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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Rohingya families crowd a tented internally displaced persons (IDP) camp November 25, 2012 on the outskirts of Sittwe, Myanmar. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Suu Kyi spokesman: “There is no Rohingya”

As advocates condemn "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya, officials say no such group exists.

YANGON, Myanmar — From the depths of obscurity, Myanmar’s highly beleaguered Muslim Rohingya ethnicity has become something of a global cause célèbre.

The United Nations deems the roughly 1 million population group one of the world’s “most persecuted” minorities. In a report last week, Human Right Watch deployed some of the most potent language at its disposal in describing their mistreatment: “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity.” The online pro-Rohingya call to arms #RohingyaNOW was, for a brief blip in March, Twitter’s highest-trending phrase.

Even US President Barack Obama, in his first and only visit to Myanmar last November, urged the nation to accept that Rohingya “hold within themselves the same dignity as you do.”

But these are lofty expectations from a nation in which the government, much of the general public and even progressive activist circles contend that Rohingya is a contrived ethnicity that does not exist — at least not as the people who call themselves Rohingya and their foreign sympathizers believe they do.

This week, the government released its official account of Myanmar’s most explosive violence in recent years: a 2012 wave of killing, maiming and arson sprees waged in large part by Buddhists bent on ridding their native Rakhine State of the Rohingya. But nowhere in the official English translation does the word “Rohingya” appear. The minority is instead described as “Bengali,” the native people of neighboring Bangladesh.

The report insists the stateless group largely descend from farmers led over during British occupation of Myanmar (then titled Burma) in the early 1800s. They are described as procreating heavily, failing to assimilate and inviting over their kin to the dismay of helpless local Buddhists living under colonial rule. Myanmar’s authorities have since reversed the British empire’s policy: The Rohingya are now considered non-citizens even though their alleged homeland, Bangladesh, does not accept them either.

Treating this native-born population as invaders is roundly condemned around the globe. The Rohingya, like many persecuted groups before them, have pleaded for support from Aung San Suu Kyi. The 67-year-old parliamentarian, beloved for challenging Myanmar’s despotic generals, is traditionally seen as a voice of Myanmar’s oppressed.

But in an interview with GlobalPost, the Nobel Peace Laureate’s spokesman and confidante, Nyan Win, confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi has no plans to champion the Rohingya cause despite criticism swirling around her silence on the crisis.

“So many people blame The Lady,” said Nyan Win, using a nickname for Aung San Suu Kyi made popular during Myanmar’s police state era, when speaking her name in public could attract unwelcome government attention.

“For example, in the Rakhine case, she very rarely says anything about this. She says she was forced to speak about the Rohingya group,” Nyan Win said. “She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group. It is a made-up name of the Bengali. So she can’t say anything about Rohingya. But there is international pressure for her to speak about Rohingya. It’s a problem.”


Compared to the officials’ previous rhetoric on the Rohingya — a junta-era official publicly called them “ugly as ogres” — the government’s new report strikes a much more empathetic tone. 

In pursuit of “peaceful coexistence,” it recommends expanding psychological counseling, boosting the troop presence, banning hate speech and improving makeshift camps for displaced people in advance of a looming monsoon downpour.  

Some “Bengalis,” according to the report, may even be considered for citizenship if they can prove “knowledge of the country, local customs and language.”

Following explosions of violence last summer and fall, in which entire Muslim-majority quarters were torched and razed, roughly 100,000 people are still huddled in crowded, squalid camps. The official death toll in Rakhine State stands at 194; Rohingya activists claim far more.

The killings, according to the report, were racked up by tit-for-tat attacks fueled by long-simmering cultural feuds: “The earlier hatred and bitterness between the two sides — which had been created because of certain historical events — provided fertile ground for renewed tensions, mistrust and violence.”

Missing from the inquiry are the sickening scenes detailed in the latest Human Rights Watch investigation into the violence: mass graves, trucks piled high with stinking corpses and children hacked to