Monday 12 November 2012

Letter to Obama: A Plea for the Rohingya

Monday 12th November

Dear President Obama,

I find myself a human rights activist. I never set out to be one. I just got so sick of seeing injustice in the world I decided to start speaking out and doing what I can to help people which has led me here. I live in the UK. I am also a web developer, which comes in handy when campaigning for justice.

I cried with joy when you were first elected. Inspired like so many others, hopeful that you would bring change to the world. But like many others I also became disillusioned over your first term in office. I knew you had an uphill battle and couldn't change the world over night, but America's lack of support for Palestinian human rights and especially the people of Gaza has been more than disappointing. I cannot understand why Guantanamo continues to exist. And hypocrisy over Bahrain is so upsetting when I see my dear friends suffering daily under a cloud of tear gas on an island run by police thugs, suppressed by a regime you continue to excuse and even support.

Renewed Hope

However, like many others, I'm ready to give you another chance. Yes you are not my president, I don't have a vote, but we all know that the President of the United States has the power to start wars, and sometimes end them. I figure you are less likely to bomb Iran than the other guy, so you would have got my vote. Your tears at your after party talk seemed sincere and touched by heart. We all need hope, its a powerful thing. I have renewed my hope in you.

And I am not the only one who has put their hope in you. So has my Rohingyan friend in Burma. He is somewhere undercover, likely in a refugee camp in Sittwe, bravely gathering information from the ground and keeping a link open with the rest of the world via Twitter @aungaungsittwe He does so at great risk to himself, but he doesn't mind that. He tells me that he doesn't care if he lives or dies, to be dead in Hell he would not mind if he could see his people win their rights.

Green Bananas

I first got to learn about the Rohingya just this Summer. The apparent 'riots' had just begun in June, when a friend contacted me about their plight which she had learnt about through the fabulous grassroots charity Restless Beings based in London . She asked me if I could do something to help her help them, since she knew I was a human rights campaigner. I said if you want me to help, go find a source on the ground from whom we can learn the truth as to what is happening (kind of hoping she wouldn't come back because I really had my hands full with daily atrocities happening in Bahrain). But within a few days she came back with the telephone number of a Rohingya man living in Arakan state. He was a village leader who had been collecting information from all over the area. We interviewed him over a number of calls. He was living in fear, his village had run out of food and they had been eating green bananas, but even the green bananas had run out he told us. Children were dying of starvation. No one dared to leave their homes for fear that they would be killed. We were able to contact the World Food Program and pass on the information as to which areas were in desperate need of food, and they were helpful. But really no-one else was interested in our interviews which told of terrible atrocities that we were so shocked to hear. Amnesty told us they did not want the interview manuscripts as they already had so much information on Myanmar that they couldn't process it fast enough. News channels seemed disbelieving when we tried to report such atrocities were taking place. If your research team are interested to know more about those interviews some of our notes here. One thing of interest to note is that our source stated that the police were burning the Rohingya houses and that suggestions that they were burning their own houses were a complete lie.

Nothing New

Over the following weeks I began to intensively research Burma and the Rohingya in an attempt to get up to speed and understand the problem. I listed some of my research here I was amazed to learn that Genocide Watch had issued a genocide emergency alert of stage 7  (current genocidal massacres) for Myanmar and yet I had heard little to nothing about this in the news. I was also stunned to read a Human Rights Watch report from 2009 that clearly showed the terrible persecution and ethnic cleansing that the Rohingya people had been enduring at the hands of the Burmese government over decades.

It soon became apparent to me that what was happening now was an almost exact repeat of what happened in 1991 when the military Junta burnt thousands of Rohingya homes, killed hundreds and rounded up the rest into camps. It seems the motive then was to clear the land for new economic developments. I guess it was easier then to commit such crimes hidden from sight, without the Internet to worry about. But now we have the Internet, and social media, this becomes more complicated for such evil regimes to carry out their atrocities without getting noticed. Just before the last round of cleansing in June the military went door to door to confiscate digital equipment from the Rohinyga, but they didn't manage to get everything so some photos and video leaked out. This time around before October's houses were burnt the regime was much more thorough with their confiscation operations to prevent any digital leakage, which has resulted in very little new video coverage emerging of the atrocities as they were taking place, despite the wipe out being on an even bigger scale. But in 2012 the military did not need to carry out the violence themselves, as they did in 1991, but instead propaganda was widely distributed to brainwash the Rakhine monks and turn them into a killing machine which would perform tasks on demand, whilst the military stood and watched, and the government wiped their hands of the matter and professed their innocence.

