Guest Column

Fear, Hunger, Hopes for a New Life — the Many Reasons Driving the Rakhine Exodus

By Sai Lon 20 November 2017

Critics of the Myanmar government have assailed State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for raising the question of why, in the wake of the incidents on Aug. 24-25, did Muslims flee to Bangladesh in unprecedented numbers and why those who stayed behind, stayed. Many observers from the international community — and especially the Western media — jumped to the conclusion that Muslims were pushed out of their villages by the security forces’ clearance operations.

It is true that a large number of Muslims ran away when security forces undertook sweeps through their villages. However, to ascribe the Muslim exodus to this sole cause is simplistic. For example, if military operations had been the only reason for the exodus, we would have seen a significant drop in the number of Muslims fleeing once the military campaign stopped on Sept. 5. In fact, a significant proportion of Muslims left after the security forces halted their clearance operations.

It is clear that there are many factors at play in northern Rakhine State. To be sure, many of the 600,000 Muslims who have reportedly fled to Bangladesh have done so out of fear of future military operations. However, it is worth noting that Muslims are not just afraid of state security forces but also of militants from their own community.

Before fleeing, a Muslim farmer confided to me that he, and many Muslim men he knew, joined one of the mobs that attacked security outposts in northern Rakhine on Aug. 24-25. They did so mainly because the militants threatened to kill them if they did not participate. “No one was protecting us,” he said. “If we had believed that the government would protect us, we would not have joined the militants. We would not have been a part of the mob.”

There were also some Muslim families who decided to flee to Bangladesh because it was becoming more and more difficult for them to make a living in their own villages. This was due in part to further restrictions on their already limited freedom of movement and in part because they were not receiving sufficient humanitarian assistance. A Muslim villager from Maungdaw noted, “We could not go to towns to find jobs. Rakhine businessmen would not give us any jobs. We were not receiving any assistance from anybody. Even if other friends from other villages or other parts of Rakhine state wanted to help us, they would not be able to send us anything. Our Rakhine friends were too afraid to help us. When we ran out of food, we did not have a choice but to become refugees.” The same villager noted that although he knew the situation at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar would not be very comfortable, refugees would at least get food rations from UN agencies and other international organizations.

Some villagers remarked enigmatically that they left their villages because they were asked to do so by “people from above” or “superior people.” However, even when asked directly, they refused to identify who these “people from above” were. While Rakhine observers surmised that those “people from above” were leading members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which led the August attacks, some Muslim observers concluded that many Muslims from northern Rakhine were manipulated by other political actors who took advantage of the unstable situation to promote their agendas. Some villagers also reported that they decided to go to Bangladesh mainly because friends and families who were already there convinced them that they would enjoy somewhat better conditions at refugee camps in Bangladesh than if they remained in their villages.

The fact is that Muslim villagers from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships did not stop fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh even after the government began providing food and other assistance to Muslim internally displaced persons (IDPs) and villages. Some residents of Buthidaung reported that many Muslim families sold their property, including animals, cooking utensils and furniture at discounted rates, bought gold with the money they earned from the sales, and left for the nearest jetty or border.

Despite efforts from the Bangladeshi security forces to stop boats bringing Muslim refugees to Cox’s Bazar, at least two boats from Bangladesh reportedly came to a jetty in Buthidaung township on a daily basis to pick up refugees. Due to the high demand, the boat fare recently surged from 30,000 kyats per head to 160,000 kyats per head.

In interviews, three young Muslim men from Buthidaung and Maungdaw said they decided to leave for Cox’s Bazar owing to a rumor that Muslim refugees from Myanmar would be able to go to a third country and start a new and better life afterwards.

There is also another rumor circulating in Buthidaung that Muslim families can now leave for Cox’s Bazar without paying any money as some diaspora groups have paid for their boat fares. Although the rumor could not be verified, it is true that Muslims have managed to leave for the refugee camps in Bangladesh on a daily basis. Some observers have also questioned why the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities failed to prevent the transportation of the refugees from the jetty in Buthidaung Township to Cox’s Bazar.

The reasons mentioned above are by no means conclusive. The point is that the military’s clearance operations were not the only reason for the exodus of Muslims from northern Rakhine to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In trying to prevent Muslims from fleeing to Bangladesh, both the government and international actors will have to take into account all reported causal factors by listening to a wide range of voices.

First of all, the government must ensure the rule of law and provide protection to all law-abiding residents in northern Rakhine State. Secondly, the government and other stakeholders must work together to prevent “people from above” from manipulating civilians. Finally, while making sure that all residents in northern Rakhine State can make an adequate living, the government, international actors and other stakeholders should work together to provide accurate information to all residents of the area to prevent innocent people from being misled by unfounded rumors.

Sai Lon is a pseudonym for a Yangon-based independent analyst and a longtime observer of communal problems in Rakhine State.