Is Burma’s Government Involved in Ethnic Cleansing?
The last couple of weeks have been filled with mixed news for the Burmese government. On the bright side, the European Union decided to permanently lift sanctions against the country and deeper trade ties with the United States were announced—both moves likely to result in more foreign investment and lucrative business deals. Shortly after, President Thein Sein received a peace prize from a prominent NGO for his role in promoting internal reforms.
However, on the negative side, state agencies were accused of complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Two things that don’t really sound that worthy of a peace prize and raise serious questions about the ethics of the West’s increasingly cozy relationship with Burma.
These allegations are outlined in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in connection with two outbreaks of violence last year. In these attacks, the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community and other Burmese Muslims were attacked by government forces and mobs of local Buddhists. The violence, which took place in Burma’s western Rakhine state last June and October, left scores dead and more than100,000 displaced, most of whom have been crammed into IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
After recently returning from the site of last year’s violence myself, the new report makes for essential reading. It documents many allegations that fit exactly with the testimony of witnesses I’d met around Sittwe, the capital of the afflicted region. It also cites evidence of open support from local political parties and religious groups for targeted attacks on the Rohingya minority—some calling directly for ethnic cleansing.
The report also mentions another incident, one in which 18 half-naked dead bodies were dumped by security forces in a Rohingya displacement camp. Subsequently, the police ordered local residents to bury the dead in a mass grave.
Locals who saw the body pile before it was buried took photographs, which I managed to obtain. The images, most of which are too graphic to display without some kind of censorship, show corpses with a series of horrific wounds to their heads and bodies; in one case a man’s face is sliced almost into three parts. Another photo shows a dead child with a bloodied head lying next to a body bag crowded with maggots. Others have their hands attached to objects that they’d presumably been tied to while being executed.
Burma’s Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering, and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoized into a series of internally displaced-person (IDP) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, things escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed, and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces—again, involving rape and murder—in the aftermath. Further violence elsewhere in the state during October pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new—they have been subjected to marginalization and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterized the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is undeniably rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar.” (Kalar being a racist term for the Rohingya). “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art-therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to draw their memories of last year’s violence using colored pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew lying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a Rakhine man smash a woman’s skull in until some of her brains spilled out.
Dancing Idiots, Candy Floss, and Rubber Bullets: Passover in Hebron, Palestine
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I’ve seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism, and, therefore, Christianity. I don’t subscribe to any of those, but—despite the fact that the founder of three of the world’s largest religions surely has enough love to go around—I guess it’s understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father’s grave.
Hebron’s current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it’s been divided into two sectors—one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalized on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning clusterfuck that is today’s Hebron.
Is Burma’s Anti-Muslim Violence Led By “Buddhist Neo-Nazis”?
When most Westerners think of Buddhism, they think of smiling men with potbellies and inspirational quotes from Phil Jackson. “Buddhist neo-Nazi” sounds like a contradiction in terms.
But in Burma, vicious anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise, and Buddhist extremists are responsible for attacking Muslims and burning down their houses and mosques, a state of affairs that was largely ignored until Anonymous launched a Twitter campaign to teach the world about the genocide against the Rohingya people, the officially stateless Muslims who many believe will be massacred if the world does not respond.
According to Dr. Muang Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics, much of the blame for the current situation in Burma can be laid at the feet of the 969 group, which he describes as an neo-Nazi organization of hatemongers who are using Hitlerian tactics to “purify” the country by getting rid of the Muslims—it’s also, he says, one of the fastest-growing movements in the country.
I spoke to Dr. Zarni to find out more about what’s going on in Burma and how a Buddhist can be a “Nazi.”
VICE: Who are the 969, and what does the number mean?
Dr. Muang Zarni: The 969 leaders are Burmese men in monks’ robes. It’s a bit difficult to describe them as genuine monks because they are preaching a message of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is completely incompatible with the Buddhist message of universal kindness. The 969 number stands for three things: the 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha, the founder of the religion; the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of dharma; and finally, the last 9 stands for special characteristics or attributes of the clergy.
