Myanmar's front lines of horror
In the wake of searing violence that has displaced 420,000 Rohingya from Myanmar in a month, Nathan VanderKlippe visits the country's troubled border with Bangladesh, where those who have fled the wave of anti-Muslim hatred are struggling to make sense of a world turned upside down
On the day the latest troubles began, the military arrived in Kwangsi Bong and the men fled. Then the soldiers began rounding up women and children before launching mortars at villagers who gathered to protest.
It was Aug. 25. Early that morning Muslim militants had attacked 30 police posts and an army base in Myanmar's western Rakhine State, where much of the country's minority Rohingya population lives.
Armed with machetes and a few guns, hundreds of people launched the assault. They fought under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a fledgling insurgency led by a small group of Rohingya, based in Saudi Arabia, who claim religious sanction for their cause of employing violence to halt the persecution of Muslims in heavily Buddhist Myanmar. The militants sustained heavy losses that morning, but killed a dozen people.
The military response later in the day was quick and severe. Soldiers surrounded villages, firing bullets through streets and into local homes made of wood and straw. Women were raped, children were thrown into burning houses, and men were beheaded.
Kwangsi Bong lies on the shores of the Naf River, whose broad expanse separates Myanmar from Bangladesh. After the mortar shells exploded, Osman Gani, a 30-year-old local farmer, ran to a nearby village. On the way, he says, "I saw more than 100 dead bodies floating in the river." Some looked as if they had been attacked with knives, others had been shot. Some bodies had been burnt.
Across the northern stretches of Rakhine State, survivors of the Aug. 25 violence left their homes after discovering them burnt to the ground, setting off from their villages on arduous journeys across rivers and mountain ranges. Among their number were barefoot families carrying their few belongings on bamboo poles. Some women stopped for a few hours to give birth in jungles lit by flashlight.
When the Rohingya arrived at places like Kwangsi Bong, they joined local villagers boarding boats or swimming for safety to Bangladesh. The forests and shores around the village became one of many final departure points for those fleeing Myanmar.
The "Burmese government are saying that you're not from this country. You are from Bangladesh," said Mohammad Faisal, who was among the half-dozen people from Kwangsi Bong whom The Globe and Mail interviewed in Bangladesh in an effort to understand what has now driven more than 420,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar since Aug. 25 – and what the future holds for a people long treated as less than human at home. More than half those fleeing are children. In Bangladesh, they have found safety from guns but not from their own plight.
Through more than two dozen interviews with Rohingya, local and international researchers, human-rights activists and political leaders, The Globe and Mail has assembled a detailed picture of what has taken place in the last month, and the long history of tensions and repression that preceded it.
Already the world's largest stateless population, vast numbers of Rohingya are now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. There, men fight each other for supplies from aid trucks and children beg passersby with mournful eyes.
No solid figure exists on how many people have died over the past month, although current estimates peg it at about 1,500. Families who escaped to Bangladesh fear they may never be able to go back to a country where they have long suffered persecution and where many of their homes no longer exist. Satellite imagery examined by Human Rights Watch shows that fires in Myanmar have largely destroyed at least 214 villages.
"The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has said. Security analysts have likened the humanitarian crisis to that of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, while the international community has levelled heavy criticism at Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991 for her "nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights." Movements across the world have called for her to be stripped of honours, including Canadian citizenship.
Ms. Suu Kyi has little direct control over the country's armed forces, who have blocked her from taking the formal office of the presidency. Still, she has defended their conduct as a necessary response to insurgency, accusing the militants, who have also killed dozens of suspected informants, of "brutal acts of terrorism."
"The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians," Ms. Suu Kyi said in a landmark speech this week. She emphasized that "more than 50 per cent" of Muslim villages remain "intact."
"It is very little known that the great majority of Muslims in the Rakhine State have not joined the exodus," she said, pleading for patience. "We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all at the same time."
A dark side to freedom
What's happening in Myanmar raises difficult questions about the prospects for liberalization in a country that was, until fairly recently, a hermetically sealed military dictatorship. The advent of a nascent democratic system, whose first elections where held in 2010 – and allowed Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters to win the highest offices in the land five years later – was celebrated around the world.
But if democracy was intended to help heal wounds between disparate people, the opposite appears to be taking place. Indeed, what the local military has termed "clearance operations" against the Rohingya in the last month appear "to have the majority support," says Francis Wade, author of Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim'Other' .
