The Burmese (Myanmar) government has been fighting ethnic minorities for decades. They have committed grave human rights abuses on every level, and they’ve done it to Christians, animists, Buddhists and most recently, the Rohingya Muslims. The violence toward the Rohingya civilians has been particularly harsh — Doctors Without Borders reported 8,170 deaths in the first month, over 1200 of them children under five — to include throwing babies against trees, burning families in their homes and rape followed by executions. These human rights abuses have garnered significant criticism on a global scale, so the Burmese government responded by putting their state-owned media groups to work.
Playing off the western fears of Islamic extremism, the Burmese government took advantage of the fact that the Rohingyas are, by and large, a Muslim population. They used phrases like “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists,” as said by Zaw Htay, the spokesman for the office of State Counselor. They use the buzz words “insurgents” and “extremists” to press just the right buttons. Many conveniently forget that this isn’t the first time that the Burmese government has committed atrocities against the Rohingya, or countless other ethnic groups within their borders.
As with any successful misdirection, the first step is to insert a little truth. In 2016, Muslim insurgents had been fighting with the Burmese along the border near Bangladesh. The Rohingya combatants, numbered in the hundreds, attacked and killed many border guards. Other combatants fought further into Burma, culminating in a battle that claimed the lives of 69 Rohingya and 17 Burmese. Arrests were made and many were sentenced to death. That’s when the government began to retaliate, killing civilians en masse, targeting anyone bearing the label “Rohingya.”
The government-run media points to these events as inciting incidents, to help others infer that their response was somewhat justified, and that they were the victims first. They play off the West’s fears regarding Islamic extremism, and many have danced to their tune. SOFREP Facebook comments on the Rohingya often reflect the success of Burma’s media campaign, despite the fact that it is disputed by multiple aid organizations, neighboring countries, several outside news organizations and UN research — all of which are providing first-hand information on the ground.
To understand these “inciting incidents,” context is important. The Rohingya insurgents did not attack out of the blue, and their reasons weren’t of some Middle-Eastern extremism. The most important factor to consider here is what the Burmese government has been doing for the last 70 years since the close of WWII.
If you look to the map on the right, the Rohingya populate much of Rakhine state, especially to the north. The yellow areas indicate the ethnic groups/states living all throughout Burma.
The government has been committing atrocities to these states for decades. The summary executions, conscription of child soldiers, systematic rape, the mass destruction of property — the Rohingya conflict is nothing new. The ethnic groups fighting back and attacking the government is nothing new. Sometimes it is in response for some new form of oppression, sometimes it is self-defense, and sometimes it is just born from the complex struggles and conflict brought about by generations of war.
The sheer amount of human rights abuses the government has committed in the last 70 years is staggering — so much so that much of the world has since drifted their gaze to other conflicts in other regions.
Over 200,000 Karen (a group in the east, in Kayah, Tanintharyi and Kayin states) were driven from their homes in 2006, many suffering the same fate the Rohingya face today — this is a conservative estimate.
In 2002, many of the Shan fled to Thailand as their homes were burned by the Burmese government. What did the Burmese do when they made camp in Thailand? They shelled the refugee camp/border town called Mae Sai.
The Burmese signed a ceasefire with the Kachin in 1994, but they simply used the ceasefire to take advantage of a people at their mercy. They built infrastructure under the banner of peace, but continued conscripting men, women and children into forced labor, using systematic rape along with other atrocities to keep the people under their thumb. There are fears that they are employing the same strategy with the Karen today.
The government has frequently employed the “divide and conquer” strategy, pitting the Wa military against the Shan, leaving them to fight each other and stay weak entirely.
The Burmese military continues its violence towards the ethnic groups that, if considering two like the Karen and the Rohingya, often have nothing to do with one another. Now that they are taking controversy regarding a Muslim target, they have found that it is easier for the West to swallow their propaganda if they use descriptions like “Islamic extremists.”
The media outlets presenting these arguments are heavily regulated by Burmese law. News providers can face up to 15 years in prison if they commit “any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture,” or if they are caught “receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.”
You can see the ambiguous language here, purposefully vague to suit the needs of the government. Their current need includes garnering more positive attention from abroad — waging a fictitious “war on terror” in their own borders has proved somewhat fruitful to those who would fail to do any supplementary research.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.