Ethnic Cleansing

Have you ever seen throughout history a people rise up of their own accord, without provocation or planning, to wipe out an entire race from their neighbourhood in a matter of weeks? This is clearly ethnic cleansing from whichever way you look at it. The term genocide will never be accepted because the public will always find this word too abhorrent to accept and the politicians will always fear the legalities of having to act, and one may argue that what is happening to the Rohingya has only recently resulted in hundreds of deaths rather than thousands. My conclusion is that genocide has been in the planning, and social media has brought about raised awareness and international attention that is helping to stop the process before the plan has been fulfilled. However, these people are now hanging on to their future by a thread, with nowhere to go and no-one coming to their aid. 110,000 have now been driven from their homes and close to one million are now facing blockades which are slowly starving them wherever they may be, either displaced or still in their own homes. Look at the manner in which thousands of them were forcibly removed and driven into camps during June.


The Rohingya are now hated by people on all sides who have blatantly declared them as nothing more than viruses that need eradicating. They cannot move to another part of Burma. They have been driven from their homes to live in tents in muddy fields or hiding in boats or on the mountains. They are struggling to get medical assistance, food, clothes and shelter. Neither Bangladesh or Thailand will accept them. Often they try to escape but drown at sea. Hundreds have been arrested never to be seen again. They are denied visits in prison where they have been reported to be suffering from severe torture and often left naked, and even young boys and girls are often arrested. In addition women and girls are frequently taken away to be raped. I compiled a list of recent reports on events in October here:

Economic Developments

When looking at who is behind such crimes I believe it important to consider the history and the context. We can see that the Rohingya have suffered a series of clear serious assaults at the hands of the Burmese regime over a period of decades. A list of them is presented here:  In addition, there are major economic developments planned for this area. It came as no surprise for me to learn that Burma has a new oil and gas pipeline due to open in 2013 to take resources from the Bay of Bengal and also shipped from the Middle East up to China. The pipeline starts in the Arakan state, which is where the Rohingya clearance has been taking place, and passes over to the Kachin state where other human rights violations are also occurring . This document gives a lot of detail regarding the dealings of the oil companies involved : and further information can be found here I also read that India (ONGC) and China (CNPC) were working together on the pipeline, alongside other 'exploration and production' operations taking place in the Sudan and Syria. But it seems not only India and China have a stake in this pipeline, other nations do also. Ban Ki-moon stated that it was a 'win win' situation for everyone. What did he mean by that? This is certainly not a winning situation for the Rohingya, or do they not count?

In addition to the new pipeline, a deep sea port is being built at the port of Sittwe to handle the large oil carrying vessels which will be arriving, and massive development of the Kaladan River is taking place to enable boats to travel from India up to central Burma The impact of the heavy militarisation of the area to assist with these developments can be read about here There is also a fancy new technology development zone to be built in Kyaw Pru on the Northern half of Ramree Island.

This area was recently razed to the ground during the violence and 10,000 people had to flee via boats, many of whom it seems must have drowned at sea because not all made it back to shore. The satellite images of the area were recorded by Human Rights Watch One of my friends who used to work in Burma sent me this observation
'Notice in the first satellite image, the farthest out, there is an airport strip west  of the village area that has the burnt out neighbourhood when seen up close. This destroyed Muslim area is on the NE part of Ramree Island within the special economic zone to support industry, logistics and more. Ch Econ Tech Dev video - 00: 45  4:52, The whitened areas are in the zone.  Look at the video, there are 3 zones for business and then supportive. The Muslim area is in the supportive area.'
Channel Four also recently visited this same area and found that the Muslim population had been 'wiped from the face of the earth'.


Who is Behind it All?

