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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 September 2017

Brutal repression of Rohingya people sparks massive humanitarian crisis

Celebrated dissident Aung San Suu Kyi collaborates with military junta

Internally displaced Rohingya refugees following an earlier state-organised pogrom, photo DFID/CC

Internally displaced Rohingya refugees following an earlier state-organised pogrom, photo DFID/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Clare Doyle , International Secretariat, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

What was a slow-burning conflict between the government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the Rohingya people of Rakhine, has escalated in the last three weeks into a major humanitarian crisis.

More than 400,000 people have fled the country towards neighbouring Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have been trapped in a rain-soaked no man's land without food, shelter or medical aid.

Hundreds of thousands are struggling to survive in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. Newborn infants perish along with the frail and elderly.

The Bangladesh prime minister - Sheikh Hasina - has told the terrified refugees they must go back!

Now a vast new temporary camp is being built which amounts to nothing but a prison. The refugees are told they must stay in the camps until they return to their country. Local people are forbidden to give them shelter or aid, even if they are relatives.

Before the brutal military assaults started on 25 August, there were already 400,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh who had fled previous waves of violence.

The government of Myanmar has banned most international aid agencies from giving assistance within its borders.

The United Nations security council has formally condemned the violence which its secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, describes as ethnic cleansing.

For many years, the disenfranchised and oppressed Rohingya people have sought safety beyond the borders of Myanmar.

Just two years ago, there were as many refugees perishing in the seas around Myanmar as those drowning in the Mediterranean.

Today, hundreds of thousands are fleeing the massacres, rape and pillage being carried out by the Burmese military in their 'home' state where they constituted a majority.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi is the acknowledged political leader of Myanmar since her party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - won 80% of the popular vote in 2015.

It was the first 'free' general election after 50 years of repressive army rule. But she has earned worldwide condemnation for her failure to speak out against the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya by 'her' government.

When, two weeks into the crisis, she broke her silence in a phone call to President Erdogan of Turkey, all she could say was that there was a "huge iceberg of misinformation" about what was happening! This is almost 'Trump-speak' - a total denial of reality.

And this was when the media of the world were exposing incontrovertible evidence of cruelty and mass slaughter of innocent civilians.

She also announced that she would not be appearing at the United Nations general assembly to discuss the issue.

In her most recent speech to Myanmar's parliament she did not address the question of state-sponsored military violence and disingenuously claimed that the government had improved conditions for Muslims living in Rakhine.

Various organisations and academic institutions have called for the withdrawal of Aung San Suu Kyi's Nobel peace prize.

Ironically she was given this award for her own opposition to the rule of the military, which saw her spend 15 years in jail or under house arrest.

The Committee for a Workers' International has always maintained that Aung San Suu Kyi's passive resistance would not be a strong enough weapon to right the wrongs of decades of military rule and she would not mobilise the masses to remove them.

She has long danced to the tune of western capitalism's interests - its trade and investments in the region - but may now be more influenced by the rise of China's military-industrial complex.


The military in Myanmar, who still hold the reins of power, justify their actions against the whole Rohingya population (of more than one million) by the need to eliminate 'terrorism'.

Yet it is the army's terror campaign and vicious Buddhist chauvinist persecution which has driven a desperate layer of Rohingya youth in this direction.

On 25 August some fighters of the 'Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army', attacked 30 police posts and an army base, killing several people. The military also said there were 'people inciting riots'.

While an oppressed people has the right to defend itself with arms if necessary, unless there is a mass movement, this kind of tactic alone cannot offer a solution to the suffering of an oppressed people. It can serve as a pretext for state forces to clamp down on a whole population.

The response of the army was to launch a bloody campaign of reprisal, killing hundreds of civilians and burning at least 500 villages to the ground, forcing hundreds of thousands of people - including non-Rohingya - to flee with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Muslim Rohingya people have lived in this part of what became Burma since the 12th century. Resentment against them developed when their numbers were increased by the British partly as a counterweight to Buddhist forces during World War Two and also as cheap labour when Burma was regarded as just a province of India within the British Empire.

It was fighters like Aung San Suu Kyi's own father who ended British colonial rule and achieved independence in 1948.

Very soon afterwards, he and his co-fighters were assassinated. Later, in 1962, generals of the Burmese army who had taken power went on to nationalise what had belonged to the British but it was a state without democratic rights and control.

Decades later, in August 1988, a heroic revolt of workers and students came close to overthrowing the generals' dictatorship.

The odds were heavily stacked against them and they did not have the necessary experienced and theoretically equipped party to carry through the revolution.

The uprising was crushed and a further period of intense repression ensued, broken only by a brief attempt at a new upsurge in 2007.

Rights of minorities

In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingya have long been an oppressed minority. There are 135 ethnic groups with recognised status, but the Rohingya are not even recognised as an ethnic group and have been denied citizenship since 1982!

It is notable that Aung San Suu Kyi had not one Muslim Rohingya candidate on the electoral list of her party in 2015.

Nevertheless, ethnic minorities had voted for Aung San Suu Kyi at the time of the election, hoping for moves towards local autonomy and a more federal system.

The military has plundered the natural resources in the states where the ethnic minorities live without giving anything back to them.

Aung San Suu Kyi "is not interested in fighting for the Rohingyas" a Burmese student commented, "and will just let them rot in the concentration camps or perish in the seas," he added.

Several countries in south east Asia have Muslim majorities, including the relatively wealthy Malaysia.

But all of them have maintained, even during the 'boat people' disasters of recent years, that the Rohingya must stay out.

Bangladesh is a poverty-stricken country and one of the most densely populated in the world. But its top politicians - who are second generation 'freedom fighters' from the 1971 war of independence - are among the richest in Asia. They are also among the most corrupt.

On the other hand, the workers of Bangladesh have a proud tradition of struggle - of strikes and 'hartals' - against the bosses and against destructive building projects.

Working people around the world feel powerless to end the suffering of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Within the country there are reports of solidarity demonstrations and angry protests by people from other communities against the atrocities carried out by the military.

Solidarity protests have erupted in Bangladesh as well as Indonesia and elesewhere.

System change

Capitalist politicians and international organisations hold up their hands in horror and weep crocodile tears about events in Myanmar.

But it is their system that breeds war and division. They fear the mass revolt of working and poor people, and may their fears be soon realised!

Events like the present catastrophe for the Rohingya in Myanmar can arouse anger among workers and young people and a questioning of the whole way the world is run.

The struggle to defend persecuted minorities in any country cannot be separated from the need for a united struggle of all workers against the common enemy - the bosses and the defenders of their system. 

Parties with socialist ideas and programmes will grow in the hothouse of the big social struggles to come.

Lessons will be drawn about the need to fight for a new society - a society in which the rights of all minorities, up to and including self-determination, are upheld within a voluntary federation of socialist states.

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