Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's really going on in Burma / Myanmar? And what can be done about it?

What’s really going on with the Rohingya in Burma / Myanmar Rakhine State? –
and what can be done about it?

For 4 to 5 years now, after initial attacks by Rohinyga Muslims on Rakhine Buddhists and vice-versa in Rakhine state in 2012, a campaign of massacres and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority has been going on in Burma (or Myanmar as military regimes renamed the country) carried out by mobs and militias of Rakhine Buddhists, the Buddhist nationalist military and the police (1) – (3).

There is also a relatively small and very poorly armed insurgency by Rohingya militants going on in Rakhine state (known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Movement (ARSA), or Haraka Al Yakin (Movement Of Faith) in Arabic) which may have committed some crimes of its own against civilians (4) – (5).

But the evidence suggests the insurgency is more the result of the decades long history of ethnic cleansing and denial of basic rights to Burmese Rohingya, by the Burmese military,  than the cause of the conflict. And profit for the military from seizure of land in “special economic zones” is also involved (6).

An extreme faction of the Burmese military (or ‘tatmadaw’) seized power in the 1960s and purged all officers who were not of the majority Bamar ethnic group. Since then the tatmadaw has committed war crimes against civilians of many other minority groups who are not Muslim, all of who have also had armed militant groups who fight back including very recently (7) - (12). 

In any case insurgency cannot justify indiscriminate ethnic cleansing, rape and massacres of civilians.

How real is democratisation in Myanmar?
Can there be democratisation by a government
carrying out ethnic cleansing and massacres and denying citizenship based on religion?

The argument made by Aung San Suu Kyi and the first elected government of Myanmar is that we must not risk upsetting a fragile transition to democracy from military rule. (13).

Yet  Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s civilian government are denying and apologising for genocide, based on the same Buddhist nationalism and oppression of minorities as military regimes before them.

Burmese Muslims who had backed Aung San Suu Kyi – and even been injured defending her, weren’t even allowed to vote in the 2015 elections that brought Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy (NLD) party to power, as they were not recognised as citizens. The NLD  and ASSK herself said nothing (14).

Even Nyan Win, a senior NLD spokesperson wants all Rohingya moved into refugee camps claiming “We can’t give them freedom of movement because they are not our citizens.” (15)

Suu Kyi herself denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya is happening and dismisses all reports of rapes and atrocities by the military and police as “fake news” (16) – (18).

Buddhist nationalists including NLD supporters routinely protest not against the ethnic cleansing, but criticism of it, with slogans claiming Rohingya are not Burmese (19).

Far from providing more freedom of speech, the new government has prosecuted more people just for criticising the government than the military dominated SLORC government that preceded it, using a vague law against “defamation” to jail people for up to 3 years (20).

And even if the NLD government weren’t going along with ethnic cleansing, it has no actual control over the military, nor over the civil service, both of which are controlled by ministries reserved for the military under a constitution written by them , and passed in a referendum widely seen as rigged (21).

No country can be a democracy or in transition to democracy while its military and police allow, let alone take part in, genocide against its own people. Myanmar is not a democracy as long as ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, and denial of their rights as equal citizens continues.

While the Burmese security forces have a right to defend themselves and their people, so do the Rohingya community when their own government, military and police carry out massacres and ethnic cleansing against them.

The propaganda lines and exaggerated theories that facilitate genocide

The genocide is also facilitated by four propaganda stories. First that Rohingya are all “illegal Bengali immigrants” from Bangladesh, as General Min Aung Hlaing, the most powerful man in the country, puts it. Second that Rohingya are the only ones responsible for starting violence and human rights abuses (22).

Third that the violence is all carried out by Rohingya Muslim or “Bengali terrorists” , or even an Islamist terrorist insurgency backed by Saudi and Pakistan (according to the Myanmar military and government and some blog posts) , or even involving Islamic State.  This is supposedly aimed at disrupting a Chinese oil and gas import pipeline for Middle East oil which goes to Made Island in Rakhine State in Burma (which does exist), or alternatively at depopulating the area to safeguard the pipeline (23) – (26).

Fourth that “there is no evidence” of massacres or ethnic cleansing by the military.

The first and fourth stories are false. The second and third stories may have truth in them, but the evidence suggests no significant Saudi or other state sponsors of ARSA – and that the long history of oppression and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya is the main cause of the violence.

