“This is the result of years of oppression, and being denied citizenship and basic human rights,” says Liu Runcang, a volunteer at the Kokang Literary and Cultural Association’s headquarters in Lashio, northern Myanmar. “Thank god our ancestors were smart enough to strike a deal, so we can have citizenship, otherwise we might end up like them.”
Does he have any sympathy for the more than 421,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh and accused Myanmar’s military of torture, murder and rape?
“Not really,” says Liu. “In the end, we are Myanmese and they are the outsiders.”
Kokang has a population of 1.3 million and its own refugee problem: an estimated 200,000 have been displaced by conflict between the military and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an armed insurgent group.
According to the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the people of Buddhist-dominated Myanmar belong to eight indigenous races: the Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan, which are divided into 135 distinct ethnic groups. The Kokang, like Liu, are ethnically Chinese but are categorised under the Shan. The Rohingya, on the other hand, are not counted among the 135 ethnic groups, and so do not have the right to Myanmese citizenship.
When Burma, as Myanmar was then known, gained independence from Britain, in 1948, the Rohingya were able to participate in the political life of the country, obtaining statehood for Rakhine – territory once known as Arakan that they may have inhabited since the 12th century – in 1974. A brutal military crackdown on “illegal immigration” in 1977-78 led to the first mass exodus to Bangladesh. Many Rohingya returned a year later only to be stripped of their citizenship and ethnic-minority status by the military regime, in 1982.
Life has been tough for the mostly Muslim, Indo-Aryan Rohingya ever since.
On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), a Rohingya insurgent group, attacked police and army posts in Rakhine state, killing 12 officers, according to the government. Arsa had carried out a similar attack last October, after which the Myanmar government declared it a terrorist group, increased security in northern Rakhine and sent in the military to carry out sometimes deadly “clearance operations”.
The Rohingya began streaming across the border with Bangladesh, some crossing minefields, others being charged huge sums of money by smugglers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has accused Myanmar of carrying out “a textbook ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims”, although roughly 30,000 members of other ethnicities have also been displaced.
Amid increasingly strident accusations from the international community, one person remained silent. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, held her tongue until September 19, when she made her first speech on the government’s efforts towards peace and reconciliation. She said her government was committed to democratic transition, peace and stability, but stressed that it had been difficult to achieve much progress in just 18 months in office.
She was aware the world’s attention was focused on the situation in Rakhine state, she said, but Myanmar was not afraid of international scrutiny.
During her speech and in subsequent interviews, Suu Kyi seemed genuinely curious to find out what the real cause of the exodus was. She stated that more than 50 per cent of Muslim villages remained intact and asked the international community to also look at the positives, saying that new jobs were being created in Rakhine and all people living in the state had access to education and health-care services without discrimination. She also called for the repatriation of refugees who had fled to Bangladesh, but only after they had completed a verification process.
During her 30-minute speech – which was broadcast in English, without subtitles – she did not mention the Rohingya by name, nor did she comment on ethnic cleansing.
Supporters had gathered in city centres and homes to watch her speech. In central Yangon, they carried placards and banners bearing slogans such as “Bengalis are not Myanmar citizens” and “We will stand by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we will stand by our government, we will stand by our army”.
On the whole, the Myanmese see the Rohingya as intruders, and therefore refer to them as Bengalis. And a country trying to cope with one of the longest running civil wars stands almost united on one issue: the Bengalis are not welcome.
That feeling is illustrated in a cartoon that has been widely shared on social media: dark arms, symbolising the Rohingya, reach from behind a door marked “back door”. Some hold knives and are trying to cut the door down. Trying to keep the door closed are a soldier, a policeman, a member of parliament, a man in ethnic Shan dress and a journalist with a big camera hanging around his neck.
“When I was on DVB Debate [a television talk show], some of the young Muslim people told me they are not happy about it,” says the cartoon’s creator, Mg Mg Phaung Tane, who has been producing satirical work for more than 20 years.
Muslims (excluding Rohingya) make up just 4.3 per cent of Myanmar’s population, according to the most recent national census, which was conducted in March 2014.
Speaking after a book launch in Yangon, Mg Mg Phaung Tane refuses to use the word “Rohingya”, referring to them instead as “boatpeople”, a term that found favour in May 2015, when thousands of Rohingya, many having been lured by smugglers in the hope of escaping to Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia, were left stranded in the Andaman Sea while authorities around the region refused to take them in.
“We know that we cannot kill them or throw them in the ocean,” says Mg Mg Phaung Tane. “But it would also be difficult to live together peacefully as their [religious] beliefs are quite different from ours.”
