The village of Min Gyi erupted with the staccato blast of rifle fire early on the morning of August 30, 2017, startling everyone awake. The gloom of the pre-dawn light hid hundreds of soldiers from the Myanmar army, dubbed the “Tatmadaw.” They’d planned all night for a morning of mayhem. And so, when the villagers emerged from their homes amid the commotion, the soldiers were waiting.
Men and boys were ripped from their front yards and forced into a march toward the forest on the hillside, promised that their peaceful surrender would grant them their lives. Many of the remaining women and girls, however, were stripped of their clothes before being raped by squads of soldiers. Those who refused to come outside were locked in their homes; the Myanmar troops had no problem leaving the property alight in flames, with the people left inside as added fuel.
Later, from the forest, rang gunshots. Some of those doomed men must have heard what the military had done to nearby villages like theirs. Others probably never imagined how vicious the fury could be.
More than a dozen Rohingya communities in Myanmar have faced the same end since 2012, despite condemnation from around the world of the government’s violent crackdown on the minority group. There are about one million Muslim Rohingya people in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, and the violence the group sees from military forces is recounted in explicit detail in a blistering U.N. report that landed earlier this month. The report notes that its estimate that 10,000 Rohingya have been killed is a “conservative” figure. “The gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States are shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity,” the report states. “Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
The Rohingya are one of a number of ethnic or religious minority groups around the world that are suffering, and oftentimes dying, as the result of government policies or mass social discrimination. In most cases, the violence rages within the borders of a nation while other countries struggle to intervene directly.
Why are these minority groups brutalized by the majority powers that be? A lot of it has to do with longstanding differences in identity. Blame also lies with political power struggles that took place in the last 200 years.
“Oppression of minorities is a tale as old as time, but in the 20th century, following the end of World War II, a lot of the violence we’re witnessing is the deep historical roots of oppression from colonial forces that divided and conquered parts of the world, giving priority to some groups over others to help control and rule territories,” says Hannah Garry, founding director of the International Human Rights Clinic at USC.
Whether in Southeast Asia, Central Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, certain groups of people live under conditions more suited for a prison camp than a free city: Surveillance, curfews, restrictions on imports of basic goods and the threat of physical harm. Men in these places are disproportionately more likely to get tortured or killed, usually with zero consequence to the attackers. Here are three examples of the crises taking place in the present, with major questions about how to stop the killings still left unanswered.
The Rohingya in Myanmar
The brutal violence against the Rohingya, an “Indo-Aryan” group with its own language and customs, in the past year stems from a small insurgency operation last August by Rohingya rebels. Dozens of men, some armed with guns but most only with bats and knives, swarmed together to strike a military base and security outposts along Rakhine state, on the country’s western border. The men had seen enough of travel restrictions, closed schools, supply blockades and mistreatment from soldiers since 2012. “In Rakhine State, Muslims are like in a cage, they cannot travel outside,” one man told U.N. staff. “There are no human rights for the Muslims of Rakhine. I don’t know why God sent us there.”
The attack killed just 12 soldiers, but the blowback was severe. Within hours, the military began “clearance” operations on dozens of Rohingya villages in the region. The continued violence has made 750,000 people flee their homes, many into neighboring Bangladesh, where they live as refugees under dire conditions. “Bangladesh isn’t my country,” 24-year-old Kadir Ahmed told Human Rights Watch. “I want to go back to our land. If the Myanmar government hadn’t killed and tortured us, we wouldn’t have left.”
This is happening despite the fact that the Rohingya have occupied swaths of Myanmar since the 12th century. More recently, waves of Rohingya people re-entered Myanmar in the 19th century, when the British won control of it in a series of wars. New pro-migrant policies meant more workers to farm commodities, which in turn raised profits for the colonists. The Rohingya were promised, among other things, a “Muslim National Area” for their part in the economic boom. That never came to be — instead, when Myanmar broke free of British rule in 1948, Myanmar officials who had overseen decolonization refused to even grant the Rohingya citizenship, instead labeling their immigration in the early 1800s as illegal and invalid.
A 1982 law doubled down on that belief, and the Myanmar military has also claimed its violent crackdowns are only in response to “terrorist threats,” a claim that the U.N. flatly rejects in its report. Yet much of the Buddhist public in Myanmar also doesn’t sympathize with the Rohingya, whom they call “Bengalis” in a nod to their perceived “illegal” status. “They’re terrorists to the native population,” one noodle seller in Yangon, the nation’s capital, told CNN. Even de-facto state leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize, has downplayed the atrocities, citing international “misinformation” about the crisis.
China’s Uyghur Muslims
Kashgar is a city in northwest China that has two millennia of history behind it, as it was a key stop on the famed Silk Road that brought spices, fabric and other exotic goods into the West. It lies 2,700 miles from the government seat of Beijing, in the dry mountainous terrain of the Xinjiang region, with distinct ethnic groups and a devotion to Islam that distinguishes it from the Han Chinese that form 92 percent of the nation’s population. These days, that difference is cause for deep scrutiny from the government, which treats the Uyghur Muslims as an active threat to their ability to rule.