That campaign threatens instability far outside the country, too. As images of bullet-ridden Rohingya course through TV channels and social media, security analysts have raised alarm that fury over the treatment of Myanmar's Muslims could be used by extremists in other Asian nations to spark new flames of terrorist activity across the region. "What they're trying to create is a contagion of radicalism," says Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis for Intelligent Security Solutions Ltd., a firm that has tracked the rise of extremism across Central and Southeast Asia. "It's going to pitch Muslim-dominated nations against Buddhist nations."
Bay of Bengal
the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news
(Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, wires)
Bay of Bengal
the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news
(Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, wires)
Bay of Bengal
the globe and mail, Sources: graphic news (Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, wires)
At the heart of this crisis is Rakhine State, a thin, arcing strip of land on the northeastern shore of the Bay of Bengal populated by farmers, fishermen and growers of shrimp who, save for a few roads, are cut off from the rest of Myanmar by tall mountains. The state's modern borders enclose land that was for centuries the seat of an independent ancient kingdom, Arakan, whose rulers were protected by Japanese warriors and whose capital was a cosmopolitan blend of Bengalis, Burmese, Persians and others. Arakan was conquered by the Burmese in the late 1700s and later ceded to the British, who administered it as part of the broader Indian empire.
Under British rule, waves of Muslim Bengali immigrants moved to find and build fortunes in a new land, sowing among the local residents – a Buddhist group known as the Rakhine, the modern-day term for Arakan – early seeds of local angst over the invasion of foreigners.
From those roots have emerged the latest spasm of violence, one whose deep historical resonance has found virulent expression in a democratic age, giving rise to riots and the creation of sprawling camps for displaced Rohingya inside the country they call home.
To some observers, what began on Aug. 25 was not particularly surprising. "When you kill my father. When you rape my daughter. Or my sister. Or my mother. When you burn my house. Then there is, I believe, genuine reason that I become angry," says Nazrul Islam Khan, a leading politician in Bangladesh who is sympathetic to the Rohingya. In Myanmar, he says, the government "needs to try to understand the experience of other countries. Why those people who are very innocent, who are living very politely – why some of them are becoming violent."
He understands, because he is describing himself. In 1971, Mr. Khan became a freedom fighter, brandishing arms against Pakistani military forces that had unleashed a campaign of brutal suppression in what is now Bangladesh. Pakistan, which at the time administered the region, was accused of genocide, and Bangladeshis fought back in a guerrilla war that led to the country's independence. "None of us were violent. None of us believed in killing people or shooting at people," says Mr. Khan. "But the situation forced us to do that."
After the fighting stopped, Mr. Khan never again touched a gun. He is now senior leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country's unofficial political opposition. But he sees echoes of his own guerrilla past in Myanmar today, where, he says, there may have been a time for intervention, an opportunity to halt the slide into grisly violence. "The world leadership is already late," he says. "They're late in expressing their concern. They're late in trying to do something positive. They are late in creating pressure on the Burmese government and the military to stop the cleansing."
A day unlike others
When the soldiers approached on Aug. 25, they began shooting into the air. Hearing the sound, many of the village's men turned and ran. They did not yet know that this day was any different from many others before it, when soldiers would arrive to conduct house inspections and, occasionally, visit humiliations.
Still, they ran.
"It's a regular occurrence for the military to come into the village and torture villagers," says Mohammad Islam, a 53-year-old farmer. His own son was once kicked by soldiers and beaten with the butt of a rifle. "For no reason other than because he was a young man," Islam said. "We know this is why they come, so the men flee. They do it because they want to keep us in a state of panic." (Many Rohingya do not use surnames.)
But Kwangsi Bong had not expected what the soldiers did next on that late-August morning. "There were only women left. So they took the women and the children," says Islam.
It's not not clear how many were rounded up; interviews with a half-dozen people from Kwangsi Bong suggest the total numbered more than 100. The soldiers began to march them to another village. As word of that spread, men emerged from their hiding spots and gathered in a group, hundreds of them, demanding the release of their loved ones. "We ran in front of the military and the police to protest," says Faisal, 28, a local businessman who ran a popular convenience store and a small shrimp farm.
In the midst of the angry confrontation, the military released the women and children. Then, soldiers opened fire, lobbing at least two mortar shells into the fleeing crowd. Five people died, by Faisal's count; others counted four. Some villagers were also injured by bullets sprayed in their direction. Soon after, much of the village emptied. The men believe the military had taken the women to provoke a confrontation.