U Tin Myint Oo is another cartoonist with the Rohingya in his sights. One of his works shows a man dressed in black riding a camel, which is marked with the initials “INGO” (international non-governmental organisation), towards Rakhine, holding a sword and a shield bearing the words “human rights”. Biscuits from the UN World Food Programme were found on July 30 at a camp suspected of having been used by Arsa, leading to accusations that international aids groups are helping the “terrorists”.
“The Bengali people have been here for so many years now, as Rakhine was one of the easiest ways to enter the country,” says U Tin Myint Oo, who is himself from the state. “If we were to give them citizenship and their own territory, a lot of Rohingya people would arrive here. I think a lot of human rights groups are putting pressure on the government, so that more Rohingya can come in to this country. Therefore, it will be very dangerous to give them citizenship and territory, as they demand.
“Even if we give them what they demand, the conflict will grow stronger as their population increases,” he says. “However, if they are to stay here peacefully, we can accept them as migrants with limited rights, such as political rights, and so on. They will not have the rights as a citizen but they will be able to live here peacefully.”
For that to happen, U Tin Myint Oo says, the government would have to be able to provide the Rohingya with jobs and education, to avoid conflict in the future.
Given the violence in the north, however, tension is running high across Myanmar.
“All Muslim communities across the country are more or less being targeted for what is happening in Rakhine state. Even we have to be careful about what we say or do,” says U Wunna Shwe, joint secretary of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar. Muslim-owned shops and houses were damaged by a mob in Magway, in central Myanmar, on September 10, and, two days later, a man was arrested in Yangon for shouting: “Are there any Muslims in this street? Come out! I will kill you all!”
And it’s not just Muslims who are under attack.
Soe Chay, a Rakhine woman, had her hair cut off by a mob that then paraded her through her village with a cardboard placard around her neck that read: “I’m a national traitor”. Her crime? Giving food to Rohingya.
Speaking in his Yangon office, U Wunna Shwe says there is generally little interaction between the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Myanmar.
“Even though we believe in the same religion, we are different in terms of race,” he says. However, his council has been caring for Rohingya in Rakhine refugee camps and says they should be given citizenship.
“Rumours and fake news are a global problem right now, but in a country like Myanmar, which has a history of conflict between religions, fake news is an easy trigger for violence and fear,” says Htaike Htaike Aung, co-founder and executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, a non-profit company that offers training, especially in rural and remote areas, in the use of information and communications technology.
“Each community receives different [Facebook] messages; the Buddhists receive messages to warn them to be prepared for an attack by the Muslims, and Muslims receive messages telling them [they should expect an attack],” says Htaike Htaike Aung. Once what starts out as a private message on Facebook is shared widely, it’s almost impossible to trace the source.
“Messages like this only create fear among people and no help,” says Htaike Htaike Aung. “There are more than 20 million people using Facebook in Myanmar now, most of the users having started within the past two years. Their ability to recognise fake news is still very limited.”
Rather than rely on what was being reported and rumoured, U Wunna Shwe agreed to go on a four-day government-organised tour to northern Rakhine at the beginning of September.
“The Rakhine people knew that we [U Wunna Shwe and a colleague] were in the car, so they threw rocks at the car and were very violent,” he says. “They tried to stop the car and demanded the officials hand us over to them. There were around 1,000 people demonstrating violently. It was life-threatening for everyone in the car.”
The most common fear is that “Muslims will invade our land”, says Tin Maung Than, general secretary of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar.
“There is only 4 per cent of us in Myanmar’s population – it’s always been 4 per cent – how do we invade or take over Myanmar with such a small population?”
U Wunna Shwe does not think Suu Kyi’s speech will have much impact.
“She was very careful with her words and did not blame anyone for this issue,” he says. “The situation is very fragile and we are looking more at the results rather than what she says.”
But he does point out some of the fallacies contained in the speech.
“For example, a lot of Rohingya children do not have access to education,” he says, and those living in internal camps need special permission to leave, to attend school or university.
His council has been a strong supporter of Suu Kyi and believes she is the only person able to bring peace to the country. It also acknowledges that, despite her position, Suu Kyi is not as powerful as the military.
“All this was not created by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi nor can she solve it alone,” U Wunna Shwe says. “She has to cooperate with the military, other parties. International media has to know who they should target, to exert pressure. Blaming Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not solve anything.”
However, he does disagree with Suu Kyi on one other perception.
“Fifty per cent have left because they are scared or are in big trouble. It is obvious how big the matter is when more than 50 per cent of the people have had to flee,” says U Wunna Shwe, putting a different spin on Suu Kyi’s comment that half of the Muslim villages in Rakhine remain intact.
“They had to leave the places where they were born, grew up. Nobody would do that if they felt safe.”