By Nicholas Kristof
March 2, 2018
Sono Wara spent the day crying. And even after her tear ducts emptied, her shirt was still wet from leaking milk.
Her newborn twins had died the previous day, and she squatted in her grass-roof hut, shattered by pain and grief. She is 18 and this was her first pregnancy, but as a member of the Rohingya ethnic minority she could not get a doctor’s help. So after a difficult delivery, her twins lie buried in the ground.
Sometimes Myanmar uses guns and machetes for ethnic cleansing, and that’s how Sono Wara earlier lost her mother and sister. But it also kills more subtly and secretly by regularly denying medical care and blocking humanitarian aid to Rohingya, and that’s why her twins are gone.
Myanmar and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, are trying to make the Rohingya’s lives unliveable, while keeping out witnesses. Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent months, but the fate of those left behind has been less clear, for Myanmar mostly bans foreigners from Rohingya areas. The government fired a warning flare when it arrested two Reuters journalists for reporting on an army massacre of Rohingya; the reporters face up to 14 years in prison for committing superb journalism.
Entering Myanmar on a tourist visa, I was able to slip undetected into five Rohingya villages. What I found was a slow-motion genocide. The massacres and machete attacks of last August are over for now, but Rohingya remain confined to their villages — and to a huge concentration camp — and are systematically denied most education and medical care.
So they die. No one counts the deaths accurately, but my sense is that the Myanmar government kills more Rohingya by denying them health care and sometimes food than by wielding machetes or firing bullets.
This is my fourth trip in four years to cover the Rohingya, a Muslim minority despised in a mostly Buddhist country, and initially I used the term “ethnic cleansing.” But along with many human rights monitors, I’ve come to conclude that what is unfolding here probably qualifies as genocide.
Scholars at Yale University and the U.S. Holocaust Museum have already warned that this may be genocide, as has the United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. This genocide sometimes consists of violent attacks, but now mostly of denying food or medical care.
“These tactics are right out of the genocidaires’ playbook,” said Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human rights group specializing in Myanmar, also called Burma. “Underfeeding and systematically weakening a population has been characteristic of other genocides.”
Sono Wara was unable to receive any prenatal or emergency care. In a crisis, a Rohingya can request police permission to go to a government clinic down the road that serves the general population, but it lacks a doctor, and Rohingya are often fearful of being attacked. They also must pay for a police escort at the clinic, adding to the cost.
“I was afraid to go,” Sono Wara said in a catatonic voice. “The clinic doesn’t care about Rohingya.”
On top of her physical and emotional pain is a constant fear. Her village wasn’t attacked in the August wave of violence, but, Sona Wara said, “That could happen here.” In 2012, people from a nearby village attacked with machetes and killed her mother and sister.
One theory is that Myanmar is trying to create such misery and fear that the Rohingya will flee on their own, so that the army doesn’t need to bother with the messy business of massacres. Sono Wara said that she and her husband have discussed trying to escape to Malaysia — a perilous journey that often involves rape, robbery and death.
Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing became impossible to hide with the exodus in August of Rohingya bearing stories of massacres and pogroms. In interviewing those refugees late last year, I was particularly shaken by the account of a woman, Hasina Begum, who told me how soldiers had executed the men and boys in her village, had made a bonfire of their bodies and had then taken the women to a hut to be raped. “I was trying to hide my baby under my scarf, but they saw her leg,” Hasina Begum said. “They grabbed my baby by the leg and threw her onto the fire.”
What’s happening to those left behind in the villages is a more banal kind of brutality. In one remote hamlet reachable only by boat or footpath, I saw a stunted 4-year-old, Umar Amin, being bathed by his big sister.
I pulled out a MUAC strip, used to assess child malnutrition by measuring the upper arm, and Umar Amin was in the red danger zone, signifying severe acute malnutrition. He can’t walk or talk and desperately needs help, but he has never been able to see a doctor.
International aid groups are ready and eager to help children like Umar Amin, but the government often blocks them, especially in northern areas near the Bangladesh border. It is difficult to understand this denial of humanitarian access as anything but an intentional policy of grinding down and driving out the Rohingya — one reason I see this as a slow-motion genocide.
What of “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, who won her Nobel for her resolute struggle for the human rights of Myanmar? She is now the effective leader of Myanmar’s government and has emerged as not only an apologist for this genocide, but also as complicit in it.
Suu Kyi does not control the army, which committed the massacres, but she has helped keep aid groups away. She has also tried to erase the existence of the Rohingya, rejecting the term and saying that they are merely illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. (In fact, a document from 1799 shows the Rohingya was well established here even then.) And it is her government that is proceeding with the criminal case against the two Reuters reporters.
I was able to get a tourist visa because I was leading a segment of a tour sponsored by The New York Times Company to Myanmar. The visa came with a stern warning that I must not do any reporting. In general, I believe that journalists should obey the laws of countries they visit, but I make an exception when a regime uses its laws to commit and hide crimes against humanity.
In one case on this trip, I arrived after dark so I would be less likely to be spotted. In others, villagers advised me on what paths to take to avoid the police. To get to two villages, I took a boat around a police checkpoint.