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The Rohingya, myths and misinformation

Ethnic strife is a defining facet of Burmese political life.

However, few examples appear so eerily orchestrated as the hounding of the Rohingya whom the UNHCR term “virtually friendless.” Much hot air has been expelled to debate the origins of the minority group since communal tensions erupted in late May and early June, but perhaps more telling is the now common refrain that they are “terrorists”.

On the 10th of October 2002 the U.S. embassy in Rangoon sent a rare cable home to Washington D.C. — rare because it contained intelligence direct from the Burmese military.

It asserted that members of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) had met with Osama Bin Laden. Further that members of the organisation had sought weapons training in Afghanistan and Libya. The group was then attempting to get bases on the Thai border and join forces with the ethnic armed groups.

“Five members (names still under inquiry by the GOB[Government of Burma]) of ARNO attended a high-ranking officers’ course with Al Qaeda representatives on 15 May, 2000.”

On the same day that the cable was sent, across town the US senate approved President George W Bush’s war against Iraq. Both stories were based on a myth — one that was crystallised the previous year in a New York courtroom.

To try Bin Laden in absentia for association with the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998, the prosecutor in the trial needed evidence of an organised network under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO).

The FBI and the prosecution had one witness who had worked with Bin Laden in the early 90’s called Jamal Al Fadl. He “was more than happy” to provide what Jason Burke, author of the seminal work Al Qaeda, told the BBC was the basis of the “first Bin Laden myth” — that there was an organised hierarchical structure in a group called Al Qaeda with Bin Laden at its head.

This was not the case.

Al Fadl had fallen out with Bin Laden after embezzling some $110,000 from him and in return for the key evidence needed to prosecute him under laws used against drug and mafia gangs, the Sudanese militant placed under witness protection and given money from the FBI.

Prior to September the 11th, the term Al Qaeda was not used by Bin Laden. Sam Schmidt a defence lawyer in the trial of the embassy bombings said that Al Fadl “lied in a number of specific testimonies” in order to make them, “identifiable as a group and therefore prosecute any person associated with Al Qaeda for any acts or statements made.”

Named in the 2002 cable is Salim Ullah of the ARNO. Now a resident in Chittagong, he admits that the group did once maintain arms but renounced armed struggle about a decade ago.

He denies the accusation of Al Qaeda links, calling it propaganda and asks, “Karen, Kachin and other people are fighting with the government, they are defending their people, they are fighting for equal rights, so they are freedom fighters, but when we struggle, we are terrorists, is this logical?”

Indeed the U.S. embassy felt they were given the report for a reason, concluding in the 2002 cable that:

“The Burmese view all these [ethnic armed] groups as terrorists. Their purpose in giving us this report is to make sure we are aware of the alleged contacts between ARNO and the Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border. Presumably, they hope to bolster relations with the United States by getting credit for cooperation on the [Counter-Terrorism] front”…. “Its purpose is probably to draw a connection between Al Qaeda, which has supported ARNO, and Burmese insurgent groups active on the Thai border.”

Just like in Bush’s ill-fated war in Iraq, where the weapons of mass destruction and links between Sadam Hussein and Al Qaeda have yet to be unearthed after almost a decade, no such connections have been made with the Rohingya.

“Have you heard a shot from the Rohingya in the last two decades?” asks Ullah.

[pullquote] “However, there is no evidence of camps or jihadi terrorists in Burma” [/pullquote]

But now as the violence rages in Arakan state, with riots and burnings by mobs on both sides, the director of President Thein Sein’s office and a graduate of the elite Defence Services Academy, Zaw Htay (aka Hmu Zaw) took to posting his take on the violence in Arakan state on Facebook.

“It is heard that Rohingya Terrorists of the so-called Rohingya Solidarity Organization [formerly a part of the ARNO] are crossing the border and getting into the country with the weapons. That is Rohingyas from other countries are coming into the country. Since our Military has got the news in advance, we will eradicate them until the end! I believe we are already doing it.”

He continues, “we don’t want to hear any humanitarian issues or human rights from others. Besides, we neither want to hear any talk of justice nor want anyone to teach us like a saint.”

Much like the decision to go to war against Iraq, a sovereign nation with no relation to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the vile act of rape and murder by three individuals was used as an excuse to attack Muslims or those who fit the stereotype with absolutely no connection to the initial crime, which resulted in the June 3rd massacre of ten non-Rohingya Muslims on a bus returning to Rangoon.

Any claims that it was a direct reprisal is illogical by way of the fact that the rapists had already been detained by that date. Discrimination was thus not an issue of being ‘Rohingya’ per se, or indeed according to another US Embassy cable even a matter of religion:

“Hindu residents of the state, most of who are ethnically Indian, suffer the same lack of citizenship rights and restrictions on travel as their Muslims neighbours.”

