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Experiencing Forced Displacement: Burma

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—Courtesy of Paula Bronstein Getty Images Reportage for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Maya González

“I feel like I’m out in the middle of the sea, and I can’t find land.”

Saiful, a Rohingya man

Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing Russian attacks in what has already become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. In this two-part blog, we explore the role of mass forced displacement in two past instances of mass atrocities. In Part I, we examined the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 17, 1975. In Part II, we will consider the mass forced displacement of Rohingya Muslims that occurred in Burma during the 2017 “Clearance Operations.” Although the two cases occurred under different conditions, the experiences of victims from each context can allow us to better understand the impact of forced displacement on civilians and the support that survivors need.

Restrictions 0n Rohingya in Burma

In 2017, on the eve of the Burmese military’s “clearance operations” against Rohingya civilians that forced over 700,000 to Bangladesh, Burma was the ancestral home of almost one million Rohingya Muslims.1

For decades prior, the Rohingya suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Burmese government. Rohingya were increasingly ordered to identify as “Bengali” and they had been effectively excluded from citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity. They faced increasing restrictions on freedoms associated with all aspects of daily life. In the years leading up to the 2017 violence, Rohingya faced restrictions when trying to travel, work, attend school, pray in groups, or be out at night.2

In the months before the Burmese military’s “clearance operations,” soldiers moved from home to home, confiscating kitchen knives and machetes from Rohingya households and marking Rohingya homes and mosques with red cloth.3 Feelings of vulnerability swelled in Rohingya communities, reaching a peak when the Burmese military began entering Rohingya villages on August 25, 2017.

Experiencing Displacement

The first wave of violent attacks shattered any remaining serenity in Rohingya daily life. Soldiers would arrive in the early morning or on Fridays during Jumu’ah, the weekly Muslim congregational prayer, and strategically occupy and surround each village.4 Rohingya residents had little time to consider whether to hide or flee, an impossible decision to make as destruction and disorder erupted around their homes. 

Upon stepping outside, fleeing Rohingya would have smelled smoke from the burning mosques and madrassas (religious schools), the first targets of the military’s strategic arson campaign.5 They would have seen Burmese soldiers, clad in green uniforms and red scarves, rolling into the village in large trucks.6 The noise of the invasion, coming from trucks, running boots, and gunfire, would have been compounded by the hateful epithets shouted by non-Rohingya neighbors: “This is not your country. If you stay we will rape your women, burn you, leave Bengali!”7

“There’s not a single green leaf left in the village.”

“Rashida,” a Rohingya woman from Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son village

Between August 25 and September 4, 2017, Rohingya villages across Rakhine State experienced what they would each come to know as their own “Massacre Day.”8 The violence against Rohingya was marked by extreme terrorizing tactics that relied on human mutilation and physical destruction. Witnessing such brutality was almost certain—across over 1,000 interviews conducted by the Public International Law and Policy Group investigators, 80 percent of Rohingya “witnessed the killing of a family member, friend, or personal acquaintance.”9

Witnesses have shared experiences of unfathomable violence. Soldiers massacred Rohingya of all ages, and survivors described crimes of rape and torture. Experiencing the terror of such destruction left survivors with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression.10 

Soldiers looted homes, supervised buildings to ensure they had burned in entirety, and destroyed food stocks to prevent Rohingya attempts to return.11 People had no choice but to leave behind the bodies of their neighbors as they fled to Bangladesh.12

“The military and the police started firing at our village from the bank of the river. 

They said: You are Bengali, you have to go to Bangladesh.”

– 30-year old Rohingya man from Buthidaung13

Those intent on reaching the relative safety of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, now the world's largest refugee camp, faced a multi-day trek through jungle mountains with thousands of others.14 Soldiers went to extreme lengths to keep fleeing Rohingya from safely crossing the northwest border. Burmese armed forces continued shooting at Rohingya, raping and killing women, and displaying mutilated dead bodies for refugees to witness. Water from nearby streams or rivers was undrinkable due to floating bodies within. Children and the elderly died of starvation and exhaustion as they walked.15 Rohingya refugees now crowd camps in Bangladesh, where they face growing challenges to stay safe. Unable to return home to Burma, where the risk of genocide remains, many refugees now face an uncertain future and continue to bear significant trauma from the military’s crimes.

In studying the experiences of Rohingya and Cambodian victims of forced displacement, we find that loss alone is not a great enough word to describe the impact such an experience has on an individual. While the loss of life and land have a devastating and immediate impact, survivors and their descendants continue to suffer from the longstanding traumatic effects of forced displacement. Although Secretary of State Blinken recently confirmed the plight of the Rohingya as genocide, the demand for justice remains. 

Yasmin, a Rohingya activist, shared with us her hopes: 

“As people come to terms with what happened to Rohingya, the drastic changes, the transformation from participating citizens and contributing members of society, to now ‘helpless victims,’ I want [people to] not only think of us as victims or helpless people, but really look at us as a people who have survived, who have used our skills to thrive to this day. So whatever support people can give us, be it just a nice word to say that they're supporting us, or if they speak with their representatives to push [justice] further in their own capacity, politically or socially, we would be able to continue to live on and the memorialization of the people who have died, who have lost their lives, will be able to live on as well.”

Maya González is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a spring intern with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

 

Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and Fortify Rights, “Bearing Witness Report: They Tried to Kill Us All: Atrocity Crimes Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar,” Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, Washington DC, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/201711-atrocity-crimes-rohingya-muslims.pdf, 12. 
2 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Remembering When They Belonged,” Burma's Path to Genocide exhibition, accessed April 11, 2022, https://exhibitions.ushmm.org/burmas-path-to-genocide/remembering-when-they-belonged 
3 “Bearing Witness Report,” 1.
4 Daniel Fullerton, Ralph Keefer, Milica Kostic, Anna Triponel, Paul Williams, Jonathan Worboys, Documenting Atrocity Crimes Committed Against the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine State: Factual Findings (Washington, DC: Public International Law and Policy Group, 2018), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5900b58e1b631bffa367167e/t/5bd8bdabf950b7e10b575111/1540930993999/PILPG+-+Documenting+Atrocity+Crimes+Against+Rohingya+-+Factual+Findings+Report+-+September+2018.pdf, 28-29.
5 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, 34.
6 “Bearing Witness Report,” 10.
7 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, 32.
8 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, vi.
9 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, vi.
10 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, 39.
11 “Bearing Witness Report,” 12.
12 “Bearing Witness Report,” 10.
13 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, 31.
14 Shayna Bauchner, “A Rohingya Refugee's Search for Safety, Freedom, and Justice,” Human Rights Watch, August 25, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/08/25/rohingya-refugees-search-safety-freedom-and-justice.
15 Daniel Fullerton, et al., Documenting Atrocity Crimes, 48.

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