Children beheaded, systematic rape, villages burnt to the ground and thousands of fleeing refugees.
The horrific testimonies filtering out from Myanmar from refugees and human rights groups have led to some calling the situation facing the persecuted Rohingya minority a slow-burning genocide.
More than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar in the last two weeks according to United Nations estimates, after violence erupted once again in the country’s Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live.
When Rohingya militants attacked government forces on 25 August, the army responded with a violent campaign that killed hundreds, and led to rape, arson and destruction of villages, bringing international condemnation. In Indonesia, thousands took to the streets to demand diplomatic ties be cut with the Myanmar government. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have now fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Rohingya community is reviled within Myanmar and viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived there for hundreds of years. The persecution of more than one million Muslim Rohingya by the mostly Buddhist country is Myanmar’s most burning human rights issue, as the country transitions away from military rule.
The latest wave of violence has been particularly horrific, human rights groups say. According to the Arakan project, which monitors violence in the country’s western Rakhine state, the military and Buddhist mobs are attempting to cover up the Rohingya massacres by burning their bodies in mass graves.
“The military came with 200 people to the village and started fires … All the houses in my village are already destroyed. If we go back there and the army sees us, they will shoot,” Jalal Ahmed, 60, told Reuters, after arriving in Bangladesh last week with a group of about 3,000 after walking for almost a week. (These accounts cannot be verified as independent journalists have not had access to northern Rakhine since last October, after the military locked down the area).
Transparency and fact-checking
Human rights groups allege Myanmar police and military forces have been committing massacres of remote Rohingya villages, while the Myanmar government blames Rohingya rebels for burning their own homes and accuses them of killing Buddhists and Hindus.
The ban on independent bodies investigating the issue by Myanmar’s government has prevented any independent fact checking. The government has also blocked all United Nation aid agencies from delivering vital supplies to the thousands of civilians caught up in this latest military campaign.
A source working at an NGO that operates in Myanmar told HOPE not hate their organisation had been banned from entering Rakhine. They added that while there has been violence from both Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist civilians in the past, the majority of atrocities are committed by the military against the Rohingya community. Others have echoed these words.
“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a report published earlier this year.
The stories of massacres and violence are not helped by the silence of Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of failing to support the Muslim minority that has long been victim of persecution. Last week, her office accused aid workers of helping “terrorists”, prompting fears for their safety.
Pakistani education advocate Malala Yousafzai said on Twitter: “Over the last few years I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment,” she wrote. “I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.”
— Malala (@Malala) September 3, 2017
Meanwhile, Ms Suu Kyi posted a statement on Facebook today saying “terrorists” were misinforming the world about the violence and that she had spoken with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the crisis, which he has repeatedly called a “genocide”.
Consequences of persecution
Although the Rohingya have suffered oppression for decades, the recent violence is seen as a dangerous escalation, after it was sparked by attacks against military targets by a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation army.
Based in northern Myanmar, where the mostly-Muslim Rohingya people have faced persecution, its aims are to “defend, salvage and protect” the Rohingya against state repression “in line with the principle of self-defence”.
A day before the violence erupted, the UN published a report calling for Myanmar to scrap restrictions on the movement and citizenship of its Rohingya minority if it wanted to avoid fuelling extremism and wished to bring peace to Rakhine.
Myanmar contains many ‘Muslim free’ zones and the country has long been criticised for its “devastating cruelty” against the Rohingya population. The Rakhine advisory commission was led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, who said: “If the legitimate grievances of local populations are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.” He described the Rohingya community as “the single biggest stateless community in the world”.
Tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists erupted in rioting in 2012, forcing more than 100,000 Rohingya to be internally displaced, with many still living in camps within Myanmar.
Finding a future
HOPE not hate’s anonymous source says they aren’t sure what can be done to bring about peace, because perceptions of Rohingya are so negative in Myanmar and most in the country are very supportive of the military action.
“It is hard to find any narrative with sympathy for the Rohingya,” they said.
The centuries-deep fear and suspicion of the Muslim minority has led to widespread hate and institutionalised discrimination.
Rohingya Muslims are difficult to hire by NGO’s in the area as they remain under movement restrictions by the government. A source in the area says that Rakhine staff remain both “terrified” of the Rohingya people they are helping, while also afraid of backlash from within their own communities for the work they do.
Meanwhile, as international pressure mounts, Myanmar has been laying landmines across a section of its border with Bangladesh according to reports. The sources say the purpose is to prevent the return of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence.
Monitoring groups and fleeing Rohingya say the campaign of arson and killing by the military aims to force the community out of the country. It is unlikely any path towards peace will be found without an intrinsic change in attitude within the Buddhist majority country.