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Rohingya Activist Recalls Devastation at World’s Most Densely Populated Refugee Camp in Bangladesh

Web ExclusiveApril 27, 2018
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Extended conversation with Rohingya activist Tun Khin, who visited the world’s most densely populated refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, earlier this month. The U.N. Security Council is visiting Burma and Bangladesh starting this week to assess the state of the Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of registered Rohingya refugees now live in the Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh, after fleeing a Burmese military campaign of rape, murder and arson that the U.N. has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Now aid agencies are scrambling to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from crowded camps in Bangladesh ahead of the monsoon season in June. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees says at least 150,000 people are at “high risk from mudslides and floods” from the heavy rain in the next few months. This comes as more refugees are still crossing over from Burma. Last week, Burma’s Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Minister Win Myat Aye said Burma will start repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh ahead of the monsoon. But Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition, says repatriation without international protection will have devastating effects. We are joined in our New York studio by Tun Khin. He was born in Burma, but in 1982 he was rendered effectively stateless, along with a million other ethnic Rohingya, under a nationality law.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Members of the United Nations Security Council are heading to Burma and Bangladesh to see firsthand the impact of the Rohingya refugee crisis. More than a million registered Rohingya refugees now live in southeastern Bangladesh, after they fled a Burmese military campaign of rape, murder and arson that the U.N. has called a, quote, “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has confirmed it’s investigating alleged atrocities against Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, including these accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other alleged offenses. The findings could be used to prosecute Burmese military officials for crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition. He was born in Burma, but in 1982 he was rendered effectively stateless, along with a million other ethnic Rohingya, under a new nationality law. This is Part 2 of our conversation.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tun Khin.

TUN KHIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about what’s happening there today, I think people in the United States, when they hear Rohingya, they’re not even sure who the Rohingya are. You, yourself, are Rohingya. Talk about your community and why we should care in the United States.

TUN KHIN: Firstly, Rohingyas are an ethnic minority living in western part of Burma. There are about 3.5 million population of Rohingya, and only about approximately 500,000 Rohingya left in Burma right now. And in Bangladesh, 1.2 million. In other countries, you know, it’s—they are facing persecution since 1962, you know? When we got independence from British, Rohingya were recognized as an ethnic group, like other nationalities of Burma. On that time, my grandfather was a member of Parliament. I’m not a citizen of Burma. And my mother’s grandfather was the first judge in northern Arakan. But I’m not recognized as a citizen of Burma until when I was there. So—


TUN KHIN: This is systematically they want to exterminate the whole population, because they strip up our citizenship—ethnicity, they strip up our citizenship rights, and they deny, you know, the Rohingya identity. The restriction of movement, marriage, education. And they confiscate our lands, and they create popular violence. And they’re burning down our villages and pushing us to the camps, and IDPs in Sittwe. And now there are mass killings they practice. And then they almost like—you know, two-thirds population already fled.

AMY GOODMAN: Burma is largely a Buddhist country. Are all Rohingya Muslim?

TUN KHIN: Ninety percent Rohingyas are Muslim, I should say. Some are Hindus.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you believe it’s religious persecution?

TUN KHIN: It’s religious, ethnic and political, because Rohingyas are the largest Muslim minority in Burma.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about other minorities in Burma?

TUN KHIN: Other minorities also facing under of this military—you know, like Kachin, Karen and Shan and others. But Rohingyas are facing much more than that. Rohingyas are much more targeted. They deny our existence. They deny our identity. They deny our identity, and they deny our—the right to have children, the right to have education, the right to have movement. It’s been going on many decades. People have been aware, after 2017 August, that is what I should say.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the question. Why this most recent wave of horrific violence against the Rohingya that has led to a million Rohingya now fleeing to Bangladesh? The de facto leader of Burma is the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. What role is she playing in this?

TUN KHIN: Yeah, first thing we should say before I tell about her, you know, military senior general—I call him criminal—Min Aung Hlaing mentioned that, in Washington Post, “This is unfinished business. That’s why we’re trying to get out these people from there.” And Aung San Suu Kyi, we’ve been supported for her for many years. But now she is totally taking the side of military. She’s totally complicit of this genocide. She is defending military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why is that? She’s been a critic of the military for decades.


