As Tragedy Unfolds in Myanmar, the People’s Heroine Stokes the Flames of Hatred

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians are trapped in a cycle of violence perpetuated by Myanmar’s military, exacerbated by Islamist militants, and inflamed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

TOPSHOT - Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a national address in Naypyidaw on September 19, 2017.
Aung San Suu Kyi said on September 19 she "feels deeply" for the suffering of "all people" caught up in conflict scorching through Rakhine state, her first comments on a crisis that also mentioned Muslims displaced by violence. / AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU        (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a national address in Naypyidaw on September 19, 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi said on September 19 she "feels deeply" for the suffering of "all people" caught up in conflict scorching through Rakhine state, her first comments on a crisis that also mentioned Muslims displaced by violence. / AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar amid what the United Nations’ top human rights official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the country’s young, quasi-democratic government faces increasing international condemnation.

More than 420,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine state sparked a disproportionate crackdown. Thousands of homes have been razed, and at least 1,000 people have been killed in the military response, according to United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee. Bangladeshi authorities have suggested the figure may be as high as 3,000 dead.

But inside Myanmar itself, the public is increasingly intransigent, aggressively hostile to outside criticism, and supportive of the military’s actions. Thanks to propaganda, lack of media access to Rakhine, government attacks on international critics, and a growing sense that the entire country is under threat from Islamic terrorists, a very different message is being spread. The military, government spokesmen, and the state press are keen to emphasize that the attacks in late August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police and border posts, which killed around a dozen security officers, were carried out by “extremist Bengali terrorists” — an eponym used to describe the entire Rohingya population of more than 1 million people.

Mistrust of foreign intervention is running high, with a barrage of statements condemning international coverage of the events coming from the civilian government and military leaders. The Myanmar military — which holds a guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats and key ministries including defense and home affairs — is not only fighting the various insurgent groups within the country but is also increasingly engaging in a war of ideas with anyone at home or abroad who criticizes the treatment of the Rohingya.

And if social media is any guide, the long-reviled military, which only recently handed over power to Aung San Suu Kyi after her landslide electoral victory in November 2015, is reaching hitherto unknown levels of popularity inside the country. Where once Aung San Suu Kyi stood firm against the army, now her government is supporting the army and its commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, the man ultimately responsible for the actions of security forces in Rakhine

Yet as the international community questions whether it is possible to broker a peaceful solution for the Rohingya, the complexities of Myanmar’s domestic politics and the role of ARSA in deliberately provoking the brutal crackdown are often ignored — providing dangerous ammunition to the government war on foreign media.

Nothing left to lose

The Rohingya Muslim minority has long faced discrimination. Widely described as “Bengalis” to imply they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — despite many having been in the country for generations — they are mostly denied citizenship and freedom of movement, leaving them unable to access proper health care, education, or work.

But the situation worsened in 2012, after long-running tensions broke into violence between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and their Rohingya neighbors, leaving 200 dead and around 140,000  — mainly Rohingya — displaced. Around 100,000 Rohingya remain trapped in squalid and deprived “internally displaced person” camps, many in near-starvation.

It was from increasingly desperate conditions that ARSA suddenly emerged  in October 2016. The origins of the group are still unclear, as are the extent of ties to jihadist groups elsewhere. The group originally titled itself Harakah al-Yaqin, the “Faith Movement,” and its founder, Ata Ullah, has ties to Saudi and Pakistani Islamist groups.

But for many Rohingya who have become involved, ARSA is seen as a group fighting for the rights of their people, rather than for religious fundamentalists. Ullah, the man who acts as the group’s public face, is seen as a charismatic figure who “speaks like a human rights defender.” ARSA now describes itself as fighting for a nationalist cause, not a religious one.

The violence that followed the group’s first attacks in October 2016 served as a recruitment platform for the militants, according to Muslim community leaders. Military reprisals against Rohingya civilians at that time were so brutal that the U.N. said they likely amounted to crimes against humanity. Many of those involved in the recent August attacks were young men who had fled to Bangladesh last year before returning to fight, Rohingya sources told Foreign Policy.

ARSA’s techniques, however, are unpopular with many Rohingya. The group developed a frightening reputation — even within the Rohingya community — after militants killed dozens of village heads and others suspected of collaborating with the authorities. The human rights group Fortify Rights cites testimonies from Rohingya villagers saying ARSA prevented men from fleeing to Bangladesh along with women and children, forcing them instead to stay and fight. Even those who voluntarily support ARSA often do so with a sense that they have no other option, young Rohingya men told FP.

The attacks by ARSA in October 2016 produced major military reprisals, leaving the Rohingya in an even more precarious position. Yet there was a rare glimmer of hope last month. The day before the Aug. 25 insurgent attacks, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, head of an advisory commission meant to address the conflict, presented his final recommendations on how to ease tensions in Rakhine state; Aung San Suu Kyi — who had long remained silent on the matter — announced a ministerial body would be formed to oversee their implementation. The very next day, however, the ARSA attacks extinguished any realistic possibility of peace.

