Buddhist overseers, who in turn answered to the Burmese military. In 2016 when the military attacked the villages, they had focused on maiming and killing the men, so this time when the military came the men were prepared, and they fled into hiding as much as they could. The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) had changed their strategy, however. This time they employed systematic violence against women and children and the burning of villages to the ground, so that when the men fled it did no good. First, they raped, killed, or expelled the women and children. Then they hunted down the men.

“So when this man fled into the forest,” said Zarni, “the military set fire to his home, where his wife and infant son were inside, hoping to wait out the violence. While he hid in the bushes, he saw his home burn down with his loved ones inside it. He was so angry and in so much pain when he spoke to me. He walked for two hours to come to be heard.”

“The second interview was with a Rohingya woman,” Zarni said. “She told me that her younger sister, who is 16 years old, was dragged into a hut by a group of Burmese soldiers wearing red scarves around their necks while she watched from a hiding place, clutching her baby. They tied up the sister with her hands above her head. Any woman who was captured was stripped naked and raped, and this in a culture where modesty is to a fault. The sister had beautiful long hair. She saw the soldiers cutting her sister’s hair with a knife as they were raping her. Their father, an old man, realized that his younger daughter was in the house being attacked, so he attempted to run to the house. She saw her father shot dead from behind as he ran; they shot him in the head. One of the soldiers came over and stuck his fingers into the broken skull, then tossed bits of brain to the chickens free-ranging in the yard.” 

The Rohingya, who have been called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” have fled Myanmar in large numbers several times in the last decades. Starting in late August, at least 600,000 fled Myanmar after the military began a ruthlessly violent campaign against Rohingya civilians in reprisal for an attack against Burmese security forces by a small band of Rohingya militants. The attack followed decades of state-sanctioned discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they have lived under oppressive conditions since the government passed a citizenship act in the 1980s that left most Rohingya stateless and without civil rights. 

“We anticipated it was going to be a very emotional trip,” said Zarni, who was accompanied by his wife, Natalie, and younger daughter, Nilah. “I didn’t anticipate that the first thing I felt when I met with a group of women was a sense of deep guilt. These were the people that my own had wronged so horribly. Although I have committed myself to speaking out on this issue for the last six years or so, every day I still feel that I too am responsible and that I have failed. I couldn’t bring myself to say more through the Rohingya interpreter than ‘can you please tell them I am Burmese, I am Buddhist, and I am really sorry.’ All of the sudden I was unable to speak I was so choked up inside.”

“The stories I heard, they were from maybe 25 people,” Zarni said. “There are 600,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh with stories like that.”

A native of Myanmar and the founder of the pro-democracy Free Burma Coalition, Zarni is now based in the UK, where he has left academia to work full-time on human rights issues. Zarni has been in exile from Myanmar for 29 years, with the exception of a three-year period when he was working on negotiations to end the military-ruled country’s international isolation. Zarni’s own story is heartwrenching.

“I became a pro-democracy activist while at school in the United States,” he explains, “and after that, I could not safely return to Myanmar. I cut off all ties with my family there for many years to protect them.”

When Zarni’s father became ill, Zarni offered to get him to Thailand to receive better treatment. “I don’t need better medical treatment,” his father said. “I need to see you before I die. That will make me feel better.” His father died nine days later without seeing his son.

“I fought for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom,” said Zarni, ”but when I saw, years ago, that she was not truly committed to human rights for all I began openly criticizing her. I had hoped when she came into power I could return to Myanmar, but now that she has failed to do anything for the Rohingya and has even actively aided their persecution, I have become a critic of the current administration as well, and so again I am persona non grata in Myanmar.”

September 2017 article on Maung Zarni

Zarni is not exaggerating. Major Burmese newspapers have run front page headlines calling him an “enemy of the state,” and Burmese social media sites are awash with claims that he is a terrorist sympathizer and an academic fraud who holds a fake Ph.D.

Zarni grew up in a military family and says that he himself absorbed his country’s ethnic nationalism and racism as a child. “Undoing my racism has been a long process,” said Zarni, who credits his wife, Natalie, for introducing him to the plight of the Rohingya and challenging his untreated Burmese chauvinism. “I am still rewiring myself as a Buddhist.”

Meanwhile, the plight of the Rohingya continues. On November 23, a deal was reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the repatriation of several hundred thousand refugees. Despite calling for significant involvement from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN, which was not consulted in the making of the agreement, has expressed opposition to the deal. 

“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm. Some have witnessed the deaths of family members and friends. Most have little or nothing to go back to, their homes and villages destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed. And humanitarian access in northern Rakhine State remains negligible,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at a press briefing on Friday. 

Several activists have expressed concern that those Rohingya who choose to return may be interned in Myanmar camps in a repetition of the fate of many Rohingya who were repatriated in 2012 following a similar crisis, despite assurances from the government that such internment would be “temporary.”

Zarni, speaking to Tricycle after the signing of the deal, was unimpressed. 

Pointing to the waves of “genocidal activity” against the Rohingya since 1978, Zarni said, “Repatriation is simply a tactical move to get the world off its back.”

Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist and educator who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. A former Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition, he has taught meditation in various contexts for over a decade. He is the author of Everyone In Love: The Beautiful Theology of Rav Yehuda Ashlag.
By Charles Turner
November 22, 2017

Over the course of three months, over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape what the United Nations has described as a case of “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

Earlier this week, China proposed a three stage resolution to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to the country formerly known as Burma. The plan emphasizes the need for a long-term solution to the Rohingya “problem”. And according to a new report by Amnesty International, which has investigated the treatment of the Muslim minority, the conflict’s origins can be traced back to decades ago.

Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh in Teknaf, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

For Ba Sein, a 74-year-old ethnic Rohingya refugee, the current crisis in Southeast Asia began well over 40 years ago. From his home in the United Kingdom, where he helps run the advocacy site Rohingya Blogger, he recalls the Myanmar military’s first campaign to push the Rohingya from the country.

“They were herded like animals onto army trucks” Ba Sein – Rohingya Blogger

In 1978, in an onslaught known as Operation Nagamin, or Operation Dragon King in English, about 200,000 Rohingya made the journey to Bangladesh, along routes today’s refugees are also following, after tens of thousands of Rohingya were rounded up and taken to detention centers.

“They were herded like animals onto army trucks,” Ba Sein told WikiTribune. “Inside the jails, people were making on the ground like goats without any toilet or room. They all died here. I saw this with my eyes. I will never forget this.”

Operation Dragon King marked the military’s first organized effort to discredit the Rohingya as a people native to Myanmar. Similar to the current rhetoric, the government saw the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who needed to be deported.

Historians characterize Operation Dragon King as a prelude to the 1982 Citizenship law. The contentious law established a list of ethnic groups eligible for citizenship. The law excluded the Rohingya, left them without access to public services and limited their freedom of movement. 

The military wanted a window of time in which to register their “approved” ethnic groups, while screening out the “foreigners.” Despite evidence of the Rohingya living in Myanmar for centuries, the military deemed them Bangladeshis who arrived in Rakhine State during British colonial rule. 

Under the 1982 law, the Rohingya had to provide evidence of their heritage to the country before 1823, when Britain invaded what was then known as Burma. Those suspected of arriving during British rule had their citizenship revoked, leaving them stateless. 

Anwar Arkani, a 50-year-old Rohingya who experienced the Dragon King operation as a child, remembers authorities asking his father to prove his ancestry and produce a national identification card.

“[The officer] asked if you have your ID. My father said, ‘Yes.’ The police took it and tore it apart up front of him. He asked him for his ID again. [My father] said, “Are you nuts? You just tore it up, now you want to magical produce it again?” They hit him with the butt of a gun, took him to jail and he died there.”

The push to Bangladesh

Arkani and his mother and brother joined the 200,000 Rohingya fleeing for the Bangladesh border after his father died in police detention. Other migrants reported rape and torture.

His 50-kilometer trek in 1978 was probably not that different from the experience of Rohingya who are part of the current exodus. The biggest change over the past 40 years is how the Bangladesh government and international community has responded, he said. He remembers a Bangladesh government in 1978 that made it clear that the Rohingya were unwelcome.

Myanmar border guard police force patrol near the Myanmar-Bangladeshi border outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Wa Lone

“That Bangladesh camp was the worst thing you can imagine. There was nowhere to toilet,” said Arkani, who now lives in Canada. “They took anything from us.”

Dealing with immense poverty among its own population in 1978, the Bangladesh government used food – or the lack of it – in an attempt to make refugees retreat on their own. In May 1978, food was tightly rationed in refugee camps in order to ensure life was not “comfortable”for the recently arrived Rohingya.

Alan Lindquist, a British humanitarian worker in Bangladesh, recalled the official in charge of the refugee camps, Secretary Syed All Khasru, as saying: “It is all very well to have fat, well-fed refugees. But I must be a politician, and we are not going to make the refugees so comfortable that they won’t go back to Burma.” 

An estimated 10,000 Rohingya died in Bangladesh refugee camps between May to December of 1978, casualties of underfeeding and malnutrition. The tactic was effective in its purpose. Within the year,more than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh voluntarily returned to Burma.

The military eventually accepted the repatriation of 187,000 Rohingya after the UN agreed to give Myanmar $7 million in aid, according to the International Boundary Research Unit of UK’s Durham University

During the current Rohingya refugee crisis, China has emerged as a mediating force with its proposal of a repatriation deal between the Myanmar military and the Bangladesh government. 

Tension in Rakhine, then Arakan

The Rohingya of today, however, will return to a more hostile Myanmar. 

The military currently practices an “institutionalized system of segregation” of the Muslim minority that “constitutes apartheid” according to a report from Amnesty International released on Monday. 

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the 2017 Rohingya crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” a designation not given to the 1978 mass exodus.

According to Ba Sein, the Rohingya have a social stigma that did not exist 40 years ago, “You could find work back then…some had an education,” he said.

Ba Sein and his family worked for the government in 1978, an elite position in the socialist Myanmar. His position as an auditor and his connections allowed him to witness the atrocities in the Rohingya detention centers, but survive. Unlike most Rohingya, he also was able to keep his citizenship.

Before the 1982 Citizenship Law, ethnic Rohingya had national registration cards, which did not list the “ethnicity” like the current day citizenship cards.

That Rohingya people worked for the national government is a testament to how much the political climate has changed in Myanmar. The idea of Rohingya being accepted into mainstream society now, let alone in government, is difficult for these previous refugees to imagine.