You’ve described the 969 group as “Burma’s fastest-growing neo-Nazi ‘Buddhist’ nationalist movement.” What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
I use the word neo-Nazi because their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma—all of them, including the ethnically Burmese—are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root.
There is a parallel between what we saw in Nazi Germany and what we are seeing today in Burma. The 969 movement and its leading spokespersons call for attacking the Muslims of Burma—not just the Rohingyas in western Burma who were incorrectly framed as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but all Muslims from Burma. Buddhist people who try to help Muslims or buy groceries from Muslim businesses are either beaten up or intimidated or ostracized by other Buddhists.
Also, the military is involved with this movement. At best, the military authorities are tolerating the message of hatred coming from the Buddhist preachers. At worst, and I believe this to be true, elements within the military leadership are passively backing this movement. Over the past 50 years since the military came to power, there has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organizations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.
Open Season in the Holy Land
Over Thanksgiving, Israel launched an attack on the Gaza Strip, killing Hamas’ second-in-command, Ahmed Jabari. In retaliation, Hamas began firing rockets that were some of the first missiles to hit parts of Israel in 20 years. VICE traveled to the Israel-Gaza border to see what eternal tension had flared up this time.
Inside Aleppo, Syria’s “Stalingrad”
I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi’s relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria’s uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man’s destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.
I Left My Family For the Free Syrian Army
Loubna Mrie grew up in a high-profile Alawite family, but unlike most of the adherents to the Twelver school of Shia Islam, Loubna does not support the Assad regime. When civil war broke out last March and Assad’s troops began shooting civilian protesters, she was persuaded by friends to support the rebels of the nascent Free Syrian Army in Damascus, where in February she was assigned to a six-month ordnance-smuggling stint.
When the revolt began I was opposed to armed revolution. Then the cruelty of the Syrian Army forced me to change my opinions about the possibility of a peaceful resistance movement.
You should know that the FSA are not a strange army that just came to Syria. They are friends whom we were protesting and working with before any sort of rebel force was actualized. I knew they needed help, so I asked what I could do. One of them said they needed bullets, so I called my friend who took me to another area (it would be irresponsible for me to say exactly where) to buy them. I later smuggled them back. It’s not complicated, but it’s very dangerous.
At checkpoints, the Alawites, Christians, and Druze (followers of a branch of Shia Islam who also incorporate other beliefs into their religion) are always free to pass—the government and the shabiha (armed men in plain clothes who support the regime) think all the activists are Sunni. They don’t thoroughly search believers of these other faiths, so they can smuggle anything easily—even guns.
We Just Spoke to People in Palestine and Israel About the Gaza Crisis
As you may have read on VICE.com this morning, last night Israeli fighter jets rained down missiles upon Gaza. The assault came in retaliation to a week of rocket attacks on Israeli territory by Hamas, to which Israeli forces responded by assassinating the leader of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed al-Jabari, with a missile. The end result is that the Gaza Strip is likely to be plunged into war yet again, one that many other nations in the Middle East and beyond may find themselves getting dragged into. Since al-Jabari’s assassination, another 300 missiles have been fired into Israel from Gaza and Israeli missiles continue to bombard the Strip.
Hamas have long held off firing on Israeli capital Tel Aviv, aware that to do so may provoke a full-scale war between Palestine and Israel. However, a couple of hours ago, air raid sirens sounded in the city for the first time in two decades, forcing residents to take cover as Palestinian militants tried to hit Tel Aviv with missiles fired from Gaza. It appears that the missiles missed Tel Aviv, one landing in the sea and another falling short just outside the city, but as of yet, no one’s certain what effect that’s going to have on the conflict. You struggle to imagine that it’d be a positive one.
VICE currently has film crews in both Tel Aviv and the Palestinian West Bank, so they put us in touch with sources in both places to find out exactly what’s happening.
First up, an anonymous source in Tel Aviv, who spoke to us about the missile attacks that may or may not have been targeted at the city.
VICE: Does Tel Aviv feel like it’s under attack?