The military’s harsh hand

Aung San Suu Kyi said the assaults were deliberately timed to undermine the Annan commission’s recommendations by those who did not want a peaceful solution. Yet a more realistic explanation of the timing may be that ARSA’s leaders, dubious about Myanmar’s commitment to implementing the Annan recommendations and facing escalating violence from both the military and their ethnic Rakhine neighbors, felt there was nothing left to lose.

Rather than seeing them as an attempt to undermine the recommendations, Rohingya community members and some international NGOs working in the region suggest the attacks followed weeks of deliberate provocation by the military, including a massive increase of troops in the area, which inflamed intercommunal tensions. Indeed, even as Annan was speaking to the press on Aug.24, telling them he’d received assurances from the military that most of the military activities were taking place in the hills, far away from civilian communities, NGOs were receiving reports of mass arrests and beatings carried out by troops in a Rohingya village in Rathedaung township the day before —  the most recent in a long line of brutalities allegedly committed by the army.

“Did you see what the military were doing before August 25?” one young Rohingya man asked rhetorically, when asked to explain the timing of the attacks. In provoking an even more brutal — and visible — military retribution, ARSA may have hoped to finally force the international community to intervene in the plight of the Rohingya, while boosting its own ranks with desperate and angry young men.

According to the Myanmar government, about 1,000 insurgents armed with knives, homemade explosives, and a limited supply of guns took on well-equipped border guards, police, and soldiers, leaving at least 70 attackers and 13 security personnel dead. But the paucity of ARSA’s weapons undermines government claims that the group carried out a well-funded, foreign-backed assault, instead suggesting a desperate last-ditch attempt to draw attention to the Rohingya cause.

“My sense is that this was a D-Day of sorts,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s by IHS-Markit, who said it was likely the group had used up its limited stockpiles of weapons in the Aug. 25 attacks. He estimated ARSA has just a few score assault rifles remaining.

The August attacks have left the region in a spiral of further violence, drawing in ARSA, local villagers, and the Myanmar military, with Rohingya civilians overwhelmingly the victims. Since the attacks, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have allegedly joined the military in killing their former neighbors, including participating in a massacre at Chut Pyin village on Aug. 27 in which over 130 Rohingya men, women, and children are alleged to have been slaughtered. According to testimonies gathered by rights group Fortify Rights, troops shot civilians and herded men into a building to burn them alive, while ethnic Rakhine villagers armed with machetes beheaded people, including children. In addition 30,000 non-Muslim civilians are also estimated to have fled their homes amid reports of killings by ARSA.

The military denies targeting civilians, suggesting that large-scale arson attacks on Rohingya villages and killings are the work of Bengali terrorists, despite increasing evidence that Rakhine villagers and security forcesare responsible. In the 10 days leading up to the Aug. 25 attacks, one NGO told FP they had counted at least three incidents in which Rohingya civilians in Rathedaung were attacked by a combination of security forces and ethnic Rakhine villagers.

If the military — headed by its powerful commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing  — has deliberately stirred up intercommunal tensions to provoke further violence in Rakhine, it would not be a new tactic. In ethnic minority areas such as Kachin, Shan, and Kayin states, the army has long utilized militias, ethnic armed groups, and local rival factions to do their dirty work.

The joint operations appear to be taking place even though the national military is generally loathed in Rakhine — where the Arakan army, an armed militia representing the Rakhine people, has been engaged in ongoing fighting with the government. ARSA did its best to promote the idea it was fighting the military, not the Rakhine people, but that propaganda battle is clearly lost.

The army’s message now resonates far beyond Rakhine state. When it comes to the Rohingya issue, the Rakhine — who, unlike the Rohingya, are one of the country’s officially recognized 135 ethnic groups — are now seen as the bulwark against Islamist extremism and the unfortunate victims of this conflict.

“The [new] attacks by ARSA and the response by the military and police likely have set in motion the violent beginning of the end of any kind of coexistence of Rohingya and [ethnic] Rakhine,” said Mary Callahan, an expert on Myanmar’s post-military reform at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. “It is difficult to imagine a return to even the very difficult conditions under which Rohingya have lived for years or any tolerance by the general public for their presence in Myanmar. Popular hatred for them runs too deep.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s propaganda committee

Myanmar, home to one of the longest-running civil wars, is no stranger to ethnic insurgency. But by portraying the ARSA strikes as foreign terrorist attacks, the generals and politicians have unleashed a sense of chaos and fear across the country that is helping rehabilitate the military’s domestic image, allowing it to portray itself as a savior rather than an oppressor.

