There are a lot of truly horrific things going on in the world at the moment, but the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar/Burma is probably the worst. Massacres. Mass rape. People being burned alive. Babies being ripped from their mothers’ arms and thrown into rivers or burning buildings. Soldiers breaking into schools and shooting the children dead. It sounds as if it should be something from the past, the worst excesses of the past, but it’s going on now, today. And, at the same time, we’re hearing reports about an increased atmosphere of freedom, of improvements in LGBT rights, and of the country wanting to open itself up to mass tourism.
Channel 4 used the name “Myanmar”, given to the country by its then-ruling military junta in 1989, a year after the brutal repression of a popular uprising, whereas the BBC stuck to the traditional name “Burma”. Some people don’t like using “Myanmar” because they think that doing so legitimises the actions of a brutal regime, whereas others feel that the country should be called by its own official name. Apparently, in the Bamar language – that of the majority ethnic group of the country – Burma is usually used when speaking but Myanmar when writing, and that was all there originally was to it, but it’s now all got tangled up in politics. Anyway, which name to use is the least of the problems when considering the situation in Burma/Myanmar.
There are actually three major conflicts going on there, all involving the oppression of ethnic minorities, but it’s the Rohingya crisis which is causing the most concern at the moment. The other two shouldn’t be forgotten, though – the Karen conflict, which has been going on pretty much since independence and which I remember getting very worried about whilst I was a student in the mid-1990s, and the Kachin conflict, which has been going on since the 1960s and seems to be flaring up particularly badly of late.
The current conflict in Rakhine state, home to the Rohinya Muslims (mostly Muslims, although some of them are Hindus) and the Rakhine Buddhists, flared up in 2012-13. The root of the problem is the refusal of the Burmese (/Myanmarese, but I’m not writing both words out every time) authorities, since the military junta took power in the 1960s, to recognise the rights of the Rohingya. The junta was dissolved in 2011, and it was hoped that the elections of 2015, which saw the parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi win a majority, would improve the human rights situation in the country, but that’s not happened. Only eight “indigenous races” are recognised by the authorities, and the Rohingya – to whom they refer as “Bengalis” – are officially classed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The history of the Rohingya in Rakhine state is very confused. The Rohingya trace their history in the area, historically known as Arakan, to the 8th century. In the late 18th century, it was conquered by Burma. Some of the Rohingya were deported to other parts of Burma, some fled to Bengal, then under the control of the East India Company, and presumably others remained. There was then resettlement in the Arakan area, but no-one’s entirely sure whether this was by refugees returning from Bengal, by those who’d been deported to other parts of Burma returning, or by settlers from Bengal, or possibly a combination of all three. During the Second World War, Japanese forces carried out mass rapes and murders of Rohingya Muslims, and forced many across the border into what’s now Bangladesh, then part of British India. There was then movement into the area from what’s now Bangladesh by people fleeing the violence that erupted during Partition – possibly those forced out by the Japanese returning, possibly others, probably both. No-one seems entirely sure of the exact historical truth of it all, but that’s not really the point. The Rohingya have been denied the right to Burmese citizenship since 1982, and were the victims of military operations by the Burmese army in the 1970s and the 1990s.
In 2012, clashes broke out between Rohingya Muslims and the other inhabitants of the state, the Rakhine Buddhists, and severe restrictions were imposed on the Rohingya – who, in addition to being denied citizenship, had already had much of their land confiscated and been subject to forced labour. Many were forced into ghettoes and into camps for displaced persons. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group, gained support as a result, and, in 2016, mounted a number of attacks on posts on the Burmese-Bangladeshi border. The armed forces and police then began a major crackdown on the Rohingya people.
