What the Hell Is Happening in Myanmar?

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Rohingya refugees jump from a wooden boat as it begins to tip over after traveling from Myanmar, on September 12, 2017, in Dakhinpara, Bangladesh. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Myanmar’s minority Muslim population, the Rohingya, are fleeing into Bangladesh by the thousands. The United Nations estimates that approximately 370,000 of approximately 1.1 million Rohingya have taken refuge across the border in recent weeks, after a Myanmar government crackdown against the Rohingya following a militant attack on August 25.

The persecution of the Rohingya reaches back to the origins of Myanmar — once called Burma — and is deeply intertwined with the country’s Buddhist tradition. But the military’s profound escalation of violence — incinerating villages, firing on civilians — has spurred the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to call the latest campaign a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar’s de facto leader, the celebrated Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for ignoring, if not being outright complicit, in the atrocities against the Rohingya. She is now skipping the United Nations General Assembly meeting this month, and says she will address the crisis next week in a speech. But for now, the horror unfolds daily in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the Rohingya population that hasn’t fled mostly resides. Daily Intelligencer spoke with Azeem Ibrahim, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, to better understand the humanitarian crisis, and how it is has been shaped by religion and politics, both internal and external. “Most experts describe this as an ethnic cleansing — a systematic, organized campaign to cleanse the minorities from Myanmar,” Ibrahim told Daily Intel. “Some go as far as saying this is now a full-scale genocide.”

How did the Rohingya become such a persecuted minority?
We have to take a step back in history during the Second World War. Myanmar, then called Burma, was under British colonial rule. When the Japanese invaded Burma, the majority Buddhist population sided with the Japanese invaders, including current leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who was one of the founding generals of Myanmar. They sided with the Japanese invaders because they believed Japan would be victorious in the war, and they would expel the British colonial masters. The Rohingya minority, on the other hand, stayed loyal to the British, so that when the war was over, and the British were victorious, there was bad blood. The Rohingya was seen as the enemy.

And those grievances persisted?
Myanmar became independent in 1948, and the British colonialists left. The country had a relatively peaceful couple of decades until 1962. In 1962, there was a military coup by the army chief of staff General Ne Win. When he came to power, he implemented a program called “The Burmese Road to Socialism.” It’s essentially a communist manifesto. It was a complete and utter economic disaster. So he did what a lot of military dictators do in that situation: tried to find a scapegoat to blame the economic failure on.

So the Rohingya became that scapegoat.
The Rohingya was the minority of choice for this. They’re the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar. They look different. They have different features. They are a different color. They speak a different language. And they have a different religion. They had already been scapegoated as the enemy within, and now [the country] could blame all the ills of society on them.

On top of that, General Ne Win did what we see a lot of Middle Eastern dictators do today, in that he donned the cloak of religiosity. When things start going wrong, they start becoming more religious, going to the mosque, be seen praying, et cetera. Ne Win did exactly the same thing. He became much more overtly Buddhist. The military then started fulfilling the obligations of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism that Burma follows. He made Buddhism the state religion of Burma. The Buddhist citizens could be loyal citizens, but everybody else was a noncitizen.

So Buddhism became somewhat weaponized, as strange as that sounds, during this period?
One of the questions that gets asked most often is, aren’t Buddhists peaceful people? But the Buddhism they follow in Myanmar, it’s not the Buddhism you and I are familiar with. They don’t recognize the Dalai Lama, for example. Theravada Buddhism is actually very militant. They believe all other ideologies and religions have to be kept in check, and have to be suppressed in order for Buddhism to thrive.

How did this elevation of Buddhism in the military play out in practice?
The military passed a number of laws, including the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, and all the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship. That was followed by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which said all Rohingya are actually foreigners; they’re actually all illegal immigrants who have come from Bangladesh, and they should all go back to Bangladesh.

Go back to Bangladesh?
This is the most common narrative. It’s been repeated so often in Myanmar that it’s actually accepted now as fact. Bizarrely, they put a date on it: They say in March 1942, the term Rohingya was manufactured by these illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to give themselves a false identity, and that before 1942, the term Rohingya did not exist. Which is patently false.

One of the things I said in my book is that I went to the Indian National Archives in New Delhi, and I dug up documents from the British colonial period, some of them dating back to 1799, 1826, and 1824, which is when the British had done a census of that whole region. It clearly states that one in three souls in that region are “Musulmans” of Rohingya origin. The term existed back in 1799. So this idea that it’s a manufactured term, and these people are illegal, is false. The historical record shows they’ve been there for centuries.

But the monks and the military pushed this paranoid narrative that the Rohingya came here to destroy the Buddhist heritage. Today, you have some extremist groups and other religious Buddhist groups that are calling for the Rohingya to be eliminated.

“Buddhist Bin Laden.”

