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.

A Rohingya Muslim woman who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, cries as she sits in a boat after she and others were intercepted crossing the Naf River by Bangladesh border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. Bangladesh has turned back more than 1,500 refugees in recent days, officials said and a global human rights group on Wednesday urged Bangladesh to keep its border open to people seeking refuge from sectarian violence in western Myanmar. | AP Photo/Anurup Titu
The major conflict areas during and soon after 1995 | Wikimedia Commons

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.