During the past several years, I have been documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority by capturing their dire everyday life in the Rakhine region of Myanmar and in Bangladesh, portraying them as human beings deprived of their social, civil and human rights that are so often taken for granted in our society.
My intention is to document the violent ethnic cleansing campaigns turning into genocide while under the pretext of so-called security operations by Myanmar forces.
The first attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Myanmar border police forces in October 2016 caused a widespread and disproportionate wave of retaliation on the Rohingya community. Although less covered by the media, this wave of atrocities caused some 100’000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh with evidence of summary executions, burning down villages and mass rape as clear indicators of severe ethnic cleansing and more annihilation to come.
Following the 25 August 2017 attack by ARSA on Myanmar police posts, another widespread “security operation” of Myanmar military forces sweeps throughout all the municipalities of Rakhine where Rohingya were present and causes another three-quarter of a million refugees to flee to Bangladesh to date and still counting.
Widespread killings, torture, disproportionate retaliation attacks turn to the mayhem of ethnic cleansing evolving into genocide.
Throughout, the access to Rakhine state for media and humanitarian actors has been extremely restricted and nearly impossible, as no witnesses of the denied barbarism are wanted. It’s estimated that no more than 350’000 to 450’000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine nowadays, of which more than half live in open air like prison camps in the periphery of the Rakhine State capital Sittwe and Paktauw township.
For years in Myanmar, if Kyaw Hla Maung, a historian, were to roll up his sleeves and bare his arms he might have been arrested. His arms are tattooed with an unusual a script with vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and clusters of dots, the ancient Brahmi language of the Rakhine or Arakanese people from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“I had to wear shirts with long sleeves,” he said. “Even if it was a hot day I still wore a long shirt so I wouldn’t get caught.”
The Rakhine people, one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic minority groups that live in Myanmar, were forbidden from speaking their language or studying their history from 1962 under a forced assimilation policy. However, since 2015 some schools have allowed the teaching of mother-tongue languages as a second language.
So, Kyaw Hla Maung chose not to record his teachings on paper but instead tattooed the consonants and vowels of one of the ancient Brahmi script on his skin.
Last year, Rakhine State made headlines around the world because of a military crackdown, which forced more than 600,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. The Rakhine consider the Rohingya outsiders from Bangladesh, and in some cases, have participated in the violence against them.
What is less known is that the Rakhine people also have a history of being oppressed – by the Burmese military, which enforced a rule of ‘Burmanisation’ or forcing the culture of the Burmese people on the country’s various ethnic groups, many of whom have been at war with the central government since Myanmar’s independence from the British.
The crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and the exodus of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims since last August has been one of the biggest media stories in this region of recent times. It has also presented journalists with particular responsibilities and challenges, as the Myanmar authorities have barred access to Rakhine State for almost all outsiders, even the United Nations, so that first-hand information about what has happened there is very difficult to obtain.
But the multiple accounts given by refugees in Bangladesh paint a grim picture of a violent state response, to attacks on around 30 police and military posts by Rohingya militants last August, which has been described as ethnic cleansing by the UN, and may amount to crime against humanity. The seriousness of the allegations against the Myanmar authorities imposes a special imperative on journalists to gather as much information as possible from all relevant sources to try to fill in the many gaps in our knowledge about events in Rakhine. That determination has cost two Reuters journalists in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oe, their freedom, as they have been prosecuted for receiving sensitive information about an alleged massacre of Rohingyas. Public opinion inside Myanmar, though, has turned sharply against foreign media reporting, which is widely perceived as unfairly critical of Aung San Suu Kyi, and too sympathetic to the Rohingyas.
The FCCT is pleased to bring together a group of journalists whose experience gives them unique insights into the challenge of seeking accurate information on the Rakhine crisis.
Poppy McPherson has been reporting in this region, mainly on Myanmar, for five years, producing powerful pieces on the Rohingya exodus for The Guardian and Time Magazine. She is currently based in Bangkok and finishing a book on the Rakhine crisis.
TAWAKKOL Karman, co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel peace prize asks of the Rohingya genocide, “Why is this happening? Why is this human holocaust happening right before our eyes, not being stopped?”
The Rohingya, an ethnic group that has been a part of Myanmar for centuries, has been a target of systematic ethnic cleansing since 2010. In plain sight of the world, these people were burned alive, their houses razed to the ground, women were gang-raped and their children murdered in the most horrific of ways. The tyranny and persecution became so severe that the United Nations, which usually remains detached in the face of local conflicts, declared the Rohingya as the “world’s most persecuted people” and called their treatment “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Since then, many world leaders, in addition to countless human rights organizations, have joined the UN to condemn the attacks and have called the actions genocide, but the relentless violence pushed on.