AMY GOODMAN: She certainly knows their repression. She was imprisoned by them for years.

TUN KHIN: Yeah. We’ve been even—Roghinyas been supported her. I campaigned for her in this New York City, and I’ve campaigned for her in the U.S. Congress and U.S. State Department and others—

AMY GOODMAN: To be released.

TUN KHIN: —to be released, her and for other political prisoners. But they are saying now we are not citizen of Burma. This is not happening. Where she is denying that these atrocities never happened. You know, she says she does not know why these people are fleeing, where international—you know, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, U.N. have well-documented report. And her ministers are spreading hate speech. And two days ago, one of the minister, immigration minister, said, “Oh, we will give them NVCs,” which is degrading Rohingya citizenship, national verification cards.

AMY GOODMAN: Degraded citizenship in Burma, second-class citizenship.

TUN KHIN: Yeah, yes, second-class. It’s not even second-class. It’s a third class, I should state. And he is telling that by giving them is we will not allow them to move from one village to another. Officially, her minister is telling about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what precipitated this latest wave of violence?

TUN KHIN: This is what I mentioned. It’s military been trying for long time, and so this is—I should say, when some Rohingyas attacks police post, that is how they taking. But it’s not—as far as when I was in Bangladesh, the refugees told me they are not—they are not looking for all those who attacked the police post. They’re systematically burning down, house by house, village by village.

And someone told me, in one village, Tula Toli, more than 1,000 Rohingya have been killed. And they told them, “Just get out. You will guys have no problem. Just get out from there, your home.” And then they’ve been all rounded up by the military. They’re just shooting them one by one. That is what’s happened in Tula Toli. That’s what someone told me when I was in Bangladesh.

So, it’s been going on eight months right now. We have not seen any action from international community. We have seen Security Council discussing, but we have not seen Security Council a strong resolution. But we want to call Security Council to refer Burma into an ICC. That is very important, because this military—

AMY GOODMAN: Into the International Criminal Court.

TUN KHIN: Yes, International Criminal Court must bring them, this criminal Min Aung Hlaing and all perpetrators, whoever complicit in this genocide. This is very important, because with impunity, this is going on. It’s not only Rohingya. The Kachin, Karen, Shan—all those all minorities are facing crimes against those other minorities perpetrated by this military. So, we cannot let it happen.

So, for the Rohingya, we are facing a genocide in 21st century. Whenever a genocide happen, they say, “Never again.” We need protected homeland in Myanmar. We need—this does not mean we are asking any different things. Because we are a part of Burmese society. We want to live in Burma, but we need protection from international community to protect us. So U.N. or other—any government must come forward to protect us. That is the only priority. We need an ICC referral before repatriation, citizenship and others. This need to be—protection is much more a priority, I should state.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Tun Khin, as we mentioned earlier, the U.N. Security Council is carrying out an independent investigation at the moment, but they’re not the only ones. The United States is also carrying out an investigation.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, first of all, what do you hope will come out of these investigations? Do you have any faith in the Trump administration being able to deal with this issue, and, minimally, the question of Rohingya refugees going somewhere other than Bangladesh, including the U.S.?

TUN KHIN: Yes. You know, first thing, we have seen a very strong report from U.N. in the past few months. U.N. high commissioner already mentioned these are hallmarks of genocide. And another fact-finding mission also did their half report, you know, interim report. And it’s good. But to release—to get an investigation, we welcome on that. But the thing is, it’s not only publishing the report and covering on the media. We want to see effective action. After releasing this report, they must set up timeline and benchmark, must take action. OK. We’re going to call and support ICC referral and support for, you know, Rohingya protection is needed in Bangladesh refugee camps. They have to focus on short term and long term. That’s international community urgently needed. We have—

AMY GOODMAN: So, when you were in the camp—

TUN KHIN: —after report after report, what is there? But we appreciate what the reports they do.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were in the camps, did you see U.S. investigators?

TUN KHIN: I do not know who they are, but of course I saw their report. But—

AMY GOODMAN: What are they saying? And what are they looking for? Has their report come out already, or are they just now investigating?

