On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
“In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned.”
Thousands are believed to have been killed, and accounts have emerged of babies being snatched from their mothers’ arms and thrown into a fire, families burned alive, and villagers lined up and executed at gunpoint. Over 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after 25 August 2017, turning an already large refugee population into the largest refugee camp in the world. “The Burma army was trying to drive us out of our land,” said Saiful, a young student from Maungdaw who escaped over the mountains. “We are indigenous, we have a long history, but they have been trying to remove us all, day by day, year by year. They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
The oppression of the Rohingya is long-standing
Sitting next to Saiful in a bamboo hut was another young man, Nurul. “The violence did not start on 25 August 2017,” he reminded me. “Rohingyas have been subjected to discrimination in Burma since the military coup in 1962. Ever since then they have been implementing plans to drive us out one by one. It started before I was born. But the violence has become unbearable. People are dying, dying, and the cemeteries are full. What shall we do?”
For decades, the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas have been described as among the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982, when a new law removed their citizenship and rendered them stateless, they have faced grinding restrictions on movement, marriage and freedom of religion. Ten years ago, when I first visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh, people told me: “The Burmese tell us ‘you are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh’; the Bangladeshis tell us: ‘you are from Burma, go back to Burma’. We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake.”
Yet at heart, despite everything they have been through, the Rohingyas are clear in their minds where they belong. “We are not ‘stateless’,” said Nurul, defiantly. “We were born in Burma. Bangladesh isn’t our country, it is just for survival. Rakhine State is our ancestral land. We don’t want to sit here eating dahl – we should go back to Burma. We want to stay together with other ethnic peoples, to live in harmony, to study, trade, work, play together, like we did before. We want to love each other. What we want is our fundamental rights, and we need the help of the international community.”
“Over 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after 25 August 2017, turning an already large refugee population into the largest refugee camp in the world.”
Hostility towards the Rohingyas is widespread throughout Burmese society, and particularly among the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine. After decades of regime propaganda and ignoring the history, the widely-held belief among Burmese people, including those who campaigned for democracy and human rights, is that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Even their name is rejected – they are described as “Bengalis”.
Hatred towards them is partly racial, and partly religious, and has intensified in recent years. Hafez Ziur Rahaman, a 38 year-old imam, told me that on 27 August 2017 he fled his village with over 200 families after the military attacked. More than 100 people were burned, shot or stabbed to death. When I asked whether he experienced religious discrimination, his eyes filled with tears. “The soldiers came into the mosque. Before burning it down, they took the Holy Qu’ran, and played football with it. They kicked it around between them, and then ripped it apart. Then they set fire to the Qu’rans and the mosque.”
The perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable.
In 2012 thousands were displaced following violence between Rakhines and Rohingyas, and a Burma army offensive in October 2016 involved killing, raping and displacing thousands. After a UN investigation documented these atrocities, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said: “The devastating cruelty to which these children have been subjected is unbearable. What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her—what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this? . . . The killing of people as they prayed, fished to feed their families, the brutal beating of children as young as two and an elderly woman aged 80—the perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable.”
The failure to hold those responsible to account, however, gave Burma’s army the green light to go on. Even after the escalation a year ago, the world talked, but failed to act. As a consequence, since the start of this year the military has turned its attention to the predominantly Christian Kachin and Buddhist Shan in northern Burma, and reports of similar atrocities are emerging. Anti-Muslim hate speech throughout other parts of the country continues; “Muslim-free” villages have been declared, Christian pastors have been attacked and churches face increasing restrictions.
It is now time to act
As we mark the first anniversary of the escalation in the crisis in Rakhine, it is now time to act. Crimes against humanity should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or an alternative justice mechanism. A global arms embargo should be introduced. The European Union and the United States should strengthen the few sanctions they have introduced, and target senior generals, including the Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and their assets. It would be wrong, and counter-productive, to impose blanket sanctions that hurt the people but carefully targeted measures that hit the perpetrators should be explored.
Increased investment in initiatives to combat hate speech, strengthen those who promote freedom of religion or belief for all, develop inter-faith projects at grassroots levels and support for a genuine, meaningful peace process to end decades of ethnic conflict and religious strife must be a priority.
Last November, Pope Francis visited Burma with a clear message for peace, justice and human dignity for all. Earlier this year, Burma’s bishops urged the Pope to pray for the Kachin, and Cardinal Bo proposed that the Vatican hold a conference to seek ways forward for the Rohingya. International actors such as the Holy See, which may be seen as politically more neutral than others, have a role to play in mediating and building trust between Burma’s ethnic and religious communities.
Ending impunity and promoting peace is essential if Burma’s fledgling democratisation is to advance
Among those I met in the camps earlier this year, the face of 16 year-old Khalida, lying paralysed on the floor of her bamboo hut, particularly stays with me. She had been shot multiple times in her leg, and was unable even to sit up. “More than 300 Rohingyas in my village were killed by the Burma army in their attack,” she told me. “My father, two sisters and one brother were killed. My mother was also shot but survived.”
Her 18 year-old brother, Mohamed Rafiq, fled their village before the military attacked, and discovered her among hundreds of bodies when he returned. With the help of other villagers, he carried her to the Bangladesh border, where after two days they found a boatman who would take them across, for a fee. They paid 70,000 Burmese kyats ($46) and got her to a hospital, where she stayed for several months. Eventually she was told that she could not receive further treatment, and had to go to the refugee camp – where she was informed that because she had missed registration, she could not receive daily rations.
After hearing her story, I did what most of us would do, knowing that it was a drop in the ocean, that it would only last a short time, and that I couldn’t help everyone: I gave her some money for food. As I prepared to leave, Khalida slowly lifted her head and smiled at me. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for caring enough to come all the way from your country to visit us. Please come and see us again”.
“Khalida’s wounds may never heal, but knowing that she is not forgotten may give her some strength. For her country, however, the work of healing cannot be postponed or ignored any longer.”
Khalida’s wounds may never heal, but knowing that she is not forgotten may give her some strength. For her country, however, the work of healing cannot be postponed or ignored any longer. Ending impunity and promoting peace and reconciliation is essential if Burma’s fledgling, fragile democratisation is to ever have any hope of advancing.
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader
Featured image: Rohingya refugees take part in a prayer as they gather to mark the second anniversary of the exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman