This month we land in Myanmar, more typically known by its pre-military dictatorship name ‘Burma’, where decades of government-stoked prejudice against a Muslim minority have flared into violence, then humanitarian crisis, as some observers chillingly predict genocide.
Junta-ruled since its army seized power fifty years ago, Myanmar stands out as one of south-east Asia’s most profoundly troubled countries. Awareness of Burma’s repressive military leadership is unusually high in the West, largely thanks to high-profile political prisoner turned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Less publicised is its often abject poverty, widespread use of both child workers and child soldiers, popularity among human traffickers and, topically, institutionalised racism.
Last year, violent riots broke out in the country’s Arakan region. Buddhist and Muslim Burmese clashed after it was alleged that a group of the latter gang-raped one of the former. In retaliation, ten Muslims were murdered by incensed Buddhists. Thereafter violence quickly escalated and the Burmese army was sent in to keep the peace. It wasn’t long before soldiers were accused of leading rather than preventing attacks on Muslims.
The majority of Myanmar’s population are Buddhists. It does, however, have a substantial Muslim minority, descended from Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Arab settlers. While many are relatively recent migrants, evidence suggests that some Muslims have been present in the region for hundreds of years, particularly the Arakan-based Rohingya ethnic group.
But despite this Islamic pedigree, the Burmese government treats the Muslim population with unguarded disdain. The state refuses to recognise Rohingyas as Burmese citizens, or even acknowledge their long-standing presence at all. Instead, spurning the historical facts, Burma’s rulers refer to them as ‘undocumented immigrants’. A government website nonchalantly explains that ‘the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas … are not an ethnic group in Burma’.
The Rohingyas are subjected to blatant oppression. They are not allowed to leave Arakan state, to marry without a permit – near-impossible to acquire without bribing corrupt officials – or, most sinisterly of all, to have more than two children. None of Burma’s many other ethnic groupings face the same kind of restrictions.
Thus anti-Rohingya sentiment has been culturally and politically ingrained over decades. This kind of racism has become a social default that even the bravest politicians don’t touch – Aung San Suu Kyi’s international halo has slipped since her 2010 release given her failure to speak out against this state-sanctioned discrimination.
In Arakan, the riots threw a match onto decades of cultural firewood. They started in May. By June a state of emergency had been declared as the riots turned far nastier. Buddhist and Muslim mobs attacked each other’s communities, burning down thousands of homes, destroying livelihoods and killing 88 people.
The death toll might have been relatively small, but, by the end of June, it was clear that the psychological effect had been immense – nearly 90,000 had fled their homes and were left wandering without food, water, shelter or protection. Aid agencies attempted to assist, but Burma’s rulers were wilfully obstructive. Ten UN workers were arrested, accused of ‘stimulating’ the riots.
The state’s thinly-veiled disdain was excellently conveyed by Burma’s President Thein Sein – its first head of state since a flimsy constitutional amendment appeared to hand power back to civilian leaders, but in reality just saw a cabal of generals hastily retire their army roles and continue ruling – who declared that all Rohingyas should be moved to UN refugee camps outside the country.
In October violence flared again, seeing more deaths, more homes destroyed and 22,000 more people displaced. Now, though, it was a less a spontaneous outburst of anger and much more a coordinated, concerted attempt at forcing all Muslims, not just Rohingyas, out of Arakan.
Men, women and children were killed, their property burnt down and their corpses slung in mass graves. Sometimes the Burmese army intervened on the Muslims’ behalf, protecting them and their property. Far more often they looked the other way as mobs attacked. Frighteningly, in several instances they joined in the killing themselves.
During a fact-finding mission to Arakan state, the NGO Human Rights Watch discovered three mass graves, and observed government trucks dumping naked Rohingya corpses outside a refugee camp. The bodies had clearly been tied up and executed.
A year on from the initial riots, displaced Rohingyas are in the grip of an appalling humanitarian crisis. Thousands are living in squalid, overcrowded camps with little or no assistance from the Burmese state.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claims thousands of children are at risk of starvation, while tens of thousands more are lacking the most basic life essentials. Arakan’s non-Muslims and Buddhist monks have often obstructed aid deliveries to the camps and threatened aid workers.
Meanwhile, the relatively few non-Muslim Burmese left homeless by the violence live in well-supplied camps, fed, watered and protected by the government and fund-raising drives on national TV.
It’s unsurprising, then, that some Rohingyas have fled the country out of desperation. Shocking numbers have taken to rickety overloaded boats lacking the most basic navigational equipment to try and escape by sea. In January alone, around 1,800 people managed to make it to Thailand. 13,000 people are thought to have left for Bangladesh. Hundreds have drowned.
A grim situation looks set to get much grimmer. As aid agencies and the UN are consistently hassled and obstructed by both the Burmese state and Islamophobic Buddhists on the ground, Burma’s intense monsoon season rolls implacably into a crisis that’s already dire. Trapped in ramshackle camps unfit for habitation in dry weather, Arakan state’s Muslims now have nature to contend with on top of state-sanctioned bigotry. You can donate to efforts to help the displaced Rohingyas here.