Rohingya are not illegal immigrants – they are Burmese

While some Rohingya were brought to Rakhine state by the British from Bangladesh during colonial rule, there were many living there since medieval times. And even those who came under the British Empire have now lived in the country for generations. So it’s like claiming all British Catholics are “illegal Irish migrants” because many of them are descendants of Irish immigrants.

While there have been some Rohingya living in Bangladesh for centuries, and some Burmese Rohingya became refugees there due to previous ethnic cleansing operations by Burma’s military (like the 1978 ‘Operation King Dragon’), there have been Rohingya living in Burma for centuries and possibly over a millennium (27).

The Violence is not all carried out by Rohingya / “Bengali immigrants”/ “terrorists”

The Myanmar military story that “Muslim terrorists” or villagers were burning Rohingya villages has been proven false by BBC journalists (28) – (29).

There is evidence of Rohingya mobs (possibly ARSA) having killed Hindu civilians in Rakhine (bodies in mass graves backed by testimony of survivors in Bangladesh), but also a report of some Hindu men having been killed by the military for refusing to kill their Rohingya neighbours (30) – (31).

There are also some reports of Rohingya Muslims forcing non-Muslim Rohingyas to convert to Islam in refugee camps in Bangaldesh, and allegations of attacks by each side on one anothers’ mosques, along with temples and shrines in Rakhine (32) – (34).

There were certainly attacks by both Muslim mobs on Buddhist civilians and vice-versa in 2012 , though which attacked which first is disputed, and a bit irrelevant, since everyone of either community cannot be held responsible for the crimes of some of them (35).

The authorities in Myanmar did at first make some attempts to jail both Buddhist and Muslim members of mobs who had murdered civilians, though police were filmed doing nothing while Buddhist mobs murdered Muslims in some cases (36).

There have also been some reports this year in the Burmese media of Rakhine Buddhist men killed by mobs of Rohingya armed with swords. If true this could be ARSA, but the harsh censorship of Myanmar’s media and widespread Buddhist fundamentalism, along with the military routinely arming Buddhists as militia make it harder to know if the victims were civilians or not (37) – (39) .

It’s possible that ARSA could have been involved in the initial violence in 2012, though it claims to have only formed as a result of that violence, and that it does not target civilians – and the International Crisis Group believes this is true (40).

The violence that began in 2012 has echoes of similar atrocities committed by both sides during World War Two when Rakhine Buddhists were armed as militias by the Japanese and Rohingya Muslims by the British. In both cases the Burmese government and historians claim armed Rohingya began the violence with massacres of Buddhist villages. What’s certain is both sides killed one another’s civilians in large numbers.

(Rakhine Buddhists, themselves an ethnic minority, see themselves as the victims just as much as Rohingya do.)

And today the commander of the tatmadaw – General Min Aung Hlaing, who likely has far more power than Aug San Suu Kyi, has called the Rohingya “unfinished business from World War Two” (41).

And that is the problem now. The military and police and militias organised by them are carrying out “clearance operations” against Rohingya in hundreds of villages that involve rape, burning houses and killing of suspected militants and civilians alike, sometimes including women and children (42). Exactly as they have to Muslims in Myanmar before, and any other ethnic or religious group that has opposed them or fought back against their oppression in any way.

ARSA is probably not armed and funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

ARSA’s lack of modern weapons strongly suggests they have no state backers. For instance Rohingya militants had only swords , spears and a few 19th century pistols in their first attacks on police stations , while Saudi financed and armed Syrian rebel groups have automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers (43) – (44). 

Smuggling weapons into Myanmar is commonplace, including by ethnic minority armed groups, so if ARSA had state funding, they would at least have automatic weapons (45) – (47)

Myanmar’s police are armed, often with automatic weapons, and many have taken part in massacres and rapes of civilians (48).

ARSA also has an Arabic name Harakat Al Yakin or Movement of Faith, which suggests religious ideology, though it’s stated aims are not religious but to protect and secure equal rights for Rohingya .

ARSA is led by Rohingya exiles based in Saudi Arabia, so it’s possible the Saudi and Pakistani governments gave them military training, as some Burmese media reports claim;  but it’s equally possible they got training by fighting for other armed groups in other countries, or serving in militaries (as e.g IRA members sometimes joined the British military to get training) (49).

There has been one report in the Burmese ‘Mizzima’ newspaper of claims that Pakistan’s military intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency or ISI) ordered the ARSA attacks on police stations in August, and that an Islamic State member contacted the group to give a statement of support (50).

