Plight of the Rohingya: Ethnic Cleansing, Mass Rape and Monsoons on the Way 

Dennis J. Bernstein spoke with filmmaker and human rights activist, Jeanne Hallacy, just back with horror stories from Myanmar and the massive Rohingya camps of over 700,000 in neighboring Bangladesh.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The English-language Bangkok Post reported on May 5 that the Rohingya refugees who return to Myanmar will be safe, according to the military there, as long as they stay confined to the camps being set up for them. Myanmar’s current commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, told a visiting delegation from the UN Security Council “there is no need to be worried about their security if they stay in the areas designated for them.”

But then General Min referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, perpetuating the belief–and antagonism against them inside Myanmar–that the Rohingya are foreigners to the country, who are lying and exaggerating their suffering to get sympathy from the rest of the world. “Bengalis will never say that they arrive there happily. They will get sympathy and rights only if they say that they face a lot of hardships and persecution,” he said.

For its part, the UN says the refugee camps in Myanmar, referred to by the general, are not fit or safe for the arrival of hundred of thousands of Rohingya, who have already suffered from the worst kinds of brutality imaginable, including the burning down of entire villages, mass rape and murder.

In fact, it is common knowledge that the suffering and outright persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities has gone on non-stop for decades.

On May 3, I caught up with noted filmmaker and human rights activist, Jeanne Hallacy, just back from Myanmar and the massive camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Hallacy has worked in the region for many years, and her films have documented the suffering of various minorities in Burma over several decades.  She was on her way to a seminar on the situation in Myanmar, and to preview her new short film that documents how the military in Myanmar have been using rape as a tool of war. She was extremely concerned that the sprawling refugee camps now face the added dangers of a cholera epidemic and the yearly flooding that results from the monsoon rains.

AP reported on May 2: “The Rohingya refugees have escaped soldiers and gunfire. They have escaped mobs that stormed through their villages, killing and raping and burning. They have fled Myanmar, their homeland, to find shelter in sprawling refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Now there’s a new danger: rain. The annual monsoon will soon sweep through the immense camps where some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have lived since last year…The clusters of bamboo and plastic huts, built along endless waves of steep hills, are now facing a deluge that, in an average year, dumps anywhere from 40 to 60 centimeters (16 to 24 inches) of rain per month.”

Hallacy was joined in the interview by student human rights activist, Miu, who is working with human rights groups at UC Berkeley to demonstrate the role that social media–Facebook in particular–has been playing to facilitate the suffering and mass rape that has been a part of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar.

Dennis Bernstein: Those who have fled Myanmar continue to face a horrific situation in exile. The folks back in Myanmar say they are welcome to come back but the actions do not support the words.  Please give us an update, both in terms of what is happening in exile and what is happening in the country.

Hallacy: “Unlike any refugee camp I’ve ever seen.” (Equality Myanmar)

Later we will talk about the consistent use of rape by the Burmese military as a tool of war.  We are also going to talk about how Facebook is fueling these kinds of slaughters. But please take a moment to give us an update on the situation on the ground.

Jeanne Hallacy: The situation of the Rohingya is one of the most serious refugee crises in the world.  When we last met, I hadn’t yet gone to the camps. This mass exodus has now seen a million Rohingya flee from Burma to the camps in Bangladesh.  I have been doing this kind of work for many decades, but when I stood on the precipice of this camp and saw as far as the eye could see the incredible squalor of thousands and thousands of people crammed into this small place, it just took my breath away.

It wasn’t just the scale, it was the fact that when you walked around the camp, all of the adults had this deep sense of suffering and trauma because they had experienced such heinous human rights abuses before they fled.  It was unlike any refugee camp I have ever seen in my work as a journalist.

DB:  Would you share with us some of the stories that stay with you, so we can keep a human face on this?

JH: We have decided to focus on one of the human rights abuses that we know have been documented by the Burmese Army clearance operations that took place in August of last year after a group of self-described Rohingya militants attacked thirty Burmese border posts.  The gravity of the response was completely out of proportion to the attacks. This is what led to this massive exodus which, according to UN officials, was one of the largest exoduses of people that they have ever seen.

Human Rights Watch has satellite footage which shows the complete destruction of over 350 villages that were razed to the ground.  Women were forced to stand in the river as their children were ripped from their arms and killed in front of them. Girls as young as seven years old were survivors of sexual violence, some of whom were killed afterwards.  People were arbitrarily detained and killed. Unimaginable human rights abuses were carried out by the Burmese, leading to this exodus.

Within this spectrum of horror, we decided to focus on the issue of sexual violence.  We found it outrageous that those who have doubted the accuracy of Rohingya refugees have said that the young women and girls who said that they were raped were lying and that they were paid to give false testimony.