Besides being denied citizenship and an education, Rohingya now face hostility from the majority Buddhist citizenry of Rakhine State. 

This historic tension, dating back to World War II, has devolved back into violence over the past 10 years. The first major clashes came in 2012, following allegations that Rohingya Muslim men raped a Rakhine Buddhist woman. Dozens were killed in ethnic fighting.

The violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims is something that survivors of Operation Dragon King do not recognize. For the most part, the two groups co-existed peacefully in 1978.

“There was no fighting between the [Rakhine Buddhists] and us, just army” Ba Sein said. “Until 2012, there was no problem. Now all the people are being killed without [government] security.”

Anwar Arkani largely agrees that tensions between Buddhists and Muslims were far less extreme four decades ago, though he said he is not surprised at the escalation. As a child, his parents gave him explicit instructions to never enter Buddhist villages which were largely segregated from their Muslim counterparts. The sentiment of the Rohingya as foreigners has long existed.

“All of my memories of the Rakhine are bad things to be honest,” Arkani said. “To them, it was their country, and if we don’t like it, then we can go back home. But this was my home.”

October 9, 2017

In a stumbling democracy, Rohingya Muslims became trapped in a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing that has left hundreds of thousands homeless and in detention camps.

At the end of August, Myanmar’s military unleashed operations in response to what it described as terrorist attacks on at least 20 police stations in its western state of Rakhine. What followed has yet to be documented in full, but Bangladesh has accused Myanmar’s military of burning 10,000 homes, and according to satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch, hundreds of villages in Rakhine state have been obliterated. More than 420,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands are already official or unofficial refugees from a similar exodus more than 20 years ago.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, a former democracy activist and now the leader of the governing party, misrepresented and minimized military actions in the region this week. She further suggested that the government does not understand why hundreds of thousands of people would flee to another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that based on the information available so far, the crisis appears to be a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

In this excerpt from my book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, I trace my 2015 trip to Rakhine state, diving into the messy history of the region, how it came to have detention camps that may have fueled insurgency, and the rationale those in the state capital use to justify keeping their former neighbors in camps. All these pieces are critical to understanding events happening today—events likely to get worse with the government’s announcement this week that it intends to build seven new Rohingya-only camps in the vicinity of the razed villages.

A flight through Korea or Thailand to Yangon in Myanmar and a short hop on a smaller plane can carry anyone to the Bay of Bengal and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Trees heavy with giant fruit bats and what appear to be ten rickshaw drivers and one mini-truck cabbie per capita compete for any foreigner's attention. The town boasted nearly two hundred thousand residents a decade ago, but many of those inhabitants no longer live in Sittwe, having been relegated to detention camps on the outskirts of town.

In the summer of 2012, reports of a gang rape and other violent crimes stirred tensions between Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities across Rakhine state. In response to the escalating violence, extremists led riots that October that burned thousands of Rohingya out of their homes. Vandalized mosques were boarded up; one was converted to a police station.

Under the state of emergency declared by the federal government, the Rohingya population throughout the region was loaded onto buses and trucks and dropped off on the outskirts of their hometowns, near Rohingya-only enclaves, or in the middle of nowhere, eventually ending up stuck in the kinds of camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) typically seen during wars and natural disasters. In some cases armed guards stopped extremists from additional pogroms, but they also kept the Rohingya detainees from leaving.

The only Rohingya permitted to stay in the city of Sittwe have been sealed off in Aung Mingalar, the Muslim Quarter, which has become an extension of the camp system that has risen around the state. Roads leading into the district are blocked at checkpoints by red-and-white sawhorses wrapped in barbed wire, creating a ghetto in the middle of a city filled with Buddhists, Christians, and a panoply of other ethnic groups the Rohingya lived among and did business with not long ago. Most residents of the state endured rural poverty even before the advent of the camps, but in the relative prosperity of Sittwe, many Rohingya had assimilated into urban life, working in construction or making eyeglasses and plate-glass windows. Some had attended the city university.

Since the 2012 violence, segregation has been enforced. But the borders of the camps are somewhat permeable. A few Rohingya work as day laborers for the military. As with many prior camp systems in other countries, nongovernmental groups enter to coordinate aid to the displaced populations, and journalists sometimes get government permission to visit the camps—or failing that, are able to bribe their way in, if they do not mind putting their fate in the hands of strangers.

Camp structures vary widely up and down the narrow blade of the coastal state, as do camp communities, but around Sittwe, hustlers work both sides. Outside drivers cart visitors or goods into the camps, selling the latter at exorbitant rates. Some detainees save their food rations to sell to those outside the camps, though they always take a loss, dependent on the mercy of their buyers.

With a little cash, Rohingya entrepreneurs can import comfort foods from town, which they offer to fellow detainees for a profit. In some places longhouse frontage has been converted to small kiosks, with neatly hung rows of packaged goods and stacked canned sodas. A tiny money supply circulates and recirculates in a frenzy, constantly bled off by outsiders. One preteen shopkeeper in Dar Paing Camp in 2015 had taken the business over from his brother, who finally gathered enough money to pay a trafficker to deliver him from Myanmar into another country.

Across the first years of the camps' existence, day-to-day life was unpleasant but more stable than not. A sense of suppressed violence lingered, however, and reports of assaults by extremists haunted the detainees on a regular basis. Spies and informers lurked everywhere.

