A mob of nationalist Buddhists and Myanmar security forces attacked Rohingya villages in 2017 as retaliation to the militant liberation group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which had previously assaulted 30 security outposts in Myanmar. The systemic burning of 288 Rohingya villages along with rapes and murders has been called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, prompting a mass exodus of over 750,000 Rohingya out of the estimated 1.1 million population.
Doctors Without Borders found that even in the most conservative estimates, more than 6,700 Rohingya including 730 children under the age of five were killed between August 25 and September 24, 2017.
The Rohingya themselves have documented many of the detailed horrors, providing video evidence depicting charred human remains, houses burned to the ground and bodies of women and children strewn about. Satellite imagery has even shown bulldozed villages, but the primary source comes from 875 in-depth interviews of witnesses and victims conducted for a 444-page UN report which was published September 17, 2018. The report included testaments of gang rape, children ripped from their mother’s arms and thrown into rivers, executions, mass graves and other similar assaults.
One survivor recounted her experiences, stating, “I entered the house with four of my neighbours, and three of us had babies…There were dead bodies on the floor, young boys and older men from our village. After we entered the house, the soldiers locked the door. One soldier raped me. They stabbed me in the back of my neck and in my abdomen. I was trying to save my baby who was only 28 days old but they threw him on the ground and he died. The other women who were there were also raped. It was late in the afternoon when I became conscious. I awoke because small flames were dropping from the roof onto my body. I was the only one who survived in that room. I could barely move, but I realised I was going to burn to death. Although my baby was dead, I held him close to my heart, but I could not bring his body with me.”
Around 2 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2017, the village of Chut Pyin was subjected to a brutal clearance operation in which they were killed by military forces and neighboring ethnic Rhakine using gunfire and knives. A survivor described the event via the report, stating “If people were not killed by the gunshots, they were slaughtered to make sure they were really dead.”
Most Rohingya refugees made it to the Kutupalong camp, Bangladesh’s largest refugee camp which housed over 20,000 refugees at its peak. However, with the rapid influx of refugees, many overflowed into unregistered expansion sites. As of June 30, 2018, the UNHCR had a population count of 888,111 refugees inside Bangladesh, of which only 45,777 resided in the Kutupalong or Nayapara registered camps.
Despite a heritage dating back to the antiquity of the Arakan kingdom, the Rohingya are an unrecognized Muslim minority from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, previously known as the Arakan state. While many trace their heritage to Arab traders of British-occupied Myanmar, the Rohingya were excluded from the 2014 census altogether and labeled as illegal Bengali migrants, thereby denying them access to education, healthcare and other rights and benefits.
After the country shifted from dictatorship to democracy in 2012, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities worsened in the region. The Rohingya were dubbed “the boat people” when they arrived on the foreign shores of Southeast Asian countries in 2015, having fled on boats and makeshift rafts from their homes in the coastal region of the Rakhine State.
State Counsellor and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn international criticism in her response to the military campaign and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people, which has often been one of silence and denial. Additionally, she has denied identity of Rohingya as a term altogether, instead peddling the label “Bengali” while likening them to illegal migrants and terrorists.
UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticized her for this failure, stating, “To strip their name from them is dehumanising to the point where you begin to believe that anything is possible.” To many, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed in her position as a moral authority and has since been stripped of several awards, such as the Freedom of Oxford award and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award. As of late August 2018, seven awards had been revoked, the latest being the Freedom of Edinburgh award.
Not only has she failed to support the Rohingya in their time of persecution, she has also supported the highly controversial imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who were arrested for investigating what has been dubbed the Inn Din massacre, the extrajudicial murders of 10 Rohingya villagers at the hands of Tatmadaw, the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces.
Aung San Suu Kyi claims the journalists were in breach of the Official Secrets Act 3.1.c, which was enacted in 1923 when the country was still British-controlled Burma. The journalists in question, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, pleaded not guilty. “We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” said Wa Lone.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has been vocal in his protests over the arrests of the journalists, stating, “It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State,” and added he would continue to advocate for their release and for “full respect of freedom of the press and all human rights in Myanmar.” They were sentenced to seven years on Sept. 3.
The ruling came prior to the UN report, which graphically detailed crimes against humanity and called for the prosecution of six Tatmadaw generals including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. “In the light of the pervasive culture of impunity…named senior generals of the Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” as summarized in the report.
Myanmar’s official government position has called the attacks “clearance operations” in an effort to stabilize the region for development and has used the attacks by Rohingya militant groups as justification. However, the UN report states that “military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages.”
The UN is urging constitutional change through the abolishment of discriminatory laws and by restructuring and limiting the Tatmadaw’s power in the political sphere.