The official news out of Myanmar has slowed to a trickle, but the torrent of human desperation rushing over the border keeps swelling, as the persecution of Muslim Rohingya minority communities has erupted into mass bloodshed.
A vaguely defined rogue insurgency has been blamed for instigating the violence by attacking local police. But the more than 120,000 refugees who have crossed over to neighboring Bangladesh since August 25 tell a very different story of genocidal violence, military impunity, and relentless intercommunal conflict. The aggression, say human-rights observers, is rooted in a systemic pattern of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against people the country has never accepted as citizens, even as it claims to be democratizing society.
In response, the United Nations has condemned the carnage, while the UN special rapporteur on the human-rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, accused the government of multiple human-rights violations against the Rohingya over recent months, urging it to “ensure that security forces exercise restraint in all circumstances.”
Restraint isn’t what comes to mind when Maung Zarni thinks about the exodus from his homeland. The London-based academic and dissident describes the crisis as a generations-old “double crime” against the Rohingya: institutionalized ethnic hatred and scars of past sectarian conflict, combined with the community’s ongoing disenfranchisement under successive repressive governments. The official narrative, bolstered with a humanitarian and media blockade in the Rakhine state, obscures the government’s role in what he sees as “the slow death” of the Rohingya “on their own home land,” spurred by periodic crackdowns by government forces and perpetuated through communal conflict with a militarized Buddhist majority.
At the same time, Rohingya refugees have been met with hostility from border authorities. Makeshift encampments on the outskirts of Bangladesh have already filled and the influx is now spilling into local roadsides, apparently forcing the Bangladeshi government to loosen its border controls somewhat. As the need for emergency aid explodes, international humanitarian authorities predict catastrophe if Myanmar’s government fails to stem the displacement and work toward reconciliation.
Refugees who have made it across the border report massacres, mass rape, and systematic torching of homes.
“They fired so close that I cannot hear anything now,” Mohammad Zafar, 70, recounted in an AFP report, claiming that both his sons had been murdered by Buddhist militants. “They came with rods and sticks to drive us to the border.”
And at the border, many trying to cross by traversing a river in simple boats have drowned. Those who survive the journey recall scenes of horror: One woman clutching an infant told the BBC, “Buddhists are killing us by bullets. They burned houses. Tried to shoot us. They shot and killed my husband.”
A weeping teenager pleaded for protection from Bangladeshi authorities: “If we go there to our land, the army will kill us. So you better kill us here or you negotiate with them so that we can go back there. I don’t want to go back there now.”
The reports resonate strongly with other eyewitness accounts given by refugees to Guardian journalists in recent months, describing militarized communal violence led primarily by locals militants linked to a group of Buddhist monks. From London, Zarni denounced Myanmar’s new de facto leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has remained emphatically silent on the issue. The Nobel Peace laureate has recently suggested “both sides” are to blame, suggesting that she is aligning with the military and her administration is sliding into authoritarianism.
In fact, Zarni argues, what has been framed by the government as an extremist Muslim insurgency is a cry of frustration from a persecuted minority. The decades of mass violence and denial of basic citizenship rights have bred deep, and justified, resentment toward the post-reform government. “These young Rohingya men, primitively armed, are not fighting to go to heaven as martyrs,” he continues. “They are fighting back because they and their communities are sitting ducks awaiting the next round of mass slaughter.”
If they are fighting back, he writes via e-mail, they are doing so with “primitive” tools and equipment and pose little real threat to security forces. He concedes that “they are making a bad choice, of course, among all bad choices. Do they subject themselves to semi-slavery in the hands of human traffickers, or risk drowning in the high sea? Do they allow themselves and their families to remain in semi-famine conditions?”
Zarni also sees calculated anti-Islamic stereotyping in the official rhetoric on a largely localized conflict, arguing that Western media and officials are “infested with general Islamophobia” and eager to “frame any Muslim who resists against injustices or fights back any power that subjects their communities to Hell-like conditions as ‘prospective Jihadist’, ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ or ‘Terrorist.’”
Though Myanmar’s predominantly Muslim neighbors like Indonesia are condemning the government’s actions, in Zarni’s view the refugees are trapped in a geopolitical crossfire. As a regional political flashpoint, “Rohingyas are preyed on by predatory states and non-state actors” across South Asia who exploit the conflict to bolster their own political or business interests. Meanwhile the United States and other Western powers’ relative passivity suggest the White House is “wooing Myanmar with Suu Kyi in quasi-power as the facade or justification for fully normalizing its relations with the Burmese military…or promoting US corporate interests.”
The refugee crisis also reflects a broader crisis of displacement across Asia. Rohingya refugees have been continually lured onto deadly smuggling routes that feed into a transnational system of mass migration and human trafficking.
Zarni says that the international response could make a difference if informed by a strong grassroots mobilization, parallel to that of the global anti-apartheid struggle and, more recently, the free Burma activism that helped bring about pro-democracy reforms that put the current government in place. “What we are seeing,” he says, “is an apartheid in Western Burma with a serious genocidal dimension…. Burma needs to be pariarized again, and any type of cultural tie or economic tie needs to come under pressure for severance.”
As with many refugee crises around the world, the problem isn’t centered merely on questions of humanitarian policy or foreign aid, but historically driven deprivation, coupled with state repression and international indifference. The mask is now slipping on Yangon’s reformist regime, but as long it can maintain its impunity among its strategic allies, officials will contain the political fallout, even as the humanitarian fallout bleeds across borders.