Burma: Widespread rape of Rohingya women, girls

Human Rights Watch reports: Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 37-page report, “‘All of My Body Was Pain’: Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma,” documents the Burmese military’s gang rape of Rohingya women and girls and further acts of violence, cruelty, and humiliation. Many women described witnessing the murders of their young children, spouses, and parents. Rape survivors reported days of agony walking with swollen and torn genitals while fleeing to Bangladesh.

“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.”

Since August 25, 2017, the Burmese military has committed killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and mass arson of homes in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State, forcing more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has found that these abuses amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The military operations were sparked by attacks by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 security force outposts and an army base that killed 11 Burmese security personnel. [Continue reading…]

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Bots stoke racial strife in Virginia governor’s race

Politico reports: Twitter bots are swarming into the Virginia governor’s race and promoting chatter about a racially charged Democratic ad days before Election Day, according to a report commissioned by allies of Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s campaign.

The activity centers on an ad from Latino Victory Fund, depicting a child’s nightmare in which a supporter of Republican Ed Gillespie chases immigrant children in a pickup truck bearing a Confederate flag. Gillespie’s campaign reacted furiously to the ad, which barely ran on TV but got major attention online, and has made backlash to the Democratic ad a major part of its closing message.

That backlash erupted quickly, and Latino Victory Fund later retracted the ad. But the reaction has been amplified on Twitter by automated accounts. Out of the 15 accounts tweeting most frequently about the Latino Victory Fund ad, 13 belong to fully or partially automated bots, according to an analysis from Discourse Intelligence. (The other two accounts are Republican political operatives.)

“Highly scripted, highly robotic accounts are being used to boost this message into the Twitter conversation,” said Tim Chambers, the report’s author and the U.S. practice lead for digital at the Dewey Square Group. The firm was retained by the National Education Association, whose Virginia affiliate has endorsed Northam.

Of the 15 accounts most frequently sending out messages about the ad from Latino Victory Fund, just two accounts belonging to GOP operatives were human, while 13 belonged to either fully or partially automated bots, according to the report from Discourse Intelligence. The National Education Association, whose Virginia affiliate backs Northam, paid for the report.

The 15 accounts highlighted in the report have the potential to reach 651,000 people, the report says. It notes these accounts just make up less than 1 percent of the nearly 3,000 accounts with tweets including both “Latino victory” and either “Gillespie” or “Northam.”

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is helping lead the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said the incident mirrors past bot attempts to “manipulate” social media conversations. Warner and other senators, including Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have also warned during their investigation about attempts to interfere in future American elections as well. [Continue reading…]

While this report may be used to highlight the ever-present threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections, what it really underlines is the corrosive effect on democracy presented by the existence of social media.

Twitter and Facebook weren’t created to damage democracy, so this isn’t an issue of malevolent intent. But given that social media has already become — globally — the preeminent instrument for manipulating public opinion, at some point attention needs to turn away from Russia’s opportunistic use of social media and the internet to further its national interest, and focus more intently on the broad political repercussions of the digital age and the extent to which connectivity, far from creating a global village, has become the most effective means for promoting division. This doesn’t simply result in online spats — it can lead to ethnic cleansing and a refugee crisis.

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Facebook’s instrumental role in the promotion of ethnic cleansing and the creation of a million refugees

Kevin Roose reports: For months, Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., has been in crisis mode, furiously attempting to contain the damage stemming from its role in last year’s presidential campaign. The company has mounted an all-out defense campaign ahead of this week’s congressional hearings on election interference in 2016, hiring three outside communications firms, taking out full-page newspaper ads, and mobilizing top executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, to beat back accusations that it failed to prevent Russia from manipulating the outcome of the election.

No other predicament in Facebook’s 13-year history has generated this kind of four-alarm response. But while the focus on Russia is understandable, Facebook has been much less vocal about the abuse of its services in other parts of the world, where the stakes can be much higher than an election.

This past week, my colleagues at The Times reported on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar that has been subjected to brutal violence and mass displacement. Violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumors have gone viral on Facebook, including many shared by official government and military accounts.