I have read many reports suggesting that the monk Wirathu has been a key player in the violence. Just before the violence started monk Wirathu was reportedly visited by Aung Thaung  who is the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s secretary as well as the Lower House’s Banks and Monetary Development Committee chair, and a man known to be close to former dictator Than Shwe I wonder how much of a stake Than Shwe has in current developments, and question if he isn't still pulling strings behind the scenes? There have been previous calls for him to stand for his crimes before the ICC I read that Than Shwe's leadership over the State Supreme Council ensures that he retains final say over the military and also has the ability to overrule both the cabinet and parliament in 2011, but don't I know if anything has changed since then.

What is clear to me is that planned and well organised ethnic cleansing has been taking place, and with the Arakan state still under military control since the state of emergency took was declared in June, there is no way that this could have happened without military complicity. At best, this violence could have been easily prevented by the military had they so decided. I also understand that the Burmese only care about human rights when it is good for business. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her subsequent world tour was we all know to buy political favour, and didn't it work well! Whilst she was dazzling people with her smile the operation to remove the Rohingya began. It was suggested to me that the Burmese idea of democracy is ASSK and the military Junta putting on suits. I believe that was a perfect analysis.

Torture in Prisons

The government may try to blame the violence entirely on the Rakhine Buddhists and hide their own involvement in the matter, but they cannot deny the treatment of the prisoners that they routinely torture in prison. Indeed aren't there still UN and humanitarian workers still in prison, since they became witnesses to the regime crimes? The United Nations must now insist on full access to the prisons, that all political prisoners and aid workers are freed, and without such steps taken how can the West even begin to suggest that this is a reformed regime? The Rohingya are now at serious risk of elimination. Even Thein Sein stated clearly to the UN that he saw their removal as the only solution to the problem.

Future in Your Hands

President Obama your visit to Burma later this month comes at a key moment in time. If business is to take precedence over human rights this will be the last green light that the regime were looking for and they will complete their plan to get rid of their problem without further delay. However if, and only if, the USA lay down the line, that human rights come first, and will not be compromised however great the business deal, then things will change. All rests now on your shoulders Mister President. The future of an entire race. Maybe this meeting will chart the route of future history. Maybe a stand for human rights now will result in the avoidance of the creation of a new and unstoppable Nazi regime. With half of the revenues of the oil pipeline heading the way of the military Junta, and the other half to China, surmounting to many billions of dollars, I dread to think of the future impact of such a regime.

The Rohingya urgently need protection, by an independent peacekeeping force. They need urgent access to aid and medical care. And they need the return of their citizenship which was stolen from them by the dictatorship in 1982 and never returned.

Ethnicity Removed

It has been reported in the media that a new census is taking place in a move towards granting citizenship to the Rohingya. However my Rohingya friend in Sittwe tells me that what is actually happening is that Rohingya are now being tortured into signing that they are Bengali not Rohingya, and some are even tortured in public as a deterrent for others. Those that refuse to sign are being arrested and driven away (clearly for more torture, probably never to be seen again). Just today he told me that people were even arrested and taken away by police from a refugee camp when they refused to sign.

Please do not be blinded by the Burmese government's lies. Please understand the seriousness of doing businesses with the devil. Please make a stand for human rights. Business built on the back of ethnic cleansing can never be acceptable, however great the business. How sad it was to see you personally giving the 'green light' to the USA to invest in Burma immediately following the ethnic cleansing in July and how shocking it was to then see that on the very same day in October that homes were being burnt and thousands of new people chased from their land in, fleeing for their lives, the US Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Treasury Neal S. Wolin was shaking hands and smiling with President Thein Sein over business deals

Genocide: Worse than War

I researched the topic of genocide and found Daniel Goldhagen's truly excellent documentary, 'Genocide: Worse than War' incredibly informative
I learnt through it that genocide is always caused by politics, and I understood that it can be stopped, although it happens over and over again. It takes place as a result of a series of decisions. Please watch this documentary. It is long but is may be the best documentary I have ever seen and if its advice is heeded thousands of future lives, or maybe millions, could be saved. Please let this be your defining moment as a truly great man that stopped a genocide, where many others have failed.

True Hero

For my Rohingya friend Aung in Sittwe, a true hero of this world, you are maybe his last hope. Please don't let him down.

Thank-you for reading. May God grant you wisdom and bring you guidance.

Jamila Hanan
Human Rights Activist, UK

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