In 2015 soldiers in the Muslim quarter carried assault rifles, and security police patrolled with pistols. The guards were generally not from Rakhine state, and so lacked some of the local hatred for the Rohingya. Camp detainees were emphatic about wanting detention to be lifted so they could come and go at will, but at that point did not seem to mind the armed protection, and at times expressed gratitude for its presence.

Approximately 4,000 residents live in the quarter itself. Another 120,000 people or so were corralled across the state in camps created for those who lost their homes in the violence. Add in the Rohingya who did not flee their homes but who nonetheless one day found government barricades and checkpoints set up on the outskirts of their villages, and you get more than a million stateless people who live with some form of government segregation or communal detention in Rakhine state.

Early in the process, the then president of Myanmar denounced the 2012 riots and declared that local leaders' role in it would be investigated. But the country was in the first stages of transition from a military dictatorship to democracy. No one was taken to task, and eventually it was understood that the government found the situation to its advantage.

Those who were in Sittwe during what interpreters refer to as "the violence" tell of fire and pursuit, of fleeing homes without time to grab identification papers and family photos, let alone retrieve practical items. They describe the shock of recognizing their neighbors among the attackers, and of seeing law enforcement standing by without intervening. Some residents fled the fire by heading into the small lake bordering the Muslim district of Aung Mingalar, where two women were reported giving birth in the mud during the riots. Hundreds were killed across the state.

As the camps took shape, international aid organizations negotiated a sometimes bumpy partnership with the government to ensure clean water sources via wells, to provide food, and to make inroads toward health care and sanitation. Registries of the dispossessed were kept to track the food assistance that was soon forthcoming, but in many cases residents were cut off from fishing, farming, and skilled work.

The poverty in Rakhine state is such that many local extremists have used the food, latrines, and wells provided to the Rohingya in camps as a kernel around which to build additional resentment, describing them as luxuries provided preferentially to Muslims by biased outsiders. Most people in Rakhine state do not have access to latrines. The town of Sittwe itself was not on an electrical grid until years after the creation of the camps.

The ghetto holds ghosts of an era in which at least some Rohingya managed middle-class lives. The nicest homes—a few still have their glass windowpanes—run slowly to ruin in the blistering humidity. Less sturdy houses fall apart in the ebb and flow of flooding. Plastic sheeting with a UN logo slowly replaces standard repairs, a concession to the ravages of isolation and dependence. Trees and vines grow over early improvised graves behind the mosque, while boys and girls in bright green-and-white uniforms gather outside their school. For those who are able to attend, the open-air patch between classrooms lies half buried in muck and standing water. A plaster sign announces that Japan provided for the school's construction in 2005, a reminder that poverty and need for outside help have long existed in Sittwe. But it turns out that things can always get worse.

Outside town, the IDP camps are less vivid, their rows of living quarters arranged in grids, though people try to reclaim any arable inch for growing plants. As in Aung Mingalar, ducks, dogs, goats, and straw-colored hens run everywhere. Children follow strangers, having little else to do. Detainees live in longhouses, eight units to a building, with one roughly ten-by-ten foot room for each family—whether the family has three or eight members. Each family shares a well, a semiprivate space for bathing, and a communal hallway with the other longhouse residents.

At first the Rohingya were allowed to pay for temporary travel permits to other parts of the country, but these passes can no longer be had. Residents must use a bus, for which they pay a fare, that will ferry them only to visit other Rohingya in nearby camps. When tensions rise, bus travel is halted.

In 2015, thousands of Rohingya were smuggled by traffickers into other countries in hopes of greater freedom or paying jobs. Some did illegal work; others found only detention or even death at the hands of traffickers. Unless they resort to this expensive and dangerous human trafficking, even Rohingya who manage to flee Myanmar are also stuck. Having declared them illegal immigrants, their own country will not take them back, and the ones to which they have fled do not want them.

As the flood of refugees has increased, neighboring countries have worked to block thousands of incoming Rohingya. Bangladesh, which counts more than thirty-two thousand registered Rohingya in its official refugee camps just across the border from Myanmar, regularly threatens to move them to an uninhabitable island. In addition to those officially registered, the country has also been home for decades to hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya, who live in and near the existing camps without legal rights or protection.

But these Rohingya refugee camps differ from those inside Myanmar, in that the former hold populations from other countries, while the latter maintain a vulnerable population still at risk in deliberate segregation from their fellow countrymen. The Rohingya inside Rakhine state continue to live as internal refugees in close proximity to the very people who resorted to violence against them.

The successful effort to label them as foreigners has emboldened those who wish to deny them rights, despite the fact that Rohingya culture has roots going back centuries in the region, with the term appearing in a 1799 treatise on local Rakhine dialects. In an attempt to tar all Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants, the state government has long refused to grant any validity to the word, referring to the group as "Bengali."

Officially, the Rohingya were cut off from full citizenship in 1982, though for many years the law was not enforced, and they were able to run as candidates and vote during the few opportunities that had arisen on Myanmar's halting, aborted, and resurrected road toward democracy. In early 2015, however, anticipating the national elections that November, the government confiscated even the temporary ID cards that the Rohingya had held, rendering them stateless.

