Across Myanmar, Denial of Ethnic Cleansing and Loathing of Rohingya

A Rohingya woman and her child returning to the Basara camp in Sittwe, the provincial capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

SITTWE, Myanmar — The Buddhist abbot tucked his legs under his robes and began to explain.

Rohingya Muslims do not belong in Myanmar, and they never have, he said. Their fertility allowed them to overwhelm the local Buddhist population. But now, somehow, many Rohingya seemed to be gone.

“We thank the Lord Buddha for this,” said U Thu Min Gala, the 57-year-old abbot of the Damarama Monastery in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. “They stole our land, our food and our water. We will never accept them back.”

An overwhelming body of published accounts has detailed the Myanmar Army’s campaign of killing, rape and arson in Rakhine, which has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya out of the country since late August, in what the United Nations says is the fastest displacement of a people since the Rwanda genocide.

But in Myanmar, and even in Rakhine itself, there is stark denial that any ethnic cleansing is taking place.

The divergence between how Myanmar and much of the outside world see the Rohingya is not limited to one segment of local society. Nor can hatred in Myanmar of the largely stateless Muslim group be dismissed as a fringe attitude.

Government officials, opposition politicians, religious leaders and even local human-rights activists have become unified behind this narrative: The Rohingya are not rightful citizens of Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and now, through the power of a globally resurgent Islam, the minority is falsely trying to hijack the world’s sympathy.

People gathering in the village of Sin Ma Kaw, which has banned Muslims from staying there.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Social media postings have amplified the message, claiming that international aid workers are openly siding with the Rohingya. Accordingly, the Myanmar government has blocked aid agencies’ access to Rohingya still trapped in Myanmar — about 120,000 confined to camps in central Rakhine and tens of thousands more in desperate conditions in the north.

The official answer to United Nations accounts of the military’s mass burning of villages and targeting of civilians has been to insist that the Rohingya have been doing it to themselves.

“There is no case of the military killing Muslim civilians,” said Dr. Win Myat Aye, the country’s social welfare minister and the governing National League for Democracy party’s point person on Rakhine. “Muslim people killed their own Muslim people.”

When asked in an interview about the evidence against the military, the minister noted that the Myanmar government had not sent any investigators to Bangladesh to vet the testimony of fleeing Rohingya, but that he would raise the possibility of doing so in a future meeting.

“Thank you for advising us on this idea,” he said.

The Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and tend to look distinct from most of Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, have had roots in Rakhine for generations. Communal tensions between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists exploded in World War II, when the Rakhine aligned themselves with the Japanese, while the Rohingya chose the British.

Although many Rohingya were considered citizens when Myanmar, also known as Burma, became independent in 1948, the military junta that wrested power in 1962 began stripping them of their rights. After a restrictive citizenship law was introduced in 1982, most Rohingya became stateless.

Even the name Rohingya, which the ethnic group has identified with more vocally in recent years, has been taken from them. The Myanmar government usually refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis, implying they belong in Bangladesh. The public tends to call them an epithet used for all Muslims in Myanmar: kalar.

Daw Soe Chay, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from Myebon Township, was beaten and publicly shamed after her husband delivered aid to Rohingya Muslims in their camp in Sittwe. CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

The nomenclature is so sensitive that in a speech this month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the government, referred only to “those who have crossed over to Bangladesh.”

Some ethnic Rakhine politicians are hailing the Rohingya exodus as a good thing.

“All the Bengalis learn in their religious schools is to brutally kill and attack,” said Daw Khin Saw Wai, a Rakhine member of Parliament from Rathedaung Township. “It is impossible to live together in the future.”