The information war in Myanmar illuminates a growing problem for Facebook. The company successfully connected the world to a constellation of real-time communication and broadcasting tools, then largely left it to deal with the consequences.

“In a lot of these countries, Facebook is the de facto public square,” said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Because of that, it raises really strong questions about Facebook needing to take on more responsibility for the harms their platform has contributed to.”

In Myanmar, the rise in anti-Rohingya sentiment coincided with a huge boom in social media use that was partly attributable to Facebook itself. In 2016, the company partnered with MTP, the state-run telecom company, to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a limited suite of internet services, including Facebook, that can be used without counting toward a cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed to more than 30 million today from 2 million in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Will anyone protect the Rohingya?

By Vincent A. Auger, Western Illinois University

Since August, the Rohingya, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, has faced what a United Nations official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Recent reports describe a campaign by Myanmar security forces to drive the Rohingya from the country permanently. Hundreds of thousands have fled to camps in neighboring Bangladesh, creating a new refugee crisis.

This is exactly the type of atrocity that the United Nations vowed to combat in 2005, when it asserted a “responsibility to protect” civilian populations from genocidal violence. Yet, little has been done.

Why has “the responsibility to protect” failed, and can the Rohingya be helped?

[Read more…]

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Bangladesh is now home to almost 1 million Rohingya refugees

The Washington Post reports: Wednesday marks the two-month anniversary of attacks in Burma, carried out by a small band of Rohingya militants, that triggered a massive and indiscriminate retaliation from the Burmese military and the exodus of most of the Muslim minority ethnic group from the country.

Some 604,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since Aug. 25, where they have joined more than 300,000 who fled in earlier waves of ethnic violence over the past three decades. With thousands still crossing the border each day, the total number of Rohingya refugees is expected to cross the 1 million mark in the coming days or weeks.

Roughly half a million Rohingya are thought to still be in Burma, where many live in camps for displaced people. Human rights organizations have documented the wholesale incineration of Rohingya villages across three townships (akin to counties) of Burma’s Rakhine State, where the majority of Rohingya once lived. In interviews in Bangladesh refugee camps and over the phone while still in Burma, Rohingya have offered searing testimony of extensive crimes against humanity carried out by the Burmese military. [Continue reading…]

Quartz reports: Each time the Rohingya flee Myanmar’s western Rakhine state—and there have been numerous such flights in recent years—Bangladesh, one of the world’s most congested countries, has to figure out how to best support them on its limited land.

There are temporary camps in the country’s southeasternmost areas, Nayapara and Kutupalong, set up in the 1990s and now housing about 30,000 registered residents, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’s refugee agency. But these are longtime Bangladesh residents—the majority of them were born in the country or came as children. Newer arrivals have set up temporary shelters, and the situation is unsustainable.

Plans to build a giant new camp have been announced, while one proposal floated publicly two years ago has surfaced again—resettle people on a brand-new island in the Bay of Bengal. In late September, the country said that if repatriation moved too slowly, it would take steps to move people there. Called Thengar Char, the island Bangladesh is considering using has appeared only recently as Himalayan sediments carried to the sea by the Meghna River collected and settled, forming a land mass. Bangladesh calls these newly surfaced land accretions char (pdf, p4)—and some of them are so new that even identifying them on a map can be difficult. [Continue reading…]

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A hero turned villain: Aung San Suu Kyi and the annihilation of Myanmar’s Rohingya

Neve Gordon writes: I recently met Penny Green to discuss the situation in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the perpetration of the horrific crimes carried out against the Rohingya.

A professor of law and globalization and the founding director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London, Green has been closely monitoring the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar for the past five years. In a 2015 report based on 12 months of field work and over 200 interviews, ISCI found ample evidence that the Rohingya have been subjected to systematic and widespread human-rights violations, including killings, torture, and rape; denial of citizenship; destruction of villages; land confiscation; and forced labor. Citing Daniel Feierstein’s Genocide as Social Practice, which outlines six stages leading to genocide, ISCI claimed that the Myanmar regime had already perpetrated four: (1) stigmatization and dehumanization; (2) harassment, violence, and terror; (3) isolation and segregation; and (4) the systematic weakening of the target group. Now the Rohingya potentially face the final two stages of genocide—mass annihilation and erasure of the group from Myanmar’s history.

