The ongoing plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority has seen some tragic developments this year.
In the early hours of January 14, a series of events spiralled into the deadliest atrocity against the Rohingya since sectarian violence swept the nation in 2012, when security forces and Rakhine Buddhists reportedly attacked Du Char Yar Tan village in northern Rakhine State, killing 40 Rohingya, including women and children.
The Myanmar government continues to deny that the massacre took place. But numerous reports conflict with the official narrative.
United Nations (UN) high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay said in a statement she had received “credible reports” of killings in Du Char Yar Tan village. Details later emerged that the massacre was discovered when a group of men found the severed heads of at least 10 Rohingya, including children, bobbing in a water tank.
Calls for an international investigation were promptly rejected, with presidential spokesperson Ye Htut later invoking the United States’ refusal of an international probe into Guantanamo to justify the decision. An internal inquiry by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC) concluded there was no “solid evidence” to prove the attack took place, making the allegations “unverifiable and unconfirmed.”
UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has questioned the independence of the MHRC and told Democratic Voice of Burma, that he “remains convinced that serious violent incidents took place.”
Associated Press (AP) was the first international media outlet to report on the attack in an article headed, “Myanmar mob kills more than a dozen Muslims.” This quickly drew government disapproval. AP journalists in Yangon were summoned by the Ministry of Information for reporting events that “differed from the real situation.”
Evidently, there is a disparity between what the international community is seeing and hearing and what the Myanmar Government wants the world to believe. In handling the January massacre, the government appears to have adopted two strategies — deny that it happened and discredit any conflicting versions of events.
Unfortunately, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is now discovering what happens when you report details that differ to accounts given by the government, while relying on its permission to carry out vital projects. Following the massacre in Du Char Yar Tan village – which “officially” did not happen – MSF reported treating 22 patients for injuries sustained during the violence. The government portrayed this as “wrong information” and last month, scores of protestors took to the streets hurling accusations of Rohingya bias and calling for the international non-government organisation (NGO) to be ousted from the country. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut told media on February 28 that MSF had become less transparent. ‘‘They even hired Bengalis [Rohingya].’’ He said the government would not be extending its MoU with the medical charity and that it had been ordered to cease all operations in the country.
Past accusations of “bias” favouring the country’s Rohingya Muslims prompted Peter Paul de Groote, MSF’s head of mission in Myanmar, to write a piece for the Myanmar Times. ‘‘If providing medical care can ever be referred to as ‘biased’, it is a bias toward patients. It is a bias that is based on medical need, regardless of any other factor. MSF sees only patients, nothing else.’’
After negotiations, MSF was given permission to resume its projects – except in strife-torn Rakhine State, where about 80 percent of Myanmar’s estimated 1.33 million Rohingya live. In a March 2 statement MSF expressed concern for ‘‘tens of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine State who currently face a humanitarian medical crisis.’’
MSF was the major NGO provider of healthcare in the state. Along with supporting local Rakhine, the medical group offered a lifeline to the segregated Rohingya who have difficulty accessing medical services because of travel restrictions and discrimination that prevents them from being treated at public hospitals. Human Rights Watch has slammed the move as “simply deplorable.”
The latest news from the Myanmar Times indicates that the expulsion of MSF from Rakhine State will be temporary, but could last at least seven months. A state government official said that if MSF were allowed to stay in the state, the organization’s workers, and government staff, could be targeted by Rakhine community groups carrying grievances of bias. The article notes that a number of international NGOs and UN agencies have been subjected to online threats since the suspension of MSF’s operations.
Policies of Persecution
Damning revelations in a new report by independent human rights group, Fortify Rights, implicate government authorities in policies that discriminate against and repress its Rohingya minority.
The report, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, draws on leaked official documents to expose the government’s hand in human rights abuses. For two decades UN envoys have reported widespread rights violations against the Rohingya, describing the abuses as “systematic” and resulting from “state policy.” But Fortify Rights has gone a step further, providing evidence of the government’s complicity.
In response to the report, Ye Htut told the Myanmar Times that the government does not remark on “baseless accusations from Bengali lobby groups.”
