Myanmar: All out war on the Rohingya

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine state prepare to leave for a refugee camp in Bangladesh
September 8, 2017

During the early hours of August 25, some 20 to 30 police posts were attacked in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Twelve police were killed along with 16 attackers.

Responsibility for these attacks was later claimed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

In the two weeks since, the Myanmar military’s response has been brutal, widespread and indiscriminate. While accurate figures are not available, between 400 (military’s estimate), and “around a thousand” (United Nations estimate) Rohingya have been killed by the army.

In the face of the military’s “clearance operations” and the complete destruction, by burning, of many villages, tens of thousands of Rohingya families are currently fleeing for their lives.

By September 8, some 270,000 Rohingya had walked and swum to the relative safety of the Bangladesh border, with this number growing every day.

After initially blocking their entry, Bangladeshi authorities are now allowing the refugees to enter and shelter under plastic covers or in schools.

With 75,000 Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar last October after a similar incident, some 345,000 Rohingya – a third of the entire Myanmar Rohingya population – have now fled their country to neighbouring Bangladesh in the past year.

Ethnic cleansing

While these figures paint a bleak picture, stories from individual Rohingya people, which are beginning to trickle through, describe what some are defining as “ethnic cleansing” or even “genocide”.

A young Rohingya man, hiding in a village in Myanmar near the Bangladeshi border, interviewed by ABC’s PM, described what happened in his village: “The military came and started firing and setting fire on the village. All the villagers started to run, including me … And the military started shooting randomly at the houses, and people started to run away. People who can’t run, they were shot dead there.”

He witnessed about 10 people killed, mostly the very old and very young.

According to Bangladeshi border guards, 26 Rohingya, most of them women and children, drowned when their boat capsized on the Naf River as Myanmar police fired on them.

PM reported on September 6 that UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng had said: “When civilians are being persecuted based on their ethnic or religious identity; when they are being killed and forcibly transferred in a widespread or systematic manner, this could constitute ethnic cleansing and could amount to crimes against humanity.

“In fact, it can be the precursor to all the egregious international crimes - and I mean genocide.”

For her part, State Counsellor and de-facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, has responded to the crisis with a deathly silence. In her first comments on the crisis, on September 5, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said tensions were being fanned by “fake news” aimed at “promoting the interests of terrorists”.

Communicating through the State Counsellor’s Facebook page, she made these comments in a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “She also expressed that Turkey which has faced the challenges of terrorism and has to cope with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) will understand the challenge that Myanmar has to face”.

She made no mention of the plight of those killed or forced to flee the country in the past weeks.

Division and fear is growing across the country. The government has declared ARSA a “terrorist group” and nationalist Buddhists are commonly calling all Rohingya “extremist Bengali terrorists” (“Bengali” is the term used by Buddhist nationalists for “Rohingya”).

Anyone using the term “Rohingya” in public is increasingly seen as siding with “terrorists”. The State Counsellor’s office claimed that international NGOs “participated while extremist terrorists besieged” a village in Rakhine State. As a result, foreigners are reluctant to speak out or even utter the “R word”.

On September 5, Myanmar authorities warned of supposed plans by ARSA to carry out terrorist attacks in major cities in Myanmar.

For its part, ARSA states: “we do not associate with any terrorist group across the world”, and that the group clearly focuses on Rohingya persecution and repression. 

Australia’s response

While some neighbouring countries have condemned the military’s aggression, given the extent and nature of this crisis, there has been a weak, almost non-existent international response to this growing tragedy. No country has offered to accept Rohingya refugees.

In Australia, the closest country with a capacity to offer support and refuge, the Malcolm Turnbull government has refused to back an international investigation into atrocities against Rohingya.

In March, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Emily Howie, director of advocacy and research at Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, said Australia's statement at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was "hopelessly weak" and "sweeps under the carpet" Myanmar’s crimes against humanity, "no doubt reflecting the Australian trade interests."

On September 1, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julia Bishop responded to the current crisis, recommending security forces act in a "measured way" and expressing "deep concerns", including to Suu Kyi.

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