Cartoons — always a popular form of political commentary in Myanmar — have become internet memes showing terrified Rakhine sheltering behind army soldiers as sinister Muslims brandish weapons. Others portray butchered Rakhine civilians lying on the ground as foreign TV cameras focus on crying Rohingya. Many refer to government claims that the Rohingya destroyed their own villages to gather foreign sympathies.

The military is skillfully exploiting the fears of the Myanmar public. In focusing attention on international organizations and the media’s perceived bias in favor of the Rohingya, the government feeds into long-running grievances that the Muslim community — albeit under circumstances of extreme oppression — have received far more international aid than their Rakhine neighbors, who are also desperately poor. And while the perceived threat of jihadist attacks by the Rohingya may be massively exaggerated and manipulated for political ends, it is as frightening to people in Myanmar as the prospect of terrorism is to many others across the world.

But these intercommunal tensions have been seized on by the government, as well as the military, to bolster their own position by appealing to the worst public instincts. The role of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been especially controversial. Once famed as a brave human rights heroine, she is now Myanmar’s state counselor — a nebulous position set up to sidestep the constitutional impediment to her holding the role of president — and has played an increasingly disturbing role in drumming up anti-Rohingya, anti-foreign sentiments. The government “information committee,” set up in her name in the wake of last October’s ARSA attacks in order to provide the public with what the government called “real information,” has been on the frontlines of the war against foreign criticism.

Most notoriously, following multiple allegations of mass rape of Rohingya women by security forces during last year’s post-Oct. 9 military operations — allegations corroborated by doctors in Bangladesh, among others — anyone visiting Aung San Suu Kyi’s official website was greeted with a flashing banner that read “FAKE RAPE” and an article by the committee calling the women liars.

It is impossible to overestimate the sway Aung San Suu Kyi retains over the hearts and minds of Myanmar’s Burmese majority. In backing the military in their denials of abuse, she has forced the public to choose between believing a group of people they have been conditioned into thinking are illegal immigrants intent on stealing land and replacing Buddhism with Islam or believing the woman they’ve worshiped for decades as “Mother Suu.”

For children in Rakhine, these deceptions may be a matter of life and death. The information committee has played a significant role in stirring up anti-foreign sentiments in Rakhine, particularly in relation to the World Food Program and other aid groups. The U.N., European Union, and others have all said that their staff were increasingly under threat from local Rakhine communities this summer.

In late July, Aung San Suu Kyi’s information committee highlighted what it claimed was a packet of World Food Program biscuits discovered at an ARSA training camp. Following the Aug. 25 attacks, almost a month later, the committee again circulated an image of the biscuits, along with graphic images of children allegedly killed by ARSA, and claimed it was investigating reports NGO staff had been in ARSA’s company during an attack on a village. The outcry on Myanmar social media has yet to die down.

The consequences of these claims by the government could be disastrous. The World Food Program was forced to stop food deliveries, citing “insecurity,” and the U.N. said that government restrictions were preventing all U.N. aid deliveries to northern Rakhine state. Malnutrition was already beyond emergency levels when the latest violence began, and the cessation of aid to around 250,000 vulnerable people has put lives, particularly those of children, at risk.

Yet asked outright if he actually believed the World Food Program was supporting ARSA, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman Zaw Htay told FP, “We don’t think WFP is supporting the group. But we think the aid is [ending up] in the hands of the terrorists.” He denied that placing photographs of ration biscuits next to images of dead children was inflammatory.

Aung San Suu Kyi has since said the government will work with the International Red Cross to see aid deliveries to all communities, but the exclusion of the U.N. and other international organizations does little to allay fears for those most vulnerable populations.

There have been questions about exactly how much power Aung San Suu Kyi wields over the government and even over her own information committee. Following diplomatic objections to the allegations against the WFP, the information committee (originally the “state counselor’s information committee”) dropped the reference to Aung San Suu Kyi’s official title from its name. Spokesman Zaw Htay told FP the change was to show the information committee represented “all the government” and hoped it would put a stop to “international media using the state counselor’s name to attack government information.”

But few observers believe it is possible that the assault on the media could have proceeded without the approval of Aung San Suu Kyi, a notorious micromanager. “They wouldn’t have dared,” is how one long-term Myanmar observer with good government connections put it. Although ARSA bears its share of responsibility for putting fellow Rohingya at risk, ultimately the greatest share of the blame for the ethnic cleansing now underway has to fall on Myanmar’s military. Aung San Suu Kyi has unquestionably thrown wood on the pyre of Rakhine communal tensions in order to protect her relationship with the military and retain her support among an electorate for whom anti-Muslim, nationalist feelings run high.

On Sept. 19, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed international diplomats in the capital Naypyidaw. It was the first time she had publicly spoken on the crisis since the August attacks.The speech avoided mentioning the allegations of ethnic cleansing. Instead she bemoaned the fact the country had many problems to deal with — not just “a few.” Rather than work to halt this tragedy, she has used her moral force to deceive the people of Myanmar and cover up what increasingly appear to be crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Photo credit: YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

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