The government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as “Bengali.” This stems from a pervasive belief that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a conviction widely held despite records of Rohingya families living in Myanmar for centuries. Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are concentrated, is a crescent of land sitting along the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh to the north. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya as belonging to Myanmar and with this reform they were rendered stateless. An appeal by the UN last year, calling on the government to grant its Rohingya minority citizenship was rejected. This should not come as a surprise considering President Thein Sein has suggested that the solution to ethnic enmity in Rakhine State was to send the Rohingya to another country or have the UN refugee agency look after them.
Documents obtained by Fortify Rights detail restrictions on the Rohingya relating to: ‘‘movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life.’’ These policies, created and implemented by Rakhine State and central government authorities, apply solely to the Rohingya and are reportedly framed as a response to an “illegal immigration” problem and threats to “national security.”
This notion of national security requires context on the volatile situation in Rakhine State.
Ongoing tension between Rohingya (as well as other Muslims, including Kaman) and Rakhine Buddhists reached tipping point in 2012. Bloody bouts of sectarian violence, including two major waves in June and October, resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people and displaced another 140,000 (the vast majority of those dead and displaced were Rohingya).
Conflict that began as tit-for-tat communal clashes soon escalated into what multiple human rights groups have condemned as ethnic cleansing.
June violence was reportedly sparked by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by three Muslim men. A few days later, a group of Rakhine stopped a bus and beat to death ten Muslims who were on board. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report explains that violence then escalated into mob assaults, with atrocities committed by both sides. However, according to the report, the attacks that occurred in October were more “orchestrated” and were organized, incited and committed by “political party operatives, the Buddhist Monkhood and ordinary Arakanese [Rakhine], at times directly supported by state security forces.” On October 23, “after months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing,’ in apparently coordinated assaults, Rakhine men attacked Muslim villages in nine townships across the state, killing residents and razing homes ‘while security forces stood aside or assisted the assailants.”
Despite this, the government has consistently denied any wrongdoing and no members of security forces have been prosecuted for their alleged roles in the attacks.
Since then, the Rohingya have been living an excruciatingly limited existence under apartheid-like policies. They are prevented from leaving the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and cordoned off areas where they are allowed to live in Rakhine State, without a special permit, which is reportedly difficult and expensive to obtain. This means access to basic rights – livelihood, food, water, health care and education – is severely restricted. Once flourishing mixed market places are now devoid of Muslim businesses and hundreds of Rohingya university students have been prevented from getting higher education because “authorities cannot guarantee their safety.”
Notably, the Fortify Rights report states that, ‘‘Senior government officials have gone so far as to blame violence in Rakhine State on rapid population growth of Rohingya.’’
Reflecting this concern with population growth, Rakhine State spokesperson Win Myaing told media last year that “overpopulation is one of the causes of tension.” He added, “The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine [Buddhists].’’
Reliable population statistics are lacking and this year Myanmar will conduct its first census in more than 30 years. However, challenging the construction of a Rohingya “breeding problem,” a study of official data by Harvard University researchers, found that the population growth rate in Rakhine State was slightly lower than the rest of Myanmar (for the period 1955-2010).
Whether this claim, that Rohingya have bigger families than Rakhine, has any factual basis is hardly the point, but it does explain the abusive population control measures the Rohingya are forced to endure. Since 2005, Rohingya in two majority Muslim townships in northern Rakhine State have been subjected to a strict two-child policy. A regional order obtained by Fortify Rights apparently underpins this policy, stating that Rohingya “who have permission to marry” must “limit the number of children, in order to control the birth rate so that there is enough food and shelter.”
Authorities are instructed to take family photos to ensure that children cannot be substituted into other households. ’’If the child is an infant, the mother will be made to breastfeed the child. Young children will be questioned separately.’’
Flouting the two-child policy can lead to imprisonment, prompting Rohingya women to have unsafe abortions, typically, the report states, by using the crude “stick method.”
The report notes that as a direct result of birth restrictions, in 2011, more than 14 percent of Rohingya women in northern Rakhine State had undergone at least one abortion and 26 percent of those had had multiple abortions. These figures represent only those women who admitted resorting to abortion and do not include deaths resulting from unsafe terminations, for which statistics are not available.