The Rohingya are the pariah group of Myanmar, but their most enthusiastic jailers, the Rakhine, are also looked down on by the rest of the country. The generals of the dictatorship had no love for Rakhine state, generally treating it as a backwater of hayseeds and traffickers whose natural resources and strategic port were best auctioned off to China for the benefit of those in the capital.

The generals in turn inspired no love in Sittwe, with their surveillance and detentions under the military boot. Before the dictatorship, there was British rule, and before that, there was the invading Burmese king Bodawpaya—successive overlords who provided a reasonably accurate unbroken line of grievance stretching back to at least 1784. This grievance helps the Rakhine people feel entitled to exert whatever power they can today.

Sitting in a restaurant in Sittwe in 2015, not long before the election, U Shwe Mg of the Rakhine Nationalist Party says, "We are a peaceful people. We want peace. But we can only take so much." Asked how he still interprets the Rohingya as a threat when it is overwhelmingly the Rohingya who are in camps, he changes the subject.

Insisting that he is not speaking for his party, he says that in the face of illegal immigration that threatens to swamp the state, the Rakhine people have a right to determine their own destiny. The Rohingya care nothing for education, he explains, claiming that they are religious extremists. He says this without apparent irony, disregarding the slogans of hate that emerged from the 969 Buddhist extremist movement advocating legal restrictions against Muslims.

He says that he does not want violence and declares the camps a good solution for now—though deportations should follow. He refers to the citizenship law of 1982 that laid the groundwork for the Rohingya officially being rendered stateless, but does not note any of the reasons it was enacted or extenuating details about its implementation. He says that all he wants is for the law to be followed, and borrowing a democracy movement catchphrase, asks, "You do believe in the rule of law, don't you?"

Drivers who smuggle journalists or contraband in and out of the camps have their own opinions. One who was born and raised in Sittwe and has never lived anywhere else opens up about the local situation, saying the Rohingya are a problem. Asked about those he grew up with in town—the ones whose parents and grandparents were also born there and ran small businesses or went to school nearby—he expresses mixed feelings. The good ones can stay, he says, but the bad ones must go. He acknowledges that some harm may have been done to those in the camps, but repeats the refrain offered by many in Rakhine state: "We have a right to defend ourselves."

Some Rohingya have managed to keep their cell phones in detention, allowing them to share public information, call for help in emergencies, and build public awareness around the world. One entrepreneur brought a solar panel into one of the camps that residents can use to recharge their devices.

Complaints about lack of access to education and emergency medicine proliferate on social media. Links to government announcements are shared, as are privately circulated reports of violent abuse by security forces, subject to the same confusion and risks as any accounts on social media. The Rohingya may be the first group in the history of mass detention to launch their own digital public relations effort from inside their concentration camps.

Conditions remained bad enough in 2015, or hopeless enough, that many people continued to resort to dangerous tactics in order to flee. Before rainy season closed off the Bay of Bengal as an escape route, thousands of Rohingya set out with traffickers who charged staggering fees to deliver them to new countries. Myanmar's government would have been happy to see them go, but other countries do not want the refugees. Myanmar has learned that it cannot empty its camps this way.

In the meantime, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a report the same year, warning that the Rohingya "are at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide." Others declared that genocide was already underway, based on reported mass executions that have been hard to confirm. Then senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch David Scott Mathieson felt that applying the genocide label in mid-2016 was an overreach for the moment, though he condemned Myanmar's failure to include the Rohingya in an earlier census, as well as their stateless condition. "The government," he said, speaking of the pre-election regime, "shouldn't be caving to extremists and their racist agendas."

A visit to the Sittwe-area camps reveals a culture leaching away, with few education and work possibilities, untreated chronic health conditions, and a people turned into scapegoats in order to pacify the demands of another minority, one with its own history of victimization by the government. When presidential elections in November 2015 brought democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's party to power, the Rohingya appeared cautiously elated, despite a comment Suu Kyi had made claiming that the media made the situation in Rakhine state worse by exaggerating the problem.

What changes would even be possible remained unclear, since democratic rule was hobbled by the 25 percent of seats in the national legislature reserved for the military—a legacy of dictatorship. After no changes appeared in the first one hundred days and little pressure had been exerted on behalf of those detained, even cautious optimism faded.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan was named chairman of a committee in Rakhine state to resolve the issue of the Rohingya, and met with citizens and detainees alike. On the day of his arrival in Sittwe, more than a thousand locals gathered at the airport to protest what they saw as outside interference in their affairs. Progress seems unlikely without a non-Rohingya champion for Rohingya rights who is from Myanmar itself. There may not be a leader willing to take up that mantle.

In October 2016, the stasis that had held for years was shattered after an attack on three border posts reportedly left nine police officers dead in the area of Maungdaw, which borders on Bangladesh. The government identified the attackers as insurgents. In the days that followed, government troops proceeded to close the region to observers and use automatic weapons and helicopter gunships to kill dozens of Rohingya.

Despite the lack of access to some areas, satellite imagery confirmed the destruction of villages in the region. Reports of a campaign of rape and the deaths of more than one thousand Rohingya were relayed by those seeking refuge on the border with Bangladesh. In February 2017, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed many of these reports, documenting the "devastating cruelty" of summary executions and burning people alive, and calling for a "robust reaction" from the international community. The government has repeatedly denied aid groups and journalists access to areas targeted for military action.