DB: I want to remind people that, together with Leslie Kean, I reported on this use of rape as a tool of war by the Burmese army in a cover story in The Nation magazine in 1996.  At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her concern about that when she was in solitary confinement. She has been silent since, but this has been going on and the military denied it then as they are denying it now.

JH: In fact, this abuse by the Burmese military has been documented by ethnic women’s groups in exile.  We are focusing on these Rohingya girls in order to make a parallel to the continued use of sexual violence in areas where conflict continues.  It is not just the Rohingya who have been targeted by the Burmese military. Just this week, in Northern Kachin State, there were renewed attacks by the Burmese military and there was a report of a woman in her seventies being raped.  The Burmese military have gotten away with this for decades with impunity.

DB: The United Nations took some action today [May 3].  Could you talk about that? I believe Aung San Suu Kyi actually said a few words, but she won’t say the word “Rohingya.”

JH: Unfortunately, the word “Rohingya” has become something of a lightning rod.  Even in a tea shop in Rangoon you don’t dare say it, it is that inflammatory.  The Islamophobia which is sweeping Burma now is fueled by this ultra-nationalist, right-wing fervor which sees Buddhism as the national religion and any others as actually threatening the state of Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Won’t speak out.

Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement [on May 1] which was the first positive sign from the government.  Her statement said that it was time for the Burmese government to work in partnership with the United Nations Development Program and the UNHCR.

Very importantly, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, has repeatedly pointed out that there could be hallmarks of genocide in this.  The United Nations has already clearly identified this as ethnic cleansing but the question as to whether genocide has taken place remains to be investigated.  Unfortunately, Yanghee Lee was denied access to the country. This was a very serious obstacle to accepting the role of the United Nations in trying to understand the root causes of this conflict.

DB:  How would you explain Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to all of this?

JH: The military remain in firm control of three of the most important ministries in the country.  They remain in economic power. And more importantly, 25% of parliament is appointed by the military.  To enact any law you need 76% of parliamentary votes. So there can’t be any real reform.

Aung San Suu Kyi is walking a tightrope in this political transition.  This crisis was an opportunity for her to put her hat back on as a human rights icon and create a moral compass.  If she spoke out, her countrymen would follow. If she reminded people of the tenets of Buddhism, including loving kindness and compassion, I believe it would help reduce the hysterical hatred and racism.

DB: I want to bring you in, Miu, a student activist at UC Berkeley working with the Human Rights Center there.  You are documenting the role that Facebook seems to be playing in perpetrating mass murder.

Miu: As you have both mentioned, there has been a history of discrimination against Rohingya in Myanmar.  When we analyze this conflict, we have to ask “Why now?” Our team has discovered that, with the rise in tech accessibility after 2013, when the government ended its monopoly of internet access, penetration went from 4% to 90% in the country.  This rise in tech accessibility has been linked with a rise in violence and a rise in hate speech online.

In Myanmar, Facebook is a form of news.  The people there see Facebook as the truth.  With the internet becoming accessible to the people so quickly, digital illiteracy is a massive problem within the country.  People don’t know how to recognize fake news and propaganda.

In many cases, incitement of hate speech online can lead to actual violence on the ground.  We saw this in July 2014 when an unverified story that a Muslim tea shop owner raped a Buddhist employee circulated online.  This post was then promoted by Ashin Wirathu, the leader of the Buddhist Nationalist 969 movement, and led to riots where Muslim shop owners were targeted.  Two people were killed and fourteen were injured.

Our team has also documented incidents of hate speech online by government officials, for example, in which they have referred to the Rohingya as “detestable human fleas.”  We actually gathered a post by the chief of command of the military saying “Race must be swallowed by another race.”

DB: If that doesn’t sound like ethnic cleansing and the beginning of a genocide, I don’t know what does.

Miu: These posts show intent and knowledge, which becomes extremely important for the issue of accountability.   Facebook has been used as a weapon in this conflict, to promote hate but also to deny accountability. Yanghee Lee said this March at the Human Rights Council that “Facebook has turned into a beast.”

DB: Has Facebook been sympathetic?

Miu: Mark Zuckerberg has stated that what happened in Myanmar was a terrible tragedy and that Facebook needed to do more.  A spokesperson has said that they are looking into the situation and that they promise to take down hate speech within 24 hours of posting and that they are developing a counter-speech campaign.  But all of this is reactionary and it is not happening fast enough.