Neve Gordon: Can you provide some background about the Rohingya’s plight and the processes that have brought us to where we are today?

Penny Green: Burma, known today as Myanmar, received independence in 1948. The country had been part of a vast British colony, and not unlike India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Burma’s borders were determined partly according to religious lines, with the Bengal state being mostly Hindu, Bangladesh mostly Muslim and Burma mostly Buddhist. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, had been living for centuries mostly in what became Rakhine State in the newly established Burma. In 1950, they were issued citizenship identification cards and granted the right to vote under the first post-independence Prime Minister, U Nu. Until the late 1970s, the Rohingya held important government positions as civil servants, the official Burma Broadcasting Service relayed a Rohingya-language radio program three times a week, and the term “Rohingya” was used in school textbooks and official documents.

In the early 1980s, we start to witness the beginning of the process that ultimately aims at erasing the Rohingya from Myanmar’s history and geography. In 1982, the Rohingya were removed from the list of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities and stripped of citizenship. A little more than a decade later, the government suddenly refused to issue birth certificates to Rohingya babies. It then began to completely erase the term “Rohingya” from the official texts and even to condemn anyone who uttered the word. After the 2012 government-sanctioned Rakhine violence, the Rohingya were restricted to secure zones, detention camps, ghettos, and prison villages, and were excluded from higher education, all professions, the military and the public service.

Finally, in 2014, the Rohingya were excluded from the census. This is crucial in my mind, even more so than the prohibition to participate in the November 2015 elections, since, as history teaches us, when the state stops counting people it means that the state no longer considers them subjects of management and control, and when people are no longer monitored and managed, it means that they are considered superfluous. [Continue reading…]

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Rohingya recount atrocities: ‘They threw my baby into a fire’

Jeffrey Gettleman reports: Hundreds of women stood in the river, held at gunpoint, ordered not to move.

A pack of soldiers stepped toward a petite young woman with light brown eyes and delicate cheekbones. Her name was Rajuma, and she was standing chest-high in the water, clutching her baby son, while her village in Myanmar burned down behind her.

“You,” the soldiers said, pointing at her.

She froze.

“You!”

She squeezed her baby tighter.

In the next violent blur of moments, the soldiers clubbed Rajuma in the face, tore her screaming child out of her arms and hurled him into a fire. She was then dragged into a house and gang-raped.

By the time the day was over, she was running through a field naked and covered in blood. Alone, she had lost her son, her mother, her two sisters and her younger brother, all wiped out in front of her eyes, she says.

Rajuma is a Rohingya Muslim, one of the most persecuted ethnic groups on earth, and she now spends her days drifting through a refugee camp in Bangladesh in a daze.

She relayed her story to me during a recent reporting trip I made to the camps, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya like her have rushed for safety. Her deeply disturbing account of what happened in her village, in late August, was corroborated by dozens of other survivors, whom I spoke with at length, and by human rights groups gathering evidence of atrocities.

Survivors said they saw government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40-millimeter grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them. [Continue reading… ]

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What happened to Myanmar’s human rights icon?

Hannah Beech writes: When Myanmar’s military regime released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, in 2010, she had been the world’s most famous political prisoner for nearly two decades. Within a few weeks, she received a phone call of congratulation from another former political prisoner—Václav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who, in 1989, had become his country’s first post-Communist leader. The call was the only time they ever spoke directly, but their political relationship had lasted almost as long as her captivity. In 1991, two years into his term as President of Czechoslovakia, Havel had successfully lobbied the Nobel Committee to award its Peace Prize to Suu Kyi in recognition of her leadership of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. When a book of her essays was published, soon afterward, it had an introduction by Havel, who wrote that “she speaks for all of us who search for justice.”