Some villagers, like Faisal, quickly got into boats to cross. Others, like Gani, stayed nearby. "We still had cattle at our house," he says, "so we figured we would go back and take them with us to Bangladesh."
Three days later, he returned to his village, only to find his house torched and his material possessions gone. "Our cows, our goats, our clothes, our rice – they took whatever they could," he says. There was nothing left. He walked to the Naf River and swam across its broad expanse to Bangladesh, leaving behind a place that had been equal parts home and prison.
Humiliations, then violence
The degree of violence that began on Aug. 25 in Rakhine State was new. The experience of oppression was not. Long before the military opened fire last month, "in that place, they tortured us so much," says Habib Ullah, a 73-year-old farmer from Kwangsi Bong.
He recited a long list of restrictions imposed upon people in his village, which mirror ones in other Rohingya communities. In Kwangsi Bong, soldiers would conduct home inspections as often as once a week, looking for anything they deemed illegal. That could include the installation of concrete floors – a mark of permanence – and any residential structure larger than the footprint of what existed decades ago.
Checkpoints on roads leading out of Kwangsi Bong kept villagers inside boundaries only 10 kilometres apart. To leave, or even to conduct much of daily life inside those bounds, required formal approval from a local chairman who was not Rohingya. "To do anything, you would need permission from the chairman," says Habib Ullah, the farmer. "If I want to go to Maungdaw," the local township seat, "I need permission. If I want to go to the bazaar, I need permission. If I want to go to the hillside, I need permission. If I want to go to the river to catch fish, I need permission. And each of these permissions require money."
The soldiers brought humiliation, too. "They peed on the Koran, and wiped their asses with it," says Habib Ullah. His voice rises in indignation as he speaks, surrounded by fellow villagers who nod their heads, in the darkness of night, in one of the plastic-sheet tents where they have sought refuge in Bangladesh.
Faisal watched one such incident inside the village mosque last year. "There will be no trace left of you," he recalled them saying. "See, there is nothing your God can do to us."
Eleven days after he first fled Bangladesh, Faisal sneaked back across the river to his home, hoping to salvage things his family could use, such as clothes or animals. Slipping through the village, he encountered the grisly reality of what was unfolding. He watched as military and border guards sawed through the throats of three men. He came upon a row of men lying on their backs, one of whose brains had spilled through a hole in his skull.
After he returned to Bangladesh the next day, he witnessed men walking into the water, fishing out small children. One, then two, then three. They were dead. The military had shot at their boat, Faisal says, but the children showed no obvious wounds. They appeared to have drowned.
He shows video to a reporter as proof, one of many on a phone that has been turned into a library of horrors. "There is so much agony inside of us," he says. "I don't know why we haven't died of failed hearts."
Fatwas from abroad
The first tremors of the recent violence shook three Myanmar border police outposts on Oct. 9, 2016. Early that morning, hundreds of men launched a surprise attack, many bearing knives and slingshots, others equipped with rudimentary improvised explosive devices. They killed nine police and lost 10 of their own, including two who were captured. But the militants also made away with 62 weapons and more than 10,000 bullets.
Days later, videos began to arrive on Faisal's phone, introducing the men behind the attack. "They were saying very good things – that 'we are standing for the rights of the Rohingya people, to protect them,' " he says. The group pledged to "fight against the government, for Rohingya rights."
Rakhine State had been plagued by violent insurrection in the past. Riots in 2012 pitted Rakhine Buddhists against Muslim Rohingya, killing dozens of people and burning down thousands of homes. But the October assault on border outposts marked something different – a security risk that has now grown into a potent threat to the democratic process in Myanmar, and to security in the broader region. It was the "emergence of a new, organized, violent resistance," concluded Richard Horsey, an independent analyst in Yangon, the Myanmar capital formerly known as Rangoon, who wrote a detailed report on the militants for International Crisis Group.
The militants, at that time, went by the name Harakah al-Yaqin, or HaY, Arabic for "Faith Movement." They would later employ the English name Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA. Mr. Horsey learned that they were led by a committee of Rohingya expatriates based in Saudi Arabia whose leader, Ata Ullah, is fluent in both Arabic and the Bengali dialect used by the Rohingya. Along with him, another 20 Rohingya from Saudi Arabia had travelled to Myanmar to lead ground operations, Mr. Horsey wrote – among them, people "thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan."
