Since October it is estimated that hundreds of Muslim Rohingya people have been killed in Burma, and tens of thousands have been displaced. Villages have been torched, hundreds of women have been raped and many others have been detained and tortured.
This eruption of violence, which has been described by an official at the UN as ‘ethnic cleansing’, is unfolding under the pretext of a counterinsurgency operation following a series of attacks on police outposts allegedly by Rohingya militants in October. The attacks left nine police officers dead, and a large quantity of weapons and ammunition missing.
The government responded by deploying security forces led by the military to the Rohingya-majority district of Maungdaw and declared a ‘clearance operation’. Humanitarian aid groups, independent media, and rights monitors have all been shut out and widespread looting, burning and devastation has been reported, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director Champa Patel has called it, ‘collective punishment’.
Patel said that the army’s actions have been ‘far beyond what was necessary and proportional’, adding: ‘By targeting individuals clearly not involved in such attacks, whole families and whole villages, these operations appear to target Rohingya collectively based on their ethnicity and religion.’
His comments were based on eyewitness accounts given to a number of human rights groups by refugees who have fled across the border to Bangladesh. They each describe horror stories of security forces firing on villagers with helicopter gunships, burning down homes, and raping women and girls.
Among a series of video testimonies taken by Human Rights Watch, one villager said that when the military came to his village they indiscriminately shot whoever they found. ‘Elderly and children were shot dead…. Many people were killed,’ he said. ‘[The soldiers] dragged the women from the houses by their hair. They took off the women’s clothes and longyi [sarongs]. They trampled their necks. They pulled up their blouses and removed their bras. They raped them right there in the yard.’
A resident of another village gave a similar account of security forces killing randomly, he watched as his older brothers and his two children were shot dead then thrown into a fire. The soldiers went on to burn the village’s crops and shoot livestock.
Perhaps the most chilling account was published in the Myanmar Observer which described how a villager had her baby taken from her and thrown into a fire as her house was torched. The publication goes on to say that two more infants may have suffered the same fate in this one village alone.
The Bangladeshi authorities were initially resistant to allowing refugees to cross the border but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has now agreed to provide shelter on humanitarian grounds and has called on the international community for support. Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok told New Internationalist that it is estimated that 60,000 Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh since last October.
‘The recent arrivals described the burning of homes and the targeting of civilians. Many women and children are traumatized and appeared to be in a state of shock as they witnessed the torture and killing of their family members including their fathers, husbands and sons. Some said they knew of women who had been raped and children being killed,’ she said.
‘We know of a teenage boy who was shot in the leg in northern Rakhine state and had to seek medical help in Bangladesh. Our staff also met a heavily-pregnant woman who described raids on her village that drove first the men, then the women and children, to flee into Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, they are in desperate need of shelter, food, water and medical care.’
The lack of access to medical care for the Rohingya within Burma is another urgent issue according to Haikal Mansor, a former resident of Maungdaw and General Secretary for the European Rohingya Council. ‘There is only one doctor for 140,000 Rohingya, compared to one for 681 Rakhine,’ he said.
It is 28 times below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of one for 5,000, according to Thomas O. Quintana’s Progress Report of the Situation of Human Rights in Burma. 70 per cent of them have no access to safe water or sanitation and 98 per cent of women don’t give birth in a hospital due to the denial of freedom of wellbeing or healthcare.
‘These statistics speak for themselves. The situation for the Rohingya, in terms of basic medical care, has reached a critical boiling point as the clearance operation has destroyed their remaining facilities and has blocked humanitarian access to displaced and entrapped Rohingya in the northern parts of Maungdaw and other townships. As the winter enters in its harsh phase in the region, children, women and elderly are highly vulnerable. Mass-starvation and acute and chronic communicable diseases are going to take their toll quickly.’
Despite the overwhelming evidence, Burma’s government has repeatedly denied all allegations of human rights abuses and they claim the real culprits are Rohingya militants. When questioned about sexual violence by Reuters, a government spokesman said: ‘There’s no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding.’
The chairman of the Rakhine State Investigation, U Aung Win, also denied allegations of rape, saying that soldiers would not rape Rohingya women because they ‘are very dirty.’
