Why we went to Bangladesh

It is only by listening to each other that we will be able to build understanding and ultimately confront the demons that have plagued Rakhine State for generations.

THIS WEEK, Frontier has covered the Rakhine State crisis from over the border in Bangladesh.

In less than a month, more than 430,000 people, mostly Muslims, have sought refuge there. As The Economist reported this week, it is the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide based on the speed with which it has unfolded.

The scale of the humanitarian calamity in Bangladesh is overwhelming. Many people have literally arrived with nothing; some are in such poor health they may not survive. Most have no idea how they can remain in Bangladesh but are also reluctant to return until their safety can be guaranteed.

Yet this is a story that many here in Myanmar would prefer that Frontier ignored. The widely held view is that Muslims who are fleeing do not deserve sympathy; that, in fact, they are getting exactly what they deserve.

The dehumanisation of Muslims from northern Rakhine State since the August 25 attacks has been one of the more distressing features of this crisis. It is not new, of course. But it has certainly increased in intensity over the past month.

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Some government officials have contributed by suggesting that all of those fleeing are “terrorists”, or Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army collaborators or supporters. Others have accused Muslims of seeking to take advantage of international donors, or to simply tarnish Myanmar’s image. In this context, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s questioning in her September 19 address of why Muslims are fleeing was unhelpful, as it will have only encouraged further cynicism about their motives.

Blanket accusations targeting Muslims are as ridiculous and unhelpful as saying that all Rakhine are hardline Buddhist nationalists, or all security personnel are involved in abuses. It simply isn’t true.

As Frontier has previously stated, the attacks by ARSA are despicable and should be condemned in the strongest terms. We offer our condolences to families and friends of those who lost their lives. These actions have made efforts for peace, reconciliation and development in Rakhine State significantly more difficult. They have played into the hands of those who hope for a Muslim-free Rakhine State.

But we need to draw a line between members of ARSA and those of the same faith who have been affected by but are not perpetrators of this recent violence. This group encompasses the vast majority of people living in northern Rakhine.

We need to press reset and go back to the most basic notions of human rights. That everyone is deserving of access to food, shelter and healthcare. That everyone deserves to be safe.

This goes not just for Muslims caught up in this brutal conflict, but also Rakhine, Hindu, Maramagyi, Mro, Daingnet and other ethnic and religious groups. All are victims. All need protection and support. And all deserve to have the chance to tell their stories, or have them told.

The alternative view – that some do not deserve even basic rights – is highly dangerous. It cannot be allowed to take root. Those on both sides who are seeking to stoke the conflict will use it to perpetuate the violence. 

This is why Frontier decided to send a team to the Bangladesh border. Since late August, we have covered the conflict from Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw. We needed to see for ourselves what was happening in Bangladesh, and give a voice to those who have fled.

It is only by listening to each other, to hearing and acknowledging each other’s grievances, that we will be able to build understanding and ultimately confront the demons that have plagued Rakhine State for generations.

This will not be easy. But it won’t be possible in an environment when both sides are demonising each other, when all Muslims are portrayed as terrorists, and all Rakhine and Burmese are labelled oppressors.

The truth, as always, is not that simple.

This editorial appears in the September 28 issue of Frontier. 

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