Though camps in Rakhine state had initially provided some security in the wake of the 2012 riots against the Rohingya, by normalizing the group's detention and encouraging their demonization for years, the state and national government turned detainees into sitting ducks for a military with an atrocious human rights record—a military that the country's new leadership may not yet be strong enough to defy, if it is even inclined to try.

Standing in Dar Paing Camp in 2015, surveying an open stretch of field just outside Sittwe, it appears that despite sections of heavier fencing, there are places where perimeter security is more relaxed. Even if someone lacks the money to pay traffickers to get to another country, it seems possible to slip away at night and stay clear of the roads—to make an escape.

But the ability to leave the camps may not be the biggest barrier. Little sympathy exists in the surrounding community for the Rohingya as citizens, neighbors, or human beings. Dismissing the possibility of departure, an interpreter giving a tour of the camp says, "Where would I go? Everyone would know I am a Rohingya."

Asked what would happen if he were caught outside the camp, he stops to consider the question. "I have no rights. If I am caught, I do not even exist."

Excerpted from One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Campsby Andrea Pitzer, copyright ©2017 by Andrea Pitzer.

Rohingya people await assistance in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Insiders claim a report that foretold the Myanmar crisis and predicted the UN was ill-prepared for it was held back. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

By Emanuel Stoakes and Oliver Holmes
October 5, 2017

Insiders claim strategy review warning of imminent crisis in Rakhine state and urging immediate action was smothered by the official who commissioned it

The UN commissioned and then “suppressed” a report that criticised its strategy in Myanmar and warned it was ill-prepared to deal with the impending Rohingya crisis, sources have told the Guardian.

The review, written by a consultant and submitted in May, offered a highly critical analysis of the UN’s approach and said there should be “no silence on human rights”.

The report, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, accurately predicted a “serious deterioration” in the six months following its submission and urged the UN to undertake “serious contingency planning”.

“It is recommended that, as a matter of urgency, UN headquarters identifies ways to improve overall coherence in the UN’s system approach,” wrote independent analyst Richard Horsey, the report’s author. 

Security forces would be “heavy-handed and indiscriminate” in dealing with the Rohingya, said Horsey – a prediction that rang true when Rohingya militants attacked dozens of outposts on 25 August, prompting a massive military crackdown.

In little more than a month, more than half a million Rohingya have fled over the border to Bangladesh amid allegations of massacres by Myanmar’s armed forces and Rohingya insurgents. On Thursday Bangladesh announced that it would build one of the world’s biggest refugee camps to house all those who have sought asylum.

The UN report, entitled The Role of the United Nations in Rakhine state, was commissioned by Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN resident coordinator and the organisation’s most senior figure in Myanmar. It made 16 recommendations. Horsey outlined the need for new staff positions and “frank” discussions with government, and called for the report to be widely distributed among aid agencies.

The UN was urged to ensure that the human rights up front initiative, a strategy introduced by former secretary general Ban Ki-moon to prevent mass atrocities, was fully implemented. Horsey said the initiative should “be at the core of how the UN operates”, adding that there should be “no silence on human rights and protection concerns”.

However, sources within the UN and humanitarian community claimed the recommendations were ignored and the report was suppressed.

A source close to events, who asked not to be named, said the paper was “spiked” and not circulated among UN and aid agencies “because Renata [Lok-Dessallien] didn’t like the analysis”.

“It was given to Renata and she didn’t distribute it further because she wasn’t happy with it,” said another well-placed source.

The 28-page document said its author would be expected to provide feedback to the UN’s humanitarian country team, a group consisting of UN agencies such as the World Food Programme and the UN refugee agency as well as other aid groups such as Save the Children. The Guardian understands this meeting never took place.

A media representative for the office of the resident coordinator in Myanmar said a briefing meeting on the initial findings, open to all UN agencies, took place in April.

“The UN agreed with the document’s outline of some of the challenges of providing peace, humanitarian and development assistance in Rakhine state, and the risk of further outbreaks of violence.

“In fact, the UN in Myanmar was already putting in place some of the changes suggested in the document prior to its release,” said the representative, adding that this included the “crucial” human rights up front mechanism.

The final report was “shared with some senior officials”, said the representative, who declined to identify the individuals concerned. Sources in Myanmar said the report was “mentioned at meetings on two occasions” before it “disappeared off the agenda”. No one was able to access the document subsequently.

A senior aid official said the final report was “kept very low-key”.

“Criticisms, constructive ones, are rarely taken as learning opportunities but are received as personal attacks and provoke defensive responses,” the source added.

Meanwhile, Lok-Dessallien faces fresh charges that she undermined attempts to publicly promote the rights of the Rohingya, the stateless Muslim minority. Aid workers said the UN prioritised good relations with the Myanmar government over humanitarian and human rights advocacy.

A spokesperson for the UN secretary general denied the allegations. “The resident coordinator has been a tireless advocate for human rights,” said the spokesperson. “Human rights stand at the centre of everything the UN does.”

The Guardian approached Horsey, the author of the report, for comment. “The UN knew, or should have known, that the status quo in Rakhine was likely to evolve into a major crisis,” he said in an emailed response.

However, he added that the severity of the criticism directed at Lok-Dessallien was unwarranted. 

“It may be true that the resident coordinator could have done some things differently or better, [but] primary responsibility for any UN failings lies with its headquarters over the last several years,” wrote Horsey.

