Black smoke rises in the distance. Arefa Begum realises that her house is in flames as she flees the violent military crackdown. The Burmese army has burned down her village, Hasari Bil, north of Maungdaw District, in western Burma (also called Myanmar), after shooting at its inhabitants.
The Burmese military has been waging a bloody campaign of repression against the Rohingyas since 25 August. “They killed an eight-year-old girl, shooting her in the eye,” 30-year-old Arefa Begum tells Equal Times. This Rohingya woman managed to cross the Naf River with her three children, having paid smugglers to get her to Bangladesh. “My husband stayed on the other side,” she says. “I don’t even know if he’s alive.”
Her testimony echoes those of others, who describe similarly horrific scenes. Since insurgents attacked police posts and a military base on 25 August 2017, the Burmese army, supported by Buddhist militia, has been engaged in a violent campaign of repression in Muslim villages in Burma’s Rakhine state.
The survivors’ accounts are impossible to verify, as the army is not allowing journalists and aid workers to access the region. “People are being shot and soldiers are burning down our houses,” says Saleh Ahmed, a 60-year-old refugee.“I fled when a helicopter started shooting at us.”
Over 400,000 Rohingyas have already taken refuge in Bangladesh and 30,000 Buddhists and Hindus have also been displaced by the violence. The scale of the exodus is unprecedented. Within less than a year, Burma has lost almost half of its Rohingya population. Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the violence as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Most of the refugees are trying to reach southeast Bangladesh. This border zone is fast becoming one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, and the humanitarian aid there is hugely inadequate. “People are coming every day,” says Joseph Tripura, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh.
“The situation is very grave. The refugees are exhausted, the children are hungry and there is not enough shelter for everyone.” Local people are rallying to help the newcomers, bringing them food and clothes. Meanwhile others, smugglers or profiteers, are trying to take advantage of the situation.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has called on the Burmese authorities to put an end to the violence and to allow the refugees to return. But for now, the government and the army are turning a deaf ear to the international community’s appeals.
The military justifies its scorched earth policy in the name of the fight against “terrorists” from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group of insurgents who claimed the 25 August attacks on police and army posts. The all-powerful Tatmadaw denies perpetrating human rights abuses, insisting that it is only targeting militants.
The Burmese government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the former opponent to the military junta, is singing from the same hymn sheet as the Burmese army. On 5 September, the woman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize said there was a “huge iceberg of misinformation” around the Rohingya crisis, and refused to acknowledge the violence being perpetrated against the minority. Last week, after weeks of silence, she finally uttered a timid condemnation of the rights abuses.
A long history of persecution
The Rohingyas have been the victims of discrimination in Burma for decades. According to the United Nations, it is one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
In 1982, the Citizenship Law amended the conditions to be met to qualify for Burmese nationality. The ensuing citizenship verification process left many members of the Muslim minority stateless. Their freedom of movement is restricted, along with their access to healthcare and education. Although they have been living in the country for generations, many Burmese people consider them to be foreigners, from neighbouring Bangladesh. They call them Bengalis and refuse to use the term Rohingya.
The animosity towards them is particularly fierce in Burma’s Rakhine state, a poor region in the west of the country, where most of the Rohingyas live.
“Rakhine has massive gas reserves. It is also the site of major projects between China and Burma,” Alexandra de Mersan, an anthropologist, researcher and teacher at the INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilization) in France. “But the Rakhine Buddhists are seeing none of the benefits. They feel excluded. Peasants have been stripped of their land for these projects. There is a very strong feeling of resentment.”
And the Rohingyas are being used as scapegoats. For many observers, it was only a matter of time before some of them decided to take up arms to defend themselves. “It was inevitable. They have been deprived of their rights for so long,” says Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute in Rangoon.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army emerged in October 2016, claiming an attack on three police posts. It is also known under the name Harakah al-Yaqin (“Faith Movement” in Arabic).
“For the moment, the aim of these militants is relatively clear and limited: they are demanding rights for the Rohingyas. They do not want to establish a caliphate in the region or anything of the sort,” explains Zachary Abuza, an expert on armed groups in Southeast Asia and professor at the National War College (Washington).
ARSA’s resources appear to be rudimentary. Its members are mainly armed with machetes, knives and clubs, although they do have some explosives and a few firearms.
The best source of information on this subject is the International Crisis Group (ICG) report, published in December 2016. It describes an organisation guided and financed by the Rohingya diaspora, especially in Saudi Arabia. The only known leader, Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, was born in Pakistan and then, as a young child, moved with his family to Saudi Arabia. The ICG lost trace of him in 2012, when western Burma was torn apart by the clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Present on all the videos of the group, he became the face of the rebellion.
On 10 September, the Rohingya insurgency announced a unilateral one-month ceasefire to enable humanitarian aid to reach Rakhine. The Burmese government’s response was immediate: it does not negotiate with “terrorists”.
“It seems that the insurgents want to be recognised in the same way as the other armed groups in Burma, but the government is denying them this by labelling them as terrorists,” remarks Alexandra de Mersan.
Since the country became independent in 1948, various ethnic guerrilla forces (Kachin, Palaung…) have been opposing the military in the border regions. None of them, however, has been accused of terrorism by the Burmese authorities.
The violent military crackdown is only succeeding in heightening the Rohingyas’ sense of despair, and facilitating the recruitment of new militants.
“Whilst some Rohingyas do not believe ARSA is working in the best interest of their community, the sheer scale of the violence and the displacements is leading others to think that they have nothing to lose in joining the armed struggle or supporting a group of insurgents,” explains Anagha Neelakantan, director for the International Crisis Group’s Asian programme.
Al-Qaeda and IS have been referring to the plight of the Rohingya in their propaganda for years. Analysts fear a hijacking of ARSA, but the rebels deny any link with these transnational groups. “For the moment, we have no evidence that the militants have a shared agenda with transnational jihadist groups,” confirms Anagha Neelakantan.
Rohingyas continue to flee to Bangladesh in massive numbers every day, emptying northern Rakhine of its Muslim population. Half of the refugees are children, according to the United Nations.
After walking for 13 days, 16-year-old Mohammed Araf reached the Kutupalong camp with his eight brothers and sisters. The schoolboy sees no future for himself in Burma. He insists: “We will not return to Burma until we are recognised as Rohingyas and as citizens.”
This story has been translated from French.
Abu Rehan contributed to this article from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.