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Use of language can be very important. This is something the government of Burma knows very well. There are disturbing parallels between the way current violence in Arakan state is being described, and how past atrocities committed by the Burmese government were recounted at the time.
In 2003, the dictatorship in Burma tried to assassinate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They bussed in hundreds of thugs to ambush her convoy as she travelled outside of a town called Depayin. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car managed to escape, but up to one hundred of her supporters were beaten to death, in what became known as the Depayin Massacre. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested a few miles down the road from the ambush, and kept in detention until a week after the rigged elections in November 2010.
These facts are not disputed now, but this isn’t what the media reported at the time. The media first used the information provided to them by the dictatorship. Media reports referred to ‘scuffles’, ‘clashes’ and a ‘melee’. AFP described it as: “a violent clash between her supporters and a pro-junta group which left four dead”.
It wasn’t a clash – it was an ambush and attempted assassination. There were not four killed, there were more than seventy people murdered.
While reading reports of what is happening in Arakan state now, I’m reminded of how the Depayin Massacre was covered.
The violence in Arakan state is still being described as communal and as clashes between two sides. Maybe this description could have been used for a small number of incidents in early June, but that time has long since passed. What is happening now are coordinated attacks against the Rohingya ethnic minority. Rohingya villages are being systematically surrounded, and the people in them attacked and driven away or killed. When one side attacks another, it is not a clash.
While my organisation, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, has received reports from the ground that hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in attacks, the government insists that less than a handful have been killed.
In another similarity to the Depayin Massacre, the government is not using its own troops and security services to carry out these attacks. In reference to the Depayin incident, government officials talked about how the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi had angered local people by coming to the area and stirring up trouble. Today in Arakan state, they use similar language about the ‘people’s desire’. Officials talk about how ‘Bengali’ foreigners have come and stirred up local anger – they distance themselves from responsibility.
Just as with the Depayin Massacre, things don’t happen in Burma if the government doesn’t want them to. They cannot credibly claim to be an innocent party stuck between two sides. For a start, even if they were not responsible for the violence, they could easily stop it. They have one of the biggest military forces and most feared police and security services in Southeast Asia. The fact is: they allow the violence to continue because it suits their agenda.“Things don’t happen in Burma if the government doesn’t want them to”
I would go further and also argue that, as with Depayin, they are also playing a key role in instigating the attacks. Security services and the Burmese military are not only not stopping the attacks, they are taking part in them. Thein Sein’s government forces are rounding up Rohingya community leaders and holding them in detention centres.
It is the government which is creating a new Apartheid in Burma, placing displaced Rohingya in camps on a narrow strip of land along the coast. State officials are also responsible for preventing aid from being freely delivered to Rohingya camps and communities. It is also President Thein Sein who asked for international assistance in expelling all the Rohingya from Burma.
The most common proposal has been for the Rohingya to be rounded up into camps until they can be deported. This is what is now happening right under the noses of the international community. Thein Sein is not stupid though — he isn’t sending his own soldiers to attack and round up Rohingya. He incites and allows civilians to do it and so avoids taking the blame for what is taking place, even though it is his own policy.
It is very hard for journalists to verify what is actually happening in Arakan state now. The truth about what is happening in western Burma will come out eventually, but by then it will be too late for the hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands displaced and living in camps. For now though, at least we can stop describing what is taking place as ‘clashes’.
-Tun Khin is President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.