TUN KHIN: No, I think their report will come up in May, as far as what I heard. I saw the news. So, I think they are just also interviewing the refugees and the same thing also what we did. Of course, there are a million Rohingya population. Many Rohingya women been raped. And they can get all the information.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to see? You’re here in the U.S. You don’t live here. What are you looking for the U.S. to do?

TUN KHIN: U.S. must support ICC referral.

AMY GOODMAN: They must support?

TUN KHIN: ICC referral to Burma. International Criminal Court.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the referral to the International Criminal Court, ICC.

TUN KHIN: Yeah. And also U.S. must put also priority to protect Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, to support more funding. And also, you know, it is important that when they talk repatriation, they must support protection issues for the Rohingya homeland. These Rohingya, they want protection. U.S. must support on their protected homeland. And also, you know, it is important U.S. must take a leading role. You know, when they supported human rights and democracy for many years, now a country where human rights and democracy, you know, so-called reforms are going, but, for me, this is much disaster under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, and much more political—much more ethnic minorities are—much more human rights violations and crimes facing by ethnic—by the military in ethnic areas. So, we must stop that. You know, Aung San Suu Kyi is not a hope for Burma, I should say clearly, because she is—under her watch, thousands of Rohingya have been killed. Under her watch, a million Rohingya population fled. And under her watch, you know, two journalists, two reporters who reported what’s happening, the truth, you know, where these Rohingya, 10 Rohingya—

AMY GOODMAN: A massacre in one village.

TUN KHIN: —massacred in Inn Din village, and she’s just not talking about it. She is defending from military side. So, where is the justice?

AMY GOODMAN: And these are the Reuters—these are the Reuters reporters who are currently jailed—


AMY GOODMAN: —in Burma.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to a short video that you provided us from your recent trip to Bangladesh, when you were meeting with Rohingya refugees.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s a video that you provided to us from your recent trip to Bangladesh, and you can of course hear a man sobbing.

TUN KHIN: Yes, about three weeks ago. Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, can you explain what these men were telling you about what happened?

AMY GOODMAN: And just hugging you.

TUN KHIN: He lost his family members, and his relatives been raped in front of him. And he’s totally, you know, is in trauma situation. So that’s—you know, so he was also thanking about what I’m doing, and also that is a kind of—he wanted to see me for a long time, so he’s very happy to see. And so, he’s just—

AMY GOODMAN: Was that a typical response of people, just to hold you and weep?

TUN KHIN: Yes. This is what they have—they want to express something, but it’s unexpressible situation. When I was there, the situation unexpressible. I couldn’t sleep when I was in Bangladesh. And I was there four weeks in September to October. The situation—I have interviewed—you know, one woman told me when the military entered, just military knifed to death a 7-years-old boy, and then military entered her house. She was raped more than 20 minutes by the military. Another military tried to rape her, and she was managed to get out from her house. In for while she was raped by the military—she was facing rape by the military, in front of her, her husband was slaughtered by the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you mentioned earlier the need, which is obvious from what you’re saying, for international protection for the refugees and those fleeing from Burma even today. What kind of protection has been discussed, if at all? And then the question of aid to Bangladesh, which is hosting 1.2 million refugees. Does the U.S. provide any aid, and other European governments, to Bangladesh, which is of course not a rich country?

TUN KHIN: As far as I know, international community being supported the aid. But I think it might not be too long. It’s not enough for the longer term. It should have quite long-term plan, because these refugees will not return in five—maybe in five to 10 years, because they’re bulldozing Rohingya villages. They’re disappearing. They are just destroying Rohingya presence in their own homeland. So, they are building up camps. So nobody want to return, they told me, to the prison camps. That is what they told me. So, it looks like in five years, maybe three years, in 10 years, Rohingya refugees, these refugees, they will not return.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Burma’s social welfare relief and resettlement minister, Win Myat Aye, said Burma will start repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh ahead of the monsoon.

WIN MYAT AYE: And our main aim is to start the repatriation process as soon as possible, because the monsoon is very near, and we are very worried for those who have fled to the Bangladesh who are in the camps, because seeing is believing, and we see—we saw all the peoples in the camps in very poor condition.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the Burma government official, Win Myat Aye, talking about repatriating Rohingya from Bangladesh ahead of the monsoon season, which is also a tremendous threat that people will drown where they are, in places like Cox’s Bazar, the most populated refugee camp on Earth. But you’re saying if there’s no protection of Rohingya, they are not going to return to Burma.

