400,000 Muslims Flee Burma Crackdown
By Ben Barber
Sept. 19, 2017
Some 400,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees have fled in the past three weeks before a wave of burning villages, rape and landmines as the Burmese government seeks to drive out the Muslim minority, top United Nations officials say.
Since August 25 when the trickle of refugees became a flood, the government of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most crowded countries, has opened its doors to allow the Rohingya to escape attacks by the powerful Burmese army as well as nationalist Buddhist mobs fired up by monks.
About one million Rohingyas still live in the Western Burmese state once called Arakan and now called Rakhine.
They are Muslim and have long been at odds with the largely Buddhist dominant ethnic group called Burmans.
Since 1962, about 15 years after Britain granted independence and went home, Burma has been riven by ethnic wars.
I’ve visited militant groups of fighters camped out along the Thai border: they included the Karen, Mon, Shan, Kachin and others minorities – all living in fear of the Burmans who control the government and the powerful army in the nation of 50 million.
The militants – including students and other civilians who had fled to the Thai border for safety -- told me of the rape, slavery and murder that caused them to flee their home villages. In 1988, the army shot dead an estimated 3,000 students in front of the US Embassy in Rangoon – the students were demanding freedom.
Today it is the Rohingya telling similar stories in Bangladesh refugee camps.
One UN official called it a classic example of ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya were over the past few years stripped of everything – barred from leaving their villages, which had become concentration camps. They were unable to work, travel, study or obtain identity cards.
Media has been barred from meeting with Rohingya except for monitored encounters.
“This is a very old problem – since Burma got independence in 1948, the Rohingya people have not been recognized as citizens,” said a Bangladesh government spokesman at the Bangladesh embassy here in Washington.
“Since 1978, the Burmese military junta started eviction of the Rohingya people, using torture and persecution,” embassy press officer Shamim Ahmad told me in an interview.
By 1992, nearly 300,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh.
Burma calls the fleeing ethnic group “Bengalis” and will not use the word “Rohingya.” The Burma government says they are not real citizens of Burma but migrants who should return to Bangladesh. But the Bangladesh government says they migrated to Burma 400 years ago.
Officials in Burma (which is also known as Myannmar) accuse the Rohingya of being infiltrated by Islamic jihadis.
Even the de-facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has refused to denounce the campaign against Rohingya. She cancelled plans to address the UN General Assembly this week, possibly to avoid embarrassing questions from dozens of leaders of Muslim countries who have criticized the expulsions.
She even had the effrontery to state she did not know why some 400,000 of her fellow countrymen and women are fleeing – guessing it might be because of pressure by Islamist jihadis to create problems in Burma. This is an explanation that is frankly ludicrous.
To its credit, Bangladesh has opened its doors to the refugees, thousands of whom continue to cross by land and across the Naf River each day.
Many have arrived with severe land mine injuries, signaling a violation of international law when used against civilians.
The current wave of refugees began after August 24 attacks against Burmese troops by militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. About 10 troops were killed but the response has been a wholesale slaughter killing more than 3000 Rohingya. Villages have been burnt and the inhabitants killed or driven to flee to Bangladesh.
“This is the most brutal crackdown on the Rohingya people,” said spokesman Ahmad.
Bangladesh seems unwilling to get into an argument with its neighbor and calls the crackdown “an internal affair of Burma.”
But Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has visited the refugee camps and opened the door for UN and other international aid groups to take care of the Rohingya.
However Bangladesh has not offered to allow the whole community to migrate, offering instead to keep them safe inside fenced-in camps until a solution to their problem can be reached.
The powerful neighbors of Burma – India and China – might be able to pressure the Burmese to halt the slaughter and destruction. But they have their own interests to consider -- Burma offers oil, gas and hydro power resources. It also has warm water ports that could help China export goods and import resources.
The United States is also a player in the Bay of Bengal where the Rohingya tragedy is taking place. Washington and India seek to block expanding Chinese power in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Sheikh Hasina, who will be in the Washington area for the next week, has taken a risk in assisting the Rohingya.
“They are human beings,” said Ahmad. “We must help this helpless humanity. We must give them shelter.”