The common denominator being what the state-run Myanmar Alin newspaper would designate as being ‘Kalar’ — a pejorative racial slur derived from the Sanskrit word for black or dark.

Warning shots

Zaw Htay’s eradication mission aimed at the Rohingya was reported by Radio Free Asia. Burmese military helicopters refugees claimed had been firing on boats of civilians on the Naf River, which divides Burma and Bangladesh as Rohingyas attempted to cross into the safety of the neighbouring country.

Salim Ullah and others note that Rohingya victims of the rioting have been turning up in hospitals on both sides of the border with bullet wounds, even though the mobs of ethnic vigilantes on both sides have only possessed crude weapons. He asserts that no Arakanese have suffered similar injuries.

Activists have noted that the military has acted in concert with Arakanese vigilantes, although this is hard to confirm but the argument has strong historical precedent. In both 1978 and 1991 the military committed serious pogroms against the Rohingya, which resulted in hundred of thousands fleeing their homes.

The U.S. embassy struggled to find evidence of organised violent actions that other ethnic armies have undertaken. In 2003 they noted:

“There has been no serious insurgent activity in northern Rakhine State for several years,” only finding that, “a French NGO worker related an incident from 2001 in which four members of the security forces were murdered at night in their camp. He believed it had something to do with forced prostitution or trafficking in women and was probably not insurgent related. After the murders, she continued, the security forces rounded up the inhabitants of a nearby village and penned them in a field for two days with no food or water. Two toddlers, who were left at the village, reportedly died.”

The murder of the security forces they note was probably “the result of local resentments and outraged husbands or fathers.” A similar crime, it must be noted, as the awful murder and rape of Ma Thidar Htwe.

Like most myths there is a grain of truth that germinates into a political tool. Bin Laden of course was himself a financer of jihad, but he was not the leader of an international, organised hierarchy and especially did not have support from Iraq during the Sadam era.

[pullquote] “The spinning of the myth in both cases serves grander strategic aims” [/pullquote]

Similarly, Bangladesh has violent Islamist groups, some of whom have links with groups in other Muslim countries. They have probably utilised the desperation of individual Rohingya, either domestically in Bangladesh or in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, there is no evidence of camps or jihadi terrorists in Burma, least of all running around burning down houses.

The ARNO likewise may have received funding and assistance from Islamist groups but the very notion that they were part of a large organised criminal conspiracy is made highly questionable by the lack of terrorist activity. The Karen National Union receives support from churches, despite having had a more active war over their lifetime.

The spinning of the myth in both cases serves grander strategic aims. For the Burmese military the idea of sovereignty and the institution’s raison d’etre are intwined.

On Armed Forces Day this year, state TV reported that in 1988 the armed forces prevented the country from falling into “foreign servitude.”

The idea that the protests in 1988 were caused by a foreign enemy is of course a fantasy but the notion is to split patriotic sentiment from dissent. Suu Kyi and the 88 protesters by the rationale were ‘foreign stooges’.

Now some of those that the military would have labelled ‘foreign stooges’ have in turn joined in rounding on an imagined army of ‘foreign servitude’– the Rohingya.

The 88 student group’s Ko Ko Gyi stated that the problems in Arakan state were because of “illegal immigration,” and that “they were offending the sovereignty” of the country.

There is nothing to suggest however that the murderous libido of the rapists was influenced by their legal status in the country.

“If the powerful countries forced us to take responsibility for this issue we will not accept it,” Ko Ko Gyi said in an interview. “If we are forced to yield we, the army and the democratic [forces] will deal with the issue as a national issue.”

The sense of being threatened by an outside enemy is palpable in his words. This addresses two quarters — the imagined jihadi army and the same concerned international community who supported him and his comrades through decades of military rule (much to the anger of the military government).

It is reminiscent of the decision to move Naypyidaw to the precise middle of the country where, as the President’s chief political adviser Ko Ko Hlaing said, it was as far away as possible from all the imagined threats on the borders.

Ko Ko Gyi’s prominent colleague Min Ko Naing, a nom de guerre which translates to ‘Conqueror of Kings’, was more measured but with no sense of irony when he said, “it is most important to prevent incitement that would cause riots.”

Min Ko Naing was incarcerated precisely for inciting riots in 1988 and 2007.

If 800,000 of the poorest people in a country infringed upon its sovereignty, then the Burmese migrants in Thailand have surely conquered that Kingdom several times over.

In the end there are no winners from this strife apart from the military. By creating a phantom enemy and exploiting long present communal tensions the military has gained vital cross-section support and thereby power.


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