EVER since the 9 October attacks on police outposts in Burma’s Rakhine State led to the deployment of security forces to the region, numerous reports have emerged of rapes, arson attacks and extra-judicial killings of Rohingya. Those responsible for the initial attack, which left nine policemen dead, appear to have been Rohingya. Whether they came from Rakhine State or from Bangladesh, or both, is unclear.
But the response by security forces has been to place the entire area on lockdown as troops sweep through Rohingya villages searching for the militants. The government in Naypyidaw has roundly dismissed reports of abuses. “All are well convinced that the accusations of international media of violations of human rights of local residents during Maungtaw area clearance operations were intentionally fabricated in collusion with terrorist groups,” said a statement from the Ministry of Information. Aung San Suu Kyi — currently in Japan, despite the worst crisis faced by her six-month old administration — said on 3 November that security forces were abiding by the “rule of law”.
Independent journalists have been barred from traveling to the area of Northern Rakhine State where the security operations are underway. Instead, the Ministry of Information organized for a team of officials, accompanied by handpicked journalists working for state media outlets, to visit and provide reports to those media outlets that have been refused entry. This team would, it was noted in advance, “refute accusations on the alleged racial and religious persecution by the Tatmadaw”, the Myanmar army. It seemed the allegations of army brutality were being denied before any investigation had taken place.
Because the area is a black spot for independent media, the claims of abuses have been difficult to verify. They have however been numerous, and they chime with well-documented historic evidence of the military’s treatment of Rohingya, and ethnic minorities more generally. But the same denialism that surfaced after the 2012 violence in Rakhine State has again been on display. Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing Rohingya villages that had been razed following police and army deployment in early October. The Ministry of Information claims that Rohingya had burned their own homes for propaganda purposes.
All 33 Rohingya that were acknowledged to have been killed by security forces since operations began after 9 October were participants in the attack, the government said. Perhaps that was true — the information blackout means we cannot say either way. But we also know that punishment of Rohingya is always done collectively, and not on an individual basis. There is a penalty for beingRohingya, and it is manifested in a range of control measures — tight restrictions on movement, access to healthcare, and more — that is both acute, and unique only to them.
That had been a classic containment policy of the junta. Yet the mindset that feeds it — that an entire group is a single guilty party, with all individuals within it folded into one — appears now to inform the new civilian government’s approach to the crisis. The spokesperson for the President’s Office, Zaw Htay, stated on 27 October, nearly three weeks after the lockdown began, that the government was initially blocking aid to displaced Rohingya in order to flush them out of their hiding places and force them to return to their villages. There, the military would be able to investigate whether they participated in the attack. The government thus appears to have already determined that all Rohingya are suspects.
While these reports may shock observers, there’s nothing really new in them. The abuses faced by the Rohingya at the hands of security forces, and indeed civilians, is decades old. What is rather more recent, and astonishing, is the way the military has been able to profit so effectively from this all. After Fiona MacGregor, a journalist with the Myanmar Times, published a report on allegations that security forces had raped Rohingya women, Presidential Spokesperson Zaw Htay attacked her on Facebook, calling the allegations false and irresponsible and deserving of legal action.
What came next was a flood of comments from Burmese calling for a case to be brought against her and her newspaper. Others who commented that the government should allow independent journalists in to assess the credibility of the accusations were rounded upon and accused of slandering the military. Several days later, after a phone call to the Myanmar Times from the Ministry of Information, MacGregor was fired.