She says nothing

Gavin Jacobson

  • The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim
    Hurst, 235 pp, £12.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 623 7
  • The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom by Peter Popham
    Rider, 440 pp, £20.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 84604 371 0

Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government is facing its most serious crisis since coming to office in March 2015. In the small hours of 9 October, as many as five hundred people, armed with knives, slingshots and pistols, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on police outposts in Rakhine State in the north-west of Myanmar, close to the border with Bangladesh. Nine police officers were killed, and a small cache of weapons was stolen (around sixty guns, ten thousand rounds and some bayonets). Those responsible most likely come from Rakhine’s long-persecuted Rohingya community.

The army launched a counter-insurgency operation, effectively militarising the townships where the attacks occurred – Maungdaw and Rathedaung – and turning large parts of northern Rakhine into what they called ‘operational areas’. There have been disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings of Muslim men, alleged rapes of Rohingya women, the forced displacement of villagers and the torching of Muslim homes. Non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine have called to be armed and organised into a people’s militia; they would like to take matters into their own hands.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been almost entirely absent during these events, travelling to India and Japan on state visits. Since the late 1980s she has been a lodestar for democrats and human rights activists throughout the world, but her celestial image is waning. She has been criticised internationally for refusing to speak out about the plight of the Rohingyas, yet she continues to say nothing.

There are 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Denied citizenship since 1982, they are one of the world’s largest groups of stateless people and, according to the UN, the most persecuted. They are confined to three townships and sixty internment camps, and are denied food, work, medicine, legal protection, ID papers and education. They face arbitrary arrest, beatings and pogroms; their mosques are destroyed, their land confiscated. Laws restrict their movement, marriages and how many children they can have. Sexual assault and rape by soldiers is routine. People-smugglers operate in the camps. Between January and March 2015, according to the UNHCR, around 25,000 people, mostly Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, were trafficked across the Bay of Bengal. Others flee to Thailand or Indonesia: crammed onto rotting vessels, thousands drown in the Andaman. Those who survive are held in open-air prisons, or in wooden cages, before being ransomed back to their families. People whose families can’t afford to pay are sold to work as slaves on fishing boats, often with the knowledge and help of police and state officials. Women are forced into marriage or prostitution, and children disappear into the oblivion of undocumented labour.

Until the 11th century, Arakan (now called Rakhine) and central Burma had separate histories: a 600-mile mountain range, stretching from Cape Negrais to Manipur, hindered communication to the east, with the result that Arakan’s economic and ethnic ties were primarily with India, across the Bay of Bengal. This changed when the Rakhine ethnic group moved into Arakan sometime around 1000 ad and began to trade with Burma. After the collapse of the Pagan Empire in 1297, there were almost six centuries of conflict between the two regions, with periods of Burmese dominance followed by stretches of Arakan independence, and even the brief conquest of the region that now forms Bangladesh.

In 1784 the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty, emboldened by victories over Siam, annexed Arakan, resulting in a confrontation with the British and the East India Company. The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) secured British supremacy in the region. Thirty years later, the British occupied southern Burma, and seized the northern half in 1886. Arakan was administrated as part of the colonial state, and remained part of Burma following independence in 1948, when it was renamed Rakhine after the dominant ethnic group.

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