The monks, too?
There’s one famous Buddhist monk who was on the cover of Time magazine a couple of years ago, and he’s described as a “Buddhist Bin Laden.” His name is Ashin Wirathu. He’s a very strange character because he wears the Buddhist garb, which is worn to demonstrate your withdrawal from the world. At the same time, he has diamond-studded watches; he flies on a private jet. It’s completely contradictory. He’s one of the main instigators of the violence. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and Wirathu and followers of his Buddhist nationalist 969 movement believe that the Rohingya minority have all reincarnated from snakes and insects. So when you actually kill them, you’re not actually killing people, you’re actually just killing snakes and insects. That laid the foundation for the current situation that we’re in.

Can you give a basic overview of the current situation?
The Rohingya faced wave after wave of violence, which began to escalate in 2012. The United Nations has called them among the most persecuted minorities in the world. A recent Harvard study said that one in seven stateless around the world are of Rohingya origin. The Rohingya have basically been removed from their villages. They’re placed in this huge mass of concentration camps, hundreds of thousands of them, in which they’re denied education, they’re denied health care. They’re not permitted to marry; they’re not permitted to have children unless they’ve got a license. They’re stripped of all dignity.

Now, Myanmar’s policy is to try to expel them all, and hoping that a third country will take them. In the last few days, hundreds of thousands have poured into Bangladesh. Bangladesh is already hosting about 400,000 Rohingya, and many experts now believe that by the end of this period, you could have 30 to 40 percent of the entire population of the Rohingya being ethnically cleansed just in this short period of time.

I just talked to somebody in the camps, and what they told me is that the military — this has been reported in Reuters — is now mining its border with Bangladesh to ensure all those who left will never come back. This is an organized, systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

When you say you spoke to somebody in the camps, was it someone who fled?
One of my friends is making a documentary on the Rohingya. He’s actually at the border, and he’s told me that even as the civilians are fleeing, the Myanmar military is shooting at them. It’s completely horrific.

Human Rights Watch has obtained satellite images that show that over 100 kilometers of villages [in the Rakhine State] have been burnt to the ground. In some areas, like in Maungdaw, 80 percent of all houses have been completely and utterly burnt to the ground. The response of Myanmar has been that these people are burning their own houses.

Photo: Human Rights Watch

Those “concentration camps,” as I understand it, were set up inside Myanmar by the military. But now, these refugee camps are growing in Bangladesh. How is this dynamic playing out on the ground?
The camps were initially set up inside Myanmar when the Rohingya were displaced from their villages. Now, the government has realized it just doesn’t want these people here anymore. They’ve been preparing for a military offensive for many, many months. They’ve attacked all these camps and villages, and they’re trying to expel the Rohingya, trying to eliminate them, and forcing them to flee across the border.

And Bangladesh simply does not have the resources to take care of all these refugees. They’re an overpopulated country that’s struggling to feed its own people. For them to host 400,000 refugees who are pouring over the border — this is something they just can’t absorb. Some people I’ve been speaking to say that [the refugee camps] have a huge shortage of food and medicine. Some of these people haven’t eaten for days upon days, and they don’t have access to any clean water or food. And the international community hasn’t really stepped up to provide anything of that nature.

I definitely want to get back to the international community. But this most recent crackdown against the Rohingya was reportedly sparked after a Rohingya militant group attacked government forces. How legitimate is this Rohingya insurgency or rebel group, and how much do they factor into the current and past persecution of the group?
There was a militant attack on the 25th of August by an organization called ARSA, which is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. This is a little-known outfit with very little resources. It’s relatively new, and it’s made up of foreigners. The Rohingya, historically, are among the most nonviolent people you come across in Myanmar. But what’s happened now is, foreigners have actually come in and have tried to radicalize the Rohingya population. And for the Rohingya, there’s absolutely nothing to lose. Why not engage in some violent activity before you’re killed yourself?

The military and the government have responded overwhelmingly and completely disproportionately. I wrote in December 2016 that the military was having a buildup. I believe it was simply looking for an excuse to try to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. In some areas, all the Buddhist residents were evacuated, and Myanmar did not evacuate a single Rohingya civilian. The military brought in these helicopter gunships, and soldiers came and started burning the villages and killing people, driving all the Rohingya into the forests and the woods and over the border.

That foreign element: Is it a radical, extremist element that’s sensing an opportunity?
They’re essentially trying to cash in on the Rohingya persecution. They’re coming from places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that’s where the support is coming from. I very much doubt that they were organized indigenously. The Rohingya, when you actually visit them in their camps, they’re among the lowest of the low that you’ll ever meet. There’s hardly anybody that’s literate among them. These people have very little education; they’re unorganized. They’re just fishermen and farmers.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is starting to get criticism for the Rohingya crisis. What is her role in all of this?
Aung San Suu Kyi is actually part of the problem. Here in the West, we like to have our heroes on a pedestal, untarnished. The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is one of those amazing stories; a narrative that’s absolutely fantastic. The daughter of one of the founding generals of Myanmar who was then jailed by her father’s former colleagues after he died. She’s Oxford educated; she’s beautiful; she’s articulate, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Now, she’s out of prison, and she’s taking her country to democracy, human rights, and open market. This is the stuff that you make Hollywood movies out of. So when somebody inserts the Rohingya, and a complete indifference to their suffering, it does not fit into that narrative we like to have.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