Anonymous source in Tel Aviv: It’s actually kind of fine here. We haven’t seen any damage, and when the press say “missile,” it’s not a missile, it’s really very crude. It’s not even a bomb; it’s something full of old bits of pipe and scaffolding that sort of falls and breaks. It will kill what it lands on, it might damage a house, but it’s not hugely dangerous. And they’re not targeted missiles, so they’re not very accurate either.
What’s the general mood on the street?
The attitude of the Israeli people seems to say: “Hamas think that’s gonna hurt us? They can’t touch us.” There’s actually a bit of Jewish pride and joviality about it, but mainly everyone’s been totally normal. There’s no hysteria, and whenever you ask people what’s going on, they’re just like “Look, they’re not really going to bomb Tel Aviv because Hamas knows that this is our Achilles’ heel and that would be it; we’d fucking nuke them.”
OK, well the BBC says they just did, or at least appear to have tried to.
Yes, but no one in Tel Aviv is taking those ones seriously. Like I said, Israelis are laughing because of how crudely designed, inaccurate, and harmless they are. They’re seen as pathetic, laughable, empty threats. That said, if they really start to cause damage then yes, the general opinion is that Israel will retaliate with a vengeance, AKA all-out war.
Jesus. Have you been told to go to a bomb shelter?
No, but if we do have to go to a bomb shelter, apparently there’s one about a minute-and-a-half away.
Have you seen more members of the Israel Defense Forces since the attacks?
No. The only IDF we have seen were just off-duty people, very casual, the girls have got their uniforms on with their handbags over it and stuff. Out of the IDF that we’ve seen, none of them have been engaged. You wouldn’t have known that there was anything going on, to be honest.
Do you think everybody’s so calm because they’re used to this kind of environment, or because they genuinely don’t feel threatened by Hamas?
Well that’s the thing, because they’re not used to it, and the last time anything like this happened was many years ago. So I don’t know, maybe people are a bit in denial, because they know that the rockets aren’t very effective. What’s clear is that they really believe the last thing that Hamas is actually going to do is fuck up Tel Aviv, because they know that that means out-and-out war.
How has it been over the past few days?
Last night when it was really kicking off, I sat outside a cafe and there were people smoking weed and cycling around on their bicycles with baskets full of grapefruits. Absolutely everything is carrying on as normal. Well, people are calling each other to make sure that everything’s OK, but that’s it. Of the rockets that came close-ish, one of them went into the sea and one of them landed in an undeveloped area. They’re not even explosive. We’ve been speaking to people about what they were going to do tonight. People still go out, the bars will still be open, clubs will still be full.
- - -
An Israeli air strike hits the earth in Gaza
Next we spoke to an anonymous source in the West Bank, who told us about the protests that have sparked up there in the past couple of days.
VICE: Hey, what’s happening over there? What are the repercussions of the Gaza attacks in the West Bank?
Anonymous source in the West Bank: We heard that everything had escalated in Gaza yesterday and that the Israelis were firing more regularly. The rockets kept coming in and people here in Ramallah felt the need to take to the streets, so a lot of people gathered in the main square and moved from there.
Where were they going?
They started chanting that they wanted to go all the way to Bethel, which is a settlement just outside Ramallah. On the way there, they were chanting that they want unity for the three factions in Palestine: Fatah, Hamas, and The Popular Front.
Who was marching?
Oh, it was everyone. Everyone was there together; men, women, the elderly, and children. It was quite fascinating to see everyone together like that on the streets. They kept walking towards Bethel and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was kind of scared, because I knew if people actually did reach Bethel they’d have been met with Israelis firing live ammunition at them.
They didn’t make it there, though, right?
No, on the way—surely enough—the Palestinian Authority (PA) showed up like they always do, stopped the crowds, formed a line on the main road, and didn’t let anyone pass. The crowd stuck around, though. They were shouting at the soldiers and trying to humiliate and shame them, asking them whose side they were on.
Under Fire for Bread in Aleppo, Syria
Every day the men, women, and children of Aleppo, Syria, must risk their lives to stand in line and hope that they can buy a kilo of bread to survive another day. Many of the bread factories in Aleppo have been destroyed amidst fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s troops. The few that remain are staffed by brave souls who risk their lives every day to ensure the local population has basic sustenance.
Watch it here