Unfortunately, we are not seeing major change.  One form of change we are seeing is that these online companies are starting to realize that they do need to take down some content.  But they are doing it in a way that is not helpful to human rights workers, who are trying to gather this content as evidence. Recently we have been seeing a lot of the footage of violence is being taken down by Facebook and YouTube.  We need an inclusive conversation between human rights advocates and the tech companies to insure that useful information is stored while that which is harmful is taken down.

DB: Jeanne, if the policy continues, where are we headed?

JH:  This is a dilemma facing the international community, from the United Nations to all the major NGOs who are providing the emergency humanitarian assistance to the displaced population in Bangladesh.

The Bengalese government cannot indefinitely host this number of people.  It is already an impoverished nation with its own internal security issues brought about by a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.  Sooner or later, some of this resentment will be turned on the refugees. We have seen indications of that already.

The question is where and when the Rohingya can go to a place of safe return with dignity.  The offers by the Myanmar government to repatriate them and the agreement that they made with the Bangladeshi government to do so are hollow unless the root causes of the incredible oppression that the Rohingya have lived under for decades are addressed.

First and foremost is citizenship.  Without citizenship so many things are inaccessible to you, from healthcare to education.  But in the case of Rohingya, it involves restriction of movement. If you want to visit someone in a neighboring village, you have to get a letter of permission.  If you need medical care outside of your village, you need a letter of permission. If you want to get married, you have to apply for permission. To repair your house or your mosque you need permission.  All Rohingyas have been shut out of universities since the violence broke out in 2012.

“Fierce” Monsoons threaten. (Church of the Nazarene)

Unless there is a comprehensive effort on the part of the Burmese government, working in partnership with agencies who have the knowledge and expertise to create an atmosphere where there is access to justice and equitable right to live on that land, then any terms of repatriation are premature at this stage.

The humanitarian crisis now is especially grave because of the monsoon season.  The monsoon season in Bangladesh is very fierce. This camp is built on a kind of sandy silt.  There is no protection against the winds and the rains. There are fears of mudslides, involving a high level of disease risk.  So it is a race against the clock, even in the short term. In the longer term, unless there is a human rights prism through which the situation can be seen, any sustainable solution is really premature to consider.

I wanted to add to what Miu was saying in terms of expressing to people the atmosphere inside Burma now, not just among the refugees in Bangladesh.  Many human rights advocates in Burma who have dared to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya have themselves now been targeted by Facebook. People believe that members of the military are posing as civilians in fake profiles to carry out this vitriolic attack against any journalist or activist talking about the crisis in Rakhine state.

Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, investigated one of the many massacres that took place during the military operations last year.  They have been languishing in jail for five months, held without bail for allegedly divulging state secrets. A few of the officers at that massacre have been sentenced to ten years, whereas the two Reuters journalists who were reporting the massacre are facing fourteen years!

Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the number of cases of journalists being harassed, intimidated, threatened, arrested or jailed under the telecommunications act has actually been higher than it was during the military regime.  Another incredible colleague, Esther Htusan, the first ever Burmese journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize, had to flee the country for her life because they were threatening not only her but her family on Facebook. They actually said to people, if you see her in public, attack her or bring her to a police station.  She was working for Associated Press. This is the kind of pressure the Burmese press have been put under for even reporting on the issue of the Rohingya. Facebook assists with this. 

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at You can get in touch with the author at [email protected].

21 comments for “Plight of the Rohingya: Ethnic Cleansing, Mass Rape and Monsoons on the Way 

  1. artichoke
    May 13, 2018 at 21:23

    The UN should spend the money to create a proper and safe refugee camp, or several, to accept the Rohingya. The situation of having Muslims in the Buddhist country (and there are very few Buddhist countries, a special reason to preserve it) is clearly not working, and the Rohingya should be resettled elsewhere outside Burma. If necessary, charge a tax against Burma to recoup some of the cost.

  2. Lolita
    May 7, 2018 at 22:38

    I would have expected that in Consortium News, a background to the issue would have been included, rather than what reads like a CBC article staring Freeland and Bob Rae. May I suggest this:
    Particularly the genesis of the the Shwe Gas Movement, its relation to our usual suspects… and the underlying geopolitical game on which altar these people are sacrificed.

      May 7, 2018 at 23:30

      This is a transcript of a radio interview, not an article.

  3. backwardsevolution
    May 7, 2018 at 21:45

    Moderator – a few moments ago there was an excellent post by Monte George Jr. that has since disappeared, along with my response to him. Monte George proposed that this could be another color revolution, just like we’ve seen so many times in the past.

    Did Monte George remove his post, or did you? I really felt he made an excellent observation.

    • Monte George Jr.
      May 8, 2018 at 01:34

      Thanks for your kind remarks backwardsevolution. I did not pull my comment; it was removed.

