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Inside Myanmar’s modern-day concentration camps

The world’s next mass atrocity is currently unfolding in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where roughly 1.1 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are severely oppressed and at risk of slaughter at the hands of the majority Buddhist nation. The Rohingya have been stripped of virtually all rights, including citizenship, the right to vote, and access to education, healthcare and livelihoods. They can be killed, tortured or arrested without just cause or legal recourse. Many are held in what some experts call modern-day concentration camps.

While there is still an opportunity to prevent the worst crimes imaginable, time is running out. Since October, military-led violence against the Rohingya has escalated significantly, after a small group of Rohingya men attacked three Burmese security posts in which nine officers were killed. The military responded disproportionately by committing serious human rights abuses, including killing, detaining, and raping of Rohingya, burning down more than 1,200 buildings and homes, all while blocking journalists and humanitarian workers from affected areas. The military is now arming non-Muslim civilians, which is deeply troubling and a clear harbinger of what is to come. Rohingya are fleeing in the tens of thousands, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh.

(Conditions are in fact so bad that my co-author, a member of the Rohingya, has asked to be listed as anonymous, as they fear for their safety.)

In 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya homes were burnt to the ground and more than 140,000 men, women and children were forced into crude camps. Conditions inside and outside the camps are so horrific that more than 100,000 Rohingya have fled in rickety boats, often drowning at sea or being forced into slavery by traffickers in neighboring countries.

Why bring this story to you in virtual reality? It can be difficult to connect with a crisis that feels abstract and far away. VR gives you a chance to meet the very real people inside the camps and see firsthand what they are facing. Our hope is that once you meet them, the numbers and statistics we cite above will mean more to you – that you will know them not just with your head, but with your heart.

You’ll also meet U Wirathu, an extremist monk leading the charge against the Rohingya, who has been called the “Buddhist Bin Laden” by Time Magazine for his fiery anti-Muslim speeches. In celebration of the election of Donald Trump, he even penned a tribute poem to the President elect, alluding to Trump’s proposed ban of Muslims into the U.S.

It can be difficult for Westerners to comprehend how Buddhists could perpetrate such atrocities, and it can be jarring to see extremist monks leading the charge to commit violence against this small, impoverished minority. But throughout history, groups of people from all religions have fallen into the same trap of scapegoating a minority for problems they did not cause, developing irrational fears of those people, dehumanizing them, and ultimately feeling justified in their violence in the name of self defense.

Charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing have been made by academics, experts and locals. Regardless of definition, when people are held against their will in what is essentially an open-air prison, denied medical attention and other aid, not allowed to move freely, irrationally vilified and denied basic human rights, the facts speak for themselves.

And yet the world has all but ignored this crisis.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and de-facto ruler of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi has inherited this emergency situation. Many of us wondered aloud if she would address Rohingya rights once her party won the 2014 election, but she refuses to even say the word ‘Rohingya’ and vehemently denies claims that they are being persecuted.

At the request of Suu Kyi, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was recently selected to lead an advisory commission of the “Rakhine State conflict,” but – somewhat bizarrely – said from the outset that he was not there to investigate human rights abuses. Suu Kyi has since requested another state-led investigation, this time including human rights issues, but led by a military general (that she appointed).

Stateside, President Obama recently lifted sanctions on Myanmar, citing progress in the country that has yet to come anywhere near the Rohingya – a deeply disappointing move. It appears that the U.S. as well as other international actors are willing to let the Rohingya be the collateral damage of Myanmar’s transition to a democratic nation, while profiting from access to this new economic marketplace and jockeying for political alliance with the country. At this point, it’s clear that only an independent investigation by the United Nations through a commission of inquiry can yield the kind of unbiased information that governments require to take action and save lives.

Photography by:
Lindsay Branham and Jonathan Olinger
Getty Images
REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

On the surface, this might not seem like as much of a crisis as somewhere like, say, Syria. But that’s entirely the point. Prevention has to come when there is still time to stop the worst from happening – we cannot wait until things are so bad that not only are lives lost, but that refugees flood into other countries and the global economy is shaken to its core.

Think of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body was photographed washed up on the shore. If you could prevent the circumstances that led to that moment, wouldn’t you do it? We would.

It’s important to note that this film does not tell the whole story – nor is it meant to. Like any issue, this situation is complex and sadly, Rakhine Buddhists are also facing significant challenges, including severe poverty. We invite you to learn more about the Rohingya, the people of Rakhine State, and Myanmar.

Sally Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of The Nexus Fund, and Executive Producer of Behind The Fence

Co-author is a member of the Rohingya residing in Myanmar, but wishes to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety.

Read more about how Behind the Fence was created here.



1. Watch – Check out the VR film and share with your friends
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3. Give – Monthly donation for direct support of local projects to help the Rohingya


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