Claim 1: State-sanctioned violence in Rakine State, Myanmar, constitutes “ethnic cleansing” and a “crime against humanity,” and has forced more than 410,000 Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh (United Nations, Amnesty International).
Claim 2: “Terrorists” are responsible for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about violence they have instigated in western Myanmar, which we need more time to investigate (Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi).
Attempts to legitimize the use of violence are woven into the differing narratives about the recent wave of attacks on villages in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Myanmar’s leaders and army generals have refuted claims of disproportionate violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority as propaganda by stateless dissidents, blaming Islamic militant groups for torching villages in Rakhine, where more than a third of the nation’s one million Rohingya lived before the recent exodus.
“That kind of fake information was calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists,” Aung San Suu Kyi wrote on Facebook.
The United Nations and Amnesty International, among others, have referred to anti-Rohingya violence as “ethnic cleansing” and a “crime against humanity,” aimed at forcing the Muslim population out of the majority-Buddhist nation. Compounding the confusion is a lack of access to Rakhine State by independent observers, journalists and aid workers, which has resulted in a dearth of detail about what is actually happening on the ground.
Global leaders have adopted either the Myanmar government’s discourse of a terrorist threat, or that of the persecution of a Muslim minority largely based on identity politics. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his support for the Myanmar government and voiced concerns about “extremist violence in Rakhine State.” Conversely, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged the leaders of Muslim nations to intervene, and Egypt’s leading institute of Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar, released a statement saying, “We are sure that international organizations would take a completely different and stronger stance, and would respond more rapidly if the victims were Jews, Christians, Buddhists, or followers of any religion other than Islam.”
On October 1, the Egyptian militant group Hassm claimed it had carried out an attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Cairo the night before. “The bombing is a warning message to the embassy of murderers, the killers of women and children in Muslim Arakan [Rakhine State], in solidarity with the sons of this weakened Muslim population,” the statement added. Officials at the embassy denied the attack, despite traces of explosives reportedly being found at the scene.
While wondering how the violence is being portrayed among Rohingya themselves, but recognizing this would also not be a coherent chorus or static narrative, I asked Rohingya activist W*, who has just left Yangon for Bangkok due to threats against her, about how she views what is happening. Why, in a nation of over 100 officially recognized ethnic groups, many of which have been historically subjected to discriminatory practices, are Rohingya being targeted?
“Part of it is because Rohingya are majority Muslim. But what’s happening is bigger than that, it’s about the manipulation of power of smaller and bigger groups, the denial of equal citizenship rights that we are entitled to. This is about being made to feel like second-class citizens through the political tool of divide and rule that benefits the military. They are creating a group of enemies by labeling us ‘outsiders’ and a ‘threat to national security’,” she explains.
In the 1980s, the status of Rohingya was degraded, and in 2014 their citizenship rights were taken away completely. “There is perhaps the threat of demands from Rohingya for an independent state,” W adds, “as Rakhine is close to Bangladesh. Therefore we have been painted as terrorists and extremists.”
The persecution has led to a small, armed resistance, but “most people that are arming themselves are using sticks and knives and a few handmade guns,” W explains. “There have been no independently verified confirmations of any Rohingya attacks on civilians.”
A tendency to speak about identity politics alone when discussing discriminatory violence towards minorities can mask other equally important political and economic realities. Rakhine State is predominantly underdeveloped, and large areas of land have been torched, in what Amnesty International has referred to as “textbook scorched earth tactics.” Myanmar’s military has a legacy of clearing large swathes of land for mining or logging industries.
There is also another important aspect to this violence that is centered around the nature of the government sanctioning it. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected in 2015, but the mistreatment of Myanmar’s minorities has continued unabated since then. Suu Kyi is known for her adoption of the language of universal human rights. The imagery is strong: A female, pro-democracy leader juxtaposed against the strength of Myanmar’s generals. Yet, while she was once widely perceived to be a symbol of peace and unity, she now heads a violent regime.
Suu Kyi broke her public silence on the violence against Rohingya in a televised address from Myanmar on September 19. Speaking in English, it was apparent her words were intended for an international audience. Her address coincided with the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which she didn’t attend.
Many people internationally expressed outrage at Suu Kyi’s long silence and refusal to acknowledge the mistreatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya. W, whose family has historically supported Suu Kyi’s NLD, and has been imprisoned for doing so, seems reluctant to criticize the iconic leader too strongly, referring to her as “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” (the Burmese term of respect for someone older, akin to tante/aunt). Instead of being overtly critical, my interlocutor sighs, and speaks of the difficulties of working within an authoritarian system. “It’s not about whether or not she is outspoken, she has a responsibility to protect all minorities in her leadership role. The government has failed in this regard, and Suu Kyi has been complicit in the policies of the military, and in providing misinformation to the people through military channels.”
In her televised speech, Suu Kyi omitted to use the term Rohingya, except to describe the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which she referred to as a militant group responsible for acts of terrorism. Speaking of a wider population living in Rakhine State, not just Muslims, she refused to recognize that Rohingya have been disproportionately affected by the violence.
Does Suu Kyi’s complicity speak of the fallacy of iconizing world leaders, the redundancy of human rights and peacebuilding discourses, or does her denial reflect a prejudice she has always held, hailing from the majority Burman Buddhist majority?
“Suu Kyi has been cut off from reality and is worried about losing power, therefore she has compromised her principles and is following popular politics, which is very dangerous,” the activist says, speaking of a state-propagated myth of national unity. At the same time, the nation’s ruling military generals support influential extremist Buddhist preachers like Ashin Wirathu, who has spoken of the need for compassion toward mosquitos and death for Muslims. “The monks are a tool of the military. They have little power without this and no authority. The government has given the Buddhist majority impunity,” she explains. “If you are outspoken about what is happening toward Rohingya in Myanmar at the moment, you are at risk. This is why I left to Bangkok,” she adds.
My interlocutor is clear about priorities. She stresses the immediate need for international intervention, placing the blame firmly on Myanmar’s military generals. She hopes for a more structural change in Myanmar and reminds me of the possibility to think of survivors of violence as more than just victims. “The government must change its policies toward minorities. In the longer term, of course we are working to build social cohesion and deal with anger between people, but the most important thing is a change in government attitudes,” she stresses. However, when a nation’s leadership has pro-democracy figures at its helm or is led by former dissidents, while being backed by a powerful military regime with its own agenda, is change from within ever an actual possibility?
*W’s name has been withheld for security reasons