Facing antagonism from many in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims living in Yangon often hide their ethnic identity to avoid discrimination, but keeping silent is not always easy. Disturbed by the uptick in hateful comments following attacks on their community by the military in Rakhine State, some educated Rohingya living in Yangon feel compelled to speak out, at least in the digital realm.
“We found [that] what the media was reporting about the Rohingya was totally biased,” says Soe Ko* from the headquarters of the youth group Together, We Can, situated in a high-rise flat in one of the Yangon’s Muslim quarters.
“It was our idea to write the real news about what’s really happening in Rakhine State, [accompanied with] a peace message in Burmese.”
Together, We Can created a Facebook group (in Burmese) to voice their concerns about the torrent of hate speech and fake news about the Rohingya that has circulated online. They’ve also launched a website to publish articles on issues affecting not only their community, but other minority groups as well.
Blending in, speaking out
Rohingya in Yangon live in daily fear of harassment by extreme nationalist Buddhists, or arrest by police. Even though many have National Registration Cards that allow them to stay in Yangon, most hide their identity by blending into the greater Muslim community. With the government, police and ultra-nationalists cracking down on the Rohingya and making life difficult, many just want to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. “Only those that are close to them know who they are,” Ko says, even though their accent sometimes gives them away.
Most of the Rohingya in Yangon moved there from Rakhine State before the 1990s; it was still possible to change family registries with immigration then, Ko says. The citizenship law with regard to the Rohingya has a convoluted history: although Rohingya had been granted citizenship under an old law from the 1940s, subsequent legislation and official lists of “national races” in Myanmar excluded the Rohingya from official recognition as an ethnic group. Selective and arbitrary processes to replace identity documents under the more recent law led to many Rohingya losing full citizenship. Various other measures, such as restrictions on movement, marriage and childbirth, or frequent policing and “spot-checks” on residences, continue to make life difficult and precarious for the ethnic minority group, particularly back in Rakhine State.
According to Ko, identifying as Rohingya in Yangon wasn’t an issue before 2012. The violence that broke out in Rakhine State between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that year was accompanied by the growing prominence of an extremist Buddhist nationalist movement. Some Buddhist monks—most famously Ashin Wirathu, who TIME magazine described as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in 2013—started preaching hate against all Muslims, and encouraged the boycott of Islamic businesses under the nationalist 969 movement, instigating attacks on Muslim homes and businesses across the country.
Having largely achieved their goal of seeking better salaries and higher education for their children, Rohingya families in the city are often reluctant to risk their hard-earned gains by getting involved in political or sensitive issues. But as things got worse in their home state—including an outburst of violence in October 2016 that shook many of the urban-dwelling Rohingya—Ko says that more are coming forward.
“After continuous human rights violations they are becoming more aware of what is going on there, and they feel the need to do something,” Ko says.
The violence in Rakhine State
Since late August, a systematic military campaign in Rakhine State on the western coast of Myanmar has forced more than 655,000 to flee their homes and seek refuge in cramped, squalid camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Numbers at the camps continue to grow. Survivors bring with them harrowing accounts of gang rape by soldiers, torched villages and being shot at while escaping.
The military denies targeting civilians, instead blaming insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for burning villages after the rebel group attacked multiple police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine State. But in-depth investigative reports have found otherwise; a story published by the Associated Press on February 1, 2018, confirmed mass graves and painted a picture of “a systematic slaughter of Rohingya Muslim civilians by the military, with help from Buddhist neighbours”. About a week later, Reuters published the story two of their journalists—Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—had been investigating when they were detained “for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine” and later charged under the Official Secrets Act. Their investigation confirmed the Burmese military’s involvement in the campaign to clear Rohingya out of the coastal village of Inn Din.
Options are limited for the beleaguered Rohingya. Those with relatives in Yangon find it difficult to join them. The police arrested ten people travelling in a vehicle in October last year after it was suspected to be part of a smuggling operation to Yangon from Rakhine State, according to the Irrawaddy magazine. Seven of those arrested were Rohingya. A Rohingya man found sleeping on the street—Ko suspects he was a recent arrival from Rakine State—was beaten by Burmese nationalists and then arrested.
Last May, the police had to fire shots in the air to disperse a mob of extremist monks and their followers who had gathered around a block of flats in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. The group, which calls itself the Patriotic Monks Union, claimed that Rohingya were being illegally sheltered in the apartment block. A police search turned up nothing.
Even Rohingya who have lived in Yangon for years have been on the receiving end [of discrimination]
The discrimination and prejudice doesn’t just affect new arrivals; even Rohingya who have lived in Yangon for years have been on the receiving end. A few years ago, Ko was forced to resign his high-level position at a prominent international non-governmental organization (INGO) after a government clerk discovered he was Rohingya. Although his employment was legal, it was decided that it would be the best if he left the INGO, so his status would not hamper the organisation’s operations.
The skills that he’s picked up in INGO work, such as team organisation and collaboration, has come in useful. Even before Together, We Can, Ko and other Yangon-based Rohingya were already involved in organising secret meetings between the Rohingya and other communities as a way to build bridges, keep lines of communication open, and counter the antagonism being spread by nationalists. When the group came together last June, they were able to tap on not just his experience, but the knowledge of other members who have also worked for international organisations.
Fighting online vitriol
Neither the police nor the military have interfered with Together, We Can so far. However, their Facebook group, named Pyithu Ahtan—“Peoples’ Voice” in English—is at times littered with hate speech from trolls.
