Over half a million people fled ethnic cleansing in mere months in what is now the longest running, and ignored, civil war in the world.
Soldiers burned whole villages, raped mothers, forced them to watch as they slaughtered their infants, and herded thousands of families into concentration camps. Military forces did not discriminate by age, sex, or religion — they cut down the young and the old, the pastor and the imam and the monk, mothers and fathers.
In one particularly haunting scene, soldiers killed a crying baby as troops gang raped the infant’s mother.
Every day this military rains the fire of artillery and air strikes on family groups across their nation and hunts them down on foot, save for the strange periods of ceasefire in this war that most in the West have not begun to understand.
This is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and the Rohingya crisis that captured the attention of the world with over 500,000 refugees forced into Bangladesh is only the tip of the iceberg.
Here is what this war looks like, and how it began, according to the perception of one man who has lived it for 24 years, aiding ethnic groups targeted for destruction long before the Rohingya crisis.
A People Without A Country
Burma’s conflict with the Rohingya traces back to the country’s independence from Britain, gained after World War II when the Burmese switched from supporting the Japanese to supporting the Allies after the tide turned against Japan. David Eubank, who has spent the last 24 years in Burma and founded the Free Burma Rangers, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the Burmese army targeted the Rohingya, who have lived in the region long before Burma gained independence, from the moment the British left.
The Rohingya originated in Bangladesh but settled in what is now known as Myanmar before the British colonized the country. The British engendered resentment between the majority Burmese people and the Rohingya by bringing in more ethnic Rohingya from Bangladesh to work as civil servants, according to Eubank. The Burmese people felt threatened by the increasing Rohingya population, viewing those the British brought into the country as outsiders who did not belong. As soon as the British left, the Burmese army began attacking the ethnic minority groups, Rohingya included.
“And so, what we have now in Burma, for context, is the longest running civil war in the world and it’s still going on right now,” Eubank told TheDCNF.
To add insult to injury, Myanmar’s government, controlled by the Burmese military, “never recognized the Rohingya as one of the 135 official ethnic groups in Burma even though they’d been there before Burma’s independence,” living in Arakan state among the Arakan people in southwest Burma, according to Eubank.
“So here are stateless people living inside this state with very limited rights. And this is all before any of these activities, you know, the fighting happened,” Eubank added.
The 2016 Rohingya attacks against Burmese security forces served as the impetus for the most recent military violence against the tribe, but the true beginnings of the Rohingya displacement date back to a series of provocations by the army that Eubank told TheDCNF slowly pushed the Rohingya to a boiling point, beginning in 2012.
A mob attacked and killed a group of Rohingya men in 2012 accused of raping and killing a Buddhist girl, but their anger over the girl’s death was not satiated. The mob attack evolved into communal violence on both sides, unfettered at first and encouraged by the Burmese army who stoked Buddhists’ anger against the Rohingya, according to Eubank.
“And this became a conflagration where over 100,000 people had been displaced. And then the Burmese army moved in to restore peace, and they put about a 100,000 Rohingya in the concentration camps.”
“That’s what we call them,” Eubank said in reference to the military-run refugee camps. “They (the Rohingya) can’t get out of them.”
Despite being rounded up into camps, displacing nearly 140,000 of the Rohingya, the group did not yet form an armed resistance, as other ethnic groups like the Karen had. Clear signs pointed to a coming storm, according to Eubank, as Christian groups who ministered to the Rohingya warned of potential future armed conflict, “saying ‘you push these people too far, somebody’s going to snap.'”
And snap they did, in October 2016.
Retaliation and Atrocities
A group of Rohingya attacked Burmese policemen in October 2016, killing nine in the Rakhine state according to BBC News. Thus began the Burmese army’s concentrated efforts to drive the Rohingya out of the country entirely.
The Burmese army responded by killing thousands of Rohingya, and the same violent cycle repeated in 2017, but with a larger and more organized Rohingya resistance, according to Eubank. As the Rohingya inflicted greater losses on the Burmese forces than in their first raid, Eubank said the army used the violence as pretext to begin driving as many Rohingya out of Burma as possible.