Havel and Suu Kyi were among the many dissidents around the world who, from the mid-eighties to the early nineties, emerged as icons of freedom, often toppling the regimes that had oppressed them. In South Africa, after nearly thirty years in prison, Nelson Mandela negotiated an end to apartheid and then assumed his country’s Presidency. In Warsaw, a shipyard worker named Lech Walesa and a movement called Solidarity swept the Communist government from power. In the Philippines, the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos fell after Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated critic of the regime, took up her husband’s struggle. Democratic movements did not always triumph—the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters near Tiananmen Square is the grimmest example—but, in the last three decades of the century, the number of democracies in the world increased from thirty-one to eighty-one.

Various fates awaited these reformers. Havel and Mandela weathered the inevitable compromises of office with their reputations intact, whereas Walesa, as Poland’s President, became known as an erratic and unreliable leader. But none of them has undergone the kind of unexpected and alarming metamorphosis that Aung San Suu Kyi has. Her moral clarity and graceful bearing long made her a potent symbol of human rights and nonviolence. (There was a 2011 movie based on her life.) But since she became the country’s de-facto leader, in 2016, she has remained impassive in the face of a series of human-rights abuses, most egregiously the brutal oppression of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in the west of the country, near the Bangladesh border. [Continue reading…]

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In grim camps, Rohingya suffer on ‘scale that we couldn’t imagine’

The New York Times reports: Up to their ankles in mud, hundreds of Rohingya refugees fought to the front of the crowd outside of their makeshift camp. An open-bed truck full of Bangladeshi volunteers was passing by, tossing out donated goods at random: small bags of rice, a faded SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, a cluster of dirty forks.

Entire families sloshed through the rain hoping to grab whatever they could. One boy, no older than 6, squeezed his way to an opening where a pair of oversize men’s jeans came hurtling off a truck. He had to fight off an older boy before he could run off with the prize.

There were already more than 200,000 ethnic Rohingya migrants stuck in camps like this one, Balukhali, in southern Bangladesh. But over the past month, at least 500,000 more — more than half of the Rohingya population thought to have been living in Myanmar — are reported to have fled over the border to take refuge, surpassing even the worst month of the Syrian war’s refugee tide.

As international leaders squabble over whether to punish Myanmar for the military’s methodical killing and uprooting of Rohingya civilians, the recent arrivals are living in abjectly desperate conditions.

This is not so much a defined camp as a dense collection of bamboo and tarp stacks. When I visited, children were wandering in the mud looking for food and clothes. There are worries about cholera and tuberculosis. With no toilets, what’s left of the forest has become a vast, improvised bathroom.

While the flow of refugees has greatly slowed in the past week, aid organizations are still overwhelmed.

“It’s on a scale that we couldn’t imagine,” said Kate White, the Doctors Without Borders medical emergency manager in Bangladesh. “This is a small piece of land, and everyone is condensed into it. We just can’t scale up fast enough.” [Continue reading…]

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Why there’s no end in sight for Myanmar’s Rohingya exodus

Brandon Tensley writes: Myanmar has been careening ever deeper into crisis for several weeks. On August 25th, an insurgent army of the Rohingya people—a stateless Muslim group in the majority-Buddhist country—attacked state security forces. The military responded with a brutal counterinsurgency, one that included torture, summary killings, and the mass displacement of civilians. The Myanmar government has since largely cut off aid operations to conflict-torn areas.

Violence centered around the Rohingya, particularly in the impoverished state of Rakhine, on Myanmar’s western coast, isn’t new. Last year, for instance, on October 9th, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army—the group that also carried out last month’s attacks—killed a dozen officers across state security outposts. Over the next few days, the Myanmar military’s reprisal forced thousands of Rohingya, as well as other civilians, across the border into nearby Bangladesh. Many of those who escaped the violence reported that their villages had been burned down and that innocent civilians had been killed. Four years before that, a string of riots in 2012 claimed more than 100 lives and forced some 140,000 more into squalid refugee camps. The plight of the Rohingya has routinely left them vulnerable to abuse by smugglers, as they take to rickety boats and attempt to look for sanctuary elsewhere; in 2015, increased attempts at migration led to a regional refugee crisis.

Yet the severity and speed with which the current crisis is escalating threatens to make it the worst flare-up of mass migration Myanmar has seen in decades. These developments, in a country allegedly moving toward democracy, can also seem more dire than before. [Continue reading…]

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How violence in Myanmar radicalized a new generation of Rohingya

The New York Times reports: Nazir Hossain, the imam of a village in far western Myanmar, gathered the faithful around him after evening prayers last month. In a few hours, more than a dozen Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighters from his village would strike a nearby police post with an assortment of handmade weapons.