Some people use bad language, Ko says, or post photos of pork. Comments use the term “kalar”—a racial slur against dark-skinned complexions that’s now most often directed at Muslims. Under a video of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, one person wrote that they should go back to their country—a common argument by ultra-nationalists who consider the Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh, despite the fact that the majority of them have lived in Myanmar for generations.
“We are trying to promote peace”
Ko says it’s rare for the moderator to delete comments or block people from the Facebook group. They prefer to try reasoning with them, he explains, writing things like “we are trying to promote peace” or “give a voice to the victim”.
It might come as a surprise to anyone who has ever engaged in a heated argument on social media, but this approach sometimes works. Once, after the moderator responded to a negative comment, the sender had a change of heart and later thanked the group for its good work.
Separating the fake from the real
Ko was unhappy to find that his friends from university were also writing hateful messages about the Rohingya and condoning the military campaign in Rakhine State, but attributes their participation to the prevalence of misinformation, often spread by the Burmese military themselves. “You can see the intention of what they [the army] are doing. Totally releasing the fake news and hate speeches,” he says. “Demonising the victim, it’s what they are doing to get the support from the public and increase the support [for] the military.”
This spread of false information and propaganda has been a big problem in Myanmar, where media literacy is still low. Doctored images quickly go viral, creating a false picture of what’s happening in Rakhine State. Journalists on a rare government-organised trip to Rakhine State were handed photographs were later discovered to have been faked to support the government’s claim that Muslims were the ones who had burned down homes and villages. Accusations of “fake news” fly in all directions.
“Everyone needs to know the real situation in Myanmar and that is what we are trying to do”
With contacts on the ground in Rakhine State and Bangladesh, Myint Yaza*, a second-year law student and member of Together, We Can, says the group is able to find out what’s really going on. For example, whenever a Rohingya is killed by the military in Rakhine State, it’s often reported in the state media that the deceased was a terrorist and member of ARSA. But the youth group can quickly verify this with their contacts, then report their findings on their Facebook or in an article on their website.
Together, We Can also makes sure not to focus exclusively on human rights abuses against the Rohingya. They’ve also drawn attention(in Burmese) to recent deaths in Mrauk U township in northern Rakhine State, after police opened fire on Rakhine demonstrators, killing seven and injuring 12 on January 16. The protesters had gathered in the thousands, without prior permission from the government, to protest the government’s decision to ban celebrations of the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the ancient Arakan Kingdom.
“Everyone needs to know the real situation in Myanmar and that is what we are trying to do,” Yaza says.
Disappointment with the Lady
There are fears that violence against Rohingya and other Muslims will spread to Yangon, says Jessica Olney, an American humanitarian working with Together, We Can. Last September, the youth group cancelled an evening meeting after a rumour spread that Buddhists planned to attack Muslims in the commercial capital. A mob of seventy people attacked a Muslim goat slaughterhouse in central Myanmar’s Magwe division around the same period; the police used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd after they gathered outside a mosque.
Like many international observers, Olney doesn’t understand why human rights icon and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent about the Rohingya. “It just seems like no one really knows the reason why she doesn’t speak up,” she says. “It’s just presumed that its fear of losing power.”
Ko disagrees that Suu Kyi risks losing her popularity if she spoke positively of the Rohingya: “If she says something that is reasonable, and which is understandable, the public will listen to her. Many people admire her.”
“It’s like she is sacrificing the Rohingya for the majority”
Although Suu Kyi has little control over the Burmese military, Ko says she’s also been releasing biased information about its activities in Rakhine State. He speculates that she might be trying to avoid a confrontation with the military while her party tries to amend the 2008 Constitution—which allows the military to retain significant amounts of power in the country—but thinks that the Rohingya are simply not a priority.
“It’s like she is sacrificing the Rohingya for the majority,” he says.
Yet Olney says members of the youth group still support the state counsellor. “There is no other alternative,” they tell her. “We have to keep hoping that the NLD [Suu Kyi‘s ruling National League for Democracy) will do something beneficial for us in the long run.”
Ko’s parents are still in northern Rakhine State. Their neighbourhood in Maungdaw had moved out for a monthduring the army’s crackdown, just in case they were targeted. They returned after hearing that their home had looted, despite being located right next to a police post.
Bribes have to be paid to the police and the ward administration, for protection; Ko has to keep sending money home so his family can continue to pay the police the amounts that they demand.
Ko worries about them; his mother is old and suffers from hypertension and other medical conditions. On top of that, he says that they’ve been traumatised by the ongoing crisis. He hopes to bring them to Yangon, but acquiring the necessary documents will be no easy feat.
*Some names have been changed for security reasons.
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Brennan O’Connor worked for Canada’s leading media publications before dedicating himself full time to cover self-generated under-reported stories in the mainstream press. In 2010, he left his native country to move to Southeast Asia to follow a long-term photo project on Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. O’Connor’s photography was recently projected at the prestigious Visa Pour l'image in Perpignan and honoured with the 2017 Prix Lucas Dolega Award in January. As part of the award, the series was exhibited in Paris this January. His work has been published in Foreign Policy; Paris Match; L’Obs; Al Jazeera; The National; Burn Magazine; and The Walrus and screened at Angkor Photo Festival and Yangon Photo Festival in 2015 and the Fotograf Vakfı 3rd Documentary Photography Days in 2016.