Burma’s Rohingya Muslims Face Worst Crisis Yet

After decades of persecution, a Burmese military campaign has forced more than 150,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee deadly attacks

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.

A military campaign against Burma’s Rohingya Muslims has raised accusations of ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Close to 150,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since a Burmese military operation began two weeks ago. Burma says it’s responding to an attack by Rohingya militants. The satellite images show villages burned to the ground, and there are reports of hundreds of Rohingya civilian deaths.

A UN spokesperson says those who have fled face dire conditions.

UN SPOKESPERSON: Some reported that their family members were burned or shot or slashed to death. During their flight, many fled into the jungles or mountains, hiding and walking for days before they reach land or a river and to cross the border. Some of them also told us that they’ve been walking for three days, and they didn’t have anything to eat other than the rain water or the water on grounds.

AARON MATE: Speaking today, the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi said her government is trying to address the crisis.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We have to take care of our citizens. We have to take care of everybody who is in our country whether or not they are our citizens. It is our duty, and we try our best. Of course, our resources are not as complete and adequate as we would like them to be, but still, we try our best, and we want to make sure that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law.

AARON MATE: Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her long-time activism against Burma’s military rulers, but those rulers are now her partners in government, and she’s been criticized for failing to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya.

I’m joined now by two guests. Dan Sullivan is a senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International focusing on Burma and other areas affected by mass displacement. And Tun Khin is the president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the UK. Welcome to you both. Tun Khin, I’ll start with you. Can you talk about what is going on right now since Burma launched this military operation last month?

TUN KHIN: As far as what we’ve been hearing from the ground, my relatives, my friend been telling me that they have seen Burmese military slaughtering men, women, and children, and they are burning village by village. Some of my friends told me that the Burmese military throwing even children to the fire. According to our information we received that at least 3,000 Rohingya have been killed by Burmese army and 180,000 Rohingya IDPs. We are also receiving 30,000 Rohingya been trapped in the mountain. The humanitarian crisis is growing day by day. We are witnessing the most horrific situation in our history where most of the Rohingya villages been burned down by Burmese army in 12 days. That’s what we are hearing from the ground.

AARON MATE: The Rohingya have a long history of being repressed. You’re saying that this is the worst so far?

TUN KHIN: This is the worst I should say, because we’ve been facing decades of persecution. I should say according to legal expert what we are facing is genocide. But what we are facing right now is the last stage of genocide where direct killings involving. Burmese government and successive military regime denying our existence, denying the citizenship, denying the identity, denying the right to have movement, denying the right to have children, denying the right to get married. So we have seen, we have been experiencing this for many decades, so now what we’ve been facing is direct killing by Burmese army. Where many people are dying in bank of the Naf River, people are dying in the mountain, and many people were shot dead, and many people have been slaughtered. Men, women, and children. It’s the most horrific situation we are witnessing in our history. It should not be happening in 21st century first place, what we are hearing and we are seeing in videos from the ground.

AARON MATE: Dan Sullivan, before this latest phase of this crisis broke out, you traveled to Bangladesh, you met with Rohingya refugees. Talk about their plight there right now and what they’re fleeing from.

DAN SULLIVAN: Sure. Yeah. I actually traveled with Tun Khin, and we visited people who had fled from violence that had started last October. The number of Rohingya who over the years have fled to Bangladesh to flee persecution is already in the hundreds of thousands, and now we’ve seen just in the last two weeks the UN reporting over 150,000 just in the last two weeks that are joining there. So even before these last two weeks, when we were there, the response was already strained.

There’s a lot of the refugee camps and what they call “makeshift settlements” for Rohingya who aren’t recognized as refugees. So already there was a need for emergency assistance. Within just across the border, we heard all kinds of horrific stories. Some of the things that Tun Khin had shared with you, and those are starting again just over the past two weeks and much worse than what we’ve even seen in the past.