The government in Myanmar has called ARSA a terrorist group, saying it has ties to Taliban-trained militants. ARSA itself has denied this, asserting on Twitter that it has "no links" to "any transnational terrorist group." Their aim, Mr. Horsey wrote, was not international terrorism, but, rather, to halt Rohingya persecution – and they received religious blessing for their objectives. Clerics in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh issued fatwas sanctifying violence against Myanmar security forces, ruling that "anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam."
ARSA developed in a pressure cooker. After the 2012 riots, large numbers of Rohingya were placed in camps for displaced people that today hold 120,000 inside Rakhine State. Then, in 2015, Thailand closed off a key escape route used by Rohingya to smuggle themselves into Malaysia and Indonesia. That same year, a president installed by the military barred most Rohingya from participating in the vote that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power.
A scorched-earth campaign
Celebrated by the rest of the world, the 2015 election marked a new era for Myanmar. Rohingya, too, celebrated. "We thought that if an advocate for democracy was elected, they would speak about our rights," says Akhter Alam, a Rohingya leader from Taungpyoletwea, another Myanmar border village. He has now fled to Bangladesh, and many houses in his old home town have been burnt. But he still holds faith in the Nobel laureate.
Many, though, have found little peace under Ms. Suu Kyi. "The hope many Rohingya had for many years was the hope that if Myanmar became more democratic, they would at least have a better life with Aung San Suu Kyi in power," says Chris Lewa, founder of the human-rights organization Arakan Project. "But that's obviously not the case. And I think that has made them understand there is nothing to lose. And that has helped the emergence of this armed group."
Little appreciated outside Myanmar, the problems for Rohingya as they are currently unfolding date to 2010, when the junta began to lift its repressive rule. All sorts of new media soon began to flourish, giving voice to a citizenry long silenced – but also providing potent new platforms for the airing of ancient hatreds.
Many in Rakhine and, indeed, across Myanmar have long seen the Rohingya as not merely one of the country's many minority ethnic groups, but as an invading Muslim force. They became a perfect foil for Rakhine Buddhist politicians – themselves long repressed by the military – who suddenly had a chance to vie for elected office.
"If I don't protect my race, then it will disappear," one Rakhine man told Mr. Wade, the author of Myanmar's Enemy Within. He described how he had participated in an attack with other local residents on a Rohingya community, some burning houses, others wielding machetes to hack Muslims who fled. They felt little compunction about their actions against a group most Burmese call not "Rohingya" but "Bengalis."
Rohingya have "been essentially dehumanized and branded as fearsome interlopers, bent on overwhelming the country's resources and eroding the centrality of Buddhism," says Mr. Wade. That has fed a "mass hatred of a particular group – not an individual within that group, but a group identity as a whole."
Earlier this week, Myanmar military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing bluntly put it this way: "Race cannot be swallowed by the ground, but only by another race."
But in exercising its new-found electoral powers, the Buddhist majority – Muslims make up just 5 per cent of Myanmar's population – has perverted the very aims that buttressed the broader democratic project. "There is a big risk if you have the country coming to be defined, and its sentiment coming to be defined, around a very exclusionary, nationalistic and anti-Muslim agenda," says Mr. Horsey. "I think that is very damaging for the prospect of Myanmar emerging as a tolerant, multiethnic, multireligious society."
The ARSA attacks last October and this August appear to have been strategic attempts to provoke a military response so fierce that it would horrify the world into realizing how far from its democratic ideals Myanmar remained. In that, they almost certainly succeeded.
But the scorched-earth campaign they unleashed has not only made victims of great numbers of their own people. Mr. Hynes, the risk analyst with Intelligent Security Solutions Ltd., fears the Rohingya crisis will serve as a "galvanizing catalyst" toward the "unification of the cause for radical Islam in Southeast Asia," bringing together jihadist operational and training expertise in the Philippines, technological sophistication in Indonesia and financial backing in Malaysia.
'They are killing everyone'
Late one recent night, Ayub stole back to Kwangsi Bong to salvage a few belongings. Most of the houses in the village had been reduced to ash. But Ayub, a fisherman, lived in a small place on the water that had been spared the torches of attackers, who included both soldiers and local Rakhine Buddhists. He took from his home clothes, nets, pots and a pair of chickens, and loaded them on a boat, filling it so full that he returned to Bangladesh the next afternoon wading beside it in the water.
"There are only four houses left," he said. "Nobody is in the village any more."
