Southeast Asia is currently witnessing the destruction of the Rohingya Muslim community. This is not the first time in modern history this has happened. The Cham Muslims of Cambodia were slaughtered during the rule of the bloody Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
The Khmer Rouge killed 500,000 ethnic Cham Muslims, almost 25% of their 2 million victims. For perspective consider that the Cham Muslims were only 1% of Cambodia's population. Yet, there are still individuals who question whether it amounted to genocide even though there is documented evidence that the Cham were targeted due to their religious beliefs:
The Muslim Cham were rounded up by Khmer Rouge forces, forced to eat pork, and banned from using their traditional language. Qurans were collected and burned.
The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge commander in areas where atrocities against the Cham were committed. Nowadays he proclaims to be a champion of religious diversity though in 2013 he said Muslims were "lucky to live in Cambodia."Oppression of Rohingya May Have Led Some To Raise Arms
Oppression of Rohingya May Have Led Some To Raise Arms
A nightmare has become reality in this country: A Chimera has been born out of oppression, fear, deliberate provocation and complicit silence whose gestation has been surprisingly long but, having materialised, has already claimed dozens of lives.
Whether, when its shape becomes clearer, it will be revealed to also include some aspects of international terrorism remains to be seen, but the new form of ethno-religious conflict now stalking Rakhine State is unlikely to be vanquished quickly or easily, or without further loss of life.
Those who are at pains to point out that the public at least do not yet know who committed the attacks on three border police stations in northern Rakhine on October 9 – killing nine officers, and allegedly shouting the name "Rohingya" – are correct.
But what we do know is this: Rakhine is witnessing the worst violence it has seen since the 2012 troubles and there are now videos circulating on social media which apparently show armed men calling for jihad in the name of the Rohingya cause – videos that are being reposted by, among other high-profile figures, former information minister U Ye Htut.
In response, the military has launched violent assaults on Rohingya communities around Maungdaw, purportedly targeted as attackers, but which rights groups have said are extra-judicial killings. Yesterday, helicopters were seen at Sittwe Airport. They were there, officials said, to evacuate teachers from Maungdaw, but were clearly armed with rocket launchers.
With conflicts in other parts of the country now proving ongoing military impunity for war crimes and human rights abuses, the potential for death and destruction in Rakhine is manifold.
This is the most-dreaded scenario, feared by all those engaged in finding, and hoping for, a solution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine. As of yesterday morning, a tally of state media reports indicated that 43 people – 30 alleged attackers and 13 security personnel – have been killed.
With senior authorities yet to divulge details or alleged affiliation of those accused of the attacks who have been capture alive, speculation has abounded.
Initial allegations by local government officials named the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation as being behind the incidents. The claim prompted widespread debate about whether such a group – last confirmed to have been active in the 1990s, but blamed by the government for a number of smaller-scale attacks on the border in the past two years – is still even in existence in any relation to its initial incarnation.
But the appearance of the two videos, which feature young men calling for jihad in the Rohingya language, has bolstered claims that there is at least some appetite for armed action among some minority Muslims, whatever name their group goes by.
Even if the current situation is brought under control quickly, these videos are not going to be forgotten by those who seek to stir nationalist aggression in this country – radical monk U Wirathu has inundated the internet with gleeful "told you so's". Nor can their implication be avoided by those who seek to uphold the rights of the vast majority of Rohingya who have remained peaceful despite suffering longstanding rights abuses.
A Rohingya representative speaking to The Myanmar Times yesterday rejected claims the attacks were drugs-related rather than representing some form of uprising.
Nearly 7 million narcotics tablets, with an estimated street value of K14 billion (US$11.1 million), were seized during two raids in Maungdaw last month, leading some to speculate that the attacks on the police bases were some form of reprisal. However, the representative said that restrictions on movement meant large-scale involvement in, or serious profiteering from, the illegal trade would be difficult for people in Rohingya communities.
Abdul Rashid, a Rohingya rights campaigner, confirmed that those who appeared in the jihadist videos spoke the Rohingya language with a Rakhine (rather than Bangladeshi) accent. He added that one man "maybe studied" in Saudi Arabia as he was speaking Arabic, but the rest appeared to be local, based on their speech. None of his contacts in Maungdaw recognised any of those who appeared in the videos, he added.
"Most of them appear to be very young men or even boys. I don't think they have leadership," he said, rejecting the involvement of terrorists from other Eastern countries and describing it as a "small-scale" response arising out of "frustration" and deliberately fuelled by those seeking to destablise the current democratically elected government.
Nevertheless, this frustration – created by years of deliberate oppression – was something that needed to be addressed urgently, he said. He added that he had been warning the international community about such a threat and the possibility of such frustrations being used to further others' agendas for a long time, but they had not taken his concerns seriously.
"It is something that can still be controlled," he said, but warned that this should happen through transparent democratic governance, not military attacks on civilians.
Whether the attacks were part of a well-organised terror assault with international connections, as is being alleged by some in positions of authority, or the work of a few frustrated young locals enflamed by internal political provocateurs – as suggested by some Rohingya representatives – the immediate consequences are horrific.
People are dying, homes are being burned, and people in both the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities are living in fear for their lives. The dilution of bitterness, disintegration of barriers and hopes for a quiet easing of restrictions on the movements of Rohingya people four years after the original inter-religious violence have been dashed.
Work by peacemakers in both local communities and by wider national and international bodies has been set back immensely.
When violence erupted between Rakhine's Muslim and Buddhist communities in 2012, any rumours of an active militant Rohingya group were backed up only by people's fears and imaginations. Now, the spread of internet access and social media means people across the state and nationwide are seeing not only videos which appear to back that claim, but also a vast number of posts in which hate speech, anger and threats of violence abound from both sides of the divide.