Massacres. Mass gang rape of women and girls. Homes, schools, mosques and businesses being burned to the ground. Maybe as many as a million people, certainly over 700,000, forced to flee – mainly to Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, which can’t even begin to cope and has tried to send most of the refugees back, signing an agreement with the Burmese government in November 2017 to that affect. The mass exodus really began in 2015, but numbers increased significantly last year. Most of those refugees now in Bangladesh, the majority of them women and children – the men, especially the young men, have far less chance of escaping the attacks alive – are in camps in areas at severe risk of flooding and, with flooding, of cholera outbreaks. Not to mention the risk of being trampled by endangered wild elephants.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the woman whom we all thought was so wonderful, initially refused even to let a UN team in to try to find out exactly what was going on. It does have to be said that she doesn’t seem to have that much control over the army – and both she and the international community are afraid of upsetting the army too much, lest they mount a military coup and make things even worse. UN officials and international leaders have called it ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide, but just using those terms doesn’t really help. As with the Syria crisis, the UN Security Council would be paralysed even if it tried to do anything – as Russia backs Syria, China backs Burma. It’s the same problems everywhere. No-one has any authority to intervene in an internal matter. The UN Security Council wouldn’t be able to agree on action anyway. Everyone is nervous about doing something that may lead to an even worse regime taking power.
The Channel 4 programme contained very little historical information but, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to be a historical documentary. It was meant to show the photographs and videos made available to Dispatches by Rohingya activists, some showing the immediate aftermath of the attacks and others showing interviews with survivors. It’s been made virtually impossible for international journalists to get access to the area, and there has been some false evidence provided by both sides, but Dispatches had made a huge effort to ensure that the evidence presented in this programme was accurate. They’d got several different witnesses to corroborate each account, matched up the timing data on the photos and videos with the dates on which the massacres were recorded elsewhere as having taken place, and asked independent forensic experts to assess them. They’d asked the Burmese military and political authorities for comment – but the only answer they’d got had been from one junior minister, who’d denied that any of it was happening. And they’d, somehow, found some of those who were pictured and had survived in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Most of them were women. They spoke of having been gang raped by soldiers, and of their menfolk having been massacred.
There was a little lad in one of the pictures, maybe about 5 or 6, wearing an Arsenal shirt. Just a sweet little kid. He should have been running around, kicking a football. Not witnessing what he must have witnessed. A 9-year-old girl spoke about escaping from a house that had been set on fire whilst full of women and children. Yes, there are many women and children in the camps, but many more never made it out alive. And many of the women and girls, some as young as 12 or 13, were raped and mutilated before being killed. Mothers and grandmothers spoke of being rounded up and of babies and young children being taken from them and thrown into rivers or burning houses. People had been shut inside buildings which were set alight. Soldiers had attacked schools, shooting the children or killing them with machetes.
The authorities there deny that this is going on. They say that all they’ve done is to clear insurgents – “Bengali” insurgents. A very small number of soldiers have received short prison terms for one attack, but that’s about it.
Aid agencies are doing what they can to help the refugees, the survivors, but they’re powerless to stop what’s happening. World leaders have spoken out about it, but that’s as far as it’s got. No sanctions have been imposed on Burma/Myanmar. Leeds United’s owners have even taken it upon themselves to organise a tour of the country by their team, much to the disgust of everyone, including their own fan club. There’ve been some protests, mostly in Islamic-majority countries, but very little – compare that to, say, the immediate and widespread condemnation of Monday’s killings on the border between Israel and Gaza. No-one has called for assistance for the refugees in the way that people have called for assistance for Syrian refugees. Some things make headlines. Some things don’t.
The programme wasn’t historical, but the title was a term from recent history, which surely everyone will recognise. No-one’s sure how many victims there were of the Killing Fields of Cambodia. A million? Two million? Three million?
The border town where many of the refugees are living in camps is called Cox’s Bazar (sic). It’s named after an 18th century British diplomat called Hiram Cox, a Scottish Highlander who helped to rehabilitate Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in the Arakan/Rakhine area in the 1790s. These people have suffered centuries of persecution. We can’t change what’s happened in the past, but, bloody hell, can’t someone try to do a bit more about what’s going on now?
The BBC 2 programme was completely different, and the two actually complemented each other very well – not that there was any official connection between them. Simon Reeve does get on my nerves a bit, but he did a good job with this. We got far more historical and cultural information about Burma/Myanmar as a whole in this programme – although I could have done without Simon fussing about a train window whilst explaining the damage done to the country by the military junta who destroyed its economy and cut it off from the outside world.
