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Tens Of Thousands Of Rohingyas Are Fleeing Violence In Myanmar


In Myanmar, tens of thousands of people are fleeing violence, escaping across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. The people on the run are part of a Muslim minority in this mostly Buddhist country. They are called Rohingya. Poppy McPherson is a journalist based in Myanmar and joins us to explain what's happening there. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: Rohingya have been persecuted in Myanmar for a long time, but this latest crisis comes from a series of events that took place on August 25. Tell us what happened.

MCPHERSON: So in the early hours of August 25, a couple of dozen police posts were attacked by this new insurgent group of Rohingya Muslim militants. And they killed 11 members of the security forces and an immigration official. And since then there have been clashes here and there, according to the government. And the government says it's killed hundreds of alleged militants and sent tens of thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

SHAPIRO: So the government describes this as a counterterrorism operation, but we've seen reports of villages set on fire, mass executions. Do you have a sense of which is closer to the truth?

MCPHERSON: It's extremely controversial topic here in Myanmar. There's a widespread disbelief amongst the Myanmar public that the government could be burning these villages. And previous rounds of violence - in October there was a previous attack by the militants - also prompted allegedly extremely violent response from the authorities. But the government insists this time that it's the militants who are setting fire to their own houses.

SHAPIRO: For people who are not familiar with this part of the world, describe how the Rohingya fit into larger society in Myanmar.

MCPHERSON: The Rohingya are an ethnic minority who live in the western part of the country in Rakhine State. Many can trace their families back a very long time. But they've been subject to decades of persecution by the Myanmar authorities. And in the eyes of many people in Myanmar, they are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They're widely called Bengalis by people here. And a lot of them, more than a hundred thousand, are confined to internal displacement camps. So it's safe to say that domestically they're very, very unpopular.

SHAPIRO: So just as we're trying to wrap our head around what's happening here, from your description it sounds as though there really was an attack that could be considered terrorism perpetrated by Rohingya, and there really has been a response from the government, but that that response may be far wider than any kind of measured reaction to what could be described as terrorism. Is that right?

MCPHERSON: That's definitely how it appears. It's very difficult to verify information, obviously, because the army has the relevant areas under lockdown. So it's impossible to go there freely as a journalist and then do your job. But the stories, you know, are so consistent from the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that it's deeply troubling.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you about the role of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in all of this, who is sort of a de facto leader of Myanmar. Some of her fellow Nobel laureates have criticized her for being complicit in the mistreatment of the Rohingya. Tell me about what role she has played and whether there's anything she could do to stop this if she wanted to.

MCPHERSON: Well, I think it's often forgotten that Aung San Suu Kyi is not in charge of the country. The military still very much has a grip on the important institutions. They control the police, the soldiers. So Aung San Suu Kyi, in the eyes of the international community, she really should have spoken out about this a very long time ago. And she didn't do that. She chose - she's chosen not to for - it could be a variety of reasons.

Some people say she's playing a long game. She's trying not to do anything that would anger the military. There's also the argument that, as we've seen by the reaction to this here in Myanmar, many people view the Rohingya as a security threat. They view them as illegal immigrants. So for Aung San Suu Kyi to come out in support of them could make her deeply unpopular domestically.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist Poppy McPherson speaking with us from Myanmar over Skype. Thanks a lot.

MCPHERSON: Thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.