All Our Lives They Wanted To Ruin Us

Myanmar’s government described the country’s bloody military clampdown on Rohingya Muslims last year as a one-off spasm of violence, triggered by local terrorists. A consensus is building among international investigators that it was something else: a decisive and deliberate purge of the ethnic minority after decades of intensifying atrocities that amounts to genocide. The Wall Street Journal examined Myanmar legislation, actions and statements by its military, and documents from human-rights researchers back to the 1970s. It interviewed dozens of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and legal experts now pushing for prosecution of military officials. Nearly all pointed to the same conclusion. Myanmar tried for years to drive Rohingya Muslims out of the country before it launched operations in August 2017 to destroy them. The government has long deprived Rohingya of citizenship, denied them access to education and restricted their ability to marry and have children. Officers seized their property and demanded payments for daily activities needed to farm or sell goods. Crackdowns forced Rohingya to flee in large numbers many times across the border to Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Each time, the neighbouring country made repatriation deals with Myanmar and sent most of them back.

Nazir Ahmed. Photo by Paula Bronstein for The Wall Street Journal.

Nazir Ahmed, a refugee from last year’s violence living in a Bangladesh camp, described in an interview how soldiers forced him and his father into labour starting in the 1980s, appropriated his family’s land in the 1990s and raided his village in recent years. United Nations investigators now believe those actions set the stage for the attacks last year when security forces swept through Mr Ahmed’s village and hundreds of others killing children in front of their parents, gang-raping women and deliberately setting fire to homes. Between 700,000 and 800,000 people, or more than half of Myanmar’s Rohingya residents, were pushed out, joining 200,000 others who left in previous years and didn’t return. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s Rohingya population is now living in either internment camps in Myanmar or refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The two governments planned to begin repatriation last week, a deal that drew widespread international criticism and ultimately failed. Rohingya families refused to return without a guarantee of basic rights and an end to systematic oppression. During previous international human-rights trials for mass crimes, including killings in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, judges relied on patterns of historical discrimination to conclude those army commanders and others had acted with genocidal intent, planning their attacks. Investigators are pushing the same line now after a U.N. mission in late August recommended Myanmar’s army chief and other commanders be prosecuted for genocide. Their full 444-page report, released in September, cited “successive laws and policies” that created “severe, systemic and institutionalised oppression from birth to death” and made daily life “untenable,” including restrictions on travel and arbitrary arrest.

“The human rights catastrophe of 2017 was planned, foreseeable and inevitable,” the report said. Myanmar rejects testimonies of slaughter, rape and sustained violence, saying soldiers took counterterrorism steps last year only after Rohingya militants attacked security posts, killing a dozen security personnel. They say Rohingya burned their own homes before fleeing and can return to Myanmar once they are approved for repatriation. “The root cause of this tragedy is terrorism,” Myanmar’s National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun said in June, adding that clashes between security forces and terrorists led to an “inevitable” exodus. Myanmar’s leaders have made plain their distaste for Rohingya. In March, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing said that Rohingya weren’t Myanmar natives, “don’t have any characteristics and culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar,” and pose “a threat to the local ethnic people in many ways.” In a Facebook post last year, he wrote that dealing with Rohingya was an “unfinished job” from previous decades. Military officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr Ahmed, now 45 years old, and others interviewed by the Journal detailed atrocities by security forces over decades before last year’s massacres. Growing up in Tula Toli in the country’s Rakhine State, near the border with Bangladesh, he said he knew that many in majority-Buddhist Myanmar didn’t like Rohingya Muslims, who speak a different language and generally have darker skin. The ethnic minority traces its presence in the area back centuries, with some also arriving during British colonial rule from South Asia. Buddhist residents and Myanmar’s military leaders saw them as intruders and racially impure, and worried they could lead large-scale separatist rebellions. Soldiers sometimes stole his family’s livestock, Mr Ahmed said. Rohingya students were only allowed to occupy back benches at school. In 1978, Myanmar’s then-military dictator General Ne Win launched Operation Dragon King, a campaign to filter out alleged foreigners and illegal immigrants. A U.N. report at the time found the crackdown featured atrocities and extortion, fuelling the departure of 200,000 Rohingya for Bangladesh, including Mr Ahmed’s family.