Far from Rahkine state, we saw the modern and historical sights of the beautiful capital city, now known as Yangon, historically known as Rangoon. Incidentally, I know that this is a really, really stupid thing to say, but, whenever anyone mentions Rangoon, it makes me think of that storyline in one of the Five Find Outers books, in which someone’s sending anonymous letters made from words cut out of newspapers to Mr Goon, the policeman, and someone (presumably Fatty?) solves it when he realises that the “goon” bit actually comes from articles about Rangoon. Sorry – I did point out that it was a stupid thing to say! My brain runs along strange lines sometimes. Er, most of the time, TBH. Back to Yangon. A civil rights activist whom Simon had met before spoke about the freer atmosphere in the country. It all sat so strangely with what we know is going on in Rakhine province, as Simon repeatedly pointed out.
Part of the programme was in travelogue format, but it could never be separated from politics. The country’s currency and which side of the road people drove on had been changed on the whims of military leaders. He spoke to spirit mediums, and learnt about the role of spiritualism in Burmese culture – but, at the same time, he learnt that many of the male spirit mediums were gay, and had suffered repression under the junta but were finding things far better under the new regime. That fitted in with what had been said in Yangon/Rangoon. For a lot of people, things are better now. Yet this new regime, which has improved the lives of some people, is responsible for horrors that almost defy belief.
He then moved on to a historic complex of Buddhist temples, and explained the importance of Buddhism in Burmese culture. Like the Catholic church in medieval Western and Central Europe, Buddhism plays a central role in education and social welfare. And, in 2007, Buddhist monks led the non violent resistance movement known as the Saffron Revolution. Monks are the most respected people in Burmese society. Buddhism is absolutely central to life in most of Burma.
And so, as in many countries, and it’s often particularly so in those which have spent time under foreign rule, the majority religion has come to be seen as an essential part of nationality, and this was promoted by the generals. When that happens, religious minorities tend to suffer. Buddhism, as Simon said, is the most peaceful of the world’s major religions, but he spoke to a group of monks who are preaching … well, hatred’s the only word you can use, against Muslims. That was a real eye opener. Links between repressive political regimes and religion are hardly anything new – think of Alexander III’s Russia, or Franco’s Spain, in relatively modern times – but we’ve heard nothing here about these militant monks. And, of course, these days they’ve got social media on which to post fake news stories. I was aware of the links between Burmese nationalism and Buddhism, and of the antagonism towards the persecuted Rohingya elsewhere in Burmese society, but all this militant monk stuff really shocked me. It clearly shocked Simon as well.
He also spoke to members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. They spoke about the atrocities committed by the Burmese authorities, but they also repeatedly used the word “jihad”, and spoke of links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which hadn’t come across at all in the Channel 4 programme. That was frightening. If al-Qaeda should seize on this as an opportunity … don’t even go there. Like the militant monks, that was something I hadn’t really thought of before.
This was a different sort of programme from the one on Channel 4, and it didn’t include graphic video footage, but the testaments of survivors of atrocities were similar. Over half of those in the camp which Simon visited were children. One little lad had to be reassured that the camera wasn’t a gun. Then he chattered away about how he liked scoring goals but could play as a goalkeeper as well as a striker, and how he supported Barcelona. He also spoke about murder, rape, and the loss of both his parents. A little kid.
Simon said that he doesn’t understand why no-one’s doing more about this. I don’t either. He also said that he doesn’t see how the Rohingya will ever be able to return to Burma – and most of them do want to return, and Bangladesh doesn’t want them – without some sort of international protection force. I don’t either.
The two programmes together complemented each other well, as I said. One was brutal. The other gave more background information.
Neither had any answers. Except that someone needs to do something. Now. As in immediately, with the monsoons coming. But no-one will.
It’s hard enough watching programmes like this when they are set in the past. It’s even worse when they’re set now.