Distinguishing between Terrorists and Friends: The Buddhist-Rohingya Crisis

The antics of ISIS in the Middle East and Northern Africa have overshadowed equally critical issues that plague lesser-known regions worldwide. The mountainous state of Rakhine in Myanmar is the latest backdrop in a string of ethnic persecutions, defiling human rights decrees. Situated on the Western Coast, Rakhine has been a hotbed of tension for years between the minority Rohingya Muslims, and the majority Buddhists which make up more than 90% of the national population.

The Rohingya people have been subject to communal violence since 2012, ending 49 years of simmering ethnic hatred that was suppressed thanks to strict military rule. When the Burmese generals finally stepped back, the fragile peace lasted less than 10 months before Rakhine erupted into violence. Hundreds of civilians, mostly Rohingya, were killed in the clashes, and more than 140 000 people were displaced.

The 2012 Rakhine State riots led to a state of emergency being declared in Rakhine, on June 10, 2012. Despite the peace that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi hoped military enforcement would bring to the region, the biases of the predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar Army have appeared to only intensify the problem.

They came with sticks and rods to drive us to the border…Please save us. We want to stay here or else we’ll get killed!

–  Amir Hossain, Roghinya civillian

Rohingya NGOs have been accusing the military and police of targeting Rohingya Muslims via indiscriminate shootings and arrests. Some even claim that the military participate in the Rakhine violence, are guilty of gang rape against the Muslim minority and in some cases…flat-out look the other way when the Rohingya are being persecuted by angry locals.

The brutal treatment of the Rohingya ultimately is representative of the injustice being carried out against the 1.1 million Muslims who call Myanmar their home. Aung San Suu Kyi clearly faces her nation’s biggest challenge in how to enforce fair treatment for all people living in Myanmar, regardless of faith or religious sect.

The violence entered an on-off stage for the next 5 years. The 2013 Myanmar anti-Muslim riots were a string of conflicts raging throughout central and eastern Burma claiming over 50 lives. The 2014 Mandalay Riots, which blew up after the raping of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man, led into the 2016 Mosque Burnings by a mob of 300 Buddhist monks. In late 2016, the military alongside Buddhist extremists began a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine in response to a group of unidentified insurgents attacking a trio of border camps against Bangladesh.

Myanmar policeman patrol the Rakhine sector while Rohingya Muslims go about their daily lives

The US government, Amnesty International and United Nations criticized the crackdown as a violation of human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was blasted by the media for failing to do anything about the military abuses. Despite the conflict, violence was generally contained by the government before reaching an explosive level.

But this changed drastically with the coming of 2017, and a new terrorist group that sought to sow the seeds of even more hatred in the Rakhine region.

On 25 August 2017, 71 people were killed in a coordinated attack by at least 150 insurgents. The attack, spanning 24 police stations and an army base in the Rakhine region, caused fresh panic in Western Myanmar. The insurgency was carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group which had been active in the Northern Rakhine jungles for a year. Despite carrying out small attacks against isolated patrol bases, the August attacks resulted in ARSA being branded as a terrorist group.

In the short term our army is sending a message to the world that the injustice we have been subjected to is deep-rooted…We are now at the final state before full-fledged genocide, so we have to defend our civilian population.

– Abdullah, ARSA representative for the Rohingya Cause

The militant group has warned of ‘war’ against the Myanmar government if its demands are not met. Claiming that they fight to protect the rights of the Rohingya, the local populace is split on whom to believe – a military that abuses its own citizens, or an insurgent group that attacks the military? Regardless, the fighting has caused Rohingya and Buddhist citizens alike to evacuate the Northern expanses of the country. The similar but smaller-scale attacks earlier in the year and through late 2016 have done nothing but intensify the brutal military response.

It appears that the Rohingya have increasingly become isolated in their own land. They are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claims that their roots go back centuries following the Mughal Expansion into South East Asia.

Bangladesh is unwilling to extend aid to these refugees, and border patrols have reported pushing back streams of desperate refugees, who are now stuck in limbo. Makeshift camps with virtually no sanitation and the omnipresent threat of violence have taken their psychological and physical toll on the Rohingya.

Soldiers of Border Guard Bangladesh stand watch at the Rakhine border amid ethic clashes

Part of the problem is that there are already 400 000 Burmese in Bangladesh, as Rohingya have been fleeing Rakhine since the 1990s. The relief programs needed to take care of the influx of immigrants are expensive. Bangladesh is by no means a country that is prosperous, and the backlash the government receives from citizens for trying to advocate better lives for refugees rather than its own people is likely to be very damaging in future elections.

So the Rohingya are constantly shunted back forth from country to country. Rejected in Thailand, they are redirected to Cambodia where the government is equally hostile. Hoping to find better fortune in Australia, they end up back in Rakhine. And left for dead against the onslaught of Buddhist fanatics – early in January this year, a selfie video of Myanmar police beating Roghinya went viral. 

The Bengali military proposed a joint operation with Myanmar against ARSA militants on August 22, and while the intention of this operation may be to end the violence, peace-loving Rohingyas are nevertheless in more danger than they have ever been.

“If the police feel so immune that they film themselves inflicting such brutal beatings, one wonders what other horrors might be taking place off camera that they were not willing to record.”

– Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch in an interview to CNN

After all, who is to sat that the joint armies won’t indiscriminately target all Rohingyas they see, without wasting time to check their affiliations? And in the end, can the international community really call ARSA a terrorist organization if they fight against government forces who rape and abuse Rakhine citizens?

Maybe the United Nations is conflicted. Because yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi posted a Facebook photo of standard UN high-energy biscuit rations found in a camp where ARSA fighters were being sheltered.

In a fiery statement, Suu Kyi’s administration accused the foreign aid workers of helping the “terrorists”. Her statement was met with outrage by the United Nations, and the deputy director of the Human Rights Watch in Asia tweeted Suu Kyi as being profoundly irresponsible to accuse involvement in terrorist attacks without evidence.

The Dalai Lama himself advising Suu Kyi to do more for the Rohingya people

Clearly, Suu Kyi has no idea who she should be publicly supporting either. First, she denounces her own military’s actions in trying to “keep the peace” in Rakhine. Then, she refers to the ARSA fighters, who are “trying to help the Rohingyas” as terrorists.

The only way this conundrum can possibly be solved…is if the true ambitions of ARSA can be revealed. For now, the genocide in Myanmar is being accentuated by a scrambled military service, inconsiderate national neighbors, and a VERY confused national leader. For someone who is a Nobel Peace Laureate, she is definitely doing an astounding job of keeping hostiles alive!

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