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Rallying behind an old enemy in Burma

Migrants including Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims sit on the deck of their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea. Pic: AP

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EVER since the 9 October attacks on police outposts in Burma’s Rakhine State led to the deployment of security forces to the region, numerous reports have emerged of rapes, arson attacks and extra-judicial killings of Rohingya. Those responsible for the initial attack, which left nine policemen dead, appear to have been Rohingya. Whether they came from Rakhine State or from Bangladesh, or both, is unclear.

But the response by security forces has been to place the entire area on lockdown as troops sweep through Rohingya villages searching for the militants. The government in Naypyidaw has roundly dismissed reports of abuses. “All are well convinced that the accusations of international media of violations of human rights of local residents during Maungdaw area clearance operations were intentionally fabricated in collusion with terrorist groups,” said a statement from the Ministry of Information. Aung San Suu Kyi — currently in Japan, despite the worst crisis faced by her six-month old administration — said on 3 November that security forces were abiding by the “rule of law”.

Independent journalists have been barred from traveling to the area of Northern Rakhine State where the security operations are underway. Instead, the Ministry of Information organized for a team of officials, accompanied by handpicked journalists working for state media outlets, to visit and provide reports to those media outlets that have been refused entry. This team would, it was noted in advance, “refute accusations on the alleged racial and religious persecution by the Tatmadaw”, the Myanmar army. It seemed the allegations of army brutality were being denied before any investigation had taken place.

Because the area is a black spot for independent media, the claims of abuses have been difficult to verify. They have however been numerous, and they chime with well-documented historic evidence of the military’s treatment of Rohingya, and ethnic minorities more generally. But the same denialism that surfaced after the 2012 violence in Rakhine State has again been on display. Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing Rohingya villages that had been razed following police and army deployment in early October. The Ministry of Information claims that Rohingya had burned their own homes for propaganda purposes.

SEE ALSO: Sectarian violence in Rakhine State becomes a new challenge for Burma

All 33 Rohingya that were acknowledged to have been killed by security forces since operations began after 9 October were participants in the attack, the government said. Perhaps that was true — the information blackout means we cannot say either way. But we also know that punishment of Rohingya is always done collectively, and not on an individual basis. There is a penalty for beingRohingya, and it is manifested in a range of control measures — tight restrictions on movement, access to healthcare, and more — that is both acute, and unique only to them.

That had been a classic containment policy of the junta. Yet the mindset that feeds it — that an entire group is a single guilty party, with all individuals within it folded into one — appears now to inform the new civilian government’s approach to the crisis. The spokesperson for the President’s Office, Zaw Htay, stated on 27 October, nearly three weeks after the lockdown began, that the government was initially blocking aid to displaced Rohingya in order to flush them out of their hiding places and force them to return to their villages. There, the military would be able to investigate whether they participated in the attack. The government thus appears to have already determined that all Rohingya are suspects.

In this Sep 17, 2013 photo, Muslim girl who become displaced following 2012 sectarian violence carries a baby at Nga Chaung Refugee Camp in Pauktaw, Rakhine state, Myanmar. Severe shortages of food, water and medical care for Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar are part of a long history of persecution against the religious minority that could amount to "crimes against humanity," according to a statement released Monday April 7, 2014, from Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the country. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

A Rohingya girl who was displaced following 2012 sectarian violence carries a baby at Nga Chaung Refugee Camp in Pauktaw, Rakhine state, Burma. Pic: AP.

While these reports may shock observers, there’s nothing really new in them. The abuses faced by the Rohingya at the hands of security forces, and indeed civilians, is decades old. What is rather more recent, and astonishing, is the way the military has been able to profit so effectively from this all. After Fiona MacGregor, a journalist with the Myanmar Times, published a report on allegations that security forces had raped Rohingya women, Presidential Spokesperson Zaw Htay attacked her on Facebook, calling the allegations false and irresponsible and deserving of legal action.

What came next was a flood of comments from Burmese calling for a case to be brought against her and her newspaper. Others who commented that the government should allow independent journalists in to assess the credibility of the accusations were rounded upon and accused of slandering the military. Several days later, after a phone call to the Myanmar Times from the Ministry of Information, MacGregor was fired.

There have been two major knock-on effects from the violence of 2012. The first, to which most international attention is directed, has been a dramatic worsening of conditions for Rohingya. Even those not confined to camps face an even more far-reaching spectrum of restrictions than before that have made them de facto prisoners inside their own villages and towns. But the second effect has been less noticeable. The violence has dramatically shaken up what had once seemed a clear and rational constellation of solidarities among the populace.

Prior to the transition, few would have seen any cause to rally behind the military, so universal was the loathing directed at it. But the Rohingya have been so successfully cast as a national threat that many in Myanmar are now speaking out in support of troops as they sweep through villages in the west. Journalists who report on military abuses, as they had done in the years prior to the transition — and who in return were lauded on the ground in Burma for illuminating its dark practices — are now pilloried as traitorous.

SEE ALSO: US concern over sentencing of Burma journalists

The about-face has been both rapid and astonishing in its implications. Any criticism of the military’s operations in Rakhine State is now seen as an attack on the nation, for the military is now the virtuous defender of the nation against the hostile Muslim presence there. The former junta over and again circulated propaganda to that effect, but it had always fallen on the deaf ears of a rightly cynical Burmese public. That seems to be changing, and this time largely at the behest of the public—the military itself has had to do very little in the way of PR.

A year ago MacGregor wrote a piece, published in the Myanmar Times, in which she spotlighted a telling clause in the ceasefire agreements being discussed between the Myanmar military and armed ethnic groups. The clause said that both parties to the conflict would “Avoid any form of sexual attack on women, including sexual molestation, sexual assault or violence, rape and sex slavery”. In including the clause, the military had effectively acknowledged its own long and sordid history of sexual violence against ethnic minority women. The piece went out without a whimper from either the management or the Ministry of Information. But the violence in Rakhine State is evidently its own unique beast, and it has dramatically changed how journalists are being forced to approach a military that the broad public in Burma had, not so long ago, always known to be beneath praise.