Facing disaster: The Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar
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2017-05-07 08:29:05

Facing disaster: The Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar


A fine-featured, skeletal middle-aged man, (his name has been withheld at his request), he spoke haltingly as he describes how and why he fled his native Myanmar.

“The fires started at my house at 8.30am on the first day,” said Farouk, adding that they were started by a local Buddhist mob accompanied by the Myanmar army.

“They fired weapons at the children and the elder people who were hiding in the paddy fields. They took my child and threw him into the fire by his neck. He was four years old.”

A history of violence

Farouk’s account was one of several wrenching testimonies given to Middle East Eye by members of the Rohingya Muslim community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

The region, home to an eponymous city and the longest stretch of beach in the world, also hosts a growing number of Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled from neighbouring Rakhine state in Myanmar. There, roughly a million Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions, coexisting with the dominant ethnic Rakhine community, who are largely Buddhist.

This mostly stateless minority have endured decades of persecution in Rakhine, punctuated by occasional pogroms, the latest of of which may be occurring now.

In 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were burnt out of their homes across Rakhine and forced to live in squalid camps for the displaced. According to Human Rights Watch, it was part of an ethnic cleansing campaign involving state security forces and Buddhist mobs.

Since then, the Rohingya Muslims have seen their few remaining rights eroded further, a process culminating in outright disenfranchisement prior to an historic poll in 2015, the first openly-contested general election in 25 years.

The total death toll since 2012 is unknown: successive governments have sealed off areas hit by violence, and official estimates have been impossibly low. However, agencies of the United Nations believe the number is at least 1,000 dead in recent months.

“The talk until now has been of hundreds of deaths. This is probably an underestimation – we could be looking at thousands,” said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, Reuters reported.

Myanmar government in denial

The latest round of violence began in October 2016, when a group of Rohingya militants conducted a surprise attack against three border guard police posts near Maungdaw, leaving nine dead.

Although the assaults, by a limited group of insurgents, were the the first attack of this kind for decades, rights groups have said that the Myanmar security forces targeted whole communities retributively.

A report released on 3 February by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), accuses Myanmar’s military of committing possible crimes against humanity as part of “clearance operations” against rebels, allegedly resulting in “hundreds” of deaths, and involving systematic rape (around half of the women interviewed by the organisation said that they had been violated). Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch corroborate many of its claims.

Until recently, the Myanmar government in Naypyidaw simply responded to such charges with blanket or pat denials. A foreign ministry spokeswoman summarised the official stance by stating that, when it comes to allegations of abuse levelled by the Rohingya Muslims, “the things they are accusing us of didn’t happen at all.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and once an embattled democracy campaigner, is now de facto head of Myanmar’s government. She has presided over this cruel farce, going so far as to allow a social media page run by her office to publicly shame a woman who alleged that she had been raped by security forces.

Elsewhere, her office attempted to debunk other allegations of rape, including those contained in a report by The Guardian.

And lawmaker Aung Win, who led an earlier inquiry into the allegations against the army, told Middle East Eye that “the [non-Rohingya people] from the military and the police are not interested in ‘Bengali’ [the term used for Muslim Rohingya] women because they are very dirty.” The line, which he also used during a notorious interview with the BBC, was followed by a short laugh.

In the aftermath of the UN report, the government relented on its months-long campaign of refutation. Instead, in February 2017, it issued a bizarre, self-refuting statement to a BBC journalist, claiming that “our position is not a blanket denial… we will cooperate with [the] international community.”

In a recent development, the army announced that it would investigate itself over allegations of abuses against the Muslim Rohingya.

U Pe Than, a parliamentary lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy that the investigation committee members – all members of the  military – were “under the control of the Tatmadaw or the government,” but he believed that their enquiries would be “independent and truthful”.

But media access to the conflict zone remains restricted, many government officials reject the OHCHR report and military operations continue.

The only way to access affected Rohingya Muslims and gain a counterview, as a foreign journalist barred from the area, was to interview some of the refugees who crossed the border into Bangladesh.



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Tags:   Rohingyas ، Myanmar ،
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