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Myanmar: Stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya

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As we go to press, more than 120,000 Muslim Rohingyas have fled from their homes and camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine state (also known as Arakan) since a military offensive against supposed terrorists began on 25 August. There are reports of soldiers burning villages, raping and killing.

The refugees are fleeing on foot or by boat. Reports suggests that many have been blown up by mines planted by the Myanmar armed forces along the border with Bangladesh or drowned at sea as their boats capsized. A further 400,000 Rohingya people are believed to be trapped in conflict zones in camps and devastated villages.

More than 30,000 Rohingya are estimated to be overflowing the refugee camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara in Bangladesh while others are living in makeshift tents and in local villages. An unknown number may be stranded in the no-man’s-land that separates the two countries, where access to aid is difficult if not impossible.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw, explain the mayhem by saying the Rohingyas are burning their own villages!

An idol with feet of clay
This ongoing ethnic cleansing has gone uncriticised by the country’s de facto leader and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, hitherto presented as a secular saint by the western media. In her acceptance of the Nobel Prize, she said her aim in life was "to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless ... a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace."

Tell that to the victims of this enormity. Aung San Suu Kyi, has now exposed herself as a first class humbug. The 20 year-old Pakistani Nobel prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, has called on her fellow Laureate to condemn the "tragic and shameful treatment" of the Rohingyas, while the British Guardian columnist George Monbiot has called for her to be stripped of her laureateship altogether.

Having been silent for most of this year, as the military ravaged northern Rakhine, the State Counsellor and Leader of the National League for Democracy, has at last been forced to speak out; but only to protest against those who are reporting the atrocities, saying they are spreading “fake news” and “encouraging terrorism”.

Showing herself a true disciple of Donald Trump, she went on: "This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well. ….I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons and there are many Buddhists who are in refugee camps. This is the result of our sufferings.”

Her Western admirers, who have likened her to Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, claim her party’s civilian representatives in government and parliament do not control the Burmese military and therefore cannot intervene in its campaigns. The British Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, explained that she, “faces huge challenges modernising her country” and that it was “vital that she receives the support of the Burmese military, and that her attempts at peacemaking are not frustrated. She and all in Burma have our full support in this”.

Britain, various European states and the US have all invested a lot in Aung San Suu Kyi. For many years, when the brutal regime of the Tatmadaw ruled Burma and was firmly oriented towards China, the Western powers and their media could not praise “The Lady” too highly, hence the Nobel Prize. The faux “return to democracy” of 2011 enabled a horde of western multinational companies to set up office in Yangon (Rangoon) expecting massive profits. Until the present flood of refugees, their representatives have made excuse after excuse for the Nobel Laureate.

But it was a poor facade of democracy. Suu Kyi was not allowed to stand for the Presidency and the NLD candidate and government were very limited in what policies they could carry out. The ministries dealing with the armed forces and their funding were kept under total military control. Her apologists claim that she is in a cleft stick, she dare not offend the military because they might launch another coup against civilian government.

At the same time, the main beneficiaries of “free speech” have been the Buddhist monks whose Saffron Revolution (September-October 2007) convinced the generals that they had to slowly and cautiously relinquish the front seats of power to carefully groomed civilians. Of course, they crushed the protests first. Now, western commentators claim Aung San Suu Kyi dare not offend the widespread Buddhist nationalist sentiment, which is now extremely islamophobic, in case it ruins her party’s chances electorally. In reality, she acted as a cover, and now an open apologist, for the military murderers.

A long tale of racism and repression
Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya is nothing new. The state refuses to recognise them as Myanmar citizens or even as one of the country’s 135 recognised ethnicities, claiming that they are really Bangladeshis or Bengalis. Aung San Suu Kyi herself refuses ever to refer to them as Rohingya. In fact, historians have shown that Rohingya communities have lived in Rakhine for hundreds of years, although their numbers were increased by the importation of labourers from Bengal under the British Raj. In any case, they plainly have no other home and to treat them as strangers in their own land, or to collude with driving them out, is a vile act of chauvinism and of national oppression.

