In the last four months, since August 2017, more than 615,000 natives of Arakan – the Rohingya Muslims and Hindus – have been forced to leave their native land to settle in Bangladesh as a refugee. They have left behind everything that was important to them and even family members – as their properties were looted before being burned down with living family members inside. The perpetrators have committed unfathomable crimes against humanity that have been described by the UN Secretary-General as the ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Human rights activists (including me) and genocide experts have been calling them the victims of Genocide.
Oddly, these refugees are probably the lucky ones who could muster their energy and resources to make their way to nearby Bangladesh. The unlucky ones are either murdered by any means imaginable (thousands are feared dead) or rotting in the largest concentration camp that the world has come to know in the 21st century. Since June 2012 nearly a quarter million Rohingyas continue to be either internally displaced or encamped in squalid camps inside the Rakhine (Arakan) state of Myanmar with no access to the rest of the world where they are caged like animals. The international aid agencies are barred from access to these concentration camps.
The lucky ones, i.e., the refugees who have found shelter inside Bangladesh, are the witnesses to the worst types of crimes. A consistent story heard from them is that their women have been sexually violated – some 75,000, according to the International Rescue Committee. Even 9-year old girls have not been spared by Rakhine savages and the ‘rapist’ Myanmar military. Rape is used as a weapon to purge Arakan of non-Buddhists in a very sinister manner that the world has not seen before in this century.
“We saw the military digging holes (for mass graves). We were five women with our babies,” Rashida said, almost in a whisper. “The grabbed us, dragged us into the house, and shut the door.”
The soldiers snatched Rashida’s baby son from her arms and killed him.
“I just screamed, I cried but they wouldn’t listen to us. They don’t even understand our language,” Rashida recalled.
The uniformed men showed her no mercy. They slit Rashida’s throat and tore off her clothes. She was brutalized and raped alongside the four other women. As Rashida lost consciousness, the men set the house alight and left them for dead.
“I thought I was already dead, but when my skin started to burn I woke up,” she said.
I woke up,” she said.
“Rashida Begum says she was raped by multiple Myanmar soldiers before she fled to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. “
Naked and disoriented, she ran out of the flames and hid in a nearby field, but she wishes she had not survived.
“It would be good if I too died because if I died then I wouldn’t have to remember all these things. My parents were killed too, lots of people were killed,” Rashida said as tears streamed down her face.
The soft-spoken 25-year-old was too traumatized to speak further about the assault or the loss of her child, but answered quickly when asked if she wanted revenge.
“We will be pleased if the military who raped us and killed our parents, if they are hanged,” she said.
Then Rashida went quiet, her lips quivering, her hands shaking uncontrollably. In her eyes was a distant gaze that made her seem far away.
“I constantly think about what happened,” she said. “I can’t get it out of my mind.”
Rashida’s story is not an uncommon one in the sprawling camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Anyone walking along the makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar can hear their heart-rendering sobbing and crying.
Who would have thought that some seventy years after the Second World War and the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we shall live to see so much of human suffering and so much of savagery! After the Jewish Holocaust of the last century our fathers said; Never Again would we allow a repeat of that monstrosity. Little did they know that their Declarations under the auspices of the United Nations – the world body – would turn out to be worthless toilet papers under Suu Kyi and her savage military predecessors.
Who would have thought that victims would be singled out for their race and religion! Who would have thought that the perpetrators of the crime against the Rohingya would be a people that claim to believe in the teachings of Gautama Buddha! Haven’t we heard that Buddhism preaches non-violence? Has it been hijacked by fascists? Are these Rakhine and Burmese Buddhists following a different brand of Buddhism that allows killing human beings, raping women, and burning the properties of ‘others’ that are different racially and religiously?
Welcome to Myanmar – the Buddhist-majority country – that earned its independence from the Great Britain on January 4 of 1948. It is an odd country that is made up of some 140 ethnic groups and spread over a connected landmass of 261,970 square miles – almost five times the size of Bangladesh. Of these ethnic groups, the Bama (Burman or Burmese) form a huge majority, comprising roughly 60% of the population of approx. 56 million – who mostly live in the center. They are the dominant group (the First Class) who have ruled Burma (or today’s Myanmar) for most of its checkered history. Next comes the 7 deputy national races (the Second Class) – Rakhine, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Chin and Shan – who mostly live in the periphery – border areas – where they are a majority. They dominate over 127 other ethnic groups (the Third Class) that are dispersed in this country. And then, there are class-less races that are not part of the above 135 national races and are considered illegals and unwanted, and thus, ready to be eliminated one way or another via e.g., a policy of ‘slow genocide’ and forced exodus.
The Rohingyas of Arakan whose forefathers were the first settlers to the land, oddly, belong to this last group of the so-called unwanted races who have been facing genocidal pogroms since at least the 1940s. The current episodes of state planned, orchestrated, directed and executed genocide is only the latest in that long series of events dating back to the time of Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II when the forefathers of today’s Rohingya who sided with the British in its war efforts against the Japanese military that had occupied Burma and the Buddhist majority (including Aung San’s BIA) that collaborated with the Japanese fascist forces. Two hundred and ninety-four Rohingya villages were destroyed, more than 100,000 of them lynched to death, and a million (Indian Muslim, including 80,000 Rohingyas) pushed out to British India (including southern Chittagong of the then East Bengal). The Muslim population in Arakan was depopulated in the south and pushed north, close to today’s Bangladesh-Burma border. The pogrom of 1942, where rape was used as a weapon of war against the Arakanese Muslims (Rohingya), almost permanently destroyed any possibility of reconciliation with the Arakanese Buddhists (Rakhine).
As hinted above, while the Buddhist majority in Burma allied itself with fascist Japan, the Muslims (including Rohingyas) of Burma remained loyal through the entire period of WW II, even when the British government had retreated in the face of Japanese invasion in 1942. Rohingyas were recruited heavily into the V-Force, the guerilla force, against the fascist military.
In January 1944, the British took Maungdaw, with V Force playing an important supporting role. It was not until December 1944, however, that the British forces finally took Buthidaung. Once this stronghold had been captured the Japanese position rapidly collapsed, and by early January 1945 most of the Arakan was in British hands.
According to Kurt Jonassohn and Karin Solveig Björnson, “During World War II the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British, even when they retreated to India. They paid dearly for this choice: advancing Japanese and Burmese armies tortured, raped, and massacred thousands of Rohingyas … After reconquering the region in 1945, the British rewarded the Rohingyas for their loyalty by setting up a civilian administration for the Rohingyas in Arakan.”
The dream of Rohingya autonomy was rather short-lived as Arakan was incorporated into Burma which gained independence on January 4, 1948. As we have seen with colonized Muslims everywhere, sadly, the British colonial government betrayed the Rohingya cause. Instead of linking northern Arakan where the Rohingyas were a solid majority with East Pakistan the area was made part of Union of Burma. The once independent Arakan (pre-1784) lost its sovereignty also, sowing frustration and open rebellion by the armed Rakhines. The Rohingyas who had fled to British India were not allowed to return to their homes in the newly independent Burma.
The Union of Burma became an artificial state, behaving like a dysfunctional family, where Buddhist and Bama chauvinism ruled supreme. Soon after independence, the Rohingyas – racially and religiously different from others – were barred and removed from the Military, Police and civil services and their leaders were placed under arrest while the ordinary Muslims faced daily persecution, discrimination and abuse. The continuous persecution led to Rohingya insurgency against the Burmese military in the early 1950s.
Some of the major armed operations against the Rohingya people, orchestrated by the Burmese government since 1948 until early 2012, are mentioned below:
- Military Operation (5th Burma Regiment) – November 1948
- Burma Territorial Force (BTF) – Operation 1949-50
- Military Operation (2nd Emergency Chin regiment) – March 1951-52
- Mayu Operation – October 1952-53
- Mone-thone Operation – October 1954
- Combined Immigration and Army Operation – January 1955
- Union Military Police (UMP) Operation – 1955-58
- Captain Htin Kyaw Operation –” 1959
- Shwe Kyi Operation – October 1966
- Kyi Gan Operation – October-December 1966
- Ngazinka Operation – 1967-69
- Myat Mon Operation – February 1969-71
- Major Aung Than Operation –” 1973
- Sabe Operation February – 1974-78
- Naga-Min (King Dragon) Operation – February 1978-79 (resulting in exodus of some 300,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh)
- Shwe Hintha Operation – August 1978-80
- Galone Operation – 1979
- Pyi Thaya Operation – July 1991-92 (resulting in exodus of some 268,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh)
- Na-Sa-Ka Operation – 1992 – 2012
In my Keynote speech at the JARO Conference in Tokyo, more than 10 years ago, on July 16, 2007, I said, “It is not difficult to understand why half the Rohingya population, numbering some million and a half, opted for a life of exile and uncertainty. They live as unwanted refugees and illegal immigrants in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia and the U.A.E.”
That situation has simply worsened since May of 2012. Now add to that list another 615,000 and growing number of refugees, let alone the tens of thousands that had left between July 2007-July 2017! Perhaps less than a quarter of the Rohingya population is inside Apartheid Myanmar – the den of intolerance.
I have been calling the crimes against the Muslims of Myanmar, especially the Rohingyas of Arakan, as part of a very sinister national project in Myanmar to eliminate them altogether that draws active support from the military to ministers to monks to the ordinary Maungs. Genocide is written all over those crimes. If we are to look for root cause(s) of violence against the Rohingya (and other Muslim minorities) one simply cannot be oblivious of racism and bigotry – the two major evils that have been exploited to the hilt.