“They did not have a coherent or well-coordinated approach to Myanmar, and especially Rakhine, and did not provide the required political support and guidance to their in-country team.”

His report said senior UN figures in New York had sent “mixed messages” and there was no replacement special adviser to the secretary general, a high-level UN official with “diplomatic clout”, leaving the resident coordinator in an impossible position. 

The study cited a “widely-held perception” that there had been “trade-offs between advocacy and access that have in practice de-prioritised human rights and humanitarian action, which are seen as complicating and undermining relations with government”.

A UN official in Yangon said: “Human rights up front isn’t being implemented. It just isn’t. They can say that they are ticking some boxes but in terms of actions that lead to results we’re seeing nothing.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s not been human rights up front, it’s been human rights down in back.

“The UN is going to have to acknowledge their significant share of blame in letting this situation descend this far, this fast.”
An aerial picture taken on September 27 shows burnt villages near Maungdaw, in Rakhine state. Picture: AFP

By Ann Wang
September 30, 2017

The Southeast Asian nation is no stranger to internal conflicts, but one thing that unites its citizens, even in the face of international condemnation, is that the Muslim Rohingya will never call their country home

“This is the result of years of oppression, and being denied citizenship and basic human rights,” says Liu Runcang, a volunteer at the Kokang Literary and Cultural Association’s headquarters in Lashio, northern Myanmar. “Thank god our ancestors were smart enough to strike a deal, so we can have citizenship, other­wise we might end up like them.”

Does he have any sympathy for the more than 421,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh and accused Myanmar’s military of torture, murder and rape?

“Not really,” says Liu. “In the end, we are Myanmese and they are the outsiders.”

Kokang has a population of 1.3 million and its own refugee problem: an estimated 200,000 have been displaced by conflict between the military and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an armed insurgent group.

According to the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the people of Buddhist-dominated Myanmar belong to eight indigenous races: the Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan, which are divided into 135 distinct ethnic groups. The Kokang, like Liu, are ethnically Chinese but are categorised under the Shan. The Rohingya, on the other hand, are not counted among the 135 ethnic groups, and so do not have the right to Myanmese citizenship.

When Burma, as Myanmar was then known, gained indepen­dence from Britain, in 1948, the Rohingya were able to parti­cipate in the political life of the country, obtaining statehood for Rakhine – territory once known as Arakan that they may have inhabited since the 12th century – in 1974. A brutal military crackdown on “illegal immigration” in 1977-78 led to the first mass exodus to Bangladesh. Many Rohingya returned a year later only to be stripped of their citizenship and ethnic-minority status by the military regime, in 1982.

Life has been tough for the mostly Muslim, Indo-Aryan Rohingya ever since.

On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), a Rohingya insurgent group, attacked police and army posts in Rakhine state, killing 12 offi­cers, according to the government. Arsa had carried out a similar attack last October, after which the Myanmar govern­ment declared it a terrorist group, increased security in north­ern Rakhine and sent in the military to carry out sometimes deadly “clearance operations”.

The Rohingya began streaming across the border with Bangladesh, some crossing minefields, others being charged huge sums of money by smugglers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has accused Myanmar of carrying out “a textbook ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims”, although roughly 30,000 members of other ethnicities have also been displaced.

Amid increasingly strident accusations from the international commu­nity, one person remained silent. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, held her tongue until September 19, when she made her first speech on the government’s efforts towards peace and reconciliation. She said her government was committed to democratic transition, peace and stability, but stressed that it had been difficult to achieve much progress in just 18 months in office.

She was aware the world’s attention was focused on the situ­ation in Rakhine state, she said, but Myanmar was not afraid of international scrutiny.

During her speech and in subsequent interviews, Suu Kyi seem­ed genuinely curious to find out what the real cause of the exodus was. She stated that more than 50 per cent of Muslim villages remained intact and asked the international community to also look at the positives, saying that new jobs were being created in Rakhine and all people living in the state had access to education and health-care services without discrimination. She also called for the repatria­tion of refugees who had fled to Bangladesh, but only after they had completed a verification process.

During her 30-minute speech – which was broadcast in English, without subtitles – she did not mention the Rohingya by name, nor did she comment on ethnic cleansing.

Supporters had gathered in city centres and homes to watch her speech. In central Yangon, they carried placards and banners bearing slogans such as “Bengalis are not Myanmar citizens” and “We will stand by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we will stand by our govern­ment, we will stand by our army”.

On the whole, the Myanmese see the Rohingya as intruders, and therefore refer to them as Bengalis. And a country trying to cope with one of the longest running civil wars stands almost united on one issue: the Bengalis are not welcome.

That feeling is illustrated in a cartoon that has been wide­ly shared on social media: dark arms, symbolising the Rohingya, reach from behind a door marked “back door”. Some hold knives and are trying to cut the door down. Trying to keep the door closed are a soldier, a policeman, a member of parliament, a man in ethnic Shan dress and a journalist with a big camera hanging around his neck.

“When I was on DVB Debate [a television talk show], some of the young Muslim people told me they are not happy about it,” says the cartoon’s creator, Mg Mg Phaung Tane, who has been producing satirical work for more than 20 years.

Muslims (excluding Rohingya) make up just 4.3 per cent of Myanmar’s population, according to the most recent national census, which was conducted in March 2014.