It’s important to remember even before these two weeks, the situation within western Myanmar with the Rohingya people, UNICEF was already warning about the dire situation before, food aid and need for children under five, over 80,000 were going to be in need. And that was before all this happened. So the situation now has just gotten beyond imagined, and it’s just really imperative that the world pays attention and starts taking some action.

AARON MATE: What do you make of the Burmese government’s claim that they’re simply responding to Rohingya militants and their attacks?

DAN SULLIVAN: There certainly is truth to the fact that there have been militant attacks, and nobody’s questioning the right of any government to protect their people and protect military installations and police stations. But the reality is that the response to that has been completely disproportionate. Instead of going after those who have committed these attacks, there’s an attack against an entire people. And the reality is that these are very ill-equipped, not very well-armed militants, so the idea that they are standing against the Burmese military and that what would be required is blanket attacks and targeting of entire civilians … Entire burning of villages, this has been captured with satellite imagery. The hundreds and thousands of eyewitness accounts that are coming from people who are forced to flee across the border, it’s just a horrendous situation, and the response of the military has gone far beyond anything that should be accepted.

AARON MATE: Tun Khin, you spoke about this a little bit before, but I’m wondering if you could touch more on the history of your people. Burma is ruled by a government that adheres to a certain form of Buddhism, but there are many different groups inside of Burma, but it’s the Rohingya who have been the most persecuted. Can you tell us about why that’s happened?

TUN KHIN: If you look at history of the Rohingya, Rohingya been living in Burma at least seventh century AD, according to the history. Rohingya comes from Mughal, Pathan, Arabs, and Bengali. During democratic period time, if you look the history 1948 to 1962, Rohingya were recognized as an ethnic group. On that time, my grandfather was a parliamentary secretary. I’m not a citizen of Burma.

The thing is, Burmese government’s systematic plan to wipe out Rohingya population, that is what they’ve been practicing in Burma. Why Rohingyas are facing persecution, the question is. Rohingyas are facing persecution. Political, ethnic, and religious persecution, we are facing. The largest Muslim minority in Burma, we are.

In Burma, what we can see is a Buddhist majority there. They do want to see except other … Actually, it’s a racism. It’s ultranationalism. They do not want to see other minorities except Buddhists, other religions. That is also one part of the problem. Generally, when systematically doing that, it’s not Rohingya, it’s other minorities. Kachin, Karen, where Chin, where Christians, they are also facing serious persecution.

AARON MATE: So let’s talk about Aung San Suu Kyi, who we heard from earlier. I want to go to another clip of her from a recent interview in which she was asked about her stance on the Rohingya Muslims.

FERGAL KEANE: Many, many people, including those who would be sympathetic to you, look at the situation and say, “Why hasn’t she spoken out? Here is an icon of human rights.”

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: What do you mean by speaking out? Now, Fergal, this question has been asked since 2013 when the last round of troubles broke out in the Rakhine. They would ask me questions, and I would answer them, and people would say I said nothing simply because I didn’t make the kind of statements which they thought I should make, which is to condemn one community or the other.

AARON MATE: So that’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, she’s well-known for having resisted the military junta for years, won a Nobel Peace Prize for it. Her campaign was successful in the sense that she ultimately prevailed. She was released from prison and has now gone on to become a civilian leader of sorts in Burma in the government, but she still has to work with the junta that imprisoned her. I’m wondering, Tun Khin, your thoughts on how she has handled this crisis. Do you hold her responsible as some others do for the plight right now of the Rohingya?

TUN KHIN: Yes, she is also responsible in this crisis because her State Counsellor Office is instigating hatred against Rohingya. We have to understand that of course military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is ordering to kill and to burn Rohingyas alive and burning Rohingya villages. That’s what military been doing under the command of Commander Min Aung Hlaing. Of course, he’s primary target. At the same time, we need to see that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, she must speak up and she must call international community to protect these people where her partners perpetrating crime against humanity, the other side.