      • backwardsevolution
        May 8, 2018 at 21:03

        Monte George Jr. – I saw your post last night and I didn’t respond because I just didn’t know what to say. I am sorry that your post was removed. I find it shocking that it was removed. I didn’t see anything in your post to take offence to. I’ve seen this happen here a few times: a post appears and then it’s gone, and it’s usually a post that tells the other side of the story.

        I’ll be watching for more of this, Monte. I hope you’ll post again in the future. Thanks.

      May 8, 2018 at 02:09

      The comment violated the Comments Policy. Consortium News does not censor comments, i.e. remove comments because of a political viewpoint.

  4. backwardsevolution
    May 7, 2018 at 20:27

    Monte George Jr. – now there’s somebody that’s thinking!

    “Myanmar’s recent trade, economic/technical cooperation, New Silk Road (BRI), oil pipeline, anti human trafficking and other agreements reached with China would certainly make Myanmar a prime candidate for some “humanitarian intervention”, would it not? Especially so in view of China’s increasing tendency to bypass the US dollar in it’s international trade.”

    Yep, you nailed it. I would place a bet on the above paragraph being the true intention of what’s going on.

  5. Mild -ly- Facetious
    May 7, 2018 at 19:05

    i lived in disbelief and in living human denial
    i challenged God for proof of His existence.
    unleashed a series of veraciously testing
    ending in A Place only God could salvage
    that i was, saved by His Mercy & Grace.

  6. Mild -ly- Facetious
    May 7, 2018 at 18:31

    Ethnic Cleansing, Mass Rape and Monsoons on the Way

    This stuff is a Ten Pin strike,
    right up the alley forTrump’s
    TORTURE Loving CIA Director,Haspel and
    EPA Director CLIMATE CHANGE Denier Pruitt

    Death Blossoms … .

  7. Zinny
    May 7, 2018 at 17:22

    Certainly, sectarian violence on both sides is bad, but, if anyone thinks the Buddhist of Myanmar will allow their ancient religious culture to be demeaned and devalued by Western liberal diversity non-sense is dreaming. Ask the Balinese, on their one small island, surrounded by Muslim countries, why they are Hindu; because, for the last three hundred years, they have fought off numerous Muslim armies, which had ruthlessly conquered and Islamized their neighbors.

  8. May 7, 2018 at 16:54

    Something’s off, in my view, in the above article. It sounds like a call for humanitarian intervention. Would the US like to destablize Myanmar and set up a base, another pearl in the string, there? No mention of the US’s interests here. Human Rights Watch? I simply can’t take their word for anything, nor should any progressive.

    For a different take on the Rohingya and that whole mess, I recommend Gearóid Ó Colmáin. I thought he was more focussed on this than he seems to be. But what he’s reported, as others (21st Century Wire) have noted, seems solid enough.

    Who to believe? Most of the world, Right and Left, swallowed, and swallows, the lie that the Rwandan genocide was Hutu-designed and implemented and Paul Kagame was a hero who stopped it. Just because everyone, pretty much, jumps on a bandwagon, that doesn’t mean that that wagon is headed in the right direction. (The late Edward Herman and co-author David Peterson and Ann Garrison, and others, set the record straight on Rwanda.)

    • backwardsevolution
      May 7, 2018 at 20:30

      Arby – good post!

    • exiled off mainstreet
      May 7, 2018 at 22:13

      I am convinced by your views. I’ve read other items indicating that this Rohingya deal was more of the “west” using Islamists to destabilise Asian countries which did not toe the yankee line. If all things were equal I might accept the views and evidence put forward by the commentary but I’m aware that ‘human rights” are often used as a means of disciplining those who stray too far off the yankee globalist reservation, and I’m aware that Soros et. al have effected a hostile takeover of many of the non-government organisations which monitor such things. I am disappointed if others critiquing the commentary’s viewpoint were censored off.

    • backwardsevolution
      May 8, 2018 at 01:12

      Arby – those were fantastic posts! If we could read stuff like that in the mainstream papers or hear the other side on TV, what a different world it would be. Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed both articles.

      • May 8, 2018 at 08:06

        Glad you got something out of them. There’s so much happening in the world. There’s so much I believed – just because I never had the time to monitor absolutely everything and so had to go on fake, establishment news – that turned out to be propaganda. (North Korea would be right up there. As for Myanmar, I’m not seeing as much info on that as I’d like to. I only knew one thing, namely that the Burmese army and their governments were awful, which could still be the case. But now I have been presented with a few more facts a little context. Boy is that a complicated situation! But to leave uncle Sam out of the picture, the way a New York Times editor, looking into the cause of the Libyan catastrophe, might just happen to not mention that the US attacked Libya, doesn’t fly. – “How Did Benghazi Become a Ruin? NYT Ignores US Role—in Multiple Media” by Jim Naureckas) I might add that, even though progressives should take a progressive position, to be able to do so they must first have all the pertinent information. As well, Even progressives are human, so we will make mistakes. And hopefully, When we do, we’ll also have the humility to admit it and change our stories accordingly.

