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Advocates Warn All Rohingya May Be Driven Out of Burma If Military’s Ethnic Cleansing Continues

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A humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in Burma, where more than 400,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled the country to escape a brutal Burmese military operation. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of Rohingya homes have been burned to the ground. Some 214 Rohingya villages in Burma have been destroyed. Before-and-after satellite photos distributed by Human Rights Watch reveal that wide swaths of Rakhine state have been destroyed in recent weeks. Last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein accused the Burmese government of waging a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the Burmese military operation. Meanwhile, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now Burma’s de facto president, is facing mounting criticism for her handling of the violence. Last year, she attended the United Nations General Assembly as Burma’s much-esteemed new civilian leader. This year, she has refrained from attending the gathering, choosing to avoid questions about the Burmese military’s crackdown on the Rohingya. During a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, Suu Kyi refused to blame the military or address the U.N.'s accusation of ethnic cleansing. We speak with Azeem Ibrahim, author of the book “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide.” He’s a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the humanitarian crisis in Burma, where more than 400,000 Muslim minority Rohingya have fled Burma to escape the brutal Burmese military. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of Rohingya homes have been burned to the ground. Some 214 Rohingya villages in Burma have been destroyed. Before-and-after satellite photos distributed by Human Rights Watch show wide swaths of Rakhine state have been destroyed in recent weeks. Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein accused the Burmese government of waging a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

ZEID RA’AD AL-HUSSEIN: Last year, I warned that the pattern of gross violations of the human rights of the Rohingya suggested a widespread or systematic attack against the community, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, if so established by a court of law. Because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators, the current situation cannot be—cannot yet—sorry, cannot yet be fully assessed. But the situation remains, or seems, a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the Burmese military operation. Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now Burma’s de facto president, is facing mounting criticism for her handling of the violence. Last year, she attended the United Nations General Assembly as Burma’s much-esteemed new civilian leader. This year, she has refrained from attending the gathering, choosing to avoid questions about the Burmese military’s crackdown on the Rohingya. During a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to blame the military or address the U.N.’s accusations of ethnic cleansing.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Since the 5th of September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations. Nevertheless, we are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to find out why this exodus is happening. We would like to talk to those who have fled, as well as to those who have stayed.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Chicago, Illinois, where we’re joined by Azeem Ibrahim. He’s the author of the book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy.

Azeem Ibrahim, welcome to Democracy Now! Just a clarification, since we used the name “Burma” for the state: The military renamed Burma “Myanmar”—why these two different names people hear for the same state. But can you talk about the situation of the Rohingyas now? Also, some pronounce that Rohingya.

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Yeah. Well, the Rohingya have faced wave after wave of violence over the last half-century. Just the most recent wave that we’ve seen, that started just a few weeks ago, is probably the worst that we’ve ever experienced. They have been described previously by the United Nations as the most persecuted minority in the world. You know, so we have, over the last few weeks, seen over 412,000 Rohingya cross forcibly over the border into Bangladesh. And a country like Bangladesh is simply unable to absorb those kinds of numbers. This is exactly what the human rights commissioner said. This is textbook ethnic cleansing on a massive, industrial scale.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some in Burma claim that the Rohingya were not really indigenous to their country, but actually came over in the 1940s. You have done research on that. And what have you uncovered?

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Well, this is a claim that’s gained a lot of traction in the public mind in Myanmar, is that these Rohingya are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh that came over in 1942. And some of them even put a date on it. They actually say that they came over in March 1942 and they constructed this term “Rohingya” and this term did not exist before that. So all politicians in Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi, refuse to use the term ” Rohingya.” She was actually pressed upon it by the BBC a number of times, and she still refused to actually say the word “Rohingya.” But this is actually patently false.

One of the things I do in my book is to actually look at this claim. And what I did is I dug up documents from the Indian National Archive in New Delhi, some of these documents dating back to 1824 and 1826, when Burma, or Myanmar, was a British colony. And the British were a very—did an extensive survey of that region—a civil servant called Charles Patton. And it states very clearly that one in three souls in the Rakhine district are of Rohingya origin. So this idea that this term was created in 1942 and they’re all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Some historians actually say that the Rohingya have more than eight centuries of history in that region.

But this—unfortunately, this narrative has gained a lot of traction in the public mind, that they are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. And, in fact, just last week, the chief of army actually said on his Facebook page that removing the Rohingya from this country is unfinished business from 1942.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Burma’s de facto leader, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. After a many—a long time of silence, she insisted there’s no discrimination against Muslims.

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Yeah, well, Aung San Suu Kyi, you have to—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play for you a clip of what she said.