The Burmese army has driven out 500,000 of the Rohingya people, most of whom now live in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh in conditions that Eubank classifies as untenable. The army systematically burned Rohingya villages, gang raped village women, and slaughtered children as young as eight months old with knives in the sight of their mothers while the mothers were raped, according to a recent report from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk,” said Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the High Commissioner. “And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her – what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
That kind of violence leveled against ethnic minorities in Burma is unfortunately nothing new, according to Eubank.
The armed conflict and atrocities perpetrated by the Burmese army have continued since Burma gained independence, according to Eubank. The Burmese Amry began signing ceasefire agreements with ethnic groups as early as 2011, but many of the groups have yet to come to any kind of truce with the army, especially northern tribes like the Shan, Ta’ang, and Kachin. The army attacks them daily, according to Eubank.
Despite the 2015 democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and 1991 Noble Peace Prize winner, to the position of state counsellor, the Burmese army still holds most of the political power and authority and therefore continues to crusade against any perceived opposition.
“I haven’t heard any call for a cease of attacks against the Arakan or against the Kachin in the north or against the Ta’ang or the Shan. I haven’t heard one peep, and certainly no action. No troops pulled back. Air strikes, artillery strikes, villages burned, you know, this month,” Eubank told TheDCNF.
So why is the international community only now throwing up their arms over the plight of the Rohingya, which is predated by the plights of many of the other ethnic groups? Eubank said it is likely because of the scale of recent displacement and because the effects of the conflict have now spilled into another country —Bangladesh. Another reason, however, may be that the Rohingya are Muslim.
“I think another reason is there is maybe a perception that maybe the west doesn’t care enough about Muslims, and this is a way of saying ‘no, we do care.’ That might be part of it, which is a good thing,” Eubank told TheDCNF.
The general lack of an organized armed resistance on the part of the Rohingya makes it easier for people to feel less conflicted about supporting the Rohingya, as they are not perceived as aggressors with a political or religious agenda, according to Eubank.
What Kind Of War Is This?
The conflict has fallen squarely along ethnic lines, to be summed up as the Burmese against everybody else, which lends itself to the perception that the war is racially motivated ethnic cleansing. Conflict has also fallen to some extent along religious lines, however, as the Burmese are Buddhist and have attacked Muslim Rohingya, a subset of Hindu Rohingya, and the Christian Karen, Chin, and Kachin, among other Christian groups. In Eubank’s perception, the war is neither motivated primarily by race or by ideology, as the Burmese have also attacked Buddhist ethnic minorities.
The war in Burma is unlike more recent conflicts involving the U.S. in that unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan, or the conflict with ISIS, Burma’s war is not ideological, according to Eubank. It is a turf war.
The Burmese majority is rather like a big gang or mafia than a religiously motivated war machine, and the other ethnic groups operate like smaller gangs, in his estimation.
“And mafias are brutal, vicious, and deadly, until you fight back. And then they go for the low hanging, eaten fruit. And if you can fight back hard enough, you can negotiate, because there’s no ideology,” Eubank added.
The Burmese army’s approach to the Rohingya has been somewhat different than the rest of the fight against ethnic minorities as the Burmese fear radical Islam. Some Buddhist leaders in Burma, like Ashin Wirathu, claim that Islam among the Rohingya poses a serious threat to the people of Burma and encourage the violence and systematic displacement of the Rohingya.
“I am defending my loved one,” Wirathu told The Guardian.”Like you would defend your loved one. I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”
Wirathu, and many other Burmese would happily see the Rohingya completely driven out of Burma, according to Eubank.
Eubank told TheDCNF that the majority Buddhist Burmese feel threatened by the Muslim Rohingya because of how ISIS and Al Qaida have represented Islam. Eubank also believes the Burmese are fearful of losing territory in light of the Rohingya’s superior population rate, and resentful of the Rohingya’s insular nature.