The Burmese leaders – past and present – have always been chauvinists, feudal, racists and bigots to whom trend-setting ideas like diversity or pluralism are simply worthless. (The current leader Suu Kyi is no different than other Bamars.)
The power of the dominant Bamar race and military is also rooted in racism that has permeated Burmese society for centuries. This racism is not limited to the racial supremacy complex, but also playing the card of ethnic racism of one against the other. Myanmarism, the state ideology, encourages a blind and toxic religious-racist nationalism (i.e., Buddhist fascism) that is full of references to ‘protecting the race and religion’, meaning that if Burmans do not oppress other nationalities or religious minorities then they will themselves be oppressed, ‘national reconsolidation’, meaning forced assimilation, and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’, meaning that if the Tatmadaw falls then some kind of chaos would engulf the divided nation. Myanmar military rulers as the authors and executioners of this toxic ideology have been able to exploit these myths to the hilt since the early days of Burma’s independence from Britain.
Suu Kyi’s criminal regime is in denial of the Rohingya identity, falsely alleging that the latter are intruders from Bangladesh, or British India, as if there was no Muslim presence predating English occupation of Arakan. Willfully forgotten there is the mere fact that the history of the origin of Muslims in the crescent of Arakan is not much different to that of Muslims who now live in many parts of Bangladesh, esp. Chittagong. Historian Abdul Karim said, “In fact the forefathers of Rohingyas had entered into Arakan from time immemorial.” Muslims of Arakan played a significant role during Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784), comprising roughly one-third of Arakanese population, a proportion which was to maintain when the English East India Company occupied Arakan in 1824, and this, in spite of Burmese King Bodawpaya’s marauding campaign in 1784 and the subsequent rule of the territory that tried to wipe out Muslim identity by killing tens of thousands of Muslims, and uprooting many who took shelter in East India Company administered Bengal (today’s Bangladesh).
Forgotten in Myanmar’s criminal amnesia is also the fact that during the Mughal period, the Rakhine Buddhist Maghs – the ancestors of today’s Rakhine people – terrorized lower Bengal for hundreds of years until they were subjugated by Shaista Khan, the Governor of Bengal, in 1666. They raped women, looted everything that could be hauled away and abducted Bengalis and enslaved them to work in their pagodas and paddy fields along the Kaladan River. Historian Michael Charney estimates that between 1617 and 1666 CE, the total number of those Bengali captives could be 147,000. The ancestors of many of today’s Rohingyas were those kidnapped Bengalis.
As part of purging Muslims out and making Myanmar for Buddhists only, the Burmese government did not include Rohingya as one of the national races or ethnicities. During military rule of Ne Win, the Rohingyas were robbed of citizenship, thanks to Aye Kyaw – a racist Rakhine academic – who helped to draft the 1982 Citizenship Law. To Aye Kyaw it was like killing two birds with a single stone: destroy Rohingya both politically and economically – within Burma and especially inside Arakan (the Rakhine state), thus, sealing their fate permanently as a subservient class to the Rakhine majority, if they could not be pushed out of the state or killed.
As I have stated in my speech in Bangkok, this highly discriminatory law violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights. The law has made the Rohingya stateless. They are denied all the 30 rights enshrined in the UNDHR, and rightly described as the ‘most persecuted’ people in our planet. They are derogatorily called the Kala or Kalar people (synonymous to the English word ‘nigger’).
Kofi Annan and other world dignitaries have appealed to Suu Kyi to change the discriminatory Citizenship law thus allowing the Rohingya to be integrated fairly within Myanmar.
As I have noted elsewhere, the Rohingyas are distinct by language, culture and religion from the rest of the peoples of Myanmar, and have a shared history and group identification. As such, they are an ethnic group by any definition. This fact has been duly recognized in the encyclopedia where they are named as an ethnic group. More importantly, the Rohingya people identify themselves by this name, and no one should have the audacity to deny them that right of self-identification. After all, every nation has the right to call itself by whatever name it chooses.
The Rohingyas of Myanmar are facing genocide, which must be stopped immediately by any means possible. I am genuinely concerned that if the genocidal pogroms against the Rohingya people are allowed to continue there won’t be a single Rohingya left inside Arakan within the next decade. They will be an extinct community, much like what had happened to the native population of Tasmania.
That is why, it is important for our generation to punish the criminals of Myanmar and the Rakhine state. These savage criminals need to be tried at The Hague for their heinous crimes against humanity and punished, much like the Nuremburg Trial.
Peace is an illusion without justice. Soft talks with the criminal Myanmar regime would only prolong the suffering of the Rohingya victims. The UN Security Council must get its acts together and do what is necessary to save the Rohingya people, and earn the moral authority it now lacks. In the meantime, punitive measures affecting the state apparatus and against the major players must be taken to weaken the apartheid regime.
