As Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday defended the imprisoning of journalists, who dared to expose the persecution of the Rohingya, the world was reminded that despite the transition towards democracy in Myanmar, the government still acts with impunity when persecuting a section of their population, despite the added checks and balances of being answerable to the Myanmar public. Why, when people can now overthrow a government at the ballot box, do they allow their fellow countrymen and women to face such brutality?
I recall sitting on the floor of a makeshift shelter in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh with Nur, light is forcing itself through the gaps in the fragments of wood being held together as walls. The gaping holes in the roof are patched up by plastic sheets, once used for transporting UN aid, to shield what little they have left from the monsoon season. “Life under military rule was better” Nur tells me. “There was persecution, but after democracy, things got very bad.” I was soon to find out that he will not be the first Rohingya who partly blames Myanmar’s democratisation process for their suffering and he won’t be in the minority. Nur is 62 and, like three-quarter of the one million Rohingya refugees in the camps of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar district, he fled his home in Myanmar 11-months ago due to, what the UN described this week as, the military’s genocide against them.
Nur’s daughter, Hazara, and her baby live with him. Hazara says her husband was shot by the military whilst working on their farm. They walked for days to get to the safety of Bangladesh, the family carried Hazara’s dying husband, whilst Hazara was heavily pregnant. After they arrived, her husband succumbed to his wounds. Hazara agrees with Nur, “after elections, the persecution of Muslims got more extreme.”
The refugee camps are densely populated; they are poverty’s answer to New York City. Instead of a skyline of skyscrapers there are improvised shelters as far as the eye can see. Instead of the bright lights and billboards of Time Square, there are the PVC banners erected by NGOs/charities detailing their projects. Instead of the taxis flooding the roads, there are rugged pathways men, women and children use to transport bundles of firewood, jugs of water or bags of bricks on their backs. This metropolis of desperation is the new home for most Rohingya after they were forced out of their old home in Myanmar.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a Buddhist majority country (87%), there are 135 government recognised ethnic groups within the country. The, predominantly Muslim, Rohingya are not legally recognised, do not have legal rights and have been told for decades they aren’t Burmese and aren’t welcome as they only arrived during the 1800s (despite evidence proving they have been there for over 300 years). They live(d) in the Rakhine State, where they are the minority and the mainly Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group are the majority.
The Rohingya have long-faced varying levels of persecution up until 2012 when it intensified and they had all rights confiscated. Last summer, over 750,000 fled the country due to a spark of mass violence at the hands of the Myanmar military and local Rakhine extremists. Yet, many Rohingya that I speak to believe that the point in which the persecution began its freefall into genocide coincided with the peak of Myanmar’s transition from a junta towards something resembling a democracy – the 2015 election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party.
Masuma, a 30-year-old mother of three, explains “After getting power, Aung San Suu Kyi was doing everything very negative for the Muslims.” I asked her what she meant. She told me that, in her village, the Tatmadaw (the army) separated the men from the women. They sent the women home who found soldiers were waiting to rape them, meanwhile, the military executed all the men, including her husband.
Tomina, a mother and grandmother, also believes the elections represented a milestone “Since Aung San Suu Kyi was elected it got worse. The military does what she tells them. She could tell them to stop.” Tomina’s nephew was shot dead as he was fleeing from the military who had set his home on fire, “then they threw his baby on the fire” she adds.
Mohammed, who was a farmer before fleeing, says like the rest of the world they were initially optimistic about Aung San Suu Kyi, “Before she was elected, we heard rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to help the Rohingya. But then we heard nothing. She was silent as the military persecuted us. I think if she spoke up for us, the military would overthrow her.” Whilst Myanmar moves towards democracy, the military still constitutionally has an important role in its governance and legitimises its presence by highlighting the many ethnic tensions around the borders.
Since the 1960s, Myanmar’s regimes have crafted and intensified a nationalist identity, to distract from the economic ruin and mass poverty caused by their “Burmese Way To Socialism” initiative. To be true Burmese you needed to be of the Bamar ethnic group and Buddhist. If you weren’t Bamar (which 32% of Myanmar aren’t) you had better be a Buddhist. The Rohingya were neither, they were outsiders who should be feared. Distrust lingered from World War II as, whilst most Burmese fought alongside the Japanese, the Rohingya allied with the British.
In recent years, extremist Buddhist groups like 969 and MaBaTha have become highly influential. These groups successfully spread beliefs such as Muslims are secretly controlling the establishment, Muslims use Halal slaughterhouses to practice slitting Buddhist throats (getting many shutdown) and saying Muslims want to enslave Myanmar under Sharia Law. 969 have a lot of influence over the NLD and MaBaTha provide textbooks for Myanmar’s school children. Their influence on society means that all political parties fear appearing to be “soft” on Muslims. Thus the Rohingya had most of their remaining rights, including the right to vote, confiscated in 2012. The charismatic figurehead of these movements, U Wirathu, is dubbed “the Buddhist bin Laden.” His anti-Islam messages are so widely believed that, in this quasi-democracy, a government can only survive through its persecution of the Rohingya. Being seen to be “pro-Muslim” will lead to monks out on the streets, trying to topple the government, and the military would only be too willing to recapture power.
Another force openly pushing for the exclusion of the Rohingya were the various political parties representing the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, now the Arakan National Party. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD colluded with them to get Rohingya rights eradicated, in order to gain Rakhine support. As Myanmar expressed its democratic voice in 2015, the Rohingya were silenced.
The anti-Muslim feeling that exists in Myanmar hit home when I was on a ferry crossing the Yangon River. A couple of novice Buddhist monks, who were no older than 11, pointed to me, they made a gesture along their cheeks to indicate that I had a beard (which I do) and then made the sinister gesture of running their finger across their throat – they thought I was a Muslim (which I’m not) because of my beard and these pious children were threatening me. It is clear that, as long as Myanmar’s institutions dance to the tune of the extremists, the popular will will always be to support Rohingya persecution.
The rest of Myanmar gaining some democratic rights left the Rohingya without any human rights. Those in Bangladesh long to return home, as long as they can get equality. Yet no one I spoke to can imagine a Muslim ever being safe in Rakhine State. Refugees in Bangladesh and IDPs within Rakhine live in hopelessness. As Nur tells me “we are smart people, we are qualified and we are experienced. We are just sitting here. We want to be able to earn our money. But because I am a refugee I have no right to work in Bangladesh.” As the rest of Myanmar are becoming more enfranchised, the Rohingya are now more disenfranchised than ever before.