Armed forces in Myanmar opened fire on him during the 90-minute crossing back to Bangladesh, but he arrived unscathed to Anzuman Para, a place where the hope of safer shores had long since been transformed into a huddle of desperate humanity. It was at this spot, three weeks earlier, that Faisal first made landfall in Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar, passing by the maze of shrimp ponds nestled up against the Naf River.
Now, the narrow mud berms spidering between those ponds were covered in tarps draped over bamboo poles, a city of escapees clinging to every available piece of land. Inside one makeshift home Ayesha, 25, sought to shield the pale flesh of a new baby from the brightness of the sun. She and her husband had walked four days with their two children to escape a frenzy of gunfire and knife attacks that had engulfed their village in Myanmar. Ayesha was late in her pregnancy and, the night they arrived in Bangladesh, the intense pain of labour took hold. "It was almost unbearable," she says.
She gave birth shortly after sunrise, to a girl. Five hours later, the baby had not yet been given a name. Blood stained the mud near the tiny patch of earth where the family had pitched their tent. An exhausted Ayesha struggled to describe her experience to The Globe. Then she collapsed, falling to the ground. Her husband rushed into the tent as their two other children, a 2 1/2-year-old boy and five-year-old girl, looked on.
Her son began to cry. "I want to go home, take me home," he said.
"They are killing everyone," a woman's voice responded from inside the tent. "They are killing everyone."
Twice before, Rohingya families like Ayesha's have gathered on shores like this, driven from Myanmar by sectarian violence in the late 1970s and early 1990s. Both times, hundreds of thousands of people fled to Bangladesh. And both times, government agreements allowed for their return. Most went back.
In Bangladesh, the political establishment now sees past as prologue. Its diplomats have pressed Yangon to open a path for the Rohingya to be allowed back to their homes. "We have told Myanmar, they are your citizens, you must take them back, keep them safe, give them shelter. There should not be any oppression and torture," Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the UN General Assembly this week.
Those petitions have accomplished little. "The Myanmar government is not responding to the calls. Rather, Myanmar is laying land mines along the border to stop the return of Rohingyas to their homeland," Ms. Hasina said.
In Myanmar, Ms. Suu Kyi has said her government is ready "at any time" to welcome back Rohingya, under the provisions of a repatriation process established with Bangladesh more than two decades ago. She has also pledged to work toward setting in place recommendations made by a commission led by Kofi Annan, which spent a year studying the situation in Rakhine State. In late August, the former UN secretary-general called on Myanmar to lift restrictions on movement and citizenship for Rohingya.
For a brief moment after the release of that report, "there was some ray of hope that [Ms. Suu Kyi] and her government were taking some steps – at least they were promising that," says Ms. Lewa, the Arakan Project founder. Only hours later, ARSA conducted its Aug. 25 attacks. Now, says Ms. Lewa, the devastation that followed has made "it difficult, if not impossible, for these people to return."
Abul Kashem, a local NGO worker who has spent decades helping Rohingya, recognized that things were different this time when what he call the "millionaires" began to cross into Bangladesh, too. Even the wealthiest Rohingya have been forced to flee. "What we are hearing is that they want to make this area free of Rohingya," he says, referring to Myanmar's armed forces.
"And the evidence is the cleansing – that they are burning all the houses," he adds, speaking in his spartan office in Court Bazar, a highway town not far from the camps where recently arrived Rohingya have dug out dirt to make level surfaces on which to sleep.
Late one night, in one of those camps, Abul Hossen stops a reporter to talk. He is soon surrounded by people who gather to hear him, his face blue in the light of cellphones as he gives voice to a collective desperation. He lived in a village next to Kwangsi Bong and, before he fled to Bangladesh, buried the bodies of two men he found in the jungle. Their throats had been cut, and their genitals were missing.
"I cannot stop the tears from my eyes – the way they tortured us, insulted us and humiliated us," he says. "And now we have another kind of torture here." He gestures at the sea of tarpaulin tents around him. "We didn't come to this country to beg. We didn't come for someone to give us a bed of flowers. I had a very nice house over there," he says, gesturing in the direction of Myanmar.
Now, with his house burned and his crops destroyed, he watches fellow Rohingya begging for bits of food or clothing in a place that, were it not for the border separating two countries, is barely removed from what was once his home.
It leaves him feeling ill, but he struggles to imagine how things can change for the better. "I have no peace inside me," he says. "I feel like swallowing poison and taking my life to get away from this misery. I can't take this."
With reporting by Amirul Rajiv
Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Asia.
THE GLOBE IN BANGLADESH: MORE FROM NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE