This week marks six months since the Myanmar military resumed its ruthless crackdown against the country’s Rohingya people. Many women and girls fleeing brutal state sponsored persecution have reported horrific accounts of rape, sexual assault, torture and murder at the hands of government forces.
When state institutions orchestrate such human rights violations and allow perpetrators to act with impunity, the international community must unite in taking a strong stand to hold those responsible to account.
Violent oppression of Myanmar’s various ethnic groups has been happening for decades but targeted assaults against the Rohingya community have spiralled since August last year. when Myanmar’s authorities launched what they euphemistically describe as ‘clearance operations’.
Over 680,000 Rohingyas have entered neighbouring Bangladesh, a country ill-equipped to deal with the mounting crisis. Although conditions in the refugee camps are dire given the vast and rapid influx of people, it is estimated that around 200 a day are still making the dangerous border crossing to escape continuing state hostilities.
Evidence is mounting to back allegations that Myanmar’s autonomous military, known as the Tamadaw, is engaging in the systematic use of sexual violence as part of a coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing.
A UN investigation conducted amongst refugees in Bangladesh found that 52% of women reported being raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence. The majority were gang-raped, and most identified military officers or police officers as the perpetrators.
In a refugee centre, one survivor told Human Rights Watch in October:
“I was held down by six men and raped by five of them. First, they [shot and] killed my brother … then they threw me to the side and one man tore my lungi [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me. That was how they kept me in place….1 was trying to move and [the wound] was bleeding more. They were threatening to shoot me.”
Another story came from a 17-year-old, identified simply as N, who told the Associated Press that she was at home with her family when ten soldiers burst in. Half of the men held her pleading family back while the rest took turns raping her. Forced to watch, her parents were beaten if they screamed.
Alittle girl dressed in pink, maybe three years old, is smiling through a rip in a tarpaulin. She is leaning against the bamboo pole holding up her home. Below her is a 15-foot drop, straight down to a dried-up riverbed.
The steep valleys across the huge Rohingya refugee camps are a growing concern as Bangladesh’s monsoon season approaches. Last summer, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the border from Myanmar in the face of an alleged genocide, the Bangladesh government allocated state-owned land for their camps.
The land was Bangladesh’s reserve forest: beautiful, dense, lush woodland that stretched for miles across the south of the country.
Within a few months, the forest was stripped away completely, leaving just compacted silt that collapses to dust at a touch. Bangladesh’s monsoon season will soon begin, with weeks of rain. Cyclones can hit the country anytime between March and July.
“I am very worried about the monsoon,” says Mohammed Rofik, 27. “It was hard enough in Myanmar, where we had good houses. Those houses would get destroyed by the storms. Here, we have houses made of plastic and bamboo.”
The speed of the Rohingya movement across the border last August took aid agencies by surprise. As a result, thousands of homes were built out of nothing more than tarpaulin and bamboo. “Lives will be lost,” says one aid worker. “The houses at the top of the hills are at risk of landslides, the ones at the bottom could flood.”
One assessment, carried out by Dhaka University and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, suggests that up to one-third of the settlement area could be flooded, with more than 85,000 refugees losing their shelters. Another 23,000 refugees living on steep slopes could be at risk of landslides.
The Rohingya Genocide is as confusing as it is complex. There is a fog that obscures what is happening on the ground in historical perspective because just so much is happening in real time.
The Myanmar state, both the civil government and the Tatmadaw, have actively taken advantage of this confusion to accomplish two things, and, as I speak here in Berlin in the Jewish Museum, I point out that the Nazis fought both a war on the Jews AND used the war on the Jews to fight a war on German liberalism.As with the Holocaust, the Myanmar state is fighting a war against the Rohingya, on the one hand, but also a war on emerging Myanmar liberalism, on the other.What is happening right now is about the Rohingya, but not only about the Rohingya. The state and the army have very adeptly blinded the Bamar population and many of the ethnic minorities to the eradication of liberalism within the country with the willing support of ASSK and her NLD party.
There are many other scholars here better versed in genocide studies than I, what I intend to talk about instead is how successive states in Myanmar have actively used scholars and history both in the past and today to obscure the truth and support state programmes that have worked against the Rohingya.
I. A Buddhist AND a Muslim Past Buddhicised
In the fifteenth century, the Kingdoms of Ava and Pegu tried to establish cultural hegemony over the Indo-Aryan kingdom of Rakhine, importing kings and queens, courtiers, Buddhist monks, and Burmese-speaking settlers. The Rakhine ruler who ousted these foreign invaders, established a religiously hybrid court, a sultanate, but in addition to permitting Buddhist immigration and European migrants from abroad, also raided Bengal and brought to Rakhine thousands of Bengali Muslim every year. Many of these were planted in the Kaladan River areas close to the concentrations of Muslims in Rakhine today where they grew rice and still grow rice until the recent crisis.
We do not find a lot of pre-18th century tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim populations.The physical geography and climate favored approaches to living and ruling, interacting, and community building, social mentalities that were flexible and inclusive, that favored the emergence of ethnically and religiously diverse communities. But this diversity was soon obscured by an Invasion from the Irrawaddy Valley.
Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen visited the no man’s land around 10:25am on Tuesday
The Nobel laureates visiting the no man’s land between Myanmar’s Tambru and Bangladesh’s Konapara border areas have asked the refugees not to hesitate to call themselves Rohingya.
Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen visited the no man’s land around 10:25am on Tuesday.
Around 700,000 Rohingyas entered Bangladesh since August 2017, fleeing the Myanmar military’s oppression termed as “ethnic cleansing” by the UN.
During their visit, the laureates spoke to the Rohingyas living in the area.
“Don’t hesitate to call yourselves Rohingya. You are the Rohingya people,” the duo reiterated to the people who are living in the no man’s land in constant uncertainty.
The two women also asked the 6,500 the refugees living in no man’s land not to lose hope.
Karman and Maguire also spoke to around 12 Rohingya women, who are victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Three female Nobel Peace laureates began a weeklong trip to Bangladesh on Saturday to meet Rohingya Muslim women who were tortured and raped by soldiers in Myanmar before fleeing the country.
During their visit, Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman and Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire will assess the violence against the Rohingya women and the refugees’ overall situation, according to the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a platform of six female peace laureates established in 2006.
About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled army-led violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since late August and are living in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of atrocities against the Rohingya, including killing, rape and arson. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.”
Sunday is the six-month anniversary of the start of the refugee crisis, Asia’s worst since the Vietnam War.
In an email to The Associated Press on Saturday, Karman said that she and her colleagues were standing “in solidarity with displaced Rohingya women and calling for Rohingya women’s voices to be heard.”
She said Rohingya women are twice victimized — for being Rohingya and for being women — and “are affected by the ethnic cleansing and are also subject to high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.”
“Rohingya women’s unique needs are largely unmet in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” she said. “Less than 20 percent of displaced Rohingya women who have survived sexual violence have access to post-rape care.”
When reality goes off the chart of what is thinkable, fiction is no match. That Oxford University’s most iconic living graduate Aung San Suu Kyi may find herself at the International Criminal Court for her “complicity of silence in crimes against humanity” and even a genocide will go down in history as one such extraordinary tale. Yet as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee made unequivocally clear in her 6-minute interview with UK’s Channel 4 News on 14 February: this is no hyperbole.
In the eyes of many conscientious people, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former icon of freedom, human rights and democracy has lost her hard-earned moral authority and the image as the “Queen of Democracy” for her role in what UN officially calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of nearly 700,000 Rohingyas of Myanmar in the last 6 months.
The finger pointing at the Oxford-educated Burmese politician comes not from her old nemesis, that is, the Burmese generals, who had routinely vilified her in their state-controlled media for several decades during her 15-years of house arrest. Quite the opposite: former admirers and supporters such as Desmond Tutu, the Irish singer Bono who composed “Walk On,” a song dedicated to Suu Kyi; Sir Geoffrey Nice, former Prosecutor in the case against Slobodan Milosevic, who shared the televised Rule of Law Roundtable at LSE with her when she first returned to Britain in 2012; Head of the Human Rights Council Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, from the Republic of Korea, who, like many Asian women, considered the Burmese “a role model” – all have turned against her, bitterly disappointed at Suu Kyi’s “callous dismissal” of credible allegations as the UN Human Rights Chief put it, of mass atrocities under her watch.
In an alarming parallel, both Suu Kyi and Oxford University show a similar indifference to concerns regarding the persecution of the Rohingya – a prolonged history.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government routinely issues blanket denials in response to any credible findings about its mass graves of Rohingyas executed in cold-blood; systematic and pervasive use of rape against Rohingya women and girls; or destruction of over 340 Rohingya villages in an area covering 100 kilometres.
