The call to prayer in Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son had stopped echoing through the rice paddies, and the men were returning to work when they heard the first gunshots.
“We had just walked to a farm, where we were sitting and talking,” said one farmer from the village, in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. “While the firing was going on, my father stood up, which is when a grenade came and exploded close to us, killing my father, the farm owner’s son, and severely injuring me and the farmer.”
That was just one testimony from among the thousands of survivors who are streaming out of razed Rohingya villages in western Myanmar and settling uneasily in overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. The stories coming out of the region are strikingly similar: The Myanmar army and local collaborators have unleashed a wave of torture, rape and death upon the Rohingya in a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee, all in plain view of the international community.
The Rohingya are indigenous Burmese but ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct from the Bamar, the dominant Burmese ethnicity. The Rohingya trace their roots to the Arakan kingdom, whose territory corresponds with the modern-day state of Rakhine, dating back to at least the 15th century. As recently as 2014, there were an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar, almost exclusively in Rakhine. A small number of Rohingya are Hindu, but the vast majority are Muslim, imbuing their persecution with religious overtones. Despite the fact the Rohingya have been in what is now Myanmar for nearly five centuries, the state refuses to recognize them as one of the eight Burmese “national races,” denying them citizenship and making them a stateless people. The Burmese government even refuses to use the word “Rohingya.” It insists they are terrorists or illegal Bengali immigrants.
None of this discrimination is new. The Rohingya have been isolated and had their rights restricted ever since the 1962 military coup. The military relied heavily on nationalism to keep the country together after overthrowing the monarchy, and thus played up the Buddhist heritage of Burma and found the Rohingya to be a useful scapegoat.
After the coup, which set up the military junta that governed Myanmar until 2015, the military required all citizens to obtain national citizenship cards. However, the Rohingya were denied these cards, receiving only foreign identity cards, which barred them from the best schools, universities and jobs. In 1978, the Burmese government made its first concerted effort to drive the Rohingya out of Burma, forcibly expatriating some 200,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in “Operation Dragon King.” The majority of the Rohingya eventually returned, but the precedent had been set.
In 1982, Myanmar passed its Citizenship Law, in which it refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 legally recognized ethnic groups. Their statelessness severely limits their access to work and health care, restricts their travel and effectively prevents them from voting.
There have been consistent flare-ups and security crackdowns by the Burmese military against the Rohingya in the intervening years, including another expulsion campaign in 1991, this one named “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation.” Another 200,000 Rohingya refugees were forced to flee to Bangladesh to escape military violence and arbitrary arrests. This antagonism continued into the 2000s. But then, in 2015, the military junta ruling Myanmar was forced to open up. Observers hoped this might bring an opportunity for reconciliation between the government and the Rohingya and other persecuted minorities, including the Kachin, Karen and Mon groups, to name a few. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratic activist, known by names such as the “Iron Orchid” and “Asia’s Mandela,” ran a campaign promising to reach an accord with the many repressed Burmese minorities.
In 2015, her party swept to victory, winning 86 percent of Myanmar’s parliamentary body, the Assembly of the Union, and Suu Kyi became the de facto ruler of the country in a power-sharing agreement between the civilian government and the military. In August 2016, State Counsellor Suu Kyi convened a peace conference with the minority political organizations and rebel militias. However, the Rohingya—and even the mere mention of their name—were excluded from these talks.
Two months later, a militant group known as the Arkan Rakhine Solidarity Army (ARSA) carried out attacks on three police outposts in Rakhine, killing nine police officers. In response, the military mobilized against the Rohingya community. Soldiers marched into Rakhine villages, torching buildings and shooting indiscriminately. Helicopter gunships were used to strafe fleeing crowds. Satellite photos released by Human Rights Watch show over 1,200 homes completely razed to the ground across five villages. In December 2016, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said Suu Kyi had taken a “short-sighted, counterproductive, even callous” approach to the crisis.
Then, in August, ARSA struck again against the Myanmar government, attacking 30 police posts and a military base across Rakhine. Twelve members of the Burmese armed forces died and ARSA suffered 59 casualties. This only accelerated the Burmese military’s actions against the Rohingya.
Reports continue to filter out of Myanmar about numerous atrocities committed by the Burmese military. Soldiers and nationalist vigilantes have committed rape, murder, torture and property destruction on a massive scale. At least 6,700 Rohingya have been killed and more than 600,000 have fled Rakhine to escape persecution.
Most have become refugees in neighboring Bangladesh, including one stretch in September when nearly 70,000 Rohingya crossed the border over a 24-hour period. Bangladesh is now hosting over 800,000 Rohingya refugees, and Amnesty International reports that the Burmese military is now laying mines along the Burmese-Bangladeshi border, apparently to prevent their return. It is clear the goal of the Burmese military is to drive the Rohingya completely out of Myanmar—and they’ve nearly succeeded.
During all of this, Suu Kyi has remained conspicuously silent.
While she has been praised as a humanitarian crusading for human rights, her antipathy toward the plight of the Rohingya perhaps should have been anticipated. In 2012, when 100,000 Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar by the military, Suu Kyi refused to speak out in their defense. Suu Kyi’s inaction, now that she is effectively head of government, has transformed into complicity. The Burmese government has denied international relief organizations access to villages in Rakhine and allowed an all-out propaganda campaign in an effort to discredit stories of Rohingya abuse. Suu Kyi herself has accused humanitarian organizations, such as the World Food Program, of assisting terrorists and has given cover for the military actions in Rakhine. In an interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi denied what was happening in Rakhine, saying, “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ‘ethnic cleansing’ is too strong an expression for what is happening.” In a speech Suu Kyi delivered in September, she further addressed the situation with a “mix of untruths and victim-blaming,” according to Amnesty International.