The men needed their cleric’s blessing.

“As imam, I encouraged them never to step back from their mission,” Mr. Hossein recalled of his final words to the ethnic Rohingya militants. “I told them that if they did not fight to the death, the military would come and kill their families, their women and their children.”

They fought — joining an Aug. 25 assault by thousands of the group’s fighters against Myanmar’s security forces — and the retaliation came down anyway. Since then, Myanmar’s troops and vigilante mobs have unleashed a scorched-earth operation on Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes in a campaign that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

From its start four years ago as a small-scale effort to organize a Rohingya resistance, ARSA — which is known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement — has managed to stage two deadly attacks on Myanmar’s security forces: one last October and the other last month.

But in lashing out against the government, the militants have also made their own people a target. And they have handed Myanmar’s military an attempt at public justification by saying that it is fighting terrorism, even as it has burned down dozens of villages and killed fleeing women and children.

This radicalization of a new generation of Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, adds fuel to an already combustible situation in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state.

Increasingly, there is also concern that both the relatively few Rohingya who have taken up arms and the broader population — hundreds of thousands of whom are crowded in camps in neighboring Bangladesh — will be exploited by international terrorism networks, bringing a localized struggle into the slipstream of global politics.

ARSA’s attempt at insurgency politics has been disastrous so far — a cease-fire that they declared this month was rejected by the military, and they are reported to have suffered lopsided casualties compared with the government’s. But the men caught up in the cause insist that resistance is worth the steep cost, even to their families. [Continue reading…]

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Aid group warns of lives at risk among Rohingya in Bangladesh

Reuters reports: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh could die due to a lack of food, shelter and water available for the huge numbers of them fleeing violence in Myanmar, an aid agency warned on Sunday.

Nearly 410,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority fled from western Rakhine state to Bangladesh to escape a military offensive that the United Nations has branded a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

“Many people are arriving hungry, exhausted and with no food or water,” Mark Pierce, Bangladesh country director for the Save the Children aid agency said in a statement.

“I’m particularly worried that the demand for food, shelter, water and basic hygiene support is not being met due to the sheer number of people in need. If families can’t meet their basic needs, the suffering will get even worse and lives could be lost.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Blood flowed in the streets’: Refugees from one Rohingya village recount days of horror

The Washington Post reports: The soldiers arrived in the Burma village just after 8 a.m., the villagers said, ready to fight a war.

They fired shots in the air, and then, the villagers claim, turned their guns on fleeing residents, who fell dead and wounded in the monsoon-green rice paddy. The military’s retribution for a Rohingya militant attack on police posts earlier that day had begun.

Mohammed Roshid, a rice farmer, heard the gunfire and fled with his wife and children, but his 80-year-old father, who walks with a stick, wasn’t as nimble. Roshid said he saw a soldier grab Yusuf Ali and slit his throat with such ferocity the old man was nearly decapitated.

“I wanted to go back and save him, but some relatives stopped me because there was so many military,” Roshid, 55, said. “It’s the saddest thing in my life that I could not do anything for my father.”

The Burmese military’s “clearance operation” in the Maung Nu hamlet and dozens of other villages populated by Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority triggered an exodus of an estimated 389,000 refugees into Bangladesh, an episode the United Nations human rights chief has called “ethnic cleansing.” The tide of refugees is expected to grow in the coming days. The newly arrived refugees — dazed, clutching their belongings, some barefoot in ankle-deep mud — have crowded out an existing camp and put up makeshift shelters. Others simply sit on the roadways, fighting crowds as large relief trucks fling down bags of rice or water. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to unravel Obama’s legacy, he could start with Burma

Ishaan Tharoor writes: President Trump has made no secret of his desire to dismantle the achievements of President Barack Obama, be they domestic reforms on health care, an executive order governing the status of undocumented youth, a landmark international agreement on climate change or the deal inked between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program.

