References to “illegal Muslim immigrants,” accusations of “fake news,” leaders manipulating the threat of terrorism. Where does this take place? It isn’t Donald Trump’s America, but Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi, once a darling of the international community, has allowed the country’s military to carry out mass murder of the Rohingya people.
It took the world a long time to wake up to the horrors of what’s been happening in Myanmar. In November 2016, as thousands of Rohingya Muslims started fleeing their villages to escape the military’s intensifying campaign, Trump stunned the world with his electoral victory and started to suck up even more of the media’s oxygen. Plus, Suu Kyi — the country’s leader, a revered pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner — was given the benefit of the doubt by many members of the international community, even when evidence of gross human rights abuses started piling up.
Because no one was paying great attention when this crisis first began, it is very much worth watching tonight’s FRONTLINE, titled “Myanmar’s Killing Fields.”
Journalist Evan Williams, working with footage secretly filmed by a small group of citizen activists, tells how the full story unfolded over several years. The videos that were shared with him, and which FRONTLINE worked for months to verify and corroborate, show an “orchestrated effort to target civilians, systematic discrimination, state-sanctioned violence, and ultimately mass murder.”
The film takes us back to 2012, when violence between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines (the majority ethnic group) broke out. In response, the government of Myanmar restricted Rohingyas to ghettos and camps, and implemented various restrictions on their lives, taking a page out of the Nazi playbook.
Videos filmed at the time show shuttered mosques and religious schools, and the introduction of checkpoints, where Rohingya are asked to show their identity papers.
Fast-forward to 2015, when Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the country’s first free election in decades, ending 40 years of military rule. While she was widely seen as a “global icon for democracy,” internal critics — including fellow democracy activists — sounded the alarm bell that her behavior was already disturbingly “authoritarian.”
Then, in October 2016, a militant Rohingya group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked three police posts, killing nine border officers.
In an interview with FRONTLINE, Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, described the insurgent group as not particularly well armed, and said it was likely responding to the many restrictions that had been placed on the daily lives of the Rohingya. But the attacks provided a reason for the government to step up its campaign of repression.
While Suu Kyi promised a measured response to ARSA’s attacks, the military, starting in November 2016, carried out raids in villages across the region. Eye witnesses, now living in sprawling refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, told FRONTLINE about how the military would enter villages and shoot people indiscriminately.
One video shot by a villager, who returned to his home after such a raid, shows a one-year old girl’s dead body lying on the ground next to other corpses. In an interview with FRONTLINE, her grandfather broke down as he watched the footage, overcome with grief. Survivors told FRONTLINE that more than 170 people were killed during this one attack, with many of the bodies burned afterward.
As the violence mounted, thousands and thousands of Rohingya tried to escape the country, making their way on foot to Bangladesh. The UN Human Rights Office began to collect their stories.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is ISIS-like stuff,’” Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told FRONTLINE in an interview. He called Suu Kyi, who demanded he produce more evidence, but then she refused to grant access to a UN fact-finding mission or any international journalists. Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar, traveled to the country in the summer of 2017 and met with Suu Kyi, who told Lee: These are made-up stories. Eventually Myanmar banned Lee from the country.
In the meantime, military commanders started giving Rohingyas a choice: either register as illegal immigrants or be killed. More ARSA attacks on police posts then prompted the military to step up its campaign of violence in northern Rakhine, burning villages to the ground, murdering Rohingya men and boys, shooting indiscriminately as people fled, and raping women and girls.
One survivor of a massacre at the village of Chut Pyin recounted how soldiers forced babies and children into burning houses, pushing them back inside with bamboo sticks if they tried to escape.
FRONTLINE notes that the Myanmar military has denied these abuses and says it’s doing “counterinsurgency clearance operations” against terrorists.
To which the UN’s Hussein responds, “Rubbish… this was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
“All Muslims must be wiped out of Myanmar,” one survivor recalled hearing a soldier say. “There’s no place for Muslims here.”
By early September 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were trying to escape the violence, crossing the border into Bangladesh. Finally, the world took notice.
FRONTLINE’s documentary shines needed light on the developments that brought us to this point, making it impossible for Myanmar’s leaders to hide behind the trope of “fake news” any longer.
(You can read Just Security’s coverage of the crisis here.)
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images