Six months in the unsanitary refugee shanties were a blur of visits to the doctor, slumped on his father’s back like a sack of rice, Mr Ahmed recalled. Bangladesh authorities eventually struck a deal with Myanmar to send the Rohingya back. When Mr Ahmed returned, his home had been destroyed. He never re-joined school. In 1982, not long after the Rohingya had returned, Myanmar passed a law excluding them from the country’s “national races” and effectively denying them full citizenship. Gen. Ne Win called the Rohingya “mixed blood” who couldn’t be trusted to participate in state affairs. Without citizenship, Rohingya began facing obstacles to moving around freely and getting a college education. They were weeded out of public service and teaching jobs, elderly Rohingya said. Mr Ahmed said soldiers took his father and other Rohingya men to work for weeks at a time, to haul boxes of bullets or sacks of sugar or build roads—all for no wages and with frequent thrashings that left his father deaf in one ear. Mr Ahmed said his first forced labour came at age 13, cleaning storage pits.

In the late 1980s, a junta took power that isolated the Rohingya further. Large numbers were forced to surrender their remaining identification documents, making them de facto stateless, international investigations show. Rohingya men were arbitrarily arrested and tortured. Mr Ahmed’s family fled again, as did a quarter-million other Rohingya. “The Burmese military has embarked on a policy of ridding the country of ethnic Rohingyas,” Human Rights Watch said in 1992. Under international pressure, Myanmar signed another repatriation deal with Bangladesh. Mr Ahmed didn’t want to go back without guaranteed rights, but Bangladesh authorities cracked down on protests, sometimes with live fire, and threatened to stop his food rations. He relented. Once again, Mr Ahmed’s home was rubble. With no cattle or money to buy seeds, his family worked as farmhands. This time, Myanmar’s military government had formed a new border force that strangled aspects of their daily lives, locals said. Known as Nasaka, it consisted of intelligence, police, immigration and customs officials in camouflage uniforms whose actions were documented by successive U.N. special rapporteurs. Mr Ahmed could no longer go to the market or another village without seeking permits, shutting off avenues for work. If he wanted to stay overnight, fees went up. The new officers denied birth certificates to Rohingya children and charged arbitrary crop taxes, often making farming unsustainable. Nasaka issued diktats compelling Rohingya to catalogue their possessions annually: How many cows? What was the length of their tails? Officers would find minor discrepancies to extort money or heap punishments, locals said.

The government began expanding a programme to build dozens of “model villages” with non-Rohingya residents and change the area’s ethnic makeup. Authorities settled prisoners and poor Buddhist families and forced Rohingya to work for them, Mr Ahmed and U.N. reports said. One day, local officers ordered Rohingya men to build houses on land belonging to Mr Ahmed and others. Those who questioned the policy were told, “this is not your land, nor your country,” Mr Ahmed recalled. Officers told them to go to Bangladesh. Four dozen families were trucked in. Mr Ahmed had to lug their belongings to the new settlement. By the early 2000s, Mr Ahmed’s family was growing, and for the first time in years, he found a reason for hope. A daughter named Noor was considered so bright that even her Buddhist teachers praised her. She spent her free time reading, learning Burmese, Arabic and English. Mr Ahmed dared to dream: Perhaps she could become something more, perhaps a doctor?

Security forces tightened their grip. Officers caned Mr Ahmed so severely one night he couldn’t get out of bed for days. If one of his cows gave birth, he had to pay $7 to Nasaka agents; if he slaughtered one, the sum was $25. In the mid-2000s, state authorities imposed a new population-control regulation, restricting Rohingya Muslims to two children. Officials said it was aimed at avoiding tensions between local Buddhists and Muslims. Mr Ahmed paid $70 for permission for his son to marry, along with bribes of peanuts, watermelons and a large chicken over three months. Noor faced trouble at school, with Buddhist boys snatching her bag or calling her an animal. One afternoon, they assaulted her with a brick. When Mr Ahmed complained, the two found themselves encircled by Buddhist families. “This is our country, go to yours,” they shouted, Mr Ahmed recalled. Mr Ahmed decided Noor would drop out, and she wept for hours. The next day, Mr Ahmed enrolled her at a madrassa, or Islamic school, where she rose to the top of her class. She would show her father her penmanship and, although he couldn’t read, he found it beautiful.