This has fed theories that Pakistan’s military has been training Rohingya exiles for decades while Saudi madrassas and mosques indoctrinate them .

While the Saudis do fund Wahabbi madrassas and mosques worldwide, including in Bangladesh, and some Rohingya exiles do live there, and others in Pakistan, whose military promoted Islamic fundamentalism from General Zia Ul Haq’s dictatorship in the 1970s to present, this is pretty thin evidence for this theory.

There’s no evidence of Islamic State involvement either , despite hyped up headlines and dubious quotes of Islamic State members introducing themselves as “al Amin of Daesh” (a derogatory term for IS which no IS member would ever use) (51).

Even if all of three propaganda stories had been true though couldn’t justify the massacre and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of villages of Rohingya civilians, nor mass rape.

The “There’s no evidence” story is false

Another favourite line of Rohingya genocide deniers is that there is no evidence of massacres by the military or police. No photos of it. No video.

There’s a very obvious explanation for this. The Burmese government and military have denied UN and human rights group investigators visas to travel to Burma to investigate human rights abuses during the military’s “clearance operations”, and refused to allow aid agencies access too. Independent journalists are banned from entering areas where the military are currently carrying out offensives. They can only go where and when Burmese military minders allow them to (52) – (54).

What would be the need for this secrecy if the Burmese military and police were committing no crimes and any killings of civilians or burning of villages was carried out by Rohingya terrorists? There would be no need for it.

Another reason is that only one third of the country has any access to electricity – so no recharging mobile phones for Rohingya villagers even if they could afford one, which with poverty rates well over 70% (and that’s defining poverty as earning under $1.90 a day), most of them can’t (55) – (56).

But from satellite images, the statements of senior members of Myanmar’s military,  interviews with survivors of attacks on villages who have fled to Bangladesh, and what journalists have seen in the distance, there is a clear picture of the usual human rights abuses against minorities by the Burmese security forces (57).


The Economic Motives for Engagement
– and for Ethnic Cleansing
–and the military’s stranglehold on
public spending and private companies

Photo: A plantation owned by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited – one of the
conglomerates owned by the Burmese military

Engagement by the governments of democracies with Myanmar is as much about  buying influence to secure deals to export to the country – and import raw materials, from it, as well as rivalry between major powers for military alliances with Myanmar,  as “promoting democracy” (58) – (60).

The economic and legal changes that have taken place as a result of government reforms and the lifting of many economic sanctions since 2010 have reduced corruption and poverty, but corruption remains a severe problem, as does poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. And corruption investigations of senior members of the military and their associates often go nowhere (61) – (64). 

The UN Human Development Programme found in 2014 that over a third of the population are in poverty – and 78% of the population of Rakhine state. Yet military spending continues to rise , is (officially) 14% of annual public spending, and the 2011 constitution allows the Commander In Chief of the Military (General Min Aung Hlaing) to draw unlimited additional funds for military spending without notifying parliament. The law even bans anyone from asking questions about this spending (65) – (67).

The military also controls two of the largest companies in Myanmar and is heavily involved in smuggling jade, which if exported legally, would be worth billions in revenue (68).

Special Economic Zones begun under then President (and former General) Thein Sein in 2010 make it legal to forcibly relocate people and take their land with token compensation within them. They have been continued by the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party since 2015. One of these Zones is planned around the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state (69) – (70).

Combine this with then President Thein Sein’s proposal in 2012 to permanently deport Rohingya from Rakhine state to other areas or countries, and it seems more likely it’s Myanmar’s government and military who have the depopulation plan , not the Saudis or Pakistanis (71).

The military regularly profits by handing land taken from ethnic minorities to companies owned by the military,  former officers or corrupt politicians , for instance by starting private plantations (72).

So the military has continued to profit from ethnic cleansing and massacre of minorities, including Rohingya, all through the democratisation process, making it not worthy of the name.

How could this be ended?

Sanctions on arms sales and targeted sanctions on individuals are not enough when genocide is being committed. Wider trade sanctions and military action must be considered unless the ethnic cleansing is stopped immediately, aid agencies and UN and human rights group monitors and investigators are given unrestricted access to Rakhine state, all refugees are allowed to return, Burmese Rohingya are recognised as equal citizens of Myanmar, and granted full rights in practice.

Negotiations between leaders of the government of Myanmar and military, and leaders of ARSA, as well as representatives of the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist communities should also begin under mediation by the UN.