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Sure.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: All people living in the Rakhine state have access to education and healthcare services without discrimination. Healthcare services are being provided throughout the state, including hard-to-reach areas with new mobile clinics. The government has upgraded 300 schools in Rakhine. The vocational and technical training programs have begun. Muslim students also have access to higher education without any discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: Aung San Suu Kyi also addressed criticism that the Rohingya are not granted Burmese citizenship.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: With regard to citizenship, a strategy with a specific timeline has been developed to move forward the national verification process. But this is a process which needs cooperation from all communities. In some Muslim communities, their leaders have decided that they are not to join in the verification process. We would appreciate it if all friends could persuade them to join in the process, because they have nothing to lose by it.

AMY GOODMAN: Azeem Ibrahim, could you explain this verification process, but also talk about the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi? A number of Nobel Peace Prize winners have called for her peace prize to be revoked.

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Well, Aung San Suu Kyi has simply evolved from a peace campaigner into a full-time politician now. And she has simply made a political calculation that the issue of the Rohingya is simply not worth utilizing any political capital over. There is simply no point in her alienating the military or the extreme British clergy. She has went through immense sacrifice and immense struggle to get to where she is. This is her life’s work, to become leader of our country, and she’s not willing to give that up for the human rights of this minority group.

But the clip that you just played, in terms of, you know, the Rohingya having access to healthcare, education and a verification process for citizenship, all of those are patently false. I have visited those camps myself. The Rohingya are confined to these massive, huge concentration camps in which they are restricted. They have restriction on freedom of movement, restriction on having children, on getting married, to access to education. This idea that they have access to healthcare is just totally untrue. You know, I’ve seen, myself, that there’s approximately one doctor to about 80,000 people in those camps. And there’s almost—the literacy rate amongst the children is about 3 percent that attend school.

And this verification process that she actually refers to is from 1993, and it is so complex and absurd, in that every Rohingya has to demonstrate—that has crossed the border into Bangladesh, has to produce papers as to where they crossed the border, from the Bangladeshi authorities, which they obviously can’t, as refugees. Then they have to demonstrate where they’ve actually lived in Myanmar, which they can’t, because they’ve all been burnt down, all their houses. And then they have to demonstrate their family history with identity cards, which were never issued.

So this is essentially just a process in terms of trying to pacify the international community. It’s very telling that her speech was actually made in English, and on many Myanmar channels, it wasn’t even translated. This was an attempt simply to try to pacify the international community and try to delay—this was a delaying tactic from her behalf, until the military actually finishes all its operations. And it is deeply unfortunate that she has simply now become a shield for this military action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Rohingya then are, in effect, stateless people. They have neither citizenship in Myanmar or anyplace else, right?

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Yeah. A recent Harvard study, before this crisis, actually described the Rohingya—described that one in eight stateless people around the globe are of Rohingya origin. And after this crisis, we can essentially say that that has gone up quite considerably more. And, you know, we have almost, at this current rate, 30 to 40 percent of the Rohingya population has now been ethnically cleansed into Bangladesh. And on the current trajectory, we can expect the entire population to be ethnically cleansed by the end of the year. So there will probably be no more Rohingya in Myanmar itself. And the probability of them coming back is almost zero. You know, the houses have been completely destroyed. And now the Myanmar authorities and military have been mining the border to ensure that those Rohingya that have crossed into Bangladesh can never come back.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 420,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Nobel Committee to revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace prize. South African former Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote an open letter to his, quote, “dearly beloved younger sister,” in which he said, quote, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Finally, Azeem Ibrahim, what are the Rohingya calling for? What are you calling for—you who have worked on this issue, studied them, wrote a book about this issue for so long?

AZEEM IBRAHIM: The Rohingya simply want to live in their own country, the country of their birth, the country of their indigenous people, and have full citizenship of their country. Their citizenship was stripped of them in 1982, making them all stateless. The requirements aren’t very significant. They are essentially amongst the poorest of the people you’ll ever come across. There’s hardly anybody amongst them with even a basic education. They’ve all been fishermen and farmers. They are completely powerless people. The U.N. not only described them as the most persecuted minority in the world, they also described them as the most friendless people in the world, because there’s simply nobody advocating for them at any level on the international stage. And they simply just want to be citizens of their own country and live their lives as normal people.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Azeem Ibrahim, author of the book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, speaking to us from Chicago.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump hit hard against a number of countries, including Cuba, in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly. We’re going to go to Havana to get response, and also talk about a new film that’s out. It’s called Embargo. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Cuban legend Silvio Rodríguez, singing live at Central Park SummerStage last week. To see more of his performance, you can go to democracynow.org.

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