Glasgow student, Andrew Hellyer, offers his account of the Rohingya suffering he witnessed in Myanmar
The only thing as equally alarming as the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar, is the seeming indifference to Rohingya suffering by ethnic Rakhine citizens, and their unconditional, unquestioning support for the Tatmadaw’s operations.
“North Korea without the nukes” would not have been an inaccurate description of Burma, now Myanmar, as little as ten years ago. Ten years ago was when I first came to know about Burma, with its former capital Rangoon capturing international headlines on grainy pre-smartphone footage thanks to the civilian and Buddhist monk lead Saffron revolution; ululating for democracy, human rights and free expression. Above all most critically was the cry for human dignity and individuality – the universal right for Burma’s desperate citizens to no longer be the personal private property of the unseen generals who ruled her. Her rulers had seemingly been so afraid of its populace, that just a year prior they relocated the capital to Naypyidaw – a demented empty planned city whose permanently desolate 15-lane motorways give the appearance of a literal Pyongyang with palm trees.
Ten years on, and an emancipation from totalitarianism would seem clear as day to anyone who has visited the country in the last five or so years. Rangoon (now Yangon) is a wonderfully cosmopolitan city sitting comfortably on a scale between Delhi without the crowds, and Bangkok without the tourists. In a formerly sanctioned country, where bringing in a set amount of crisp $100 bills was an outsider’s only means of keeping financially afloat, ATMs are omnipresent. KFC just marked its two year anniversary in the country; Coca-Cola and Pepsi are accessible everywhere, and numerous Japanese smartphone brands advertising dual selfie-cameras for sharing on Facebook and Viber are present in most places where a billboard can be placed. Police presence is close to non-existent in a positive way. Locals will smile at you greeting with a sincere mingalaba (“hello”), nightclubs frequented by Burmese and foreigners alike are booming, and I have never witnessed more young couples hand in hand here than in any other city. Perhaps it was just down to it being my first time in South-East Asia, but Yangon captivated me and I cannot wait to return at the next possible opportunity. These may seem like details, but this contrasting atmosphere with what I experienced in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe is what made my time there all the more unsettling.
Sittwe polarises modern Yangon in its entirety and is without question the most sinister city I have ever visited on account of its dirty little secret a la Srebrenica meets Kristallnacht. Sittwe is the epicentre of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya Muslim populace, and it feels like the old Junta never left. Sailing in on the Kaladan river, black monsoon clouds greeted us at the jaws of the city where Tatmadaw naval vessels stand at sentry. Armed police and Tatmadaw patrol the streets, locals stare with suspicious contempt, and the city is devoid of Yangon’s westernisation. When dining out, servers never take their eyes off of you; the locals know that Sittwe isn’t for tourism, and that the only westerners here are likely to be journalists and NGO workers (my usually inconspicuous Fujifilm mirrorless wasn’t fooling anybody). Anyone who has visited the city knowing what has taken place will understand why the sinister air cannot be shaken. The city’s 19th century built Jama Mosque is now a mouldering, irretrievable ruin, standing barren and ransacked on Sittwe’s main road under 24 hour armed police watch with barbed-wire stanchion. It is the only named mosque locally available on Google maps, with the others opaquely designated as “places of worship” – some of which have been burned to the ground. Entire neighbourhoods, businesses, homes and places of worship were brutally razed by vigilante Buddhist mobs in the 2012 riots, forcibly relocating (or perhaps more accurately, “concentrating”) Sittwe’s Rohingya Muslim population into fetid IDP camps on the outskirts of the city where they are neither allowed to leave, nor permitted medical treatment. Denied citizenship, education or protection under the law by virtue of their birth, Myanmar’s Rohingya are the largest stateless group of people on the planet today.
Imagine your family home reduced to ruin and stolen by people you once called neighbours, down to virtue of your birth. Imagine all hopes of safety or a career vanquished. Imagine living in a tented city without toilets, with monsoons bringing a litany of disease that you cannot even seek medical treatment for. Imagine your entire country despising you, knowing that a soldier could defile family members and force you to do hard labour at gunpoint with him going unpunished, even venerated. Imagine complete indifference from your country’s preeminent human rights campaigner, Nobel peace Laureate and now de facto leader. Readers who are minorities within the nation you currently reside; can you imagine if your government extirpated your citizenship and the above scenarios happened?