If this is not done rapidly sanctions and then warnings of possible military action should follow.

Military action would involve serious risks, as China and Russia are both closely allied to Myanmar as its main arms suppliers (and in China’s case main foreign investor) – and Myanmar’s military is well armed for a minor power (73) – (74).

China has vocally supported the ethnic cleansing while Russia says there must be no interference in “Myanmar’s internal affairs”. (75) – (76).

But massacres and ethnic cleansing that have been going on for decades cannot be ignored – and such risks were run in Kosovo without war between major powers resulting.


(1) = BBC News 03 Jul 2014 ‘Why is there communal violence in Myanmar?’,

(2) = Amnesty 14 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Scorched-earth campaign fuels ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State’,

(3) = Human Rights Watch 22 April 2013 ‘“All You Can Do is Pray” Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State’,

(4) = BBC News 06 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?’,

(5) = International Crisis Group 15 Dec 2016 ‘’ Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,

(6) = Middle East Institute 20 Apr 2017 ‘An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide’ ,  By Alice Cowley and Maung Zarni ,

(7) = See (6) above

(8) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, ‘Burma, Ethnic Conflict and Armed Forces Abuses’,

(9) = Amnesty 14 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: Ethnic minorities face range of violations including war crimes in northern conflict’,

(10) = Human Rights Watch 2012 ‘“UNTOLD MISERIES” Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Kachin State’,

(11) = Amnesty 14 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: Ethnic minorities face range of violations including war crimes in northern conflict’,

(12) = NPR 13 Oct 2013 ‘For Myanmar's Kachin Rebels, Life Teeters Between War, Peace’,

(13) = Al Jazeera 19 Sep 2017 ‘Aung San Suu Kyi's speech in full: ‘We condemn all human rights violations'’,

(14) = 03 Nov 2015 ‘No vote, no candidates: Myanmar's Muslims barred from their own election’,

(15) = Reuters 14 Sep 2017 ‘In a first, Myanmar's 'ethnic cleansing' unites Suu Kyi's party, army and public’,

(16) = Guardian 05 Apr 2017 ‘Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’,

(17) = BBC News 11 Mar 2017 ‘Hounded and ridiculed for complaining of rape’,

(18) = 06 Sep 2017 ‘Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi says 'fake news' fuelling Rohingya crisis’,

(19) = 01 Dec 2016 ‘In pictures: Burma protests against Rohingya Muslims’,

(20) = HRW 24 Jan 2017 ‘Burma: Don’t Prosecute Peaceful Speech’,

(21) = CNN 12 Nov 2015 ‘Can Aung San Suu Kyi control Myanmar's military?’,

(22) = Radio Free Asia 23 Mar 2017 ‘Myanmar Military Chief Defends Crackdown Against Rohingya in Rakhine State’,

(23) = 25 Aug 2017 ‘Dozens killed in fighting between Myanmar army and Rohingya militants’,

(24) = Mizzima News (Myanmar) 05 Sep 2017 ‘Pakistan, ISIS allegedly behind Rakhine imbroglio’,

(25) = Bloomberg 11 Apr 2017 ‘China Opens Delayed Myanmar Oil Pipeline to Get Mideast Crude Faster’,

(26) = April 11 2017 ‘China and Myanmar open long-delayed oil pipeline’,

(27) = Personal Testimony delivered by U Ba Sein, a former Rohingya civil servant – now a refugee in London, UK - who lived through this King Dragon Operation in N. Rakhine, Permanent People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, Queen Mary University of London. March 6-7, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, (Ba Sein’s testimony begins at 7:55 minutes).

(28) = BBC News 10 Sep 2017 ‘Who is burning down Rohingya villages?’,

(29) = BBC News 11 Sep 2017 ‘Rohingya crisis: Seeing through the official story in Myanmar’,

(30) = BBC news 25 Sep 2017 ‘'Mass Hindu grave' found in Myanmar's Rakhine state’,

(31) = New Age (Bangladesh) 27 Sep 2017 ‘Hindus lay down lives for Muslims in Myanmar’,

(32) = 26 Sep 2017 ‘'They were killed in a row. Only eight women, young and beautiful, were allowed to live': Hindu Rohingya reveal how Muslim majority force them to convert or die in refugee camps’,

(33) = 11 Jul 2013 ‘Burma jails 25 Buddhists for mob killings of 36 Muslims in Meikhtila’,

