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The Myanmar Military’s Legacy of Impunity

How the Rohingya Crisis Fits a Historical Pattern

A Rohingya refugee boy desperate for aid cries as he climbs on a truck distributing aid for a local NGO near the Balukali refugee camp on September 20, 2017 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Getty)

by Sally Kantar

“The voice of the gunfire woke everyone. While we were running, we saw a lot of dead bodies, blood, and bullet casings on the road. We lived in plastic tents with 60 other families…. Even though they live on the border, they are always looking back toward their homeland.”

This could easily have been the story of one of Myanmar’s nearly 650,000 Muslim Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since August, following a brutal campaign against them by the country’s military, the Tatmadaw. But this tale is, in fact, six years old. It belongs to Teehseng, a member of the Shan ethnic minority in Myanmar, who was twice displaced by the army: first internally in 1996 and then to Thailand in 2002, where he remains today. His experience is a reminder that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya are part of a greater historical pattern of behavior by the Tatmadaw.

The result is a refugee crisis spanning Myanmar’s eastern, western, and northern perimeters. Today, hundreds of thousands of lives continue in limbo along these borders, a foreshadowing of the exile that could await the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the army denies all allegations of abuse. The United States has accused Myanmar’s military of committing ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority, while UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein recently said that “elements of genocide” could be present.

Although the tactics used by security forces against the Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State have shocked the world, they are not new. A scorched-earth policy, gang rape, and extrajudicial killings have long been documented military practices throughout the country. It is the alarming pace and scale at which these atrocities have been committed, the apparent intent to remove the Rohingya from the country, and the widespread popular prejudice against them that differentiates this crisis from others in Myanmar. The groundwork for the current catastrophe, however, had already been laid. Since the 1970s, the Tatmadaw has carried out with impunity a “Four Cuts” campaign against other ethnic populations, cutting off food, funds, and information. The goal is to prevent recruits from joining ethnic armed groups and quell aspirations of greater self-determination. Far from a relic of the past, this policy—which largely victimized civilians—was officially reinvigorated in 2011.

Such parallels have recently been acknowledged by members of the UN-mandated International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, who have been meeting with forced migrant communities in neighboring countries after being denied visas to Myanmar. Speaking to representatives of ethnic Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine communities, they described being “struck by some patterns … similar to those we heard from the Rohingya we met in Bangladesh.”

PATTERNS OF ABUSE

Even the most recent violence against the Rohingya is situated within decades of persecution that has seen their rights diminish and has left the community of more than one million largely stateless. The government and the Myanmar public have long labeled them as “Bengali interlopers” at worst and as “foreign guests” at best.
The first wave of Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh in 1978 after the Tatmadaw carried out an offensive known as “Operation Dragon King” in Rakhine State, officially claiming to target so-called insurgents and illegal immigrants. Another military campaign against the Rohingya took place in the early 1990s, and further violence unfolded in 2012. Over the years, hundreds of thousands were displaced in such crackdowns, with many forced to return to the same conditions they had fled.

Leaders of the Karen, another ethnic minority in Myanmar primarily situated in the country’s east, regretfully described the current crisis in Rakhine State as “a repeat of history.” The Karen have also been driven out en masse for decades. Thousands first arrived in Thailand in 1984 after a Myanmar Army offensive in Karen State pushed them across the border. Over the next five years, refugee camps were set up to accommodate more fleeing populations—largely from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups.

By 2006, Thailand had become host to 150,000 registered refugees spread across nine camps. That year, The Border Consortium, an aid provider, estimated that 3,000 villages had been destroyed in eastern Myanmar throughout the previous decade. Refugees described how troops set fire to their homes in an attempt to drive civilians away from rebel-controlled areas, and to punish them for perceived connections to non-state armed groups.

Unfortunately, the military has continued its use of these tactics. Human Rights Watch shared satellite imagery captured in September 2017 revealing that more than 200 villages had been burned down in northern Rakhine State, the site of security operations following attacks by a Rohingya armed group on police outposts in August. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, equated the resulting refugees with enemies of the state, telling U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month that it was “extremist Bengali terrorists” who had fled to Bangladesh with their families.

The UN said that the rape of Rohingya women during this campaign appeared to have been “commanded, orchestrated, and perpetrated by the Armed Forces of Myanmar.” It was not the first time a member of the international community had come to this conclusion. Fifteen years ago, a women’s organization tied to the Shan ethnic minority group published documentation of rape as a weapon in the country’s civil war. The report followed the mass displacement of Shan in the late 1990s—a period known locally as the “Hell Years”—during which 300,000 people were forcibly relocated by the Tatmadaw. Many are still stateless in Thailand and along its border.

In addition to the current Rohingya crisis, Myanmar is responsible for another ongoing humanitarian disaster. Since 2011, following the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the military and the armed ethnic group the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), more than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes in the Kachin and northern Shan states. Today they remain in crowded internally displaced persons camps, while the military has continued to shell them and the government has blocked aid from reaching those who have sought refuge in KIA-controlled areas. This history of mass displacements is far from exhaustive. Almost every ethnic nationality in the country has at some point been uprooted during the last seven decades of Myanmar’s wars.

A group of rescued Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are seen after their arrival at the new temporary shelters in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province, Indonesia on May 15, 2015. (Getty)

FAILURE TO REFORM

The current violence in Rakhine State unfolded under the national leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who despite her position as State Counselor—and as the country’s de facto leader—does not have authority over the Tatmadaw. She shares power with the military in accordance with the country’s army-drafted 2008 Constitution. Since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power after a much-feted electoral win in 2015, the fate of the country’s refugees and internally displaced persons has remained buried in a stalled peace process. Displacement is classified as a sub-topic under “social issues,” one of five themes discussed at national peace conferences held, at most, twice a year.

By challenging and downplaying widespread reports of atrocities committed by the armed forces, Aung San Suu Kyi has effectively defended the Tatmadaw and its actions. She has also opposed an investigation by the UN fact-finding mission into rights violations in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states. Meanwhile, the military has held two internal investigations into allegations of abuse in Rakhine State, exonerating itself of any wrongdoing.

As long as Myanmar lacks the political will to hold perpetrators accountable, the recent Rohingya repatriation deal inked with Bangladesh will remain both premature and dangerous. It calls for just 300 refugees to be “verified”—by the same Myanmar authorities that deny them citizenship—and sent back from Bangladesh each day, to conditions that Amnesty International has classified as “apartheid.”
If the protracted refugee crisis on Myanmar’s border with Thailand is any indication, aid must be reimagined for the Rohingya in Bangladesh as a long-term commitment. Conditions that would facilitate secure and voluntary repatriation for refugees from Myanmar have, quite simply, not been met.

Of the nearly 100,000 registered multiethnic refugees still in Thailand’s camps, less than 70 have opted to return home. But the pressure to leave is tangible. Even as the civil war rages on, food rations from international donors have been gradually reduced for many in refugee camps, and, as of October, eliminated for internally displaced ethnic Shan.

Assistance needs to be maintained for all refugees from Myanmar until the army takes meaningful steps to demilitarize occupied areas. No outside action can be put forward to address the Rohingya crisis that does not take into account this failure by Myanmar’s military to reform. As long as the army is not held accountable—domestically or internationally—it is up to concerned international actors to direct lifesaving support and solidarity to Myanmar’s displaced communities on all its borders. Neither the Tatmadaw nor the elected leadership in Myanmar have demonstrated a commitment to addressing the human rights violations that have been perpetrated against the country’s ethnic nationalities for decades. This signifies that, barring significant pressure from both within Myanmar and abroad, these devastating patterns of violence will likely continue.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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