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Rohingya refugee crisis: The fundamental questions

Is it Aung San Suu Kyi's political expediency or fundamentalism that is fuelling the Rohingya refugee crisis? Tom Farrell visited Myanmar to report on the latest horrific chapter of a long-persecuted minority

It has been one of the most harrowing examples of ethnic cleansing in recent years. And it is a bitter irony that the exodus is taking place in Bangladesh. In 1971 newly independent Bangladesh was scene to one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the late 20th century. That year’s calamity inspired massive relief efforts and a concert organised by George Harrison, as millions of refugees, fleeing civil war, poured into India.

Now the refugees are arriving into Bangladesh. But the images of ’71 and ’17 are interchangeable: families camped in squalid, monsoon washed huts, lines of people with all they own in a few bags or heaped onto a cart. This is the worst, possibly final, phase in the long persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. And much of the world’s disillusionment and shock has had two themes.

Rakhine Buddhist children in a camp outside Sittwe

Firstly, there has been the reaction of Myanmar’s ‘state counsellor’ Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate, long feted by the likes of Bono and Barrack Obama, to the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) expelling over 420,000 Rohingyas from their lands in Myanmar’s Rakhine State where most of them live. Her response was silence at first.

Then asinine complaints followed about “an iceberg of misinformation” surrounding the Rohingya. When she finally acknowledged the crisis on September 19, her speech downplayed the civilian suffering and was seen as deferential to the military. Is she genuinely a racist or simply in fear of the same 400,000 strong Tatmadaw that ruled Myanmar (Burma) for decades and placed her under house arrest for 15 years?

Armed Forces guard a checkpoint into Aung Mingalar, a suburb inhabited by Rohingya

Secondly, there has been the rise in militancy by many Buddhist monks, applauding the expulsion of what they claim are unwelcome Muslim invaders. Accustomed to the smiling benevolence of the Dalai Lama and its unworldly mysticism, many westerners are taken aback: surely violent, intolerant Buddhism is a contradiction in terms?

Some time before the current wave of violence erupted, I took a flight from the Myanmar capital of Yangon (Rangoon) to Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State. Its population is a mix of Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists.

The town appeared as a somnolent sprawl from my upper storey guest house window, corrugated iron rooftops and the occasional gleaming temple amid lines of tamarinds and coconut palms. But also visible, skulking at checkpoints, were border police and soldiers from the Tatmadaw.

Rohingya refugees Dildar Begum and her daughter recover in hospital in Bangladesh, after being stabbed by Myanmar soldiers

Sittwe had already been purged of most of its Rohingya population. The 19th century Jama Mosque was cordoned off, with policemen sitting in front of barbed wire. The mosque still bore the fire damage of the previous year when it was torched by a mob of Rakhine Buddhists, allegedly with Tatmadaw complicity.


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A few streets away, I found a row of gutted and bullet pocked buildings, former Rohingya houses and shops. When I started snapping shots, shouting locals chased me away.

I already had the number of a local community leader named Aung Win and we arranged to meet in the last remaining Rohingya sector of the town. But having hailed a motorised trishaw, I was stopped at a checkpoint because I had no clearance. A surreal episode then ensued as Aung Win, visible down several hundred yards of road, chatted with me.

Surely violent, intolerant Buddhism is a contradiction in terms?

“It started June last year,” said the 57-year old via his mobile. “Rakhine’s extremists arrived and they attacked Rohingya villages. My family was very lucky because my neighbours didn’t attack my house.”

All the while, the police sat near the checkpoint and looked listlessly at the few vehicles allowed to proceed into the Rohingya area

I ventured into the local government buildings, hoping to secure an afternoon pass into the ‘Rohingya area.’ A Rakhine civil servant scowled at me under spinning fans.

“They are not called Rohingyas! They are called Bengalis!” he snapped.

This reflected a prevailing view that the Rohingyas, contrary to archaeological evidence, are just migrants from next door Bangladesh.

“When we got independence [from Britain] in 1948, the parliamentary government already recognised the Rohingya as one of the ethnic groups in Burma,” Abu Tahay, a Rohingya legal expert told me in his office after I returned to Yangon. He added that the junta stripped them of citizenship in 1982, two decades after the military takeover.

In Yangon it is easy to find CDs and DVDs of inflammatory sermons by right-wing monks, inveighing against rising Muslim birth rates in Myanmar and reminding the faithful that Buddhism’s reach across Asia was once much greater, Islam having extinguished its presence centuries ago.

Most prominent is the ‘969 Movement,’ led by Ashin Wirathu, a monk who was imprisoned from 2003-10 for inciting hatred against Muslims. The sermons of Wirathu, who in one interview said: “We would like to be like the English Defence League: not carrying out violence but protecting the public,” are all over social media and disseminated in the markets via DVD.

Sinhala Ravaya monks clash with police outside government buildings
Sinhala Ravaya monks clash with police outside government buildings

But it is hard to believe Mrs Suu Kyi and Wirathu are cut from the same cloth. As her biographer Peter Popham has pointed out, there is little evidence of personal Islamophobia. After arriving in Oxford in 1964, Suu Kyi’s first serious boyfriend was a Pakistani fellow student. A close confident within her National League of Democracy (NLD) was a Burmese Muslim journalist and satirist named Maung Tha Ka, who perished in jail in June 1991, soon after the old junta cancelled an election result that the NLD had decisively won.

Mrs Suu Kyi’s inaction on the recent Buddhist-led violence may be explained by the Myanmar constitution. It prevented her from becoming President due to her having foreign sons with her late husband, British academic Michael Aris.

With a ‘caretaker’ military-backed regime now in power, she decided to stand for parliament in 2011, deeply suspicious of the document, imposed three years before, in a rigged referendum. In December that year, under pressure from Hilary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, she agreed to abide by the document.

Children in Tak Bai with an armed escort
Children in the town of Tak Bai, near the Malaysian border, have an armed escort

The constitution has ensured that the Tatmadaw still has massive powers. It has block representation within parliament and control of three key ministries: home affairs, defence and border affairs. The generals can still suspend democracy in the name of national security.

But Buddhist militancy is also on the rise in Sri Lanka and Thailand: the 969 Movement is known to have contacts with the Boda Balu Sena (Buddha Strike Force) in the former country. Operating as a kind of Buddhist vigilante group, the Buddha Strike Force has organised attacks on mosques and Christian churches.

In the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s murderous 26-year civil war, many more right-wing Buddhists feel validated in their belief that Buddha himself once consecrated ‘Holy’ Lanka as uniquely sacred to the faith. Likewise in Thailand, the separatist insurgency in the Muslim far south since 2004 has drawn many monks towards a more intolerant stance against Thai Muslims, even if many Muslims reject the notion of an independent state.

As more Rohingyas pour out of Myanmar, the much vaunted ‘Burma Spring’ seems as dead as its Arab namesake. Regardless of the faith in question, fundamentalism and militarism are a lethal mix in any nation’s politics.