(34) = (Germany) 12 Oct 2012 ‘New 'retaliatory' attacks on Myanmar's Rohingyas’,

(35) = See (1) above

(36) = See (33) above

(37) = The Irrawady (Burma) 30 Aug 2017 ‘Mob Kills Four Arakanese Amid Ongoing Rakhine Violence’,

(38) = CPJ 05 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: One year under Suu Kyi, press freedom lags behind democratic progress’,

(39) = International Crisis Group 15 Dec 2016 ‘’ Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,

(40) = See (39) above

(41) = Dhaka Tribune 03 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar army: Clearing of Rohingya is ‘unfinished business’’,


(42) = UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 03 Feb 2017 ‘’ Devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men detailed in UN human rights report,

(43) = BBC News 06 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?’,

(44) = BBC News 14 Jun 2013 ‘Who is supplying weapons to the warring sides in Syria?’, (scroll down to ‘Saudi Arabia’ subheading)

(45) = Anshuman Behera (2017) ‘Insurgency, Drugs and Small Arms in Myanmar’,  Strategic Analysis, Volume 41, 2017 - Issue 1 ,

(46) = Assam Tribune 15 May 2016 ‘Militants smuggling in weapons through Myanmar border’,

(47) = Times of India 08 Dec 2011 ‘North-east rebels using 'smugglers' in China, Myanmar to buy arms’,

(48) = See (2) and (3) and (42) above

(49) = See (39) above

(50) = Mizzima News (Myanmar) 05 Sep 2017 ‘Pakistan, ISIS allegedly behind Rakhine imbroglio’,

(51) = See (50) above

(52) =  30 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar refuses visas to UN team investigating abuse of Rohingya Muslims’,

(53) = 04 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar blocks all UN aid to civilians at heart of Rohingya crisis’,

(54) = Human Rights Watch 17 Nov 2016 ‘Burma: Allow Access to Investigate Abuses in Rakhine State’,

(55) = International Institute for Energy and Development 10 May 2016 ‘Energy poverty in Myanmar: only 34% of the population have grid quality electricity’,

(56) = UNDP (2014) ‘About Myanmar’,

(57) = See (2) and (3), (41) and (42) above



(58) = Telegraph 12 Jul 2012 ‘UK opens trade office as Western firms eye Burma riches’

(59) = Reuters 08 Jul 2012 ‘Booming Southeast Asia in a quandary over U.S.-China rivalry’,

(60) = Stimson Center / Yun Sun 10 Jun 2014 ‘Issue Brief - Myanmar in US-China Relations’,

(61) = Financial Times 17 May 2016 ‘US keeps bulk of sanctions against Myanmar in place’,  (mentions sanctions lifted in previous years)

(62) = BBC News 16 Sep 2016 ‘Surprise as US ends Myanmar economic sanctions’,

(63) = World bank 30 Aug 2017 ‘Poverty Declined Between 2004-05 and 2015 in Myanmar: New Joint Myanmar-World Bank Report’,

(64) = MMTimes(Myanmar)09 Jun 2014 ‘Graft scandal sinks without trace’,

(65) = MMTimes (Myanmar) 19 May 2014 ‘Data tweaks change face of poverty’,

(66) = The Irrawaddy (Myanmar) 17 March 2017 ‘Parliament Approves Reduced Budget for 2017-2018’,

(67) = The Union of Myanmar , The State Peace and Development Council Law No. 10 / 2011,

(68) = Wired 22 Oct 2015 ‘Revealed: Myanmar's jade trade is run by former junta members’,

(69) = International Committee of Jurists Feb 2017 ‘Special Economic Zones in Myanmar and the State Duty to Protect Human Rights’,

(70) = Myanmar Times 01 sep 2017 ‘Rakhine to construct Maungdaw economic zone’,

(71) = Radio Free Asia 12 Jul 2012 ‘Call to Put Rohingya in Refugee Camps’,

(72) = Global Witness 26 Mar 2015 ‘ Guns, Cronies and Crops’,

(73) = Al Jazeera 16 Sep 2017 ‘Who is selling weapons to Myanmar?’,

(74) = Myanmar Directorate of Investment and Company Administration

(75) = The Australian 15 Sep 2017 ‘China backs Myanmar’s attacks on Rohingyas’,

(76) = Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh) 16 Sep 2017 ‘Russia opposes intervention in Myanmar’,