Many of Trump’s efforts to unravel Obama’s legacy, though, have stalled. More often than not, they have also proved widely unpopular among the public, according to a slate of opinion polls. But there’s one hot spot where Trump could probably walk back the effects of Obama’s foreign policy with little condemnation: Burma. [Continue reading…]

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‘Textbook example of ethnic cleansing’: 370,000 Rohingyas flood Bangladesh as crisis worsens

The Washington Post reports: The number of Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in Burma has now topped 370,000, a crisis the United Nations human rights chief called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Hundreds of thousands of the long-persecuted ethnic minority continued to stream via land and rickety boats into Bangladesh this week, arriving exhausted, dehydrated and recounting tales of nightmarish horrors at the hands of the Burmese military, including friends and neighbors shot dead and homes torched before their eyes.

“It seems they wanted us to leave the country,” said Nurjahan, an elderly Rohingya woman who escaped her burning village 10 days ago and ended up camped by the side of the road, unsure of where to go.

Speaking in Geneva on Tuesday, the International Organization for Migration put the number fleeing Burma at 370,000 but admitted it could rise sharply. [Continue reading…]

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Burma: Satellite images show urban destruction

Human Rights Watch reports: New satellite images show hundreds of buildings destroyed in primarily Rohingya Muslim urban areas in Burma’s Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said today. Satellite photos taken on September 2, 2017, show 450 buildings destroyed by fire in the town of Maungdaw, the administrative capital of Maungdaw township. Satellite-based heat sensing technology indicated active fires in this area on August 28.

“The widespread destruction of urban areas in Maungdaw town suggests that Burmese security forces are not just attacking Rohingya Muslims in isolated villages,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese government has an obligation to protect everyone in the country, but if safety cannot even be found in area capitals, then no place may be safe.” [Continue reading…]

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Aung San Suu Kyi and her foreign admirers must help the Rohingyas

The Economist says: The reports are horrifying: soldiers and militiamen surrounding villages, raping women, decapitating children, herding men into buildings and setting them ablaze. The Burmese army is letting few outsiders into the northern part of Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh, so it is hard to be certain about the scale of the atrocities. But the UN says that well over 150,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, with 35,000 crossing the border in a single day this week. They are the lucky ones. Satellite images reveal burning villages across northern Rakhine, and bodies have been washing up on the shores of the river that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh (see article). The victims are Rohingyas, a Muslim minority that has been persecuted by the Burmese authorities with varying degrees of ferocity since the 1980s.

Today’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a victim of persecution by past military regimes, and winner of the Nobel peace prize for her long vigil for democracy. But she seems no more sympathetic to the Rohingyas’ plight than her jackbooted predecessors. She denies that there is any systematic abuse by the security services, claiming instead that they are simply trying to hunt down organised Rohingya militants who have attacked police and army posts. Pleas from the UN, neighbouring governments, aid agencies and even her fellow Nobel laureates to curb the violence and allow humanitarian aid to flow to the victims have had no effect. She is not even willing to use the term Rohingya; her government dismisses the 1m-strong group that has been present in Rakhine since precolonial times as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Ms Suu Kyi’s initial reluctance to take up the Rohingya cause was understandable, though not admirable. The vast majority of Burmese share the official view, that Rohingyas are foreign interlopers; many also imagine that, as Muslims, they are plotting against Buddhism, the religion of the majority. When sectarian riots broke out in 2012 between Rohingyas and Rakhines, a largely Buddhist ethnic group inhabiting the same region, the local media painted the Rohingyas as the aggressors, even though they came off much the worse. Moreover, Ms Suu Kyi has little authority over the army, which granted itself the right to regulate itself (and the police) before handing power to her civilian government. Why take on an unpopular fight that she had almost no prospect of winning?

But the violence in Rakhine has reached such an unconscionable level that there can be no justifying continued passivity. Whether it is popular or not, the first duty of any government is to keep the people it governs alive. Even if Ms Suu Kyi cannot rein in the army, she should at least denounce its behaviour, and make clear to ordinary Burmese the horrors it is unleashing in their name. She has managed to face the generals down once before, after all, during her campaign for democracy, and retains immense moral authority. [Continue reading…]

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