Those wishing to incite fear, hatred and division have already succeeded, whatever their underlying aims. And if the military happened to be looking for an excuse to up its presence in northern Rakhine and increase its aggression against the Rohingya, it certainly has one now.
"The case is not a normal case. Ordinary people's concerns relate to the assorted stolen arms. It is very dangerous. The government should take severe action," U Than Shwe, an elder from a Rakhine community, told The Myanmar Times, adding that more security was needed even as troops amassed in the border region.
As the government, military and international community seek to find a way to deal with the violence rolling out across the state, circumspection rather than clarity has so far won out.
While those seeking to avoid speculative outrage initially supported calls for opinions to be withheld until facts were further established, five days on, the lack of active response from State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – who is set to leave for an official visit to India in the coming days – is beginning to wear thin.
State media yesterday quoted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as saying, "As long as we are not clear what is what, we won't accuse anyone."
Yet that has not stopped members of her senior leadership, including U Zaw Htay, deputy director general of the President's Office and former spokesperson for president U Thein Sein – renowned for his inflammatory comments – from referring to those who carried out the police station attacks as "terrorists".
It is a word rarely applied to armed organisations fighting for ethnic rights in other parts of the country, indicating that events in Rakhine are being treated differently and the religious aspect of the conflict is key to that. The word "terrorism" also appears regularly on a hastily created Twitter account for the President's Office – aimed at addressing an international audience less used to getting its political messages via Facebook, as has become the norm in Myanmar.
As has too often happened before in this country, silence from the highest ranks, while lower-level public figures opine in an inflammatory manner, is fuelling speculation and allowing the fear and hatred it engenders to flourish.
This is by far the greatest challenge Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's administration has faced yet, and the stability of not just Rakhine but also the country will rely on her ability to control the threat of greater violence, in the face of those who seek to either actively undermine her authority or to manipulate situations to their advantage.
If there is one thing the world has learned, it is that disaffected youth are ripe for exploitation to violent ends. And it would not be surprising if the young Rohingya men who feature in the two widely circulated "jihadist" videos are, after years of unrelenting discrimination and oppression with no end in sight, far beyond disaffected.
One key question that must be addressed in trying to understand these events is, "Why now?" Rohingya people were facing discrimination even before the 2012 violence, and yet even in the face of the rights abuses imposed after that time, no major sign of an uprising has occurred until now.
According to authorities, suspects caught have confessed to planning these attacks over three months. Given the bloodied state of the accused in photos, the veracity or legal validity of such a confession must be questioned, but there is definitely cause for concern.
It would certainly contradict claims that this week's attacks are related to a demolition order announced on September 18 by Rakhine State's Security and Border Affairs Minister Colonel Htein Lin to destroy hundreds of buildings in Muslim communities – including 12 mosques and 35 madrasas in Maungdaw and Buthidaung – due to claims that they had been constructed illegally.
Yet allegations that such youths have been deliberately targeted by those seeking to stir up internal conflict must be considered, particularly in light of an increase in conflict elsewhere in the country.
But there is not just one group to be held to account for what is currently occurring.
Whether supported by international terror groups or not, the fact remains that were it not for the deliberate oppression of the Rohingya people, such provocateurs would have found it more difficult to find those willing to participate in the October 9 uprising and the battles that have followed.
Those who, for their own political reasons, or to protect their national or organisational involvement in the country, either deliberately oppressed or who sat back and allowed the brutal oppression of the Rohingya people to continue for more than four years are at some point going to have to answer for what is unfolding now.
In recent weeks, the US dropped sanctions and the EU dropped the UN rights resolution on Myanmar, giving the current regime their approval. Yet the country is in a more violent state than it has been in years and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's administration, bound as it is to the might and demands of the Myanmar military, will need international support if it is to address the challenges ahead.
The recently created Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – tasked, under the leadership of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, with finding a solution to the state's sectarian divides, had yet to make an official comment as of press time. The silence does little to raise hopes that the commission will be able to express its opinions freely.
Meanwhile, UN representatives, while expressing dismay at the crisis, have been accused by some rights groups of going soft on the alleged reprisals against unarmed Rohingya civilians.
Top UN representatives are still stinging from the repercussions and downturn in relations with the former administration in 2014 after the UN made a strong response to an alleged massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine's Du Chee Yar Tan village, which the government denied and which was later widely considered to have been greatly exaggerated. Yet this should not be grounds for ignoring reprisals and rights abuses now. Whatever terrible violence has occurred at the hands of Rohingya people in the past few days, the Myanmar military has the power to destroy innocent lives and four years of work toward peace.
Even without direct violence, effects are being felt beyond Maungdaw. Already a newly imposed ban on Rakhine traders, who had been bringing food into Rohingya communities living around Sittwe under movement restrictions, is having effects. Sources on the ground say food supplies are already growing low as previously reasonable relations between the communities are cut short.
There is no question that the current, dangerous dynamics at play have been exacerbated by those who have either directly or tacitly supported a situation in which Rohingya people have been forced to live in abhorrent conditions for years. And with the state on the edge of full-scale violence, it is not just the Rohingya people who have been failed, but their ethnic Rakhine neighbours as well.
There is no excuse for the taking of innocent lives, and those who killed the border policemen must be held to account under laws in keeping with international human rights conventions – as should those now accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings of Rohingya in reprisal.
Everything possible must be done now to bring this current episode of bloodshed to an end while ensuring the protection of all people, as well as taking immediate action to end the circle of oppression that allows violence to flourish.