Rohingya Muslims aren’t the only ones being persecuted by Myanmar’s military
Daniel Maxwell says the persecution of the Rohingya, which has outraged much of the international community, is just the latest episode in a pattern of violent behaviour against minorities in Myanmar, which the democratic transition has done nothing to halt
The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Eastern Myanmar is being exposed by international media organisations, pressuring the country’s leaders to end these brutal human rights violations. What remains unreported is that the Myanmar military’s conduct has been a pattern of behaviour against minority ethnic groups for decades. While the international community focuses on today’s atrocities in Rakhine State, government forces attack and persecute ethnic communities in other regions of the country with impunity.
Abuses of impoverished Rohingya communities have shocked the world, but observers familiar with the Myanmar Army’s history of massacres, mass rape and destruction are unsurprised. The Rohingya are the latest in a long line of victims of one of the most brutal militaries of modern times.
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Kachin State, centre of the lucrative jade industry, has witnessed years of unrest as Myanmar’s armed forces battle rebels. Since June 2011, more than 120,000 civilians have been displaced, with most residing in makeshift camps across the remote mountains of the region.
As recently as June, clearance operations were launched in Tanai, known for high-quality jade. Army personnel dropped thousand of leaflets from helicopters warning villagers to leave the area, with individuals remaining beyond June 15 treated as enemy combatants. Nine villages in the Hugawng Valley region were abandoned within days.
Following the villagers’ hurried exodus from Tania, a collection of Kachin civil society organisations issued a joint statement accusing the Myanmar Army and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), of land-grabbing.
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“It is clear that the Tatmadaw’s [the armed forces of Myanmar’s official name] current military offensive is aimed at seizing local lands to make way for Naypyidaw-approved mining companies, agricultural companies and so-called environmental conservation organisations, and preventing the thousands of local inhabitants from ever returning”, they said.
Aside from clearing ethnic groups from their ancestral lands, Myanmar’s government worsens the plight of these displaced communities by blocking humanitarian assistance and restricting aid groups from operating freely, in clear breach of the International Humanitarian Law.
In Shan State, there are more than 6,200 refugees and internally displaced people in six camps along the Shan-Thai border, mostly forced to retreat to those mountains during the 1990s, when the military launched scorched-earth offensives against 1,400 villages. More than 300,000 people were driven from their homes, and hundreds of villagers were tortured, killed and raped in circumstances similar to those the Rohingya suffer.
Given the difficult conditions in isolated camps along Myanmar’s mountainous border, communities struggle to grow sufficient quantities of food and for years relied on international donations of rice. However, the food aid was withdrawn in October, as organisations such as the Border Consortium adopted a new strategy “focused on supporting the voluntary return, resettlement and reintegration of displaced communities from Burma/Myanmar between 2017 and 2019”.
The withdrawal of international aid led to drastic shortages of food and health supplies, creating a crisis for all on the Shan border.
Communities in the mountainous camps fear returning to their farms while Myanmar’s military continues it operations, as the Shan State Refugee Committee explained: “We cannot yet return to our homes, because our villages are now derelict, or have been occupied by the Myanmar Army, their militia or the United Wa State Army ... Villagers continue to be arrested, tortured and killed.”
The transition from military dictatorship to democratically elected government, headed by Suu Kyi, has had a negligible impact on Myanmar’s marginalised communities. Voters from these besieged states, who backed the NLD during the country’s historic 2015 elections, now feel forgotten and betrayed.
Suu Kyi’s indifference toward ethnic minorities has been made abundantly clear in her handling of the Rohingya crisis, as have the limits of her power. Myanmar’s military, who for decades worried about this woman, now probably wonder why. Since her release from house arrest, the country’s generals have continued their flagrant plundering of Myanmar’s natural resources and persecution of any community in their way, and the international community’s outrage is directed at the West’s once-beloved democracy icon.
With the inhumane actions of Myanmar’s military making global headlines, and foreign governments calling on Suu Kyi to speak out, this is a unique opportunity to challenge Myanmar on its abysmal human rights record. Myanmar is not a beacon of democracy; it’s a violent regime systematically persecuting ethnic communities, and it’s time the international community treated it as such.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and teaching in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s