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

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Hallacy: 'Unlike any refugee camp I've ever seen.'
(Image by (Equality Myanmar))
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The English-language Bangkok Post reported on May 5 that the Rohingya will be safe in Myanmar, 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 hundreds 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.

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In fact, it is common knowledge that the suffering and outright persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities has gone 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."

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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 helping 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?

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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 30 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.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)
 

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