Drive a half-hour south of Kashgar and you can find a new compound built for those who need “re-education” to be loyal to the nation’s agenda. This is where 30-year-old Kayrat Samarkand found himself last year, surrounded by tall walls trimmed in barbed wire, with armed guards waiting at the top of two watchtowers. Stuck in a room with 14 other men, Samarkand woke every day to a thorough search by guards before spending hours and hours listening to speeches from Communist Party “core leader” Xi Jinping, singing along to communist songs, chanting “Long live Xi Jinping!” and doing manual labor. “Those who disobeyed the rules, refused to be on duty, engaged in fights or were late for studies were placed in handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours,” Samarkand told the Washington Post.
The U.N. estimates more than one million Uyghurs have been jailed in similar fashion, with reports that waterboarding and other forms of torture are common. Uyghurs are increasingly prohibited from expressing their Muslim-ness, with a ban on fasting during Ramadan and police stopping men who wear long beards or headscarves in public. They’ve created restrictive travel rules, requiring people to show their papers at will to an increasing number of Chinese security forces. Meanwhile, a cutting-edge surveillance system tracks faces and information around the clock.
“This type of oppression is more common when countries are unwilling to be pluralistic in terms of giving equal rights to all groups, where priority of place is given to some over others, and where divisions in society are used by politicians to polarize and get a majority behind them,” USC’s Garry says. “It’s a common play, especially when there are valuable resources to manipulate.”
The Uyghur Muslims have long resented Beijing’s treatment, with many believing the Chinese government wants tighter rule because of the massive natural gas and coal reserves in Xinjiang. The oppression has escalated since a series of riots in 2009 that left 200 Han Chinese dead. In the government’s eyes, the “terrorist attacks” justified the current response.
Those fighting for autonomy argue that Xinjiang’s 10 million Uyghurs have been living there since long before the communist People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and claimed control of the region. For now, Uyghurs continue to disappear for months at a time. And sometimes, they never come home.
Albinos in Africa
Albinism, the genetic condition of not having pigment in your skin and hair, is relatively rare in America, occurring in around 1 in 20,000 individuals. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, albinism can be far more common, even around 1 in 1,000 people in certain populations.
Those born with the condition quickly learn to navigate a guarded life of suspicion and paranoia. They’re often reviled and treated as outsiders in countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Burundi, where an albino person might be forced to eat outside on the ground or be refused clean water to drink. They’re commonly bullied in schools and struggle to find jobs. Most bizarre of all, albinos in sub-Saharan Africa are actively hunted and killed, as some people believe their skin and body parts are valuable — anywhere from $2,000 for a limb to $75,000 for an entire body.
“People believe that albino body parts mixed with traditional medicine can make people rich,” Franck Alphonse, the director of the Tanzania Albino Center, told CNN in 2009. “It’s a thriving business … witch doctors are asking business people to bring the body parts of albinos, who aren’t considered human beings.”
Abductions can happen with albinos of any age or gender. In February, 22-year-old MacDonald Masambuka went missing in Malawi and was found months later with his legs and arms hacked off. Other victims are much younger, as with the abduction of nine-year-old Mayeso Isaac at the hands of 10 men last year, or the toddlers that have literally been ripped from their mothers while sleeping. Sometimes, the ones coordinating the abduction are parents, siblings, friends and neighbors. Eunice Phiri, a 53-year-old Malawi woman with albinism, was tricked by her brother and two other men into tagging along on a trip to Zambia last January. Her mutilated body was found five days later in Kasungu National Park.
Dozens of killings have been recorded in Malawi in the last several years, with many more suspected unreported. One major problem is the inability of Malawi’s underfunded law enforcement to solve cases and prosecute crimes. Another is the major cultural schism in the way people think about crimes against those with albinism. The uncle of a young Malawi boy, for example, was fined the equivalent of $30 for his role in the 2015 murder of his nephew. The lack of serious punishment led Ikponwosa Ero, the U.N.’s expert on albino communities, to conclude that in many cases, “stealing a cow may attract a higher penalty” than killing a human with albinism in Africa.
Whether in Africa, China or Myanmar, one common thread that ties together these stories of oppression is the inability of the international community to step in before unrest devolves into full-on crisis. The reaction depends on geopolitical realities, Garry notes, as nation-states often choose to play it slow and soft with an economic partner even if its leaders condemn the ally’s actions (or inaction) in private. Other times, like with Africa’s albino crisis, countries choose not to intervene because the government has already publicly condemned the acts and is attempting to handle it.
The use of international criminal trials after the Cold War and the creation of the U.N.’s “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine in 2005, which empowers its Security Council to bring international military forces to stop war crimes or acts of genocide, are key tools in the fight for human rights, Garry says. The caveat is that these developments all react to a crisis rather than actively work to prevent it. “Nation-states must be anticipating and trying to mitigate situations before they evolve into serious oppression, and while that’s not easy to do, more pressure being put on states to uphold fundamental rights for all groups is something we need,” she says.
Especially because, as one Rohingya refugee told the State Department, it takes time to stem the bloodshed when most of the people of a nation don’t seem to mind it.