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Myanmar’s hidden crisis
Recently, Myanmar has been trumpeted it the west as a shining example of what is possible when people set aside their differences, embrace democratic principles and neoliberal economic policies. Underneath the surface of this bombastic rhetoric resides a conflict which may threaten the existence of an ethnic group which has been denied legitimacy since the 19th Century. Even more alarming is the apparent indifference of the west, accompanied predictably, by the near total omission of this story from western media. Somewhat reminiscent of the genocide in East Timor, the apathy of the west could accelerate this possibly preventable tragedy, the social and human costs of which being totally incalculable.
As British Colonization overextended the empire, as well as indigenous resources, the British continued to embrace a deliberate process of forced human relocation for the purposes of performing physical labor (read: slavery via kidnapping). In Myanmar, formerly Burma, the British imported scores of Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh. Ever since, the descendants of these unfortunate souls have been struggling to find an identity. Dismissed as illegitimate by the governments of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, what is happening to the Rohingya right now in the Rakhine State of Myanmar may be the preeminent humanitarian crisis of the decade.
Rakhine State is located in the westernmost portion of Myanmar, its northern border resting against Bangladesh. It’s population of roughly 2 million provides a slight majority to the ethnic Rakhine – the state was renamed to honor the country’s largest of over 100 officially recognized ethnic groups – but the Rohingya are not recognized by Myanmar’s government as a legitimate ethnic group. Although tensions between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine have persisted since British rule, events that transpired this spring uncorked volatile emotions deeply rooted in distrust and hatred and which could potentially compromise Myanmar’s image as a budding liberal democratic state.
In May of this year a Rakhine woman was brutally raped and murdered, authorities charged three Rohingya with the crime. One week later ten Rohingya were beaten to death by a Buddhist led mob for audaciously passing through the Buddhist village of Toungop in a truck. The events that followed are still coming into focus but what is clear is that on June 8, 2012 there was a standoff between Muslim protestors leaving their mosque after Friday prayers and armed government forces in the town of Mongdaw. Troops released a volley into the air dispersing the crowd and then began firing indiscriminately into the crowd of people, at least one Rohingya was killed. Later that afternoon a Buddhist mob descended on the town of Mongdaw, setting ablaze Rohingya homes and shops. It’s unclear how many Rohingya lost their lives.That afternoon the violence spread from Mongdaw to a small village nearby where there were accounts of kidnappings by state security forces.
That evening, in a village on the outskirts of the state capitol Sittwe, Rakhine approached some Rohingya men at a Mosque and accused them of conspiring to kill Rakhine. Later, groups of Rakhine descended on the town which was subsequently incinerated, reduced to smoldering ashes and blackened palm trees, confirmed by satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch. One of the only remaining structures, a Mosque, had the following inscription marring the charred remains ‘Rakhine will drink Kalar blood’, Kalar being an ethnic epithet used by Rakhine toward Muslims. Rakhine were soon joined by state security forces, the NaSaKa, who reportedly executed several Rohingya, accurate estimates of casualties are difficult to obtain because the bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave in the middle of the night. One little girl saw five of her cousins thrown into flames and burned alive, and at least one of her Uncles executed by NaSaKa. A Rohingya woman who was raped by at least 20 men died in November from trauma sustained during her attack, she was also forced to abort a resultant pregnancy. Although the debate about what constitutes a genocide is ongoing and far from resolved, this conflict has some elements which, at the very least, merit consideration of the title.
The immediate effect of this violence has been to displace roughly 110,000 Rohingya from their adopted homeland. Some have tried to flee to Bangladesh, but border officials there have adhered to a strict policy of sending the unwanted back to Myanmar, irregardless of their safety. Many Rakhine have also fled the the State, fearing a rapid escalation of hostilities as there is open animosity and hate speech erupting from both sides. There exists a mutual suspicion and hatred which often presages the type of illogical violence which leads to acts of genocide. There is also fear of the conflict spilling outside the borders of Rakhine State, descending into a civil war pitting all Muslims against all Buddhists.
Without question brutal acts have been perpetrated by both sides, neither group is entirely innocent. However, the Rohingya lack an official claim to national identity, any political support whatsoever and, apparently, any recognition or concern from the international community, rendering them the more vulnerable party by far.
I will return to this issue in my next piece but would urge anyone interested in learning more about this watch Al Jazeera’s feature, found here [http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeerainvestigates/2012/12/2012125122215836351.html]. Also, please check for my next installment on this story which will appear on Friday and will analyze some deeply troubling policies and actions of the Myanmar government with respect to the Rohingya people.