        • backwardsevolution
          May 8, 2018 at 20:06

          Arby – yes, as soon as I hear that the U.S. or paid mercenaries/NGO’s are in some country, my antenna go up. I read up on Sudan and South Sudan, and what did I discover? The oil. Again, a U.S. presence because of corporate interests. It just goes on and on.

          To me (and I might be entirely wrong on this) I see “progressives” as those who are quick to jump on a story and believe it out of emotion/empathy/feeling, but then must have the other side brought to them on a silver platter, and not once, but multiple times, before they will maybe admit there’s possibly more to the story. I know, I used to be like that and still am at times.

          Now I actually “look” for the other side myself. If a story/an occurrence appears too neat and tidy, I’m looking for the other half immediately.

          I’ve probably turned too cynical, Arby, but the lies we’ve been told (like with Rwanda) make me that way. We mustn’t jump until we get all the facts.

          Thanks again, Arby.

          • May 10, 2018 at 07:48

            And that’s exactly the kind of learning everyone needs to learn to do. You were only able to succeed, not in knowing everything and being right about everything, all the time, but in ‘progressing’ as a progressive because you possess humility, which is an ability to admit a wrong and to accept that others might know more than you do. And I don’t think that making progress as a progressive means giving up being who you are (beliefs, opinions, biases or preferences).

  9. Abe
    May 7, 2018 at 16:52

    “[The] political – not religious – network that had fed saffron-clad “monks” onto the streets for pro-Suu Kyi protests in 2007 and which has systematically thwarted efforts by the military-led government before Suu Kyi’s rise to power to begin the process of granting Rohingya minorities proper legal and political status within Myanmar.

    “It is also a political network that has systematically abused, brutalized, and driven Myanmar’s Rohingya population first from their homes and businesses into camps, then from camps to abroad in neighboring nations including Bangladesh and Thailand. […]

    “Through a large US State Department and European-funded network of faux-nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Western-backed opposition parties, and likewise Western-backed street fronts, Myanmar’s current client regime was successfully installed into power after general elections in 2015.

    “Prominent opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power of the government but maintained little control over the nation’s independent military.

    “The NLD’s party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, literally created a new political office for herself to occupy as defacto ‘head of state.’ Under Myanmar’s constitution Suu Kyi was barred from holding high offices in the nation’s political system due to her marriage to a foreign spouse – a British man – and because her children hold dual UK-Myanmar citizenship. Suu Kyi herself received a foreign education and worked within Western institutions including the United Nations in the US before returning to Myanmar to engage in domestic politics.

    “Her entry into politics and her ascension into power has been openly funded and backed by the United States, former colonial ruler the United Kingdom, and a long list of European collaborators, for decades. […]

    “Just as the US controls the government in Kabul, Afghanistan, it controls the civilian leadership in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. And just as the US perpetuates the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan as a pretext for the permanent US military occupation of the Central Asian state, the US and its Saudi allies are attempting to use the current Rohingya crisis as a vector to introduce a foreign-funded militancy as a pretext first for joint ‘counter-terrorism’ cooperation with the government of Myanmar, and then the permanent positioning of US military assets in a Southeast Asian state that directly borders China – a long-term goal of US policymakers stretching back decades.

    “It is expected that the military of Myanmar will come under increasing pressure, targeted sanctions, and outright threats until it capitulates, collapses, or manages to overcome foreign influence and the client regime serving as a vector and facilitator for them.

    “Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s regime will continue being granted relative impunity across the West despite the fact that it is her own support base carrying out anti-Rohingya violence. The crisis will be leveraged to thwart China’s economic inroads and prop up a burgeoning US-European diplomatic and military presence in the country.”

    Shifting Blame as US Agenda Unfolds in Myanmar
    By Tony Cartalucci

  10. mike k
    May 7, 2018 at 16:06

    The ugliness and evil rampant in our world now is overwhelming. How can we look away when these things are happening? Our human world is destroying itself while we pretend not to notice. It is hard not to think sometimes, why don’t we just go ahead and get rid of this most evil lifeform on the planet – humankind?

    • mike k
      May 7, 2018 at 16:09

      There was no evil on the Earth before humans created it. We will find the ways to uncreate it or we will all die from it.

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