Over the past month, an estimated 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar as result of what has been called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The situation has become increasingly dire, sparking international outrage and pleas for action.We discussed the issue with Tejshree Thapa, the senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Poppy McPherson, a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia who has written for The Guardian, Time, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: For someone who does not understand the situation in Myanmar, could you explain who the Rohingya Muslims are and what is happening to them?
Tejshree Thapa: The Rohingya are a religious and ethnic minority in Burma who have been present for decades. However, of the 136 ethnic groups present in Burma today, the Rohingyas are the only ones who are not officially recognized. They have faced a systematic campaign of disenfranchisement with citizenship rights and all other attendant rights being denied to them, including restrictions on movement and marriage. The state has forced large parts of the population into displacement and refugee status across many countries, most notably in Bangladesh. The Rohingya today constitute among the largest single group who are stateless.
FPI: It’s been described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – can you explain how the Rohingya Muslims are being treated and how the situation in Myanmar has worsened?
TT: Our evidence from eyewitness interviews with recent arrivals of Rohingya refugees shows a consistent pattern: the Burmese army arrives in the villages, either with local police or with local Rakhine youth; they open fire or ask villagers to leave, and then houses are set on fire. We have had witnesses tell us that the army told them to go across the border to Bangladesh. The arson attacks on their houses is a clear indication to not bother returning. This is not the first wave of Rohingya refugees we have seen in recent years, but it is the single largest influx.
Poppy McPherson: The persecution of the Rohingya dates back generations, but has worsened in recent years since violence between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine state in 2012. They are mostly denied citizenship and subject to extreme limits on freedom of movement and access to education and healthcare. Tens of thousands have been confined to miserable internal displacement camps for more than five years now. Hundreds of thousands more are in camps across the border in Bangladesh. Neither country wants or accepts them.
FPI: An estimated 400,000 people have been pushed into Bangladesh. How has the Bangladeshi government dealt with this influx of refugees?
TT: The Bangladesh government has alternated its position on the Rohingya refugees over the years. They have been hosting a population of nearly half a million Rohingya refugees for a long time. This new influx of 420,000 over the last three weeks is a tremendous additional burden. Bangladesh has allowed the refugees to enter and has not engaged in the push-backs which we saw a few years ago — and for that they should be commended. They have also agreed to set up a camp, with some 2,000 acres allocated to the refugees for temporary settlement. However, we note that Bangladesh in the past has denied access of humanitarian aid to the camps and we are concerned that the government may once again go down this path, in fear of creating what it in the past has described as a “pull factor” if aid is allowed in. We urge that international humanitarian agencies such as UNCHR, MSF, and others be allowed to administer aid to the refugees without hindrance.
PM: The Bangladesh border is extremely porous and it would be difficult for the authorities to push people back even if they wanted to. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The Bangladesh government has assisted in building camps for them to live, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited. Individual Bangladeshis have been extremely generous – delivering aid and accepting Rohingya into their homes in some cases. But aid agencies have been completely overwhelmed by the influx and conditions are atrocious. Bangladesh doesn’t want the Rohingya there long-term. The country already has a huge population living in a small area, and deems the Rohingya a security threat.
FPI: Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a controversial speech this week. How did you react to this speech as someone who follows the situation intently?
TT: Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was a deep disappointment, and served only to cover up the army’s actions. However, it is important to note that Aung San Suu Kyi is not the sole person responsible for the atrocities we are hearing about. The army and the security agencies must be held to account. Aung San Suu Kyi is important as a moral and political authority but the reality on the ground in Burma is that she has little control over the army.
PM: The speech Aung San Suu Kyi gave this week instead of an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, which she cancelled, was a massive disappointment to those hoping for some sort of expression of sympathy for the Rohingya. It was also in English, which the majority of people in Myanmar can’t understand. She seemed to think she didn’t need to explain herself to the public here, who overwhelmingly support her almost unconditionally. The speech was littered with false statements and, in the words of Amnesty International, “victim-blaming.” She claimed that there were no military operations after September 5. Human rights groups and journalists in Bangladesh have proved her wrong. She said she doesn’t know why “hordes” of Rohingya are fleeing. Either she is relying on bad information and misleading sources, or she is simply refusing to believe what they are saying.
FPI: What is/has Aung Suu Kyi done in response to the violence?
TT: Okay on this we’re treading a fine line; we want to and will call out Aung San Suu Kyi. But, really, the army is at fault here. I’m slightly disturbed by the focus on Aung San Suu Kyi, which I understand because she’s Aung San Suu Kyi, but think we need to recalibrate and without absolving her at all, we do need to mention the army’s role.
PM: Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military and has no power over the soldiers on the ground. She shares power with the generals, essentially – they control three key ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament. But she has refused to condemn them publicly. For weeks after the crisis started, she made no public comments. This is typical of her leadership style – she rarely talks directly to the people who elected her in 2015. In some cases, the rhetoric of her ministers and the military has been almost indistinguishable. Her spokespeople have shared racially charged cartoons mocking Rohingya as well as ludicrously staged images claiming to depict them burning their own houses down.
FPI: How will Aung Suu Kyi’s dealing with the Myanmar military impact the situation?
PM: Many ordinary people here fear that the military will use this opportunity to seize back power. They see Aung San Suu Kyi as in a tight spot: if she goes in too hard on the army, there would be another coup. They fear history repeating itself. Aung San Suu Kyi won an election in 1990 that was later stolen by the generals. But ultimately it is not the actions of Aung San Suu Kyi that have the greatest impact on the Rohingya; the military is very clearly running the show here.