Myself and the friends I was journeying with had the opportunity to hear about what was happening at a ground zero level. Whilst en route to Rakhine to see the ancient archaeological town of Mrauk U, our 22 hour bus journey’s timing coincided exactly with an attack by Rohingya militants against Myanmar’s military outposts on the Bangladesh border; leaving 71 dead and fuelling the most brutal Tatmadaw response to date against Rohingya civilians. This incident became a recurring point of conversation with locals, who typically gave it a passing mention as “the war”. Being fortunate to hail from a society where the population can openly criticise and dislike the government at any given time, it was challenging to grasp how everyday people were buying the military’s talking points without question. One such local was Po Po, a Sittwe University graduate who worked in her family’s restaurant. Po Po told us that Rakhine was dangerous for foreigners to visit because of the fighting. Playing dumb, avoiding the use of “Rohingya,” we prodded – curious to know who Myanmar was fighting from a local standpoint.
“Myanmar army are fighting the others.” She told us.
“Who are the others?”
“The people are from Bangladesh. The Muslims.”
“Oh. And why are they both fighting?”
“There are too many of them.”
“How many are there? Aren’t they a minority? We understand that Myanmar is at least 90% Buddhist.”
“No. In Rakhine State Muslims 99% and Buddha 1%.”
It was difficult not to grimace at this figure, as we hadn’t seen a single Muslim in Mrauk U. She continued…
“In Myanmar we are eight people one country: Burmese, Chin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Kayin, Kayah, Kachin. Not 9. No Bengali. Muslims are immigrants from Bangladesh. They want to take over.”
We dived deeper, “When did they come here?”
“Arakan Empire for work and money. They should have left afterwards but they stayed.”
“Was the Arakan Empire before the British arrived?”
“Before. They are not from Myanmar.”
“Interesting, so they’ve been here a while. Do you get Bengali Buddhists and Rakhine Muslims?”
“No. All Rakhine Buddhists. All Bengali Muslim… my university used to be in a Muslim area.”
“Used to…? Did you have any Muslim friends?”
After we repeated an already answered question this time using the taboo R-word, it was time to close shop for the night.
This was not an isolated occurrence. A Mrauk U tour guide we hired told us that the “Bengalis” migrated over in 1991. The owner of a local pharmaceutical company in Sittwe said they came over during the British days, citing the insurgency in Southern Thailand and ISIL’s seizure of Marawi in the Philippines as examples of what Rakhine would soon face. In truth, the Rohingya have been living in Rakhine State since at least the 16th century.
You do not have to be in Myanmar to witness this propaganda: An Instagram location tag of Sittwe or Rakhine state in the aftermath of the border attack showed crudely drawn, revolting cartoons depicting exuberant Rohingya jihadists slaughtering Arakan buddhists as the western media laps it up – not particularly convincing to anyone who can think critically considering Myanmar’s government doesn’t allow foreign journalists to roam freely within Rakhine. Any Facebook news/NGO article condemning General Min Aung Hlaing, the mastermind of the ongoing operations in Rakhine, will feature Burmese adulating him and lampooning foreigners for their gullibility. Each situation justifies the ongoing campaign as a means of ending the perceived dilution of ethnic Rakhine buddhists, and it’s evident that Myanmar’s internal conflict has metastasised beyond good citizenry versus bad military; civilians, monks and even pro-democracy activists are today’s belligerents – ethnicity, religion and the aims of one-people one-nation lay the foundations for mass violence. The main compounding aspect I found however, was how life in both state and city went on as normal while hundreds of thousands were huddled against their will in both literal and figurative sewage only a handful of kilometres away.
If we continue to be all talk and little action as we did in Darfur, the Rohingya crisis will soon come to an end as there will be nobody left to kill or cleanse. The United Nations is calling this ethnic cleansing; 400,000 people desperately fled their country and its military onslaught in under a month, now risen to over 600,000; either into Bangladesh or the rancid hands of human traffickers. This is the highest exodus of a population in such a minuscule timeframe since Rwanda’s genocide. Over 200 villages were extinguished in September alone with satellite footage to show. This should be enough to compel the world to take action with more urgency than we have seen thus far given the accounts of families massacred, women raped and children burned alive. Helping these desperate people is the right thing to do on a moral level, but it is also within our national Interest. Islamist militants and their supporters peddle the lie that the west is indifferent to Muslim lives. The day has now come where we can show these nihilists that they are wrong.
Myanmar’s leap from half a century of freedoms unseen is remarkable, and ceasefires have been made with eight of its fifteen insurgency groups who’ve been warring since independence. However, we cannot succumb to praising low expectations – what is happening in Rakhine state under Tatmadaw General Min Aung Hlaing warrants far beyond condemnation and into the realms of punishment. Aung San Suu Kyi rightfully harbours a degree of responsibility to this crisis over her lacklustre assurances, but the military still retain more control than we would like to admit in the new Myanmar. While preferable to indifference, instead of symbolic gesturing by calling to withdraw Ms Suu Kyi’s Nobel prize and removing her portrait from her Oxford Alma Mater, the international community should break this appalling silence by blacklisting and taking real action against the Tatmadaw threat if it truly cares to ensure the survival and dignity of Myanmar’s Rohingya.