Justin Wintle is the author of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (2007 rev 2010) and a frequent contributor to the BBC, alJazeera and some other television and radio news channels.
Nobody should be in any doubt that, despite the protestations of Myanmar’s government, something truly awful has occurred in Myanmar’s westerly Rakhine state over recent months. Currently an estimated 700,000 Moslem Rohingya have fled their homes to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh against a backdrop of what the UNHCR has called a ‘textbook case’ of ethnic cleansing – to which may reasonably be added elements of genocide.
The trouble began at the end of August 2017 when several police stations came under attack from a group of Moslem agitators calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Such attacks were poorly armed, sometimes with no more than sticks and stones. Yet twelve policemen were killed, as were a much greater number of the assailants, and reprisals didn’t end there. Spearheaded by the army, a brutal and inhumanely disproportionate assault on nearly all Rohingya followed, in which many Buddhist Rakhine civilians participated
As tens of thousands of Rohingya, most usually a surfeit of women and children, fled to an uncertain safety across the border, provoking a fear that many Rohingya males had been killed or rounded up, satellite photography revealed that many Rohingya villages had been razed. Columns of dense smoke were visible from Bangladesh. The refugees brought with them horrific accounts, given to the BBC and other foreign media and collated by such dependable human rights agencies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, of indiscriminate slaughter, beatings and rape – collectively a searing indictment of the state’s malevolence.
The Myanmar authorities meanwhile did their level best to prevent journalists, diplomats and a UNHCR fact-finding mission from getting anywhere near the affected areas. At the same time the government began a new clampdown against Burmese journalists, including the arrest of two local employees of Reuters.
It is all grotesquely unsavoury, but as ever there is a historic background that needs to be understood.
For centuries there has been conflict between the majority Burmans, comprising around 60% of Myanmar’s population, and the country’s many ethnic groups, such as the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, and the Mon. After the establishment of national independence in 1948 large swathes of the country were given over to armed insurgencies, including a strong group of communists; and it was this circumstance more than any other that provided the raison d’etre for the steady enhancement of the military, if the newly formed nation were not to collapse entirely.
However, one opportunist mujadin revolt organised externally from East Pakistan that lasted from 1948 until 1952 apart, there was no sustained indigenous Moslem insurrection. Moslems were scattered throughout the land in relatively small communities; and in the one region where they were numerous, in northern Rakhine state, they were relative newcomers who had not had time to evolve aspirations of independence.
It is these Rakhine Moslems, previously called Chittagonians, who are now designated Rohingya, well described as an emergent ethnicity. Most, though not all, were Bengalis introduced into Burma either during British colonial rule or allowed to settle there after independence. Yet for decades the Rohingya, today roughly a million strong, have been made to feel unwelcome in Burma/Myanmar, often denied basic human rights including citizenship, and sometimes physically persecuted. In the past there have been recurrent refugee ‘crises’, though none of the same magnitude as the current episode.
What is striking is not that the Rohingya Salvation Army exists but that, born of desperation, it has taken so long to form. Despite reports of the presence of some jihadis from Malaysia, Indonesia and perhaps Pakistan, it is essentially an ill-equipped non-ideological local phenomenon that was supported by some but by no means all Rohingya villages.
Disturbingly there is credible intelligence that the military began a troop build-up in Rakhine state some weeks before the late August attacks. While there is no firm evidence as yet that agents provocateurs were used, my gut feeling is that the government has long been prepared to pounce on any incipient resistance which it knew must occur sooner or later and use it as an excuse to force a major migration.
At the heart of this darkness is a widespread and profound distrust of the Rohingya among Burmans, fuelled by racial, nationalist and religious intolerance. Yet those many who have fled are scarcely in a better place. The refugee camps are rife with deadly diseases, typhoid and now the plague amongst them, while food, water and shelter are all in short supply. International aid agencies do what they can to provide relief, but no viable long-term solution is in sight. The international community, i.e. the West, seems to want Myanmar to provide guarantees for the safe return of the Rohingya refugees, but that just is inappropriate. It is scarcely likely the Rohingya want to return, and fresh evidence tells us that the army has already begun building on land previously inhabited by Rohingya – a form of land grab, no less. And were they to return, then sooner or later the same old troubles would begin.
My own view, presented to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in a written submission and available online*, is that the security and wellbeing of the Rohingya refugees should be the absolute priority, and that nothing short of their comprehensive resettlement outside Myanmar will suffice. This recipe is slow to gain traction, however: it would cost billions, not millions of dollars, and the political will is not there.
It seems likely therefore that the Rohingya refugees will remain in a limbo for a very long time to come, the more so as Myanmar, increasingly falling under the sway of China, now its principal trading partner and supplier of weapons, and a nation that has its own bad record vis-à-vis its Moslem communities, particularly the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, simply does not need the West. The Burmese Spring, moulded around the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, is over. As head of state, by declining to challenge the military’s latest cruelties, the Nobel peace laureate herself has blood on her hands.