USA Today: Aung San Suu Kyi, Understand This: Ethnic Cleansing is Going on in Your Myanmar

This piece was originally published by USA Today.

Aung San Suu Kyi, former Nobel Peace laureate and current de facto leader of Myanmar, recently addressed the world on the Rohingya crisis for the first time: “We are concerned to hear numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to understand why this exodus is happening.” She should ask Lila.

Lila, 28, is a Rohingya mother of three whom I met in Thaingkhali, one of several newly established makeshift settlements in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are a minority in what’s formerly known as Burma, where they are not recognized by the government as an official group and are denied citizenship. More than a million Rohingya are stateless Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country that has long been hostile to their presence.

Suu Kyi’s inferred question — “Why have more than 480,000 Rohingya, a third of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, fled to Bangladesh in just the past month?” — is exactly what I asked Lila and numerous others in the few days leading up to Suu Kyi’s global address on Sept. 19. 

Just a few days before, Lila was in her home in Boli Bazar in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar. 

That was before Myanmar soldiers surrounded her village and burned it to the ground. That was before she escaped the grasp of a soldier trying to drag her away, before she and her three daughters, all under the age of 7, hid in water and walked for two days to get across the border to the relative safety of Bangladesh, arriving with only the clothes on their backs.

She would hear from neighbors who joined later that her husband’s body had been found in a nearby river, with a gunshot wound through the back of his head.

Hers is an account all too familiar to Rohingya with whom I spoke. It is an account consistent with numerous testimonials collected not only by Refugees International but also by groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Fortify Rights. It is corroborated by satellite evidence of Rohingya areas burned next to untouched non-Rohingya neighborhoods. 

The military response to an attack on 30 security posts by a poorly armed group of Rohingya insurgents in late August has been grossly disproportional, targeting the bulk of the unarmed civilian population. Indeed, the first groups to flee to Bangladesh were overwhelmingly women and children.

A month after the military attacks began, world leaders are beginning to speak out more forcefully. President Trump, through an address by Vice President Pence to the United Nations Security Council, finally urged “strong and swift” U.N. action on the Rohingya crisis, and the United States has pledged $32 million in humanitarian aid to the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is set to brief the Security Council on Thursday in the first open session on the crisis since it began.

It is important to note, as Suu Kyi did in her speech, that Rakhine BuddhistsHindus and other minority groups have also been forced to flee, but nowhere on the scale of the Rohingya Muslims. The Arakan Project, a group with a network of observers throughout Rakhine state, describes the attacks on Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces as systematic. And the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has drawn the increasingly obvious conclusion that the abuses taking place seem to be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

As Lila sat in front of me in a sprawling collection of quickly assembled bamboo and tarp structures, she wore a look of sad resignation, clasping her three daughters close. She fought back tears as she told me about the common visits of soldiers to the village to detain and torture men or to harass young women. So well-known was such harassment that her daughters would run to warn her any time soldiers were spotted in the village. But that was relatively infrequent before the past month. Now, Lila tells me, the abuses know no bounds.

Lila wants to tell the world what is happening. She wants world leaders to put pressure on the government of Myanmar and its security forces to stop the abuses. She wants the world to know that she wants to go home, if it were only safe. “But if we go back now,” Lila says, “we will die.”

Why are the Rohingya fleeing in such numbers to Bangladesh? Ask any of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya whose villages have been burned. Ask any of the multitudes who have lost loved ones. Ask the recently widowed mother of three daughters. The answer is not difficult to find. Ask Lila.