Damien: The scale of this, Ben, in terms of how many people are crossing out of Myanmar into where you are, seems pretty enormous. Can you give me a sense of how that plays out where you are? Something that would help people understand it?
Ben: It is enormous. It’s really impressive how fast it’s going up. There’s a sliver of land that goes from the north, and this city called Cox’s Bazar, and then you just go south all the way to the end, along the side is this one river that people are crossing over. And as you go south you start to run into thousands and thousands of people on the street — thousands of people just walking.
It’s only when you start asking that you find out that all of all these tent cities all these have gone up over the past month.
There’s not just one — there are five or six. And on top of that there are just hundreds of different makeshift areas where people are just waiting to be told what to do and waiting to figure out where to go.
These camps can get pretty desperate pretty quickly.
To be honest, in the past week that I’ve been here, it’s impressive how much the aid organizations have scaled up. And that’s a testament to the aid organizations’ ability to kind of build and get the resources out here. But it’s also a testament to the Bangladeshis who have allowed this to happen.
If you look at a place like Turkey, there are always political complications with how these aid groups can go in and how these refugee camps can be built up. The Bangladeshis have been relatively open and really honest in the way that they’re helping.
Now it’s not at all a picnic, but the fact of the matter is that people have gone from complete desperation to less desperation in a matter of just one week.
This isn’t the first time Bangladesh has had to deal with this sort of thing, right?
Right. In 1978, they had 220,000 people cross over. In 1981 they had another 250,000 people from there. The problem for them in both those times ended up in the later stages. They tried to forcibly repatriate people back to Myanmar.
It’s hard to say where this goes.
How does this compare to other refugee situations you’ve covered?
What’s different is the mentality of Rohingya; they are very used to this kind of devastation. They’re very accustomed to being so oppressed and so beaten down. You never see people cry. You rarely see people get really emotional. People are just very, very honest about where they’re at, and it’s almost more striking in a way. I’ve been to so many places where the suffering is so massive and people really are upset. And here the suffering is just as bad if not worse.
In Australia, there’s been a lot of conversation about whether or not this crisis will lead to more Islamic radicalization. It doesn’t sound like you’re picking up any sense of that.
I wouldn’t say that. I would say that it’s such an amazingly perfect target for any jihadi organizations, any radicalization to happen. I mean, these people have nothing to believe in, they have nothing to hold onto. It’s not that they’re accepting or chill about it, it’s that there’s just that there’s no other way to live.
I think that any people with bad intentions could easily come in and kind of give them something to care about in a really aggressive way. It’s really dangerous, in a sense.
And it’s also a population and a story that can be can be used for propaganda elsewhere in the world.
Absolutely. This is a Muslim minority and from all accounts we’re hearing, they’re just being wiped out, and to be able to use that for propaganda, for recruitment – it’s very useful for any of these organizations.
What about for you as a reporter: What are the biggest challenges?
The reporting is really taxing just emotionally in the sense of talking to people and experiencing their stories. You hear the same stories over and over and that just confirms the viciousness of the attacks there. It’s horrible. It’s really taxing. And on top of that it’s physically really demanding. I mean there is just deep and really rugged mud.
What about the politics of this? Are there people in the camps talking about any of that?
I think people are just really happy to be here, to be honest.
Something that’s really striking to me — and that’s only because maybe that I’m here and experiencing it — is to look at the way that not only the Myanmar government but also the Myanmar population is reacting to all this, which is basically to deny it.
It’s the fake news argument: “These people aren’t oppressed, they’re burning their own villages, terrorists are burning their villages and pushing them out, these numbers they aren’t real, their stories are all fake.”
It’s pretty amazing to see the things that they’re sharing and see the arguments they have against what’s happening. And it’s really depressing.
Damien: What have you made of the response in Myanmar, Hannah, especially from the country’s leader (and Nobel Peace Prize winner), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
Hannah: It’s complicated. I think that when she became the de facto leader of the Myanmar government last year, there was this wish from the international community that we would have this feel-good narrative.
In Asia, it’s been a story of the rollback of democracy, and so here was just one story where there was this peaceful transition from a military junta that ruled for almost 50 years to a civilian leader — this democracy activist, this Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
And the truth of the matter is that she is still very very constrained, and the military controls a lot of things — and controls the people who are committing what seem to be atrocities in the Rohingya areas in northern Rakhine state and in western Myanmar.
