Nearly 125,000 refugees belonging to the Rohingya minority ethnic group have fled Burma for neighboring Bangladesh in just the past week and a half, according to local aid organizations. They have relayed testimony of indiscriminate executions, gunfire from helicopters and a scorched-earth campaign seemingly aimed at destroying Rohingya villages and driving the mostly Muslim population out of predominantly Buddhist Burma. Hundreds have died making the journey to Bangladesh, including 46 who drowned when a boat carrying them capsized last week.
As the crisis deepens, governments and influential international figures — primarily, but not exclusively, from the Muslim world — have begun to speak out against the Burmese government and its de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the Burmese capital on Tuesday to discuss trade, but he was also expected to bring up the Rohingya issue.
The most recent spate of violence in Burma's southwestern Rakhine state broke out Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked local security forces, killing at least 12. The attack mirrored a similar one in October that killed nine border police personnel and spurred almost 90,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh, which has been a refuge for the group for decades, though increasingly reluctantly.
This year's violence appears to be more widespread and intense. The Burmese military has acknowledged killing at least 370 Rohingyas in what it calls “clearance operations.” The government maintains that all those killed belonged to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that has been building up its ranks since last year's violence. It is unclear how much local and international support ARSA has, but videos of its training camps show only small numbers of shabbily dressed and ill-equipped fighters.
Burmese officials, including Suu Kyi, argue that the Rohingya are migrants from Bangladesh who should not be considered Burmese citizens, despite historical evidence of their presence in what is now Burma — also known as Myanmar — for generations. The government officially refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis. Speaking to the Burmese newspaper Frontier Myanmar on Tuesday, government spokesman Zaw Htay seemed to imply that he viewed all Rohingya men as militants.
“Those who have fled can be of two types: the ones who made the terror attack and escaped, and the others who are women and children,” he said. “The terrorists are mixed in with ordinary civilians. Soldiers from the United States are allowed to shoot if their life is under threat. Now Bengalis are holding weapons — swords, daggers, catapults and homemade rifles. If they are going to harm you, you can shoot them.”
On Tuesday, Malaysia recalled its ambassador from Burma, citing “sustained violence and discrimination against the Rohingyas.” Maldives, which, like Malaysia, is largely Muslim, announced the cessation of all its trade ties with Burma. Tens of thousands in Russia's Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya marched in support of the Rohingya, and large protests were held in Australia and Indonesia, where someone lobbed a gasoline bomb at the Burmese Embassy.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry also issued a strongly worded condemnation of the violence against the Rohingya, but many in that country wondered why it hadn't opened its doors to more Rohingya refugees, given that Pakistan is the only nation established specifically as a refuge for Muslims. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, took to Twitter to express dismay with Suu Kyi.
— Malala (@Malala) September 3, 2017
Modi is unlikely to be contentious in his appraisal of the crisis during his state visit. In India, a cabinet minister recently suggested that all 40,000 Rohingya refugees in the country were there illegally, and the Supreme Court in Delhi has sought clarification from the government on its stance on possible deportations. Rakhine's main port at Sittwe is Indian-built, and a key transport corridor between the Indian state of Mizoram and the port relies on stability in the region. India is seen as competing with China for influence over Burma's economy, which has been flung open after decades of relative isolation.
Meanwhile, the daily rate of refugees entering Bangladesh continues to rise. Satellite images still show Rohingya villages in flames or reduced to ash. Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based humanitarian group that has primarily focused on helping migrants making the risky Mediterranean Sea crossing to Europe, said this week that it was shifting operations to the Rakhine coast.
Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, told The Washington Post last week that the Rohingya refugees arriving every day in camps in Bangladesh are fleeing for their lives. “I will say it’s shocking, and some of the survivors are devastated by what they have experienced, what they have seen,” he said.