Suu Kyi, while working to consolidate her power base, does not rule unopposed. The power-sharing agreement between her regime and the military is fraught. Suu Kyi could not make the military stand down on her own. However, she won a Nobel Prize by being a moral force, sacrificing her own freedom to speak out against the junta. The recent democratic reforms in Myanmar are a large result of the international pressure her activism inspired. At the very least, if she were so inclined, Suu Kyi could make the same impassioned pleas on behalf of the Rohingya as she did when demanding democracy.
The conclusion many have drawn is that Suu Kyi has no interest in stopping what is happening in Rakhine or has judged that doing so would cost her political support within the military and among hardline ultranationalists. The Rohingya are an unpopular minority, and Suu Kyi won her most recent election with the support of nationalist Buddhist monks. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “The moral giant has become a calculating politician.”
She once critiqued the junta, saying, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” She may as well have been addressing herself.
“I saved eight of my nine children from the burning house, but [my daughter] Setara was trapped inside. I could see her crying in the middle of the fire, but it was difficult to save her. By the time we could reach her, she was badly burned,” said Arafa, whose house was struck by a rocket, in an interview with Reuters from a refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in November. Setara’s toes were burnt off, and the girl has been psychologically traumatized. “She has been mute from that day and doesn’t speak to anyone. She only cries silently.”
During the September speech, Suu Kyi said she did not “fear international scrutiny.” And thus far she has had little reason to. With the exception of the strong condemnation from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Congress weighing new sanctions against the Burmese military, there has been little international reaction to what is happening in Rakhine. The Trump administration has dragged its feet in acknowledging the situation. It took until Nov. 22 for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to acknowledge that the Burmese military crackdown is “ethnic cleansing.” Donald Trump did not mention the situation once during his early November tour of Asia.
In the absence of U.S. leadership, no other countries have stepped up to address the situation. There has been very little reaction among Myanmar’s neighbors. Most Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar itself, have not ratified the U.N. Refugee Convention. And reflective of the organization’s non-interference principle, the final statement from the November summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which includes Myanmar—made no mention of the Rohingya, even when stressing “the importance of increased humanitarian access for affected communities” in northern Rakhine.
Bangladesh, where most of the Rohingya have been forced to flee, also has a contentious relationship with them. The Bangladeshi government refuses to recognize them as refugees and signed a deal with the Burmese stating that the Rohingya must eventually be repatriated to Myanmar, without regard for their safety there.
The two major powers in the region, China and India, are both more interested in working with Myanmar as it opens up economically than in taking any moral stand. Almost exactly halfway between Mumbai and Shanghai and overflowing with untapped natural resources as a result of decades of economic sanctions, Myanmar has become a battleground for Chinese and Indian influence. Thus, both nations are attempting to ingratiate themselves with Suu Kyi’s government. China’s ambassador to the U.N. recently stated that China “understands and supports” Myanmar’s need to maintain security in Rakhine, while India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said during a state visit in September, “We share [Myanmar’s] concerns about extremist violence in Rakhine state and especially the violence against security forces.” Modi and the Chinese government have a checkered past in dealing with their own Muslim minorities.
Almost alone among governmental and intergovernmental organizations, the U.N. has been unflinchingly critical of the suffering of the Rohingya. Reports from UNHCR and Human Rights Watch have meticulously documented the abuses, killings and perpetrators in Rakhine. In September, al-Hussein, the human rights chief, said the Rohingya were suffering a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” at the hands of Myanmar’s “cruel military operation.”
“We’re terrified. We’ll starve soon and they’re threatening to burn down our houses,” reported Maung Maung, a Rohingya official from Ah Nauk Pyin, to Reuters in September. Another Rohingya from Ah Nauk Pyin reported that Rakhine Buddhists were marching through town shouting, “Leave, or we will kill you all.”
Within Myanmar, a propaganda campaign is underway. The government has met stories of abuse with silence and spin, insisting this is actually a “counter-terrorism campaign.” Buddhist nationalists have plastered social media with images of burning homes—alongside claims the Rohingya are torching them themselves. Suu Kyi herself suggested the international community should rather focus on the positive: that half the homes remain standing.
In one of the more bizarre episodes, Suu Kyi’s office held up a photo of Sylvester Stallone from Rambo, in which he’s glaring at an Asian man, as an example of lies being spread by pro-Rohingya forces.
When not outright denying state terror, Burmese nationalists’ most common defense is that it’s vital to preserve the Buddhist character of Myanmar. They point out that Rohingya have higher birth rates and larger families than most Burmese. They point to nations where Buddhist majorities were overrun by Islam, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. They conveniently ignore that the religious and cultural changes in these other countries took place over centuries or were top-down political decisions, and that Muslims have consistently made up only 4 percent of the Burmese population.
The Rohingya have been called the world’s most persecuted and least wanted people. The past year seems to bear this out. Despite there being no question about what is happening in Myanmar, it was not until late November that any organization with power admitted that what was happening constituted ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity.
In the 2002 book A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power wrote, “Before I began exploring America’s relationship with genocide, I used to refer to U.S. policy toward Bosnia as a ‘failure.’ I have changed my mind. It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.” While Power focuses on the U.S., her argument could easily be expanded to include the entire international community. Its inaction—after so many promises to prevent such slaughter—shows the system has not changed.
Momtaz Begum, another Rohingya woman from Rakhine, fled to Bangladesh after troops locked her in her home and set fire to her roof. While speaking with Reuters, she put the situation bluntly:
“What can I say about the future? If we now have no food, no house, no family, we cannot think about the future. They have killed that as well.”