Vicious attacks forced hundreds of thousands of innocent people to seek shelter in neighboring countries. However, most of the time, they ran into the cold face of rejection. Australia, despite its richness and vast land, refused to lend a helping help to the Rohingya, even when they were stranded in the ocean on dingy boats.
In addition, the persecution and tyranny didn’t remain only physical. There is a systematic effort underway to erase the ethnic group from the collective history and memory of the country. Myanmar’s authorities are unabashedly denying the Rohingya’s past, claiming that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refuse to call them by their name, Rohingya. The identity, heritage, and legacy of this ethnic minority, which was a thriving community with ministers in the government until a couple of decades ago, are brazenly denied.
The present rulers of Burma claim that it’s overall indigenous ethnic population – comprising eight major ethnic communities viz Burman, Shan, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Chin, and Rakhaing (Arakanese Buddhist), subdivided into 135 ethnic races—are descendants of Mongolian races only. They categorically deny that Burma has any indigenous ethnic race belonging to Arian stock including Rohingya (Arakanese Muslim). Every people in present – day Burma having Indian features are being treated as either foreigners or descendants of foreigners, Kala, no matter how long one might have been established there. Being ignorant of the real history, most of the casual observers confuse people with Indian features with descendants of the Indian immigrants who entered Burma in thousands during British colonial era as in other countries of Southeast Asia. A
strong mispropaganda against Rohingya from the part of the Burmans as well as our sister community of Arakan, the Magh, also blurs the truth to some extent.
But who are the real foreigners in Arakan? Is Arakan purely a state belonging to the people of Mongolian stock? Efforts have been made to give appropriate answers to the above questions in this work.
In historical perspective Arakan is more a frontier province of Eastern India than a province of Burma. From very early days till thee arrival of the Mongolian and Tibeto – Burmans in the tenth century Arakan was an Indian land with a population similar to Bengal. The spread of Islam in Arakan during those early times and the impact of Islamic civilisation on Arakan particularly after Bengal became Muslim in 1203 is well known. The Arakanese Buddhists (Rakhaing) who are counted among the Mongolian stock, by the Burmans, are in fact descendants of Arian Maghada Buddhists migrated from Bihar in India around 8th century C.E. who were later assimilated by the invading Mongolians. But the Arakan with both Muslim and Buddhist population had always maintained an independent status although before the establishment of Mrauk-U dynasty by Solaiman Shah (Narameikhla) in 1430, there was from time to time Burman and Mon interference.
March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Myanmar tops a list of countries where the ability of aid groups to reach people in need has worsened in the past six months, the Geneva-based research group ACAPS has said.
In examining 37 countries, ACAPS analysts considered nine indicators, including violence against humanitarian workers and restrictions preventing people from reaching aid.
“Myanmar is the country where humanitarian access has deteriorated the most, as access for the Rohingya population has become increasingly difficult,” the group said in a statement.
The ACAPS report preceded another released Tuesday by a British parliamentary committee, which warned floods and disease could kill thousands of Rohingya refugees in camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The chair of the International Development Committee, Stephen Twigg, said in a statement that time was running out, adding that donors “must work with the Bangladesh government”.
“Substantial numbers of refugees are about to face another crisis. With the weather about to turn, the fragile safety and sanctuary that the Rohingya have found in temporary camps provided by Bangladesh is in jeopardy,” Twigg said.
United Nations’ officials say nearly 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh.
That came after militant attacks in August sparked a crackdown, led by security forces, in Rakhine state that the U.N. and United States have said constitutes ethnic cleansing.
The brutal surge of violence against the Rohingya in their home country of Myanmar has sent 800,000 people fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh in what some have called a “slow-burning genocide”—leaving many to ask whether a Burmese resistance exists.
At the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide in late February, I had the chance to ask Burmese dissidents and Rohingya survivors about whether there were any reports of “righteous Burmese” similar to the celebrated “righteous gentiles” who resisted during the Holocaust. The Burmese people at the event said resistance in Burma is very difficult and made rarer by the pervasive brainwashing of the Burmese Buddhist public, who have been largely convinced to regard reports of atrocities against the Rohingya as “fake news.” Hla Kyaw, a Rohingya doctor, said that he was sure there were cases of Buddhists helping out their Rohingya neighbors, although he had not yet heard of any. As with the Holocaust, it may be years before the stories of secret humanity among the Buddhists of Myanmar come to light. In the meantime, the resistance is flourishing in the Burmese diaspora in America and Europe, where it is safer to voice dissent.
At the Berlin Conference, elder dissidents were joined by representatives of the younger generation of activists. Perhaps the firiest speech at the Berlin conference came from U Kyaw Win, a global elder among Burmese dissidents. Win, a longtime friend of Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is an archetype of the older generation of pro-democracy activists who ultimately loosened the grip of the military junta over Myanmar.