TUN KHIN: Yes. This man, he just—he said—Suu Kyi’s ministers are world-class liars, I should say, because he mentioned, last few months ago—she mentioned that these refugees, they abandoned their own homes, and they’re fleeing. What is totally unacceptable in this world, you know. So, and she—now this man is saying they—as far as what I think, it’s just to ease international pressure. They will not take back any refugees. And, you know, Bangladesh government sent 8,000 people, and they just select about 600 or 800-something they will receive. So, there are no proper plan. As far as—let me bring up the point from Bill Richardson.

AMY GOODMAN: From Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, former U.S. ambassador.

TUN KHIN: Bill Richardson, who is former governor of New Mexico. He mentioned in Kofi Annan recommendation implementation commission there—he was a member of that. He did not see any plan from Aung San Suu Kyi about citizenship issues and other protection issues for these refugees. They have no plan. It’s just easing international pressure, just bring them to prison camps, and just blocking aid and just kill them. This is the plan they are trying to move forward. This is intentional. We have not seen the government and military government—military and government attitude towards Rohingya have never changed until today.

And three days ago, five families been fled, because they’ve been targeted because we file false allegation. They are from Buthidaung Township. You know, they are well educated and well respected. So the government targeting now those—or whoever left in Burma, they’re targeting them. So people are fleeing every day. How can repatriate back? You know, the people are still fleeing. This is just a show. So we must get the point. There is no repatriation. This is just a show. So, without protection, homeland protection, you know, protected homeland supported by international community, we cannot return. Where we will go? We need protection. That’s what I want.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about other steps that can potentially be taken, short of referring Burma to the International Criminal Court. The present investigation that’s underway—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —by the U.S. is modeled on the probe that the U.S. carried out in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which made it possible for the U.S. to label the violence there a genocide, and eventually, of course, to impose sanctions. So do you think that the U.S. should impose sanctions on Burma? And what effect do you think that will have? I mean, will that be sufficient to stop the Burmese government from carrying out this, what has been referred to as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya?

TUN KHIN: For me, I don’t say it’s ethnic cleaning as the Rohingya. I am a victims of genocide. I have met victims of genocide. This is completely a genocide, intentionally destroying our community. So, Burmese military and the government, you know, they should call every—they should do every—sorry, U.S. government should do everything they can. First, they must call ICC referral. Of course, sanction is needed, because military, they do not want to see sanctions. That’s why they’re quite scared of this, quite worried about sanctions. So, must call for—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Has there been a threat to impose sanctions by any government, the U.S. or otherwise?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Which governments have said that they will impose sanctions on Burma?

TUN KHIN: As far as I know, they’re just calling out for that, but we have not seen—you know, military—it doesn’t work, you know, when U.S. calls for one person, Maung Maung Soe only. But they must get top military, particularly criminal Min Aung Hlaing, who is senior general, Min Aung Hlaing. They must focus on him and other top-level militaries. Not only one person they’re doing sanction is not enough, so they must focus all of the military leaders, even NLD members who are spreading hate speech, NLD ministers. They must focus on everyone to bring them on sanction list. That is important.

For me, I want to highlight that root cause is, you know, protection and also citizenship and other rights. Before there are rights, how can they return? And even the Burmese military and government, they give the rights, we need protection. Any time these people will face mass atrocities in Burma. Because as a whole country—Buddhist monks, USDP party, NLD party, military, security force, Rahkine Buddhists—they are always denying: “These people are not from Burma. They are illegal immigrants.” So, when they come back, they will face again atrocities. So, what—how they can come back? That’s why the people are saying, “If we return, we will face again the same situation.” The people have trauma. They all are—you know, mentally, they are quite, quite destroyed, this community, I should say. You know, I met them, and I can see their faces.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we will continue to cover this issue, and I want to thank you very much for being here.

TUN KHIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Tun Khin is president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK and a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition, born in Burma in 1982, rendered effectively stateless, along with a million other ethnic Rohingya Muslims, under a new nationality law.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion with Tun Khin, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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