She’s no longer a Nobel Prize campaigner; she is now a politician who’s interested in power, and the Rohingya cause is not one she believes is worthy. She denies there’s actually anything happening. If you look at her statements, she doesn’t even use the term Rohingya. She calls them Muslims and their kin. She says that both sides are to blame for the violence in the Rakhine State. The BBC tried to press her to actually use the term Rohingya, and she refused to use it. And then when she was interviewed by Mishal Husain, who’s a very prominent BBC interviewer, she was caught on a hot mic saying, “No one told me that I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

So is Aung San Suu Kyi simply betting that the violence against the Rohingya Muslims is something the West will largely ignore?
I think she’s indifferent to the suffering of the Rohingya and other minority groups. She’s made a political calculation that she does not want to alienate the military. In many respects, here’s where I do sympathize with her supporters. Benazir Bhutto, who was elected prime minister of Pakistan, she said something very poignant: “I’m in office, but I’m not in power.” I think Suu Kyi’s also in that situation: She’s in the office, but she doesn’t really have a lot of power. The military still has considerable influence. It controls a quarter of the seats in Parliament, controls the media, and ministries of foreign affairs, borders, and interior. Her supporters will say, “She doesn’t have a lot of power to do anything about this. You have to wait, and when she consolidates her position, then she will do something.”

But I think you can probably ask any politician anywhere in the world, and they will tell you that is simply an excuse to kick something into the long grass. Irrespective of the political costs, when you have a genocide going on in your country on such a massive scale, if you cannot even speak it, then you are on the wrong side of history.

Suu Kyi also called some of the atrocities “fake news” being spread by terrorists. How does the broader population in Myanmar see what’s going on in the Rakhine State? Is there buy-in, or are they largely unaware?
When I was in Myanmar, I had two journalist friends, and I asked them the same question, “What is the position of the local population, in terms of what’s going on in the Rakhine district?” One of them, she said, “Basically, the local population has no idea what’s going on because the information is so tightly controlled.” Those who are aware of what’s going on, they basically buy into the government line, that these people are just terrorists who have come over the border illegally to try to destroy Buddhism.

Human-rights groups, and the United Nations, to a certain extent, have spoken out. More generally, what has been the international response?
The international community has been very behind the mark. Suu Kyi is very effective at what she does, and the cynics would argue the international community has been seduced by her. When she came to power, she set up a number of commissions. She established the Rakhine Commission, in which she appointed Kofi Annan, one of the world’s leading diplomats, to examine the situation in the Rakhine district, and try to ascertain some solution. But this commission was severely restricted.

After Suu Kyi started this commission, she came to the United States and gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. On the situation of the Rohingya, she basically said, “Well, look, these are highly complicated, and historically difficult situations. I started this commission with Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general, and we’ll do something about it.”

She also had a visit with President Barack Obama in the White House, where Obama lifted all unilateral sanctions against Myanmar. The cynics would argue that she set up those commissions with very little authority and very little power simply to pacify international communities, and the White House and the United Nations. Sanctions are lifted off Myanmar, and the West no longer has leverage over the situation. Kofi Annan reported on recommendations for the commission, which, some of them, are quite robust. But they’ve just been ignored.

Clearly, she’s done a good job of deflecting attention. But why does the international community seem almost indifferent?
Complete inaction or interest from the West has much more to do with the politics than with human rights. In 2012, President Obama first visited Myanmar. A visit from the president of the United States is a very big deal. One of the reasons why Obama visited is because Myanmar has been a very closed country under military dictatorship. But as Myanmar starts opening up, what we have also seen is that the whole of Southeast Asia is now being reconfigured and redeveloped for one particular purpose, and that’s to meet China’s insatiable demand for resources.

China has now stepped in as the biggest investor in Myanmar. One of the reasons why President Obama visited is that they don’t want Myanmar to fall under the sphere of influence of China. If Myanmar becomes a Chinese satellite, that will give the Chinese access to the Bay of Bengal, and to the Indian Ocean. So there’s much more geopolitical machination going on behind the scenes between the U.S.-Chinese influence in that region. The human-rights abuses of Rohingya do not fit into that calculation.

If there was the will to act, what would you say needs to be done in the short term?
There’s a huge population that’s gone into Bangladesh. You’re talking hundreds of thousands. The most immediate need would be to ensure those people have the basic necessities — shelter, food, medicine. Only the United Nations could do something of that nature, provide support to the government of Bangladesh. Secondly, the United Nations has passed resolutions, but they have to ensure there’s a true human-rights-commission inquiry into the behavior of Myanmar. If Myanmar does not cooperate, there has to be some sort of sanction or penalty. I also believe that Kofi Annan’s commission recommendations should be implemented in full. They don’t go far enough, but they are a good start.

And longer term?
The crux of the problem is the 1982 Citizenship Law, in which the Rohingya were stripped of their nationality. It’s illegal under international law to make somebody stateless. That law has to be reversed; that’s the crux of the entire problem. But the difficulty now is that the government of Myanmar has almost succeeded in ethnically cleansing the entire population of the Rohingya. This is a catastrophe.

What the Hell Is Happening in Myanmar?