The thing is, when she was under house arrest, we campaigned for her. As an activist myself, I campaigned for her release in U.S. Congress, the U.S. State Department, European Human Rights Council, European Parliament. I was long-time activist for human rights and democracy for Obama and also political prisoner on top of that for her release. So now we are asking her help to talk about Rohingya issue, but instead she’s not speaking up. Instead, she is covering the crimes what military perpetrating.

She is denying what military perpetrated crime against humanity against Rohingya 2016, October, November, and December. We found that also UN report what military perpetrated could amount to crime against humanity. UN have mentioned already on their report. So she’s simply denying. Now she is putting this kind of current crisis as a terrorist narrative where international community can see this is a genocide, a kind of question going on. She’s trying to divert the issue, a kind of terrorist narrative. That is quite disturbing.

While she was under house arrest, she asked international community, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” Now I would like to ask Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, please use your liberty promote ours. That is what I want to ask her again.

AARON MATE: Let me go to Dan Sullivan on this. Dan, do you think the criticism of her is fair? People who defend her say, well, she only has limited power, and she can’t stand up to the military rulers too much, and she has to work within the confines that she’s in.

DAN SULLIVAN: Yes, I think the criticism absolutely is fair. To be clear, the primary responsibility for these abuses falls under the military and Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the military. It’s true that they continue to have a lot of influence within the government. They’re guaranteed 25% of the Parliament and effectively a veto on changing the Constitution. That said, it’s not as if Aung San Suu Kyi has simply been silent. She has spoken out in dangerous ways. It’s out of her office that there were claims that international humanitarian aid was supporting terrorists, so this is not a very helpful narrative for trying to calm things down and to try to get assistance to the people who need it most. So it’s gone beyond simply not speaking out to actually defending the military and denying the extent of abuses.

AARON MATE: You’re saying that she characterized aid to the Rohingya as aid to terrorists?

DAN SULLIVAN: Yes. Specifically, there were some UN World Food Program food tablets and assistance that were found in some of the camps, and she posted that on her website and spoke out that, yes, basically saying that international humanitarian aid groups were supporting terrorists.

AARON MATE: So quickly, I’ll ask you both where you see this going. You have this massive refugee influx into Bangladesh where lots of refugees from the Rohingya have already fled. As the violence continues, Dan, I’ll start with you, what do you expect to happen next?

DAN SULLIVAN: We expect the outflow of people with horrific stories to continue. The one encouraging thing is that we’re starting to see at least a trickle of world leaders and people in the U.S. Senate. We haven’t heard anything really strong from the U.S. administration. We’ve heard some statements from the UN Secretary-General and various leaders throughout the world. So there’s starting to be a little bit of pressure. We have a moment now where the world is about to gather in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting. There are reports that Aung San Suu Kyi is supposed to attend that, so this is a moment to really capture the attention of the world, to really put some pressure on.

The other thing that needs to be done, it’s the root causes within Burma, Myanmar and the lack of citizenship and the years of persecution of the Rohingya. And obviously, in the immediate term, the attacks on civilians need to stop, and humanitarian aid needs to get in. But also there needs to be assistance from the world to those who are gathered in Bangladesh, and the government of Bangladesh has taken in more than 150,000. It needs to keep borders open and keep aid flowing to those people.

AARON MATE: And Tun Khin, finally, we’ll end with you, where do you see this going next, and how your community is organizing your response to the crisis.

TUN KHIN: It’s been like two weeks now we are trying our best to lobby governments immediately to intervene this issue. Where we can see now, top priority we are requesting appealing UN and other international bodies to pressure military commander Min Aung Hlaing, as well as [inaudible 00:18:39] leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, firstly to stop genocide against Rohingya, what’s been direct killings involving these days. And also to pressure commander Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to allow humanitarian aid access and also international independent medias to see the situation.

AARON MATE: We have to leave it there. I want to thank my guests Dan Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International focusing on Burma and other areas affected by mass displacement, and Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the UK. Thanks to you both, and thank you for joining us on The Real News.