But will the world body do its duty to save humanity? Is there political will to stop this genocide?
“Imagine you are a Rohingya villager. You live in a small village in Western Burma. You live a simple life, but basically you get by. Actually, you do more than get by. You have a happy family, a rich culture, and a lot of friends.
You know that in the past your people have been targeted many times, by soldiers, police and other agents of the military dictatorship, and by local Rakhine groups. But you have been okay. You, and your village, have not been attacked.
This time, though, it’s different. The Burma Army and police are perpetrating a literal “scorched earth” offensive throughout the Rohingya homeland. They have raided village after village and then in many cases burned them down, leaving only the smoldering remains. As they do, they murder or arrest the men (many of the detainees are killed later); rape the women; steal everything of value; and often kill the women, elderly and children as well. You truly are being subjected to an organized, systematic campaign of terror.
What do you do? You are frantic – at night, you’re unable to sleep from fear. There is a road directly to your village. They can arrive at any time. You make whatever plans you can, and hope that lookouts and your dogs will give you a moment’s warning – a head-start – before truckloads of killers and rapists come.
You have a problem, though. Your area is very flat, just miles and miles of fields. You can run, but it is easy for the killers to follow. All you can do is move as fast and as far as possible, including with the elderly and the children, and hope that they don’t catch you.
In this way, your situation is different from the ethnic nationalities who have been terrorized for decades on the other side of Burma: the Mon, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Kachin, and other groups. Many live in the hills. They can run into forests, which offer much better hiding places. Some Karen, for instance, have had to flee so many times that they have learned to hide food supplies and emergency shelters, in the deepest jungles. Of course, the Burma Army soldiers often mine their villages, so they can’t return safely, and shoot them on sight if they are caught out in the open. (These areas are also “Black Zones.”) Still, their conditions – sometimes at least – allow an easier initial escape.
You don’t have that option. You’re stuck. You can wait for the killers to assault your home, or you can give up and flee to Bangladesh. (Just as so many refugees in Eastern Burma have fled to Thailand, Laos and China.) But for reasons that aren’t that clear, Bangladesh isn’t very welcoming at the moment. The country already has large Rohingya refugee camps from earlier periods of repression in Burma. It seems the government just doesn’t want to give anyone else sanctuary. Indeed, hundreds of the new refugees have already been forced back.
This is what it means now to be a Rohingya in Burma, although it’s not the entire story. Individuals who are injured or sick can’t get medical care. There’s not enough food, and many people are starving. It’s truly monstrous, a living hell.
The famous saying is that you should put yourself in another person’s shoes, to really understand them. I wrote this for everyone, especially outside of Burma, who doesn’t grasp what is being done to the Rohingya people. They are peaceful. With rare exceptions, they are not fighting back in self-defense. Very few of us have ever experienced anything like this. It is so bad, it’s difficult to comprehend. But this is what is taking place. The Rohingya are being exterminated, one by one and in small groups, and suffering incredible brutality before they are killed.
This is abominable. It’s genocide. It must be stopped, now. Anyone who has any power at all to influence the dictatorship of Burma (foremost political leaders and diplomats), starting with its cover propagandist, Aung San Suu Kyi, is obliged to act. If you don’t, if you don’t want to risk your career, or if you are simply cold-hearted and don’t care, then you are a terrible person as well. I don’t know how you can live with yourself.”
Watson wrote the above essay in 2016. The situation today is much worse for the Rohingya. Can we afford to behave deaf, dumb, blind and silent when it is a gross crime to do so?
I often question what is the basis for a nation’s claim to independence or self-determination? Must a people wander in the wilderness for two millennia and suffer repeated persecution, humiliation and genocide to qualify? Until now, history’s answer to the question has been pragmatic and brutal – a nation is a people tough enough to grab the land it wants and hangs onto it. Period!
How about the rights of a minority community to survive with their culture and traditions intact? Do they need to be ‘children’ of a ‘higher’ God or follow Judeo-Christian morality to qualify? What makes the children of a ‘lesser’ God to be forgotten and denied the same treatment and privilege that was granted hitherto to the people of East Timor and South Sudan? Could not a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite determine the fate of these forgotten people of our time to decide for themselves what is best for them? What about all those scores of statutes and articles of Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Convention, Treatment of Prisoners (political and non-combatants), etc., etc.? Don’t they matter? Which agency is responsible to guarantee those rights? If it is the U.N., why is it failing to bring about desired change?
How will our generation be judged by our posterity for letting the genocide of the Rohingya to continue for this long? Shame on us if we fail to stop Rohingya genocide!
[Keynote speech by the author at a seminar on Rohingya Crisis, organized by the Human Rights and Development for Bangladesh (HRDB), in York College, Jamaica, NY, Nov. 19, 2017.]