He was quick to point out that the Rohingya would say they are forced to be insular since, without official citizenship, they cannot legally travel within Burma. Burma’s army has, in the past, targeted churches and pastors among predominantly Christian groups, but it has done so not because of a hatred for Christianity but because “they knew they (pastors and churches) were lynch pins to faith and resistance,” Eubank said. To defeat the rebellion entirely, the Burmese army sought to break them not only physically, but spiritually as well.
Eubank said the Burmese have leveraged the fear of radical Islam in order to seek aid from the West, preferring to frame the current military conflict as one waged against a common enemy — one that looks like ISIS.
“It’s amazing to me the Rohingya have had as much restraint as they’ve had, to date. And when they fight back, of course, there are Muslims that carry, that fully fulfill the teachings of Mohammed, which if you follow them to the end equals ISIS, equals Al Qaeda. There are some that are going to do that and become vicious terrorists, ” Eubank told TheDCNF.
Rohingya violence is not mainly motivated by religion but by desperation and a desire to return home in a situation where nobody seems to be helping them, he said.
“So what’s your choice? Rot in a concentration camp, or are you going to fight back? And even if you die, you die trying,” Eubank told TheDCNF. “And that’s something I’m surprised isn’t bigger than it is.”
The war in Burma is odder still, apart from the various misconceptions about what fuels it, because it is what Eubank calls a “50 percent war.” The conflict is not uniform throughout the country, nor is it waged in equal measure by the Burmese army commanders.
According to Eubank, it is not uncommon for a commander in one mountain range to maintain peace and strike a deal with resistance leaders and profit off of timber operations. Meanwhile, the commander in the next mountain valley has no profitable business with the local tribes, and so, wages war against them.
“I just spent the last eight months in Mosul. That’s a hundred percent war. ISIS sees you, you see them, there’s shooting right away. There’s no safe place, no negotiating. It’s all out, brutal war. Burma’s not like that. It can be. Again, you can be 100 percent dead when it turns on, but it’s only on half the time,” Eubank told TheDCNF.
What Can Be Done?
Suu Kyi has received a massive amount of criticism for her perceived failure to bring an end to the violence, with some in the international community even calling for her Nobel prize to be revoked. She and her party, however, have only a limited amount of power.
Suu Kyi does have some power to facilitate peace despite her lack of authority, according to Eubank. Eubank believes she could publicly declare the need for a ceasefire without lambasting the army. She should endorse safe passage for displaced Rohingya to return to Burma while calling for diplomatic meetings between the ethnic leaders and Burma’s military leaders, he said.
The U.S. has also played a role in Burma’s crisis; the Department of State recently allocated $32 million in humanitarian aid for the Rohingya refugees. Former President Barack Obama also lifted longstanding economic sanctions against Burma in 2016 after meeting with Suu Kyi. Since that time, the U.S. has participated in military-to-military engagement with the Burmese army, not in the way of providing weapons or combat training, but training in disaster relief, human rights, and rules of engagement.
Such interaction would have been “unthinkable” before the Obama administration, according to Eubank, who believes the relationship between the U.S. and the Burmese army was becoming too friendly too quickly. Eubank said the perception among some people who are working to provide relief aid to the ethnic minorities is that the U.S.’s attempt to win over the Burmese army and dissuade it from waging war against the ethnic groups would ultimately be fruitless.
“They don’t love their own people, they’re not going to love you. They’re going to use you, and they’re going to use it a lot better than you can use them. It’s their country, they know exactly how things work. So I think we need to be friends on all sides, and I feel sometimes it’s like the U.S. has decided ‘Well, Goliath’s too big. He’s too big. Let’s just kind of join him and hope he gets nicer.”
Eubank believes the U.S., along with international pressure and the voice of Suu Kyi, could eventually help Burma achieve peace if the U.S. maintains diplomatic relationships with the Burmese government without providing military advisers and overtly demands a stop to the violence against the ethnic groups.
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