Having said that, she is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the one weapon that she has that the military doesn’t have is her moral authority — -and she has not used it. And so I think that the international community has every right to call her and say, “Look, you know we understand that your position is very difficult. But if you don’t speak out for these people, then who will?”
Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, wrote an Op-ed for us recently that made some of these points as well, and he suggested that this could be a campaign by the military to undermine that moral authority. Is that possible?
I think it’s a real test for her and the international community.
There are so many conspiracy theories and people are saying, “Oh, this is actually a political tactic” — all of these things kind of swirling around. But the one constant domestically is this: the Burmese people are very supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on this issue.
And when she calls this an insurgency and calls them terrorists, and when she makes it a moral equivalence between the flight of the Rohingya and a much smaller flight by other ethnic minorities within Rakhine state, she is giving sanction to this xenophobic racist sentiment that is already prevalent in the country.
So given that, where does this end? Is it destined to just keep getting worse?
It’s tough to say. The people flows have started in the last few days to decrease significantly.
Beyond the humanitarian crisis — beyond the fact that half or even more of the remaining population of Rohingya in Myanmar has left there for Bangladesh — the country is incredibly complicated ethnically, and so there’s a whole patchwork of different people, and of which the Rohingya are only one. And anything that kind of tears at that fabric has the possibility or potential to become very, very complicated for the country.
Another thing that’s happening now is that there are other Muslim populations in Myanmar, not just Rohingya, and they’ve started to feel pressure. And so some of them have had decided to leave.
These are people who are long longstanding members of the community. They’re lawyers, they’re doctors — you know, the kind of prosperous mercantile class — and this has implications for the way that Myanmar, as a kind of quasi-democracy, and a multiethnic democracy, is going to work in the future.
Is this primarily a religious issue? Is this primarily and ethnic issue? I know these lines often blur.
I think religion is part of it, and the fact that this has spread from the ethnic Rohingya community to other Muslim communities shows that it is a religious issue. Myanmar is around 90 percent Buddhist. And there is this sense that Islam has taken over other kinds of formerly Buddhist places: in India, in Afghanistan with the bombing of the temples; Borobudor, in Indonesia, which was one of the biggest Buddhist temples. So there’s a sense that these are areas that used to be Buddhist and now they are Muslim, and could the same thing happen in Myanmar?
And it seems sort of ridiculous from an outsider’s respective but there has been this kind of extremist Buddhist monk political movement to try to capitalize on that and to try to say, “Look, we need to defend ourselves against Islam.”
You’re a relatively newly installed bureau chief for The Times in Southeast Asia, though you’ve been covering the region for years. What else are you looking at in the region?
The thing about Southeast Asia is it’s 11 countries or so, all of which are very different. And nothing really ties them together except I would say maybe two things.
One is the fact that democracy has been seriously challenged throughout the region. You look at Thailand, where I am now, which is now ruled by a military junta. You have Myanmar which has this kind of quasi-civilian government. You look at Malayasia, where there are allegations of corruption and a rollback of rights, and the Philippines, where you have a leader who has publicly endorsed a fatal drug war. You have Indonesia, which is kind of the shining light of democracy in the region but has serious ethnic and religious issues of its own.
The other issue is a religious change, and it relates to Myanmar as well. There you have this divide between a Buddhist majority nation and a Muslim minority. In Thailand you have the similar thing — you have a country that is about 90 percent Buddhist with, in the south, a Muslim insurgency.
And then you have places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where it’s majority Muslim but there are significant religious minorities chafing against the majority. So you have these kind of religious fault lines throughout the region that I think are something we’re really paying attention to.
Does Australia, as a middle-sized power that sees itself as both part of the region and not, have a role to play in all of this?
I remember interviewing Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister and speaking to him in Mandarin, his Mandarin is very good, and he liked to play the role of interlocutor. And he had this ambition for Australia’s role, as democratic Western power, to be able to negotiate between these two communities — the Asian community and a European one.
And I think there’s definitely a role to be played in a particular, because Australia has a large Asian population, and as the U.S. seems to be withdrawing somewhat from the region. There’s a desire for a comprehensive alternative to the China model. And Australia has that.