Suu Kyi has shown a similar indifference to these concerns. In her internal memo to the UN Secretary General Antonia Gunterres, Pramila Patten, UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, reportedly wrote that the “meeting with the state counsellor was a cordial courtesy call of approximately 45 minutes that was, unfortunately, not substantive in nature.” Suu Kyi expressed the “belief” that those (688,000 Rohingyas) who fled did so due to an affiliation with terrorist groups, and did so to evade law enforcement,” according to the Guardian (12 Feb 2017).
British lawmakers have called on UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson to back a campaign to refer Myanmar’s military leaders to the International Criminal Court.
Over 100 parliamentarians have signed a letter urging the government to back a UN Security Council referral of the head of the Myanmar army General Min Aung Hlaing for crimes committed against the Rohingya people.
Since the Myanmar military began their offensive in August 2017, more than 680,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, according to a report by the United Nations.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused the military of carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the area. According to charity Médecins Sans Frontières, 7,000 Rohingya were killed in one month, 730 of whom were children.
The UK has given £59 million (Dh302m) in aid since the violence broke out, while British Prime Minister Theresa May has been one of the most vocal global leaders in condemning the Myanmar authorities for their role in the crisis.
For his part, Mr Johnson visited Myanmar and the ravaged Rakhine state earlier this month to press the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on allowing Rohingya refugees to safely return to their homes.
“Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow,” he said, as he mimed strafing with a machine gun. Hussein Basyiry was showing us what happened in his village in Myanmar when the soldiers came. His father was the local leader in his village and they had enjoyed a good life, but none of that mattered when the bullets started flying.
He scooped up two of his young children and ran down the hill towards the river separating Myanmar from Bangladesh, then dashed back for more. All eight of his children and his wife made it safely across to Bangladesh, but Hussein has two bullet wounds to show for it, one in his arm, one in his chest. He also has the memories seared into his mind of seeing neighbors hacked to death with machetes.
Mohammed has a similar story. He saw 10 people executed in front of him and as he fled for his life, his left shoulder was shot out. He received no medical care for his wound and now, five months later, he is permanently disabled and unable to move the arm. He’s one of the lucky ones. He made it to Bangladesh with his wife, their 18-month old son and his two younger sisters. We asked him if he wanted to say anything to people outside of Bangladesh. He said yes. Mohammed wants the world to know what is happening in Myanmar — the Rohingya are being slaughtered.
We hiked in at least a mile to a hilltop “village” of refugee shelters and met an 85-year-old woman so stooped with age that she could no longer stand up straight. Her eyes were cloudy with the milky white look of cataracts. She and her 50-year-old daughter are the only living members of their family. It took them almost two months to make the relatively short crossing from Myanmar to Bangladesh because they had to wait until they could find someone who would carry that sweet woman in a basket, as she simply could not walk or swim any distance at all. Relying on the mercy of strangers, she and her daughter eventually made it. When we met her on Saturday, she had not eaten in two days. We were honored help her get food and the organization we partnered with, AMAL Foundation, built the two of them a new shelter.
Deputy Assistance Secretary of State Dan Rosenblum, speaking in Dhaka on Tuesday, also said Washington would continue speaking out as part of putting pressure on the Myanmar government to solve the crisis.
“We strongly applaud the government of Bangladesh’s generosity in taking the Rohingya refugees and giving them shelter,” Rosenblum, who looks after the department’s south and central Asian affairs, said.
“We are also supportive to the (Bangladesh’s) efforts to cooperate with Myanmar to discuss repatriation process provided that, of course, that ensures only those who want to voluntary return home are able to do so,” he said at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies or BIISS.
“And they can do so in safety and dignity. If these principles are applied, we strongly support that process going forward,” he said while speaking on the ‘US and the Indo-Pacific region’ at the dialogue organised by the BIISS.
About 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military cracked down on the Muslim minority in response to militant attacks on security forces on Aug 25.
The United Nations described the operation as the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas, an allegation Myanmar denies.
Representatives of different embassies including China and Russia, former ambassadors of Bangladesh, think-tank, academia and researchers were present, among others, at the programme chaired by Munshi Faiz Ahmed, Chairman, Board of Directors, of BIISS.
Rosenblum also welcomed the commitment made by the leaderships in Burma to accept the return of refugees when it is safe.
Last week, former senior Clinton administration official Bill Richardson, who served as Governor of New Mexico, Energy Secretary and US Ambassador to the UN, added fuel to the fire after the first visit of the advisory board to Rakhine by announcing his disappointment at progress and his immediate resignation. This outburst captured press and public attention once again and led to a fresh surge of highly personal attacks upon Suu Kyi — in spite of the fact that Richardson was also quoted by Reuters as saying he thought she remained the only hope for Myanmar.