Some of the worst journalism I’ve ever seen has been on the Rohingya crisis. Much of it seems to imply that some peaceful Muslims were minding their own business when some Buddhist came along and started killing them. If only life were so simple, but it’s not, so I’ll have to set the record straight.
Did you know that on August 25th, the day before this random attack on Muslims began, a Rohingya militant group marched into a Hindu village and murdered 99 people? That seems like a relevant detail for anyone trying to get the full picture, doesn’t it?
It should go without saying that I in no way condone the brutal actions of the Burmese military, but I feel obligated to put their actions into context. There appears to be a concerted effort to whitewash the image of Islam and make it appear as though all religions are equally violent. This is most apparent on Al Jazeera, which has been the focal point of the Rohingya reporting. The BBC has even uncritically sited Al Jazeera as a primary source on multiple occasions. The agenda can also be seen on progressive outlets like The Young Turks. Take a look at this video very subtly and objectively titled Myanmar’s Muslim Genocide. It of course provides no context what so ever.
First of all, it is important to note that not all Rohingya are Muslims, and not all Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya. So this could be seen as an ethnic, rather than religious, conflict. Ethnic separatist movements are kind of Myanmar’s thing. It currently has no fewer than 11 separatist movements, the most of any country in the world. Yet it’s only the Rohingya movement that grabs the headlines. So what’s really going on?
The Rohingya claimed they have lived in northern Rakhine State for centuries. The Burmese government says they are illegal immigrants. As is often the case, the truth seems to be somewhere in between.
There were Assam-Bengali Muslims living in Rakhine State during the British colonial period, although they were referred to as ‘Chittagonians:’ a reference to Bangladesh’s southeastern Chittagong Region. The word ‘Rohingya’ (pronounced ro-hen-ja) was invented in the 1950s and didn’t become common until the 90s. During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 there were almost certainly some refugees who came to Rakhine State and blended in with their cousins. The Burmese authorities have long been crying foul on the unnaturally high population increases of the area. It makes sense, seeing as that Bangladesh is one of the most over-crowded places in the world. The Indian state of Tripura was majority Tripuri until a couple decades ago but now is 70% Bengali. Now there are around a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh; I’ve seen documentaries shot in their camps, and they don’t seem to require interpreters to speak to the local Bengalis. There can be little doubt that at least some Rohingya are first or second generation immigrants from Bangladesh, although it is impossible to say how many without being intimately familiar with the community.
Most neighboring countries are sympathetic to the Burmese authorities. Thailand and The Philippines have also been dealing with violent Muslim insurgencies for decades, and, if you’ve been following international news this week, you should know what a mess the situation in Kashmir is for the Indian authorities. Islamic terrorism has been discussed at ASEAN summits.
I like to dive deep into history. You can’t understand the present without understanding the past.
The Rohingya were peaceful neighbors for the most part with the Burmese and the Rakhine until the Japanese occupation when many people were displaced and the different ethnic groups suddenly found themselves living in the same villages. After the end of World War II, Rohingya authorities petitioned Burmese, British, and Pakistani authorities to be annexed by Pakistan, but to no avail. When the colonial period ended, the Rohingya were left stranded in Burma. Where there was once a porous border, a clearly marked line was drawn between Rakhine and Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
They founded a Mujahideen; it was supported by Pakistan and other Muslim countries, but Pakistan changed their policy, not wanting to anger the Burmese, and ended their support in 1950. The Rohingya Independence Army was founded in ’64. The Rohingya Liberation Party was founded in ’72 (although it was more of an army than a party). There were occasional clashes over the decades, but never anything approaching the level of violence seen in since 2016.
The Rohingya were officially denied citizenship in 1983. The Myanmar constitution designates 8 official ethnic groups in the country, but the Rohingya are noticeably absent from the list. This ruling was objectively unfair, because many Rohingya had been living in Myanmar for many generations, but because there were some illegal immigrants, and because of their past militant activity, all Rohingya were declared illegals.
In 2016, a Rohingya man born in Karachi and raised in Mecca named Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi founded an organization called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). If you need to blame someone for the current conflict, make it this man. The ARSA is a terrorist group. Plain and simple. They got off to a quick start. On October 9th 2016, they attacked 3 border posts, killing 9 Burmese officers. They spent the next year forming a small army, going from village to village demanding new recruits. Some Burmese people think they are are funded by Middle Eastern countries, but this is unlikely; according to eye-witness accounts, they are very low-budget, with most soldiers being armed only with machetes and bamboo sticks.
The ARSA dramatically escalated their violence in 2016. In July of that year, they murdered between 34 and 44 civilians and kidnapped 22 more. They mostly kidnap women and force them to convert to Islam and be their brides or sell them into prostitution in Bangladesh.
On August 25th, the ARSA slaughtered 99 Hindu civilians. This was a coordinated attack across northern Rakhine State. It began in the early morning hours when ARSA forces attacked 24 Burmese police posts. The Burmese were prepared this time; they were better armed than the ARSA. Only 12 Burmese officers were killed compared to 59 Rohingya militants.
The Kha Moung Seik Massacre is one of the best kept secrets of the conflict. Two Bengali Hindu villages were attacked. I can find no mention of it in western media that wasn’t published until more than a years after the fact. It happened on the same day and in the same area as the police post attacks, just a few hours later. The ARSA claims responsibility for the police post attacks but not the Hindu massacre, which they claim to be a false flag perpetrated by the Burmese military. But this claim is blatantly false. Survivors unanimously lay blame on the ARSA. They say the attackers covered their faces and spoke Rohingya as well as multiple unknown foreign languages, but not Burmese. They took 8 women captive. Four of them have since escaped and returned to Myanmar and tell stories of being taken to Bangladesh to live in refugee camps and convert to Islam, wear Hijabs, and marry ARSA fighters. When dealing with aid workers, they were told to pretend to be Rohingya Muslims or be killed. The fact that Bengali women could so easily pass for Rohingya is a testament to how indistinguishable these ethno-linguistic groups are.
The international news story picks up the next day, August 26th, when the Burmese military began systematically burning Rohingya villages to the ground and raping and killing civilians. The actions of the Burmese military are unforgivably, and I in no way want to diminish their brutality. I won’t go into detail about those atrocities here; they’ve already been reported by news outlets across the world.
My point is, why does the story always begin on August 26th while the events of the 25th are ignored? Why are the Burmese forces depicted as monsters while most people have never heard of the ARSA? We are not doing the Rohingya any favors by hiding the truth about the ARSA. Most Ronhingya don’t support them, just as most Middle Eastern Muslims don’t support ISIS. How can we seriously discuss this issue and not mention the root problem: the ARSA?
I don’t think this is some type of anti-Myanmar or anti-Buddhist conspiracy; as I said, I think there is an agenda of protecting the image of Islam globally. And in some ways, this could even be seen as a noble agenda; Islamophobia has been a disturbing trend. But if you call the Rohingya crisis ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing,’ you are part of the problem. It should be treated for what it is: a terrorist problem. Aid could be given to the Burmese government to combat the ARSA and protect the civilians in the area, but if you claim that 100% of Rohingya are non-violent civilians, you are derailing the conversation; then there is no real conversation to be had about protecting the real non-violent civilians, which the vast majority of Rohingya are.