Speaking after a book launch in Yangon, Mg Mg Phaung Tane refuses to use the word “Rohingya”, referring to them instead as “boatpeople”, a term that found favour in May 2015, when thousands of Rohingya, many having been lured by smugglers in the hope of escaping to Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia, were left stranded in the Andaman Sea while authorities around the region refused to take them in.

“We know that we cannot kill them or throw them in the ocean,” says Mg Mg Phaung Tane. “But it would also be difficult to live together peacefully as their [religious] beliefs are quite different from ours.”

U Tin Myint Oo is another cartoonist with the Rohingya in his sights. One of his works shows a man dressed in black riding a camel, which is marked with the initials “INGO” (international non-governmental organisation), towards Rakhine, holding a sword and a shield bearing the words “human rights”. Biscuits from the UN World Food Programme were found on July 30 at a camp suspected of having been used by Arsa, leading to accusations that international aids groups are helping the “terrorists”.

“The Bengali people have been here for so many years now, as Rakhine was one of the easiest ways to enter the country,” says U Tin Myint Oo, who is himself from the state. “If we were to give them citizenship and their own territory, a lot of Rohingya people would arrive here. I think a lot of human rights groups are put­ting pressure on the government, so that more Rohingya can come in to this country. Therefore, it will be very dangerous to give them citizenship and territory, as they demand.

“Even if we give them what they demand, the conflict will grow stronger as their population increases,” he says. “However, if they are to stay here peace­fully, we can accept them as migrants with limited rights, such as political rights, and so on. They will not have the rights as a citizen but they will be able to live here peacefully.”

For that to happen, U Tin Myint Oo says, the government would have to be able to provide the Rohingya with jobs and education, to avoid conflict in the future.

Given the violence in the north, however, tension is running high across Myanmar.

“All Muslim communities across the country are more or less being targeted for what is happening in Rakhine state. Even we have to be careful about what we say or do,” says U Wunna Shwe, joint secretary of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar. Muslim-owned shops and houses were damaged by a mob in Magway, in central Myanmar, on September 10, and, two days later, a man was arrested in Yangon for shouting: “Are there any Muslims in this street? Come out! I will kill you all!”

And it’s not just Muslims who are under attack.

Soe Chay, a Rakhine woman, had her hair cut off by a mob that then paraded her through her village with a cardboard placard around her neck that read: “I’m a national traitor”. Her crime? Giving food to Rohingya.

Speaking in his Yangon office, U Wunna Shwe says there is generally little interaction between the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Myanmar.

“Even though we believe in the same religion, we are different in terms of race,” he says. However, his council has been caring for Rohingya in Rakhine refugee camps and says they should be given citizenship.

“Rumours and fake news are a global problem right now, but in a country like Myanmar, which has a history of conflict between religions, fake news is an easy trigger for violence and fear,” says Htaike Htaike Aung, co-founder and executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, a non-profit company that offers training, especially in rural and remote areas, in the use of information and communi­cations technology.

“Each community receives different [Facebook] messages; the Buddhists receive messages to warn them to be prepared for an attack by the Muslims, and Muslims receive messages telling them [they should expect an attack],” says Htaike Htaike Aung. Once what starts out as a private message on Facebook is shared widely, it’s almost impossible to trace the source.

“Messages like this only create fear among people and no help,” says Htaike Htaike Aung. “There are more than 20 million people using Facebook in Myanmar now, most of the users having started within the past two years. Their ability to recognise fake news is still very limited.”

Rather than rely on what was being reported and rumoured, U Wunna Shwe agreed to go on a four-day government-organised tour to northern Rakhine at the beginning of September.

“The Rakhine people knew that we [U Wunna Shwe and a colleague] were in the car, so they threw rocks at the car and were very violent,” he says. “They tried to stop the car and demanded the officials hand us over to them. There were around 1,000 people demonstrating violently. It was life-threatening for everyone in the car.”

The most common fear is that “Muslims will invade our land”, says Tin Maung Than, general secretary of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar.

“There is only 4 per cent of us in Myanmar’s popu­lation – it’s always been 4 per cent – how do we invade or take over Myanmar with such a small population?”

U Wunna Shwe does not think Suu Kyi’s speech will have much impact.

“She was very careful with her words and did not blame anyone for this issue,” he says. “The situation is very fragile and we are looking more at the results rather than what she says.”

But he does point out some of the fallacies contained in the speech.

“For example, a lot of Rohingya children do not have access to education,” he says, and those living in internal camps need special permission to leave, to attend school or university.

His council has been a strong supporter of Suu Kyi and believes she is the only person able to bring peace to the country. It also acknowledges that, despite her position, Suu Kyi is not as powerful as the military.

“All this was not created by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi nor can she solve it alone,” U Wunna Shwe says. “She has to cooperate with the military, other parties. International media has to know who they should target, to exert pressure. Blaming Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not solve anything.”

However, he does disagree with Suu Kyi on one other perception.

“Fifty per cent have left because they are scared or are in big trouble. It is obvious how big the matter is when more than 50 per cent of the people have had to flee,” says U Wunna Shwe, putting a different spin on Suu Kyi’s comment that half of the Muslim villages in Rakhine remain intact.

“They had to leave the places where they were born, grew up. Nobody would do that if they felt safe.”

Rohingya Exodus