Additionally, spot checks are carried out to ensure that restrictions are followed. Along with having “illegal children,” banned activities include living together when you are not married (permission and unofficial payment required for Rohingya to get married are reportedly a barrier for many couples) and repairing a building without a permit, among others. According to Fortify Rights, ‘‘Spot-checks typically occur in the evening, ostensibly to ‘check’ for ‘illegal Bengalis [Rohingya],’ though the practice has been reported as violent, insidious, and a pretext for law enforcement officials to commit violent abuses against Rohingya and extort money from Rohingya families. Reports have emerged of ‘spot checks’ resulting in the rape of Rohingya women by security forces.’’
A Volatile Landscape
Muslims make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population of 60 million people. Hostility towards Muslims is not limited to Rohingya living in Rakhine State; this is merely the most tangible part of a larger wound inflicted by religious intolerance. The 969 movement — characterized by extremist Buddhist monks who preach about the need to protect Myanmar and Buddhism from the existential threat that Islam poses — has fuelled anti-Muslim violence. The most vocal and virulent among this fringe group of militant monks is Ashin Wirathu, whose photo featured on a TIME Magazine cover along with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The edition was banned in Myanmar.
Wirathu told the Global Post last year, “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.’’
Anti-Muslim sentiment materializes in a variety of forms.
A recent public discussion organized by the National League for Democracy was cancelled after dozens of monks, protesting the inclusion of two Muslim speakers, threatened to disrupt the event.
In late February hundreds rallied in support of a draft law banning inter-faith marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. If passed this would mean, for instance, that a Muslim man must convert to Buddhism if he wants to marry a Buddhist woman. The notorious Wirathu reportedly told those attending the rally that “without such a law there would be no security for the Myanmar race and Buddhism.” President Thein Sein has expressed support for the proposed law.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for not standing up for the long-persecuted Rohingya, has touched on Myanmar Buddhists’ fear of Islamic encroachment. She told the BBC late last year that tensions in the country were stoked by “a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great.”
Although fanatical, these fears are certainly real for those that harbor them, and for those who bear the force of actions these fears incite.
Myanmar national and senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Kyaw San Wai recently wrote that the nuances underpinning extremist Buddhist mentality are often overlooked in reports about the country’s ethno-religious tensions. He expresses that these disregarded elements give rise to a certain narrative: “that Islam might be Buddhism’s nemesis and that the 21st century will be a decisive juncture in Buddhism’s prophesised destruction.’’
‘‘While international coverage points to Myanmar’s religious demographics to discredit fears of Islamic encroachment, Burmese Buddhists have a starkly different world view where their faith is besieged by larger, well-endowed and better-organised faiths. This millenarianism can be traced to a scripturally unsupported but widely believed ‘prophecy’ that Buddhism will disappear 5000 years after the Buddha’s passing. As 1956 is considered the halfway point, the belief is that Buddhism is now declining irreversibly.’’
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where the majority of IDP camps are clustered, the suspicion and fear simmering inside many Rakhine Buddhists has manifested in animosity toward anyone appearing sympathetic to the Rohingya. Last month, three activists from the Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations (MAPIM), after visiting Rohingya IDP camps in Sittwe, were reportedly surrounded by a mob of extremist Buddhists outside their hotel. Fortunately, police intervened and took them into protective custody. Previously, an aid worker with Malaysian Relief Agency was not so lucky.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “community resistance and increased intimidation of UN and NGO staff” has hampered aid and development efforts in Rakhine State. An aid worker in Sittwe described one type of threat humanitarian personnel faced to The Irrawaddy, saying that local Buddhists put letters at houses where NGO workers stay, warning that if the aid worker does not leave within 48 hours the house will be burnt down.
A foreign national, who requested anonymity, said that the situation in Sittwe is extremely tense. While on a recent trip visiting IDP camps, he reported being regularly followed, including by a man who was at one stage seen in police uniform.
’’People follow you, shout things, stand by you and listen to your conversations, motorcycles will tail you, many of them with 969 stickers on them. At one point someone jumped on to our tuk tuk and our driver and his brother had to chase them off.’’
When even aid workers are threatened, harassed and attacked for providing basic support to the Rohingya, the world is given insight into how big the wound of bigotry has become.
The Rohingya have been backed into a corner, their lives made so intolerable that tens of thousands have fled by sea, seeking safety and a sense of dignity elsewhere. Surviving the perilous journey to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia is, too often, seen as the only way to finally be free from persecution.
Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.