U Kyaw Win was an early exile who publicly criticized Burma’s military junta in the 1960s and published The Burma Bulletin in an attempt to publicize human rights abuses in the country. He lobbied the US Congress for suspension of financial support for the junta for decades. Win fiercely dismissed the belief that the ethnically Burmese, or “Bamar,” own Myanmar and rejected the claims to primacy over other ethnic groups that have led to such brutality toward the Rohingya and other groups like the Shan, Mon, Karen, and Kachin. “Before the people who now inhabit Burma, there was nothing but land. All of them came from somewhere else or descended from people who came from somewhere else,” he said, referring to the tactic of Buddhist nationalists to dismiss the Rohingya as immigrant Bengalis.
BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s government on Tuesday rejected two reports presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council that concluded it committed extreme human rights violations, probably amounting to crimes under international law, in its repression of several minority groups.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said the reports presented Monday by the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee lacked credibility.
The report of the Fact-Finding Mission, chaired by former Indonesian Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman, was based on hundreds of accounts by victims and witnesses of reported human rights violations, as well as satellite imagery, photographs and video footage.
The mission’s members were barred by Myanmar’s government from entering the country, so its researchers interviewed refugees and others in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.
Zaw Htay said Buddhist-majority Myanmar had barred the Fact-Finding Mission because it rejected its legitimacy. He questioned the reliability of its research and cast doubts on the credibility of the refugees’ stories.
“We are not denying rights violations but we are asking for strong, fact-based, and trustworthy evidence on the allegations they are making,” Zaw Htay told The Associated Press by telephone.
He also said Myanmar would no longer cooperate with Lee because she “has made biased, one-sided and unfair accusations against Myanmar.”
Lee told the Human Rights Council that violent sweeps by the Myanmar army in Rakhine state that prompted about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh “bear the hallmarks of genocide.”
She said accountability for the abuses in Rakhine should be “the focus of the international community’s efforts to bring long-lasting peace, stability and democratization to Myanmar.”
“This must be aimed at the individuals who gave the orders and carried out violations against individuals and entire ethnic and religious groups,” she said. “The government leadership who did nothing to intervene, stop, or condemn these acts must also be held accountable.”
Persecuted for decades in their native Myanmar, where they’ve been denied citizenship and face violent ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya people fled to bordering countries in waves, with not much but each other.
In Cox’s Bazar, the tourist town in southeastern Bangladesh that’s seen 655,000 refugees pour in since August 2017, aid organizations have been overwhelmed–meaning that many Rohingya must make their own way, fixing plastic sheets to bamboo poles for “housing.”
The conditions in the overcrowded camps are dire; food is limited, drinking water scarce, and the lack of proper toilets increases the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. But even amid such desperate circumstances, the refugee Rohingya children find humble and often heartbreaking ways to remain children.
Many resort to scavenging for discarded objects along roadsides and in dumpsters–a plastic bottle cap here, a syringe there. The rudimentary toys caught the eye of photographer Ed Jones, who had initially traveled to Cox’s Bazar to photograph what families had brought with them from Myanmar. But as he would soon discover, few had time to pack belongings. Toys? Furniture? Clothes? All would have slowed them down on their dangerous journey; even without these items, many Rohingya have been intercepted and killed trying to make their way out. The photos he took of his trip were published on Getty Image’s FOTO site.
In the face of the historical disasters experienced by humanity, a majority of the world has developed some sort of reflex to ‘close their eyes’ and ‘play ostrich’. Many leaders, administrators, and representatives around the world, prefer to remain indifferent and unresponsive to these catastrophes. When asked about what the EU should do regarding the situation in Myanmar, High Representative, Federica Mogherini, gave a marked answer: “I tend to avoid answering questions that are not related to the agenda we had.”
The answer also revealed an important truth: Today, the world agenda is shaped only by the interests and problems of the powerful. Those who are oppressed are often left alone with their own problems if they are not rich, have no oil or natural resources, or do not have any relevance to serving the interests of the powerful.
Ignoring, or underestimating, the inhumane practices Muslims are subjected to has become an ugly tradition, particularly in certain circles. Problems that could easily be solved with simple interventions, with little cost and effort, continue to grow exponentially behind a collective wall of nonchalance. The disastrous events taking place in Rakhine, Syria, Africa or Southeast Asia, continue to find a place in world news reports every day, as a shame on humanity.
Most of the international institutions that could solve the problems of humanity are far from fulfilling their functions. For instance, the UN content themselves with simply condemning the incidents in Rakhine with a Security Council Resolution. They do not produce any concrete or constructive solution to the massacres and persecution the Rohingya Muslims—which the UN itself defines as “the most persecuted minority” —are subjected to.
As is known, the Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been subjected to severe oppression and persecution for nearly 40 years. They are continuously forced out of their homes by the Myanmar government and the army. The oppression, persecution, massacres and policies of exile are being systematically escalated by the Myanmar government since 2012, and have reached an unprecedented form of outright ethnic cleansing in the last two years.