Rohingya: The Sufis of Arakan

Photograph Source: Tasnim News Agency – CC BY 4.0

‘It was absolutely shocking, how children aged five or six were hunted down and had their throats slit. I was thinking ‘this is ISIS-type stuff’. I told Aung San Suu Kyi ‘you have moral standing in this country. You have to stop this. Why are you hiding it?’ She said [the United Nations] needed to share more evidence with her.’

That was the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, speaking about the way the Myanmar army, the Tatmadaw, dispatched Muslim children from Rohingya villages in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Hussein, though, was talking about his shock at massacres that took place in late 2016, almost a full year before the crisis exploded into the public consciousness in September 2017.

The massacres, including one at a village called Dar Gyi Zar in November 2016, shocked the UN. But this was nothing new or different. Those who pay attention to Myanmar events already knew that this was business as usual for the Tatmadaw: vicious brutality, the systematic rape of women and girls, the burning of villages, they’re all in the Myanmar army’s day-to-day playbook. The murders may have been committed with extra gusto, the villages razed 100, rather than 75 per cent, only because of the Rohingya’s status as Muslims. It’s ironic to see and hear Burmese soldiers filming themselves telling teenaged Rohingya youth to ‘come here you black Indian mother******’, since they’re not all that different physically.

The difference is in the religion, culture, and heritage. Rohingya are the descendants of Muslim traders who settled centuries ago in western Myanmar. They originally had their own small kingdom, Arakan. They have not only a fascinating history but a mighty interesting culture. They subscribe to a Sufi variant of Sunni Islam, speak their own language, and in many cases trace their local ancestry back decades, if not centuries.

Yet right from the off, in 1948, the Burmese government denied this history, refusing to grant the Rohingya (Rohang means ‘Arakan’ and ‘gya’ means ‘from’ in their dialect) any legal status as citizens. To the local Buddhist population, they are ‘other’. And local Buddhists can easily be encouraged to join a scratch militia and take part in the violence.

The rest of the world probably doesn’t know that it means to be stateless in the sense that the Rohingya are and have been since Burmese independence. You are without legal status or rights, you can’t operate as a normal citizen in a nation of (however poorly observed) laws. You’re prevented from doing almost anything that might lift you out of poverty, such as own a business or get a land title. You’re reduced to a non-person, living hand-to-mouth, often going hungry.

The slit throats, the bodies riddled with bullet holes, the charred bones and blackened earth where soldiers tried in some cases to burn the evidence: these things only shocked the world because much of the world was ignorant about the Tatmadaw. In the case of the Rohingya, it was straight-up killing and rape (then killing) and razing. Elsewhere, in other parts of the country, the Myanmar army tends to get more creative: slavery and the sale of women have not been uncommon. Here, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day. Spread the panic and terror, and force the Rohingya out, into Bangladesh.

The blood-letting did not start in 2017, nor did the discrimination. Kutupalong, across the border from Rakhine state in Bangladesh, is the world’s largest refugee camp. It’s a slum city, really. In early 2020 there were 600,000 refugees living there and a total of 905,822 in camps spread out along the western bank of the river Naf, which forms the border with Myanmar itself. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already fled in previous years, since institutionalized discrimination and non-random violence have plagued the state for at least a decade. The population was denied ethnic rights in 1948, which would have given them the Rohingya the same status as the Shan and the Kachin, among the country’s 150-odd ethnic groups. They were excluded from the 2014 census and labelled ‘illegal immigrants’ when in fact most had longstanding ties to Rakhine and Myanmar. They have been denied voting rights, forced to pay cash to army and police at checkpoints just to leave their village and go to the market, and their communities left to rot in the direst poverty: 78 per cent of Rohingya in Rakhine live below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 35 per cent (already one of the world’s highest).

After decades of dehumanization, some young Rohingya had had enough, and a newly formed militia called the ARSA, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked 30 of the hated police posts in late August 2017. That brought the slaughter (6700 dead in 2017 alone, 730 of them under five years old) down upon them. At the time of the 2016 Dar Gyi Zar massacre, which followed a smaller round of raids on police posts, Aung San Suu Kyi said of those responsible: ‘According to the principles of justice, everybody must be considered innocent until proven guilty.’

She was lying. The opposite was true, because Min Aung Hlaing was supervising the reprisals. Min Aung Hlaing is the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, the very same one who thanked Aung San Suu Kyi for her Janus-faced support in the International Court of Justice in The Hague (where she denied genocide and ethnic cleansing in 2018) by imprisoning her and all her mates in his dog-in-the-manger putsch this year. He’s responsible for burning 288 villages to the ground and killing thousands of the residents.

Let’s see what others had to say about the 2017 brutality, which forced 700,000 refugees to flee.

The United Nations report on the Rohingya crisis, published in August 2018, said the Tatmadaw were committing ‘mass killings and rapes with genocidal intent’.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry (Myanmar’s state-run judicial watchdog) reported ‘war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law’.

The International Criminal Court, which is, unsurprisingly, not recognized by Myanmar, handed down a ruling in January 2020 that ordered Myanmar government forces to ‘take all measures within its power’ to prevent genocidal violence. The ICJ made this ruling on the basis that since the refugees have fled to Bangladesh, and Bangladesh does recognize the court, it has jurisdiction in international law. Commenting on the judgment, Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said: ‘This is the most important court in the world intervening in one of the worst mass atrocity situations of our time while the atrocities are still happening. It doesn’t really get more significant than that.’

In reality, the whole of Rakhine state is a crime scene. The country’s current dictator, Min Aung Hlaing, is up to his neck in it. Aung San Suu Kyi left her ethics and her humanity at the gate when she denied the barbarities perpetrated by her own armed forces. The Lady is no longer a Lady but an apologist for ethnic cleansing and murder. In that moment in The Hague, when she gazed right and left while lying through her teeth, she must have known two things: that she was setting fire to her own international credibility, and that any other response from her would have precipitated an immediate coup by the Tatmadaw. Yet look where we are now. Perhaps we should rename her The Ker, after the violent female death spirits of Greek mythology. What happened to her compassion?

This article first appeared on Maqshosh.

John Clamp writes for Maqshosh.