In 2012, violence broke out between local Buddhists and Rohingya, and security forces “played an active role” in targeting and killing Rohingya, U.N. investigators found. The government placed around 130,000 Rohingya in internment camps, where they largely remain. By then, the military junta was moving toward a more democratic form of government, but the president, a former military general, took much the same line on the Rohingya as his predecessors. Extremist Buddhist monks, including one named Wirathu, began whipping up anti-Muslim hate. Saying that it is impossible to sleep next to a mad dog, Wirathu warned Myanmar would become an Islamic nation if Buddhists didn’t take action. His followers used pamphlets and Facebook posts calling for boycotts of Muslim businesses. Officials didn’t stop or condemn the movement and often appeared to defend it.

After 2012, no lights were allowed at night in Mr Ahmed’s village. Funeral parties couldn’t exceed five people. Town hospitals were made off-limits. Noor’s madrassa was shut down, so Mr Ahmed rallied parents to start a makeshift one nearby. By 2015, at 12 years old, Noor was taller than her mother, with straight black hair and a shy smile. Mr Ahmed bought her earrings with real gold to reward her for her studies. “Don’t ever take them off,” he instructed, lest soldiers steal them. Fearing rape, Noor and other young women would cross the river to neighbouring villages when soldiers approached. Thousands of Rohingya families left for Malaysia by boat, making sea journeys that often ended in death or the clutches of traffickers. Mr Ahmed wondered if his oldest son should flee, too, but didn’t want to break up the family.

After a little-known Rohingya militant group attacked security posts in October 2016, border police ordered Tula Toli’s main mosque closed and with it, Noor’s improvised madrassa. Military chief Min Aung Hlaing vowed to protect Myanmar at all costs. An opinion piece in a state-owned newspaper said, “the thorn has to be removed as it pierces.” The military used the Rohingya crisis “to reaffirm itself as the protector of a nation” and “cement its political role,” U.N. investigators allege. Locals said tensions seemed to be building to a breaking point. Fortify Rights, an advocacy group, and U.N. investigators documented numerous steps by security forces to militarise the region and weaken opposition before the August 2017 attacks, including confiscating sharp implements from Rohingya residents and tearing down fences to improve soldiers’ sight lines.

After Rohingya militants launched another attack on Aug. 25, soldiers retaliated with “grossly disproportionate” clearance operations that amounted to mass killings, the U.N. probe alleged. From Tula Toli, Mr Ahmed said he saw villages burning in the distance. Noor packed her books into a pink bag with a lock and urged her father to take the family away. When soldiers swarmed the village on Aug. 30, Mr Ahmed hesitated no longer, sending Noor off while he gathered belongings. The massacre that followed in the village is now considered among the worst in Myanmar last year. Human Rights Watch and other groups documented dozens of testimonies of how soldiers trapped residents along the riverbank, shot the men and burned bodies in piles, then moved on to rape. Myanmar authorities say such accounts are exaggerated.

As flames engulfed the village, Mr Ahmed and his wife plunged into the river, swimming past corpses to the other side. They couldn’t find Noor. Mr Ahmed ran up a hill. From behind a tree trunk, he said he saw soldiers dragging dozens of male corpses by their ankles into large pits. Soldiers snatched infants and threw them into the river, Mr Ahmed and rights organisations said. He spotted Noor, cornered and crouching near the water’s edge. Mr Ahmed said he watched as soldiers herded her, along with his daughter-in-law, another woman and three children, into a bamboo hut. The men emerged half an hour later and set the hut alight. Mr Ahmed screamed in horror and said he wanted to die. A friend urged him to flee, saying there was nothing more to do. Mr Ahmed began his third trek to Bangladesh. Two months later, he learned what happened to his daughter. In a camp in Bangladesh, Mr Ahmed tracked down a woman, Dilbar Begum, whom he had seen go into the hut with Noor. She told the Journal she had survived despite machete blows to her head. First, a soldier raped Noor, Ms Begum told Mr Ahmed and the Journal. When the soldier finished, he demanded the gold earrings Mr Ahmed had given her. Noor fumbled as she tried to unscrew them. The soldier chopped both her ears off, Ms Begum said, then stabbed her in the chest. Months after the attack, Mr Ahmed said he still wakes up in the middle of the night, crying. “All our lives they wanted to ruin us,” he said of Myanmar authorities. “They finally succeeded.”

Credit: Niharika Mandhaana for The Wall Street Journal, 23 November 2018.