No one should be too surprised by Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions, or inaction. In 2013, at a time when Buddhist monks and ultra nationalists were already whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, she gave a rare interview to BBC News in which she blamed the violence on "both sides", telling the interviewer, Mishal Husain, that "Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence".

This, despite the fact that it was clear Buddhist monks had headed pogroms in the Muslim neighbourhood of Meiktila in central Myanmar, in which homes were burned and more than 40 people were killed. Most of these anti-Rohingya activities were spearheaded by the fascistic “969 Movement of Buddhism”, led by Ashin Wirathu, which openly calls for the annihilation of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. It circulates pamphlets that are hate filled incitements against the minorities in general and Muslims in particular.

Systematic oppression of the Rohingyas, however, is not limited to the violence of fascistic Buddhist chauvinism. Parliament and government have passed a series of laws that effectively block intermarriage been Myanmar citizens and the stateless Rohingyas; outlaw religious conversions for all under 18 and then require approval by local officials, and allow local authorities to impose birth control on minorities.

These barely disguised racist laws make the life of the Muslim minority even more intolerable. Clearly, the actions of the Buddhist street gangs, the military and the legislators, whatever their differences, have one common purpose; to drive the Rohingyas out of Myanmar completely.

Radicalisation and Resistance.
Until the last year or two, there seemed to be little sign of radicalisation amongst Myanmar’s Muslims, despite their cruel oppression, but, last October and November, an armed group that referred to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin, Faith Movement, in Arabic, carried out attacks against government forces.

According to a report from the International Crisis Group, reported in Time last December: “On Oct. 9, it launched predawn attacks on three border police bases, including an audacious assault on the headquarters, a key security installation. The headquarters was overrun in a complex attack involving several hundred assailants that included planting improvised explosive devices and setting an ambush on the approach road, delaying the arrival of army reinforcements, while the attackers looted the armoury. A further clash on Nov. 12 killed a senior army officer. These actions represent the actions of a determined, well-trained insurgency that will likely launch further attacks.”

Harakah al-Yaqin's roots seem to lie amongst Rohingya émigrés living in Saudi Arabia. Its spokesperson, Ata Ullah, has claimed in several videos that the group is leading operations in northern Rakhine after having spent two years training hundreds of local recruits in guerilla fighting techniques and the use of explosives. Doubtless, Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh could become fertile recruiting grounds. Doubtless, too, it will build, if it has not already done so, links to international jihadist organisations. However, according to ICG it remains a local/national insurgency against the Myanmar security forces, and has not thus far attacked civilians or non-Muslim religious targets. Its sole proclaimed goal is to secure the rights of the Rohingya as citizens within Burma.

In reality, armed self defence and guerilla tactics are a response to the actions of the Tatmadaw, but the force needed to liberate the Rohingyas must lie with the workers and progressive anti-chauvinist youth of Myanmar and, indeed, of surrounding countries. It is plain that, even as a democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi is a broken reed from whom nothing can be expected and in whom no trust can be placed. This will become clearer and clearer as her role as a puppet for the military becomes more obvious, or when they cast her aside like a squeezed lemon, all her credibility gone.

Internationally, socialists and the workers' movement should demand an end to all economic and logistical support for the Myanmar military and its government. We should demand instead massive aid to the Rohingya refugees and their admission into various states, including Australia, the EU and the USA. We should give support to the Rohingya resistance, whilst remaining critical of an overall guerrilla strategy for liberation or any tactics that descend into communalism or religious bigotry.

We should call for all Myanmar troops and police to be withdrawn from Rakhine state and for the creation of democratic militias of the inhabitants of all ethnicities, religions and languages, so that Rohingyas can return to their lands and villages. Huge resources will be needed to undo the ruin wreaked by the army. Last, but not least, the Rohingya people need the free and unhindered right of self-determination.