But it is the silence from the country’s leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that has been most significant. Suu Kyi was once seen as a symbol for democracy and human rights in Burma and with the backing of the US and Europe, became the country’s first democratically elected leader in more than 50 years.
Her inability or unwillingness to implement an effective response to the brutality is potentially rooted in the country’s constitution which gives her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), a majority in parliament but heavily constrains it when it comes to the military due to a power sharing policy. All law enforcement and state security remains under the control of the military, which previously controlled the country, including the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs.
It has also been speculated that she may in fact be allowing the violence to continue as her official stance on the Rohingya has never been clear but has appeared negative. In the past she stated that they are not recognized as one of the 135 official ethnic groups of Burma and banned officials from using the minority group’s name, claiming it does not help national reconciliation.
She also failed to speak out for the Rohingya community and denied allegations of ethnic cleansing when sectarian violence previously broke out in 2012 under the military government. The clashes, which saw community leaders and Buddhist monks armed with machetes, swords, homemade guns, and Molotov cocktails attack villages, left over 140,000 displaced and more than 100 dead. Human Rights Watch found that state security forces, including local police, either failed to prevent the violence or directly participated in it.
Whether she can’t act or she doesn’t want to, she has so far done nothing and many who supported and voted for her have been left disillusioned. Some of the most significant human rights policies she once campaigned for have also been jeopardized. Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project which campaigns for the rights of the Rohingya minority in Burma called her response extremely disappointing.
‘Not only has she remained mostly silent on the Rohingya situation, but she mostly denies that the military are perpetrating gross human rights abuses against civilians in Maungdaw under the cover of clearance operations,’ he said.
‘Her own office established an Information Committee simply reproducing the military’s version of events, and the investigation commission she formed lacks independence and credibility as it includes former and current military officers. What is needed is an immediate halt to all abuses against civilians and immediate humanitarian access.’
On 29 December a group of 23 Nobel laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai sent an open letter to the UN Security Council urging them to lift all restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rakhine state and end the ‘ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’.
‘If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets,’ the letter said. ‘It would be one thing to round up suspects, interrogate them and put them on trial. It is quite another to unleash helicopter gunships on thousands of ordinary civilians and to rape women and throw babies into a fire.’
While the evidence provides a clear indication that the Burmese authorities may be responsible for genocide, there is little help coming from the international community. The US government, which has always been a key supporter of the NLD and the country’s democratic transition, has sent mixed messages.
The US diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, has criticized the military’s escalation of violence and warned that unless the crisis was defused, the government risks creating jihadist extremism. But in his last months as president, Barack Obama ignored the brutal crackdown and announced that the US would lift economic sanctions citing ‘substantial progress in improving human rights.’
He justified the lifting of sanctions by calling it the right thing to do to help the people of Burma, but the Burmese people were never the target of the sanctions, instead they focused on individuals and companies who supported the previous military regime.
Many of those individuals have become dominant players in large businesses while also being directly responsible for much of the violence in the country, including the current persecution of the Rohingya. Without sanctions they will be able to partner with large transnational companies and gain significant financial influence.
The Obama administration may have inadvertently helped create the conditions that have made the nightmare in Rakhine state possible. With no more leverage future administrations will be forced to rely solely on a diplomatic response while they watch the military commit further atrocities.
The Rohingya have faced persecution in Burma for decades and despite being called the most persecuted minority in the world by the UN, the world has often been silent. But the sheer brutality of events now taking place show an urgent need for that silence to be broken. Focus must be placed on genocide prevention, an international investigation needs to be launched and the UN, as well as world leaders, should pressure the NLD to lift the aid blockade immediately.
The reports pouring out of the country paint a picture of a situation disturbingly similar to the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. Then, as now, the international community did not take action and it left them complicit in death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Apologies were made after that genocide and in order to show that lessons had to be learnt, two words came to characterize the international response ‘never again’.
Yet the warning signs have been there for years, with the NGO Fortify Rights highlighting in a 2015 report that the United States, European Union and British government were standing by and watching genocide against the Rohingya take place while celebrating Burma’s political reforms. Those reforms have now largely taken place and the country has taken a major step forward by democratically electing a new leader, but the Rohingya have seen no positive change. They are still stateless, they are still persecuted, and now they face a campaign of brutality on an unprecedented level with no indication of help coming any time soon.