Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and academic, recently came back from spending two days in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in early November, where he met with about two dozen survivors of the ethnic cleansing campaign against them by the Myanmar government.
It is a campaign some are calling genocide. “I call them survivors, not displaced persons or refugees,” Zarni says.
The horrors Zarni heard of there have been thoroughly documented by others. According to an interview that researcher Skye Wheeler gave to Human Rights Watch, following a report she wrote on the systematic use of sexual violence against the Rohingya for the same organization, “People said their villages were surrounded, and then the shooting started, with soldiers launching what we think were some kind of rocket-propelled grenades and setting roofs on fire. Soldiers shot villagers as they fled. They pushed others into burning houses. In other villages, people were gathered together, and then women were raped, and men were shot or beaten. Almost all the rapes I documented were gang rapes.” The report continues, outlining the emotional and physical pain of women walking tens of miles into Bangladesh with swollen and torn genitals.
Zarni, who has dedicated the last several years to drawing international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, pointed to two interviews in particular that filled him both with grief and a renewed commitment to international activism on behalf of the Rohingya.
“I spoke to one Rohingya man who had been made a village administrator in Myanmar due to his eighth-grade education. In Myanmar 80 percent of adult Rohingya are illiterate.
The Burmese government deprives them of nutrients for the intellect, medicine for health, food for the body. He answered to Rakhine Buddhist overseers, who in turn answered to the Burmese military.
In 2016 when the military attacked the villages, they had focused on maiming and killing the men, so this time when the military came the men were prepared, and they fled into hiding as much as they could.
The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) had changed their strategy, however. This time they employed systematic violence against women and children and the burning of villages to the ground, so that when the men fled it did no good. First, they raped, killed, or expelled the women and children. Then they hunted down the men.
“So when this man fled into the forest,” said Zarni, “the military set fire to his home, where his wife and infant son were inside, hoping to wait out the violence. While he hid in the bushes, he saw his home burn down with his loved ones inside it. He was so angry and in so much pain when he spoke to me. He walked for two hours to come to be heard.”
“The second interview was with a Rohingya woman,” Zarni said. “She told me that her younger sister, who is 16 years old, was dragged into a hut by a group of Burmese soldiers wearing red scarves around their necks while she watched from a hiding place, clutching her baby.
They tied up the sister with her hands above her head. Any woman who was captured was stripped naked and raped, and this in a culture where modesty is to a fault.
The sister had beautiful long hair. She saw the soldiers cutting her sister’s hair with a knife as they were raping her. Their father, an old man, realized that his younger daughter was in the house being attacked, so he attempted to run to the house. She saw her father shot dead from behind as he ran; they shot him in the head. One of the soldiers came over and stuck his fingers into the broken skull, then tossed bits of brain to the chickens free-ranging in the yard.”
The Rohingya, who have been called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” have fled Myanmar in large numbers several times in the last decades. Starting in late August, at least 600,000 fled Myanmar after the military began a ruthlessly violent campaign against Rohingya civilians in reprisal for an attack against Burmese security forces by a small band of Rohingya militants.
The attack followed decades of state-sanctioned discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they have lived under oppressive conditions since the government passed a citizenship act in the 1980s that left most Rohingya stateless and without civil rights.
“We anticipated it was going to be a very emotional trip,” said Zarni, who was accompanied by his wife, Natalie, and younger daughter, Nilah. “I didn’t anticipate that the first thing I felt when I met with a group of women was a sense of deep guilt. These were the people that my own had wronged so horribly. Although I have committed myself to speaking out on this issue for the last six years or so, every day I still feel that I too am responsible and that I have failed. I couldn’t bring myself to say more through the Rohingya interpreter than ‘can you please tell them I am Burmese, I am Buddhist, and I am really sorry.’ All of the sudden I was unable to speak I was so choked up inside.”
“The stories I heard, they were from maybe 25 people,” Zarni said. “There are 600,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh with stories like that.”
A native of Myanmar and the founder of the pro-democracy Free Burma Coalition, Zarni is now based in the UK, where he has left academia to work full-time on human rights issues. Zarni has been in exile from Myanmar for 29 years, with the exception of a three-year period when he was working on negotiations to end the military-ruled country’s international isolation. Zarni’s own story is heartwrenching.
“I became a pro-democracy activist while at school in the United States,” he explains, “and after that, I could not safely return to Myanmar. I cut off all ties with my family there for many years to protect them.”
When Zarni’s father became ill, Zarni offered to get him to Thailand to receive better treatment. “I don’t need better medical treatment,” his father said. “I need to see you before I die. That will make me feel better.” His father died nine days later without seeing his son.
“I fought for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom,” said Zarni, ”but when I saw, years ago, that she was not truly committed to human rights for all I began openly criticizing her. I had hoped when she came into power I could return to Myanmar, but now that she has failed to do anything for the Rohingya and has even actively aided their persecution, I have become a critic of the current administration as well, and so again I am persona non grata in Myanmar.”
Zarni is not exaggerating. Major Burmese newspapers have run front page headlines calling him an “enemy of the state,” and Burmese social media sites are awash with claims that he is a terrorist sympathizer and an academic fraud who holds a fake Ph.D.
Zarni grew up in a military family and says that he himself absorbed his country’s ethnic nationalism and racism as a child. “Undoing my racism has been a long process,” said Zarni, who credits his wife, Natalie, for introducing him to the plight of the Rohingya and challenging his untreated Burmese chauvinism. “I am still rewiring myself as a Buddhist.”
Meanwhile, the plight of the Rohingya continues. On November 23, a deal was reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the repatriation of several hundred thousand refugees. Despite calling for significant involvement from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN, which was not consulted in the making of the agreement, has expressed opposition to the deal.
“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm.
Some have witnessed the deaths of family members and friends. Most have little or nothing to go back to, their homes and villages destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed. And humanitarian access in northern Rakhine State remains negligible,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at a press briefing on Friday.
Several activists have expressed concern that those Rohingya who choose to return may be interned in Myanmar camps in a repetition of the fate of many Rohingya who were repatriated in 2012 following a similar crisis, despite assurances from the government that such internment would be “temporary.”
Zarni, speaking to Tricycle after the signing of the deal, was unimpressed.
Pointing to the waves of “genocidal activity” against the Rohingya since 1978, Zarni said, “Repatriation is simply a tactical move to get the world off its back.”