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.
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 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.
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 www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.