Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, facing unprecedented criticism for her government’s handling of the Rohingya refugee crisis in her nation, has finally conceded that the situation in Rakhine state “could have been better handled”. This, however, will be cold comfort for the more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape a crackdown by the Myanmar Army — a campaign so brutal that United Nations rights officials have described it as nothing short of ethnic cleansing. A recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Council even recommended that Myanmar’s top generals be investigated and prosecuted for “genocide” in Rakhine state. Report after report by rights activists and journalists has documented extrajudicial killings and rapes by Myanmarese troops and the destruction of complete villages in Rakhine, with most estimates putting the death toll in last year’s bloodshed at 10,000. Ms Suu Kyi rarely speaks at public events about the situation in Rakhine, or accepts questions from the media about the Rohingya refugees, or even utters the word “Rohingya”.
Tag Archives: Burma
In the last few weeks, over 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a bloody pogrom in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, crossing into Bangladesh. Among the horrified and largely moralistic reactions in the West, some have pointed to economic factors supposedly behind these events. They are right to highlight the importance of political economy drivers of conflict, but their analysis is disappointingly superficial and crude. This post critiques their approaches and briefly outlines a better one.
Vulgar Marxism 101: land grabs and the Rohingya crisis
The most prominent commentator suggesting economic drivers behind the Rohingya crisis is the renowned geographer Saskia Sassen—whose published work I generally admire greatly. Sassen penned an extremely speculative piece for The Guardian in January 2017, and another for the Huffington Post in September 2017, linking the conflict to land grabs. In her lengthy January essay, Sassen suggests that the conflict is “generated by military-economic interests, rather than by mostly religious/ethnic issues”. However, she offered no evidence for this proposition except that the government had designated 1.27m hectares of land in Rakhine for agricultural development. “Expelling them from their land is a way of freeing up land and water”, she asserted. Many Myanmar scholars reacted with some scorn on social media.
Two years ago, in a village just north of the town of Sittwe in western Myanmar, I met a young man who spoke of a friendship with a Muslim boy that was no longer. Over several days in June 2012, that village and others nearby in Rakhine State had served as a wellspring for mobs of Buddhists who, armed with sticks, machetes, and cans of gasoline, laid waste to a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in the center of Sittwe.The young man, in his mid-twenties when we met, had been away when the attack happened. But he knew many of his neighbors had boarded the buses that shuttled the mobs into Sittwe, where they razed Muslim homes and sent thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to displacement camps, and he sympathized with their decision to do so. His onetime friend had long since stopped coming to the village, and he had no wish to rekindle the relationship. I asked why.“His blood is different,” he said of the Rohingya boy, who used to sell rice at the local market, and who would on occasion stay over at the man’s house. “I don’t think he is a bad person, but even though he’s not bad, his ethnicity is bad. The group is bad.”
Recent weeks have seen an escalation of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine, the poorest state of Myanmar. A tide of displaced people is seeking refuge from atrocities—they are fleeing both on foot and by boat to Bangladesh. It is the latest surge of displaced people, and is exacerbated by the recent activity of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).Religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play. Especially given that Myanmar is home to 135 official recognised ethnic groups (the Rohingya were removed from this list in 1982).In analysing the recent violence, much of the western media has focused on the role of the military and the figure of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been widely questioned since the latest evidence of atrocities emerged.
The international outcry over Myanmar’s escalating Rohingya refugee crisis masks several ironies that have fueled an intensifying propaganda war since the Aug. 25 attacks by Muslim militants on security facilities in Rakhine state. The first is the resounding condemnation of the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, while the real commanders behind the brutal “clearance operations” targeting Rohingya communities have stayed out of the political frontline.On the international front, Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for her silence and her perceived refusal to halt a military campaign that has driven more than 300,000 refugees — mainly Muslim Rohingya — into neighboring Bangladesh in just over two weeks and razed dozens of villages amid reports of summary executions, detentions, torture and mob violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi has finally spoken, and left the world disappointed.The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar’s Rakhine State have been subject to what the United Nations (UN) head of human rights called “a textbook example of genocide.” And many had, till now, exhorted Suu Kyi to speak up against the state-sanctioned horrors.Though the Nobel Laureate “broke her silence” on Sept. 19, her speech all but denied the gravity of the situation and the Myanmar government’s hand in it. So, for many now, Suu Kyi is no longer the humanitarian who relentlessly fought for democracy in her country and spent 15 years under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s long silence over the desperate plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been shameful. With tens of thousands now fleeing atrocities in Rakhine state, the Nobel peace prize winner’s aura of moral sanctity lies in tatters. The Muslim minority are denied citizenship by a government which claims, against the evidence, that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. After decades of discrimination, matters got much worse. Since 2012 the Rohingya have endured not just immiseration and the denial of basic rights and services – many live in internment camps – but three major waves of violence by government forces and Buddhist Burman nationalists. Myanmar’s de facto leader has turned a blind eye.
Why the Rohingya? Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing is driven by an irrational fear of Muslims becoming the majority
During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma [Myanmar], the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.
On Thursday September 7, I decided to go into Myanmar following the same routes the Rohingya were taking to escape to Bangladesh.My journey started from Lomba Beel, a remote village in Howaikong union in Teknaf. From here, it takes an hour to walk to the Naf, where the three hour-long boat journey begins, ending with another hour spent trudging through the boggy coast of Myanmar.
Few of us expect much from political leaders: to do otherwise is to invite despair. But to Aung San Suu Kyi we entrusted our hopes. To mention her name was to invoke patience and resilience in the face of suffering, courage and determination in the unyielding struggle for freedom. She was an inspiration to us all.