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I Spoke to the Woman Who Started the Rohingya Hashtag

She heard that packs of Burmese were planning on attacking the Rohingyas again this week and decided to make some noise.

Rohingya Muslims protesting their persecution, image courtesy of Save the Rohingya.

Two days ago, #RohingyaNOW was the highest trending hashtag in the world. If, when you first saw it, you mistook it for hype for some upcoming Filipinotown rapper's mixtape, don't feel too bad – despite being declared one of the world's "most persecuted people", the plight of Burma's Rohingya Muslim community has been vastly underreported in mainstream media.


The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority with roots in Rakhine State – an area that shares many ethno-linguistic traits with India and Bangladesh – living in Burma, a predominately Buddhist country. Despite the fact that Buddhism's whole shtick is finding enlightenment through being chill, a sizeable chunk of Burma's population appear to share more ideals with horribly violent dictators like Hitler and Slobodan Milošević than international purveyors of peace like the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere. By which I mean that they want their country to be ethnically pure and don't mind systematically attacking and murdering Rohingyas to get their way.

Jamila Hanan founded Save the Rohingya after the massacres of Rohingyas in Burma in June and October last year. Since then, she's been tracking reports about the Rohingyas via Twitter and Facebook, and speaking to Rohingya citizens and aid workers from the UN, Human Rights Watch and Medicines san Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). What she's uncovered is evidence to suggest that concentration camps, beheadings, rape and starvation – basically every abhorrent thing you can think of inflicting on another human being – is being inflicted on the Rohingya community by their Burmese oppressors. Yet so far, close to no one has a lifted a finger to help save them.

Earlier this week, Jamila heard from one of her Rohingya contacts that the Burmese military had visited his village and told them that the "terrorists are coming to attack you on the 26th, 27th and 28th of March, and this time we can't protect you, so just prepare yourselves". What that basically means is that large packs of Burmese are planning on inflicting mass genocide on the Rohingya community (who number around 800,000) and the army aren't planning on doing anything about it. Jamila started the Rohingya hashtag and made enough noise on Twitter to get the world to take notice, but I wanted to get the details, so I called her for a chat.


A young Rohingya man bearing the scars of a shooting by Local Buddhists during the violence in June 2012. Photo by Dougal Thomas.

VICE: Hi Jamila. So what's been happening to the Rohingyas this past week? Has there been another increase in violence against them?
Jamila Hanan: On the 20th March, an attack broke out in the town of Meiktila, which was clearly a staged incidence to trigger a much bigger massacre. My contact in Burma explained the incident: a Buddhist couple went into a Muslim gold shop and there was a dispute over the sale of fake gold. The couple went away and came back with a big crowd who started attacking the shop. We have video footage of the attack that shows the nearly 1,000-strong crowd watching the attackers and cheering them on.

Yeah, that sounds pretty premeditated.
Yeah, there are actually officials within the crowd egging them on through loudspeakers. It was very, very organised. A rumour got out that a Buddhist monk was killed, yet no one's seen a dead body anywhere and nobody knows how he was killed or who he was killed by, so that rumour might have been spread to instigate the violence. The Muslim shop owner was arrested, but no monks were arrested, even though they instigated the attack.

A Rohingya woman and her son attend a medical clinic. Despite a number of government medical clinics being erected in Rohingya camps, there is a shortage of aid as local medical staff are threatened by Buddhist activists. Photo by Dougal Thomas.


What's happened since that attack?
Complete mayhem. The Buddhists have been burning down mosques, villages and schools and brutally attacking and slaughtering Muslims. This includes women and children who have been dismembered – their heads chopped off in the street (NSFW photo). Attacks have even started further south in Yangon; they're just spreading like wildfire.

And these aren't just a random set of attacks either, right?
No, the attacks are organised – they followed on from propaganda and hate speeches from the monks. The police do nothing to protect the Muslims apart from round them up en masse and put them into containment. They have about 9,000 Muslims in a football stadium near Meiktila, which is essentially a concentration camp. It's not, as some may claim, a refugee camp, because they're not refugees; they are internally displaced people in their own country.

One of the six innocent, internally displaced Rohingyas who have been shot by police in the Thay Chaung refugee camp, where some Rohingyas have been living since the violence broke out in June of last year. Photo courtesy of Save the Rohingya.

Are all the Buddhists anti-Rohingya?
Well, many of the Buddhists in Meiktila helped the Muslims – and not just Rohingya Muslims; the violence has spread to include anyone Muslim now – and risked their lives to do so, so they're now very upset about the situation. They say outsiders came in and they don’t know who they were, but there's been word that these aggressive monks aren’t real monks, that they're people who have become monks very recently and dress up as monks. There are a number of paid killers in there, too.


Do you mean paid by the government?
Well, it's becoming absolutely clear that there's a link to the government because they've done nothing to protect the Muslims. Nothing. They haven't arrested any monks and their pre-planned PR campaign – saying the violence is because of sectarian tension between Muslims and Buddhists, which is a complete lie – both indicate that they're involved and that there's a high level of organisation.

Raza Miah, a 55-year-old from Than Taw Li village, waits for rice to be distributed. The villagers have been refused aid by the local administration and had not received food in 29 days. Photo by Dougal Thomas.

Why are they trying to get rid of the Rohingya?
It's about purifying the country and clearing space for the economic development that the Rohingya are blocking. There's a pipeline being built in Sittwe, where many of the Rohingya live, to take oil from the Middle East to China, so they're trying to clear out the Rohingya to make way for the money. They also have this ideology of a pure race and think the Muslims are a threat, so have been using the world's Islamophobia to label the Rohingya as terrorists, even though there's absolutely nothing to suggest that they're extremists or terrorists.

So why is the rest of the world not doing anything?
I think the silence from the international community is to do with the oil contracts and other business contracts in the area. Every government wants to be friends with Burma, so they're not going to start challenging their human rights – all they care about are the 30 oil contracts due for tender this month. The Rohingya are just an unfortunate inconvenience for them, but hopefully now we've woken the public up to their plight something will change.


And you made the public aware exclusively through social media. Do you think it's possible to use social media to stop the violence?
Yeah, entirely through social media. There's a full-blown genocide about to happen unless there's immediate intervention. So what we're trying to do online is create such a big storm that the authorities might just be convinced to pull the plug on it. They might think twice, because we have so much evidence of their involvement now that they might think it's too obvious if they go ahead with it. This is our only chance.

Follow Sascha (@SaschaKouvelis) and Jamila (@JamilaHanan) on Twitter.

More stuff about Burma and the Rohingya:

Anonymous Taught Twitter About the Rohingya Genocide

The Burmese Aren't Very Nice to Rohingya Muslims

The Student Army of Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi Finally Delivered Her Nobel Acceptance Speech