Irish observers of the Rohingya refugee crisis will find disturbing similarities between Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya and formative aspects of Ireland’s own history.
Today the Rohingya are victims of a brutal Myanmar military crackdown that has led more than 600,000 to flee the country on foot since August. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights describes this forced displacement as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Human Rights Watch released satellite images showing almost 300 Rohingya villages razed and there are reports these burnings are ongoing. Amnesty International calls the crisis a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
This is no exaggeration. I recently visited the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh/ Myanmar frontier and what I saw and heard there was heartbreaking. The scale and speed of the displacement is difficult to comprehend. Within eight weeks a shanty city of bamboo and tarpaulin has become home to more people than Dublin.
These refugees have lost every material possession including their homes. Children, the old, and sick were carried by family members to these camps over mountains, through rivers and across a now land mined border. Their situation is dreadfully bleak. The weather is stiflingly hot and punctuated by the monsoon season’s torrential rain. They are wholly reliant on aid agencies for food, water and medicine. Providing adequate sanitation is an ongoing challenge making the threat of disease ever-present. There is mud and desperation everywhere.
For the Rohingya this is the sad culmination of decades of discrimination by Myanmar’s authorities who deny the Muslim group’s centuries-long heritage in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Myanmar’s authorities deny the Rohingya citizenship, making them stateless, but also limit their human rights including by restricting their freedom to marry, practise their religion, obtain education and healthcare, and even to travel freely from one village to another. The Rohingya’s right to vote was taken away in 2015.
Researchers at the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) in 2015 rightly concluded this was a process of genocide. The interviews I conducted with male residents of unregistered camps and at the registered Kutupalong Camp confirm this. They told heartbreaking stories of loss, violence and forced migration that no one should be forced to endure.
One young man in his 20s explained his journey to the refugee camp involved being forced from village to village by the military who used a helicopter to burn homes: “When our village was burned we moved to another village, and then they came to burn that village, and we moved another village, and when they came to burn that village and we moved, and that’s how we came here at last. They used the helicopter to burn the villages”. I heard frequently how the military used helicopters to burn Rohingya villages and now young children in the refugee camps are drawing heartbreaking pictures with crayons of helicopters raining fire on their former homes.
One elderly man, recently arrived in Kutupalong Camp, told me ten men were arrested in his village and their families had not heard from them since. He said the military bluntly told Rohingya villagers to leave: “they openly told us to go to Bangladesh – otherwise you will be killed”. This too was a depressingly familiar story among those I interviewed – the military arrived, fired their guns, killed some, arrested mostly young men but sometimes the young women too, and instructed the others to go to Bangladesh. More than 600,000 did.
A 60-year-old man from Buthidaung township showed me his bandaged leg, a bullet injury he said. His story is disturbing: “Among my four sons, one was killed by the military in front of me, and one arrested, and one of my daughters – my adult daughter – was arrested but I don’t know where she is”.
An understandably emotional farmer tells me: “I lost my two sons, and two daughters. At midnight the military come in my house and burnt the house, but first they raped my two daughters and they shot my two daughters in front of me. I have no words to express how it was for me to suffer to look at my daughters being raped and killed in front of me. My two sons were also killed by the government. I was not able to get the dead bodies of my daughters, it is a great sorrow for me”.
These individual stories of recent abuses are heartbreaking, but camp residents talked too about years of discriminatory practices that will be all too familiar to readers of Ireland’s history – restrictions on education and religious practice, and land confiscations. Now Myanmar’s authorities plan to confiscate all burnt Rohingya villages and settle them with new residents. A plantation.
It’s little wonder tens of thousands of Rohingya annually boarded dangerous boats to flee their homeland, knowing they would probably never return. Another experience all too common in Ireland’s history.
Despite this, Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has shown little sympathy towards the Rohingya. It took ten weeks of crisis before she set foot in the state from where 600,000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya fled. Suu Kyi has delivered two televised addresses to the nation since the crisis began and each could have been scripted by the military. In her most recent address she told Myanmar, “no one can fully understand the situation of our country the way we do” echoing military claims they have not committed atrocities but are instead unfairly maligned by international media and the UN. Suu Kyi’s words ring hollow and she is increasingly seen as acting as a political shield for the military’s crimes – using her international reputation to hold back the tide of international condemnation. Suu Kyi also stubbornly denies visas to UN human-rights investigators to enter Myanmar. As Foreign Minister she could grant UN investigators access with the stroke of a pen. She chooses not to.
Dr Thomas MacManus, an ISCI researcher from Dublin, is appalled by the behaviour of Aung San Suu Kyi and said, “She is a huge disappointment. Not only is she doing nothing to prevent the destruction of the Rohingya people, she’s providing the military cover from international scrutiny and pressure, to allow Min Aung Hlaing’s men to murder, rape and burn their way through Rakhine state”.
True, under Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution, Suu Kyi does not directly control the military but she does determine whether UN investigators can get visas to enter Myanmar -and she says they will not get a visa on her watch. By this action, Aung San Suu Kyi is helping cover up the crimes of her country’s military. At best Suu Kyi is an accessory to the military’s brutal campaign, at worst she is a willing accomplice.
Today, Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys the Freedom of the City of Dublin. Her fight for democracy in Myanmar, and enduring almost twenty years under house arrest, made her then a worthy recipient. However, the Freedom of Dublin is an ongoing privilege, not a one-time award and its holders should maintain a standing worthy of Dublin’s honour. Aung San Suu Kyi does not. Faced with an ongoing genocide in her country, Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions as the nation’s civilian leader have been pitifully inadequate, if not complicit with the military’s brutal campaign.
The Rohingya’s desperately sad circumstances are the creation of Myanmar’s authorities, and this latest crisis is almost entirely of Myanmar military’s making. There is a genocide going on in Myanmar and sadly many of the practices there will be painfully familiar to many in Ireland. Our capital should not continue to laud Myanmar’s civilian leader in these circumstances. Aung San Suu Kyi can, and should do better, and so can Dublin.