“They grabbed my sister-in-law and her child. First they killed the child. Then they shot my sister-in-law, and set her on fire, in front of my brother. There was nothing we could do but run.”
These words, spoken by Abu Ahmed in an interview with Vice, echo the horror felt by a million people who once called the nation of Myanmar their home. With his village destroyed, his family killed, and his life forever changed, Ahmed was left with no choice but to flee over the border to Bangladesh, joining almost 500,000 of his fellow Rohingyas who have taken refuge there since August in what is being called the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. A stateless people much like the Kurds, the Rohingya have no country to call their own. For decades, they lived precariously in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, subject to multiple military crackdowns and denied any say in the nation’s government. But it was not until recently that the situation truly spiraled out of control.
This sudden genocide of the nation’s Muslim minority doesn’t come without precedent – a vile brew of racial and religious tension in Myanmar has been in danger of boiling over for decades. Since at least 2013, groups such as the Human Rights Watch have accused Myanmar of pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing, and an international people’s tribunal found the nation guilty of genocide. The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and cannot vote nor hold property rights, stemming from the government’s belief that they are illegal immigrants, despite their presence in the area before the formation of the modern state of Myanmar. The resulting lack of access to healthcare has resulted in rates of disease and malnutrition 50% higher than the rest of the population. They are limited to having two children to control birth rates. Their political parties have been destroyed and their candidates arrested and tortured, preventing them from peacefully resolving the issues they face. The tipping point came when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group formed during the 2012 riots against the government, attacked multiple military posts along the nation’s western border. The government response began as a hunt for the culprits, but quickly evolved into ethnic cleansing, with over 1,000 civilians killed in a year-long operation – many of whom were children. Thousands more were raped and imprisoned.
Myanmar’s government has shown that they are not content with this initial military action, nor with only a forced exodus of the minority group. Videos have emerged of Rohingya refugees pulling their dead children from the waters of the Naf River, which forms a portion of the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They were shot as they attempted to flee their burning homes – their killers refusing to even grant them the opportunity to piece together their broken lives. They join over 3,000 Rohingya who have paid the ultimate price for the crime of existence. Thousands of women and children have found themselves the victims of violent sexual assault, rape, and torture on behalf of Myanmar’s security forces. Thousands more have no place to report these crimes nor the opportunity to receive counseling.
When questioned about these allegations of sexual violence, MP Aung Win, Chairman of the Rakhine Investigation Committee, insisted that they must be false. Why?
“They are very dirty,” he answered with a sinister laugh. “They are dirty. They have a very low standard of living, and are not attractive. The soldiers are not interested in them.”
The genocide in Myanmar has snuffed out hopes that de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, would begin a transition away from the years of military dictatorship that hung like a dark cloud over the nation. Suu Kyi earned the sympathy of the international community after the military’s refusal to hand her power in the wake of her party’s landslide victory in the 1990 elections. After living under house arrest as a political prisoner for almost two decades, Suu Kyi ascended to leadership after earning yet another blowout victory in the 2015 elections. For a moment, the world was hopeful that a new era had begun – Suu Kyi was viewed as a paragon of democratic values, and as a leader who truly cared for her people. This hope was quickly dashed by her refusal to grant voting rights to the historically disenfranchised Rohingya, many of whom viewed her as their last chance at obtaining equality in the nation. She refused to acknowledge the developing crisis, instead standing idly by as the military tightened its choking grasp over the Rohingya. Upon providing a response to the crisis, she confirmed the world’s assumptions that she cared little for their plight.
On September 19th, Suu Kyi addressed the genocide publicly for the first time after two years of silence. She claimed that the government didn’t understand why the mass exodus from Rakhine state was occurring, yet referenced a 2016 report on the crisis that stated military and police operations had led to the creation of tens of thousands of refugees. She coldly explained to an international audience that “50% of the villages of Muslims are intact”, a statement that is not only false, but dismissive of those who have had their homes destroyed. The government has attempted to claim that the Rohingya have been burning their own villages to the ground and fleeing – yet satellite photos show new fires emerging in villages already abandoned by their inhabitants, and images purporting to serve as evidence of this self-inflicted arson have been revealed as staged. Testimony from the Rohingya themselves tells a much different story: the military was joined in its destruction by mobs of Rakhine Buddhists looking to expel their religious rivals from the region
Despite the world’s best wishes, it seems that Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic wave has amounted to little more than a façade, the words leaving her lips scarily reminiscent of those coming from the men who imprisoned her years ago. Some question her ability to challenge the authority of the military, which still holds a large portion of the nation’s power; regardless, Suu Kyi has made it clear through her rhetoric – including accusations of the international media of spreading fake news – that Rohingya will not be allowed to live peacefully in Myanmar. If it is true that she is simply trying to maintain the fragile goodwill of the military, she has decided that her reelection is more important than preventing genocide.
The future of the Rohingya is, at best, uncertain. Thousands will likely die of starvation and disease in the squalor of crowded Bengali refugee camps, and thousands more will be executed by government forces as they attempt to flee what’s left of their former lives. There are few places in the world where they can truly live in peace. In front of the United Nations, where an open session on the crisis demanding action from Myanmar was held, national security adviser U Thaung Tun explained that “the leaders of Myanmar, who have been struggling so long for freedom and human rights, will never espouse policy of genocide or ethnic cleansing and that the government will do everything to prevent it.” They have, at the very least, made it clear to the world that they care little for words and resolutions. Denial and deflection will be their strategy until the very last drop of Rohingya blood is spilled. The bottom line? The world must act without hesitation.