Amid a military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the long-persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority are fleeing for their lives.
Myanmar’s state security forces say they are hunting for suspected militants in the northern part of Rakhine, while human rights groups and refugees say troops are conducting extrajudicial killings and committing rape and arson.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that 65,000 displaced Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since the military campaign began in October.
The number of people internally displaced in Rakhine State is unknown, as aid agencies and journalists have been denied access to the area. But the U.N. estimates at least 130,000 vulnerable people are now stranded without support in the impoverished region, where many were already dependent on international food aid.
“Without access, we simply don’t know how many people are left in those areas,” Pierre Peron, information officer for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Refugees Deeply. “You have very vulnerable communities which are even more vulnerable now,” he said.
Using satellite imagery analysis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed “widespread destruction” of Rohingya villages since last October, identifying 1,500 burned buildings. The Myanmar army’s chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, denied state responsibility, suggesting that Rohingya residents had set fire to their own homes “in the hope of getting a new home” built by the army.
But rights groups say the villages appear to have been burned systematically. The affected communities lie near a main road heading westward, in line with the route of military advancement over the past months.
Following international criticism of the campaign, Myanmar’s government – headed by the popularly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) – formed the Rakhine State Investigation Commission in December to probe allegations of abuse. Leading the commission is military-appointed Vice President Myint Swe, himself an ex-general.
The commission published its findings in early January. It said it found no evidence of widespread malnutrition, in contrast to previous government health reports saying northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township had the highest malnutrition rates in the country. Instead, the commission highlighted “favorable fishing and farming conditions” in the area which they claimed continued despite the conflict.
Yet, OCHA’s Peron pointed out that more than 3,000 children living in the conflict zone were suffering from malnutrition even before security operations began.
The commission also rejected growing accusations – including from U.N. officials – of government-perpetrated crimes against the Rohingya population. John McKissick, head of the U.N. refugee agency in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – a country home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees – said as early as last November that he believed Myanmar’s government was carrying out “ethnic cleansing.”
The commission argued that the presence of mosques and clerics in Rakhine State served as “proof that there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution in the region.”
The current operations in Rakhine State appear strategically similar to the infamous “Four Cuts” campaign, carried out by Myanmar’s army against many of the country’s armed groups and ethnic communities, beginning in the 1960s and continuing for decades. Government troops restricted groups’ access to food, funds, intelligence and new recruits by forcibly relocating villages, burning rice stores, using sexual violence and suppressing ethnic identities.
The U.N.’s McKissick believes that the military campaign is “collective punishment” of the Rohingya for the October 9 attacks on three border guard posts in northern Rakhine State that killed nine policemen.
The government said the perpetrators of the October attacks were armed with sticks and machetes. It also alleged they belonged to an international terrorist network.
The International Crisis Group warned in December that the group that reportedly claimed responsibility for the October attacks – Harakah al-Yaqin – is a “well-funded” Rohingya armed organization earning “widespread support” from Muslims in the region. But little is currently known about Harakah al-Yaqin and its capacity, other than an interview published by the Dhaka Tribune, in which the leadership claims to have “25-30 members trained in modern guerrilla tactics.”
In 2015, researchers at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy noted that narratives linking the Rohingya Solidarity Organization to international terrorism had been a “convenient myth” that the state could use to garner Western backing for counterterrorism initiatives.
Yet the situation is very different today, says the Institute’s Elliot Brennan, noting that the 2015 paper warned that a continuation of government policies would only further marginalize the Rohingya and could lead to radicalization.
Some Rohingya activists expressed frustration that more attention was being paid to an apparently small militant group than the persecution of the community.
“Why do they only mention religion when talking about the Rohingya?” said Nay San Lwin, a Europe-based Rohingya activist, referring to discussions about militant groups in Myanmar. “There are predominantly Christian and Buddhist insurgencies [in Myanmar], and when [others] talk about them, religion isn’t mentioned,” he said, referring to various ethnic armed groups in eastern and northern parts of the country, some of which have thousands of troops.
Call for International Help
Myanmar’s estimated 1.1 million Rohingya have long faced persecution. The government – and much of the country’s Buddhist majority – refer to them as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from Bangladesh. A 1982 citizenship law contributed to the Rohingyas’ statelessness by excluding the group from the 135 classified “national races.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also refrained from using the term “Rohingya.” In a December interview, she warned the international community against “drumming up calls for bigger fires of resentment” by “exaggerating” the current crisis.
Maung Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K., said the situation of the Rohingya has “gotten worse under the NLD government,” referencing the ongoing military operations. The Rohingya have no one to turn to among the authorities in Myanmar to stop the atrocities, he said. “There is no way to ask for protection domestically [in Myanmar] at all,” he told Refugees Deeply.
The Rohingya are “friendless and hopeless” within Myanmar and need international action to help them, says Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin. “There have been many concerned statements from the U.N. officials, yet we are not seeing real action,” he said.
Advocacy groups such as Fortify Rights and Burma Campaign U.K. have called for an independent U.N. inquiry into abuses in Rakhine State, a move supported by Rohingya activists. “We would like an acknowledgment of crimes against humanity. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry is the only way to bring [the Myanmar army] to justice,” Maung Tun Khin said. On January 18, more than 40 Myanmar civil society groups also joined the call for an independent investigation into the situation in Rakhine State, in order to provide the government with ”clear recommendations” on which to act.
In December, while military operations continued in Rakhine State and Rohingya poured across the border, the White House quietly eased restrictions on aid to Myanmar’s government, citing “substantial progress in improving human rights.” This U.S. policy shift, according to Nay San Lwin, “allowed the Myanmar government to continue crimes against minorities.”
He fears that the patterns of persecution against the Rohingya will intensify in coming years, leading to more widespread and permanent displacement. “[The military] are allowed to do [this], by the international community and the U.N., in their failure to act,” he said.
This version updates an earlier version of the story with more context about the situation referred to in the Institute for Security and Development Policy and comments by the Institute’s Elliot Brennan.