UNCERTAIN FUTURE: A Rohingya family reaches the Bangladeshi border from Myanmar after crossing a creek of the Naf River, in Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf area. Picture: AP
Last week, the UN's top human rights official called Myanmar’s military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority group in the Rakhine State “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

This is what he meant: Using a pretext of rooting out Islamist insurgents, Myanmar’s military, together with Buddhist villagers, is terrorising the Rohingya, emptying and razing their villages, and attempting to hound them out of the country.

Of a total of 1.1 million Rohingya who remained in Myanmar despite repeated waves of violence since the late 1970s, more than 400000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in the past month. New arrivals are building makeshift settlements near established camps where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from previous exoduses live.

Most are women, children and the elderly. Conditions are dire. Food is scarce. Aid agencies are worn thin. The monsoon rain is torrential. The human catastrophe has captured the world’s attention.

But it has also caused a lot of confusion. Didn’t Myanmar, also known as Burma, just undergo a democratic transition? Isn’t it led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi? Why are Buddhists perpetrating an ethnic cleansing against Muslims?

How did we get here?

The mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar has underpinnings in events that took place centuries - and weeks - ago.

The coast of what is now Myanmar’s Rakhine State was the centre of what was once called the Kingdom of Arakan. The name Arakan has since been morphed into Rakhine and Rohingya to describe the indigenous and Muslim populations of the region.

Muslims lived in Arakan as traders and slaves captured by the king’s army from nearby Bengal. Over time, they developed a language that was not mutually intelligible with Bengali. Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim populations had been interacting for centuries by the time the Bamar, a larger ethnic group from the inland, took control of the coast in 1785.

Within 40 years, the British had usurped the Bamar and ruled the Arakan coast as part of a vast colony stretching from there to the Hindu Kush. Muslims from Bengal began to move to the Arakan coast in search of work, in many cases supplanting Arakanese labour and stirring resentment.

The perception of the Rohingya as outsiders and illegal immigrants grew and was exacerbated when the British armed local Muslims during World War II to fight the Arakanese, who largely sided with the Japanese.

After past spasms of violence, many Rohingya would return and resettle. This time the Myanmar government has warned that only Rohingya with verifiable ties to Myanmar would be allowed back.

The disenfranchisement of the Rohingya makes it unlikely most will meet the criteria.

The Rohingya are unpopular in Myanmar. The state’s stance is that the ethnic group doesn’t exist. They are referred to as “Bengali”, a rhetorical linkage to a foreign land that many have never stepped foot in. Myanmar doesn’t recognise the Rohingya as citizens, rendering them stateless and limiting their access to public services.

The state has found further justification for an anti-Rohingya campaign in recent attacks on police and army posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a ragtag militia with ties to Saudi and Pakistani money that claims to be the Rohingya’s defenders. Analysts say there might be 1500 fighters in their ranks. Arsa, as the group is known, declared a unilateral ceasefire this month to little effect. The government and military rejected negotiating with “terrorists”.

Suu Kyi cancelled her trip to the UN General Assembly to address Myanmar on Tuesday. But, ultimately, how much power does she have?

When Myanmar’s military junta agreed to democratic concessions starting in 2011, the world lauded Suu Kyi for her years of dedication to the cause. Suu Kyi won resoundingly in free elections.

But Myanmar’s constitution remains written in a way that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, because she has a foreign-born spouse and children. That clause was written by the junta with her in mind. Thus she is called Myanmar’s de facto leader, assuming the role of state counsellor.

In many ways, the military controls the country. A quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, as are the ministries of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defence. The military holds a majority on the National Defence and Security Council, which has the power to dissolve the government. That means the military could step in and replace Suu Kyi if it felt she was interfering with its plans.

But amid her silence, a long-held goal of the Myanmar military might be in sight - the full-scale expulsion of Rakhine State’s supposedly illegal immigrants.

The military campaign has been brutal, according to witness testimony collected by journa- lists and human rights advocates.

“Leave, or we will kill you all,” an armed group of Rakhine Buddhist civilians told the Rohingya of one village, according to a Reuters report from Myanmar this week. In some cases, that threat has been followed through. Reporting from the refugee camps in Bangladesh, The Washington Post’s Annie Gowen spoke to people who fled the village of Maung Nu, which was incinerated by Burmese soldiers. Fortify Rights, a South-east Asia-focused human rights organisation, estimates the death toll in Maung Nu and three villages to be 150.

“We were all watching what the military did. They slaughtered them one by one. And the blood flowed in the streets,” a Grade 10 teacher named Soe Win told Gowen. The government says that 176 Rohingya villages have been emptied across three townships, or counties, of Rakhine State: Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. Sloshing through dangerous terrain, muddied by the monsoons, hundreds of thousands of people have made their way to Bangladesh.

Those who survived the onslaught in the villages face landmines planted on the border, presumably aimed at killing escapees. Others make the treacherous crossing of the wide estuary of the Naf River, which separates Burma from Bangladesh. Hundreds have died in capsized boats, and boatmen have been charging exploitative rates for rides, forcing some to spend or barter the little they carried on their backs.

Photos from Bangladesh have documented the suffering of those making the perilous escape. Sons carry their feeble, ageing parents in bamboo baskets across raging streams. Mothers weeping over their drowned babies.

A group gathers on the banks of the Naf, gazing back at the smoke rising from the fields they once called home, doubtful of what lies ahead. - The Washington Post

Mediterranean migration figures from UNHCR. Bangladesh refugee figures are from the Inter-Sector Co-ordination Group’s September 15 Situation Report. Fires data is from Nasa’s MODIS satellite.