IN JUST TWO weeks, some 270,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar. The mass exodus began on 25 August, when the Myanmar army began an offensive against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The ARSA announced a “unilateral ceasefire” on 9 September, in effect a recognition that they cannot offer any resistance to the army. It has since become clear that the offensive is actually a systematic campaign to force the Rohingya population out of the country altogether.
Reports suggest that the army is burning villages as it drives the Rohingya towards the border where it has allowed ARSA to control crossings. As the refugees flee, the army is laying minefields along the border to prevent their return. Meanwhile, the army, known as the Tatmadaw, explain the mayhem by saying the Rohingya are burning their own villages!
More than 30,000 Rohingya are estimated to be overflowing the refugee camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara in Bangladesh, while others are living in makeshift tents and in local villages. An unknown number may be stranded in the no-man’s-land that separates the two countries, where access to aid is difficult if not impossible.
An idol with feet of clay
This ongoing ethnic cleansing has gone uncriticised by the country’s de facto leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, hitherto presented as a secular saint by the Western media. In her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, she said that her aim in life was “to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace”.
Tell that to the victims of these atrocities. Aung San Suu Kyi has now exposed herself as a first class humbug. The 20 year-old Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, has called on her fellow Laureate to condemn the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya, while British Guardian columnist George Monbiot has called for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her laureateship altogether.
Having been silent for most of this year as the military ravaged northern Rakhine, the State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy (nld) has at last been forced to speak out; but only to protest against those who are reporting the atrocities, saying they are spreading “fake news” and “encouraging terrorism”.
Showing herself a true disciple of Donald Trump, she went on: “This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well. […] I think there are many many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons and there are many Buddhists who are in refugee camps. This is the result of our sufferings.”.
Her Western admirers, who have likened her to Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, claim her party’s civilian representatives in government and parliament do not control the Burmese military, and therefore cannot intervene in its campaigns. UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that she “faces huge challenges in modernising her country” and that it was “vital that she receives the support of the Burmese military, and that her attempts at peacemaking are not frustrated. She and all in Burma will have our full support in this.”
Britain, various European states and the USA have all invested a lot in Aung San Suu Kyi. For many years, when the brutal regime of the Tatmadaw ruled Burma and was firmly oriented towards China, the Western powers and their media could not praise “The Lady” too highly; hence the Nobel Prize. The faux “return to democracy” of 2011 enabled a horde of Western multinational companies to set up office in Yangon (Rangoon) expecting massive profits. Until the present flood of refugees, their representatives have made excuse after excuse for the Nobel Laureate.
But it was a poor facade of democracy. Suu Kyi was not allowed to stand for the Presidency, and the nld government were very limited in what policies they could carry out. The ministries dealing with the armed forces and their funding were kept under total military control. Her apologists claim that she is in a cleft stick, that she dare not offend the military because they might launch another coup against a civilian government.
At the same time, the main beneficiaries of “free speech” have been the Buddhist monks whose “Saffron Revolution” (in September and October 2007) convinced the generals that they had to relinquish the front seats of power, slowly and cautiously, to carefully groomed civilians. Naturally, they crushed the protests first. But now, Western commentators claim, Aung San Suu Kyi dare not offend widespread Buddhist nationalist sentiment (which is now extremely Islamophobic), in case it ruins her party’s chances electorally. In reality she acted as a cover, and now as an open apologist, for the military murderers.
A long tale of racism and repression
Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya is nothing new. The state refuses to recognise them as Myanmar citizens or even as one of the country’s 135 recognised ethnicities, claiming that they are really Bangladeshis or Bengalis. Aung San Suu Kyi herself refuses ever to refer to them as Rohingya. In fact, historians have shown that Rohingya communities have lived in Rakhine for hundreds of years, although their numbers were increased by the importation of labourers from Bengal under the British Raj. In any case, they plainly have no other home today, and to treat them as strangers in their own land, or to collude with driving them out, is a vile act of chauvinism and national oppression.
No one should be too surprised by Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions, or inaction. In 2013, at a time when Buddhist monks and ultra-nationalists were already whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, she gave a rare interview to BBC News in which she blamed the violence on “both sides”, telling the interviewer Mishal Husain that “Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence”.
This, despite the fact that it was clear that Buddhist monks had led pogroms in the Muslim neighbourhood of Meiktila in central Myanmar, in which homes were burned and more than 40 people were killed. Most of these anti-Rohingya activities were spearheaded by the fascistic Buddhist “969 Movement” led by Ashin Wirathu, which openly calls for the annihilation of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. It circulates pamphlets that are hate-filled incitements against Myanmar’s minorities in general and Muslims in particular.
Systematic oppression of the Rohingya, however, is not limited to the violence of fascistic Buddhist chauvinism. Parliament and government have passed a series of laws that effectively block intermarriage been Myanmar citizens and the stateless Rohingya, that outlaw religious conversions for all under 18 (and also require approval by local officials), and that allow local authorities to impose birth control on minorities. These barely disguised racist laws make the life of the Muslim minority even more intolerable. Clearly, the actions of the Buddhist street gangs, the military and the legislators, whatever their differences, have one common purpose: to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar completely.
Radicalisation and resistance
Until the last year or two, there seemed to be little sign of radicalisation amongst Myanmar’s Muslims, despite their cruel oppression. But last October and November, an armed group that referred to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (“Faith Movement” in Arabic) and now known as ARSA began to carry out attacks against government forces.
According to a report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), published in Time magazine last December: “On Oct. 9, it launched predawn attacks on three border police bases, including an audacious assault on the headquarters, a key security installation. The headquarters was overrun in a complex attack involving several hundred assailants that included planting improvised explosive devices and setting an ambush on the approach road, delaying the arrival of army reinforcements, while the attackers looted the armoury. A further clash on Nov. 12 killed a senior army officer. These actions represent the actions of a determined, well-trained insurgency that will likely launch further attacks.”
Harakah al-Yaqin’s roots seem to lie amongst Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia. Its spokesperson Ata Ullah has claimed in several videos that the group is leading operations in northern Rakhine, after having spent two years training hundreds of local recruits in guerrilla fighting techniques and the use of explosives. Doubtless, Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh could become fertile recruiting grounds. And very likely, it will build links to international jihadist organisations, if it has not already done so. However, according to ICG it remains a local/national insurgency against the Myanmar security forces, and has not thus far attacked civilians or non-Muslim religious targets. Its sole proclaimed goal is to secure the rights of the Rohingya as citizens within Burma.
In reality, armed self-defence and guerrilla tactics are a response to the actions of the Tatmadaw; but the force needed to liberate the Rohingya must lie with the workers and progressive anti-chauvinist youth of Myanmar, and indeed of the surrounding countries. It is plain that, even as a supposed democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi is a broken reed from whom nothing can be expected and in whom no trust can be placed. This will become clearer and clearer as her role as a puppet for the military becomes even more obvious, or when they cast her aside like a squeezed lemon, with all her credibility gone.
Internationally, socialists and the workers’ movement should demand an end to all economic and logistical support for the Myanmar military and its government. We should demand instead massive aid to the Rohingya refugees and their admission into various states, including Australia, the eu and the USA. We should give support to the Rohingya resistance, whilst remaining critical of an overall guerrilla strategy for liberation or any tactics that descend into communalism or religious bigotry.
We should call for all Myanmar troops and police to be withdrawn from Rakhine state and for the creation of democratic local militias of the inhabitants of all ethnicities, religions and languages, so that Rohingya can return to their lands and villages. Huge resources will be needed to undo the ruin wreaked by the army. Last, but not least, the Rohingya people need the free and unhindered right of self-determination.