How one Saratoga-based educator became an enemy of Myanmar government

How one Saratoga-based educator became an enemy of Myanmar government

It was 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. Kirt Mausert stopped in a neighborhood bodega with his friends when something on the television caught his attention. He watched in shock as the Thai navy removed the motor from a boat of Rohingya refugees, leaving them stranded. One of his Thai friends scoffed, “Look at those stupid brown people.” It was the first time Mausert had ever heard of the Rohingya, but the incident, and his friends’ hateful reactions sparked a chain of events that would bring Mausert and his news-sharing Facebook site Yangon Informer under scrutiny of the President’s Office of Myanmar, who would eventually blacklist him from the country in January 2018.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim ethnic group living between Burma, or Myanmar, and Bangladesh. An estimated 1 million people were living in the Rakhine state of Myanmar at the beginning of 2017. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports when the Burmese military launched attacks on the villages (including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson) in late August of 2017, at least 6,700—including at least 730 children under the age of five”—were murdered. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports, 671,000 have fled.

This attack was not the first time the group has been targeted, nor was the 2009 incident Mausert observed. Described by the United Nations as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” the Rohingya have fallen victim to episodes of military ethnic cleansing since the 1978 Operation Dragon King, in which individuals were scrutinized as either a citizen or alleged “illegal alien” and—if the latter—punished accordingly. By 1982, under the Burma Citizenship Law, they were stripped of their citizenship and ceased to legally exist.

The way Mausert’s friends had reacted to the 2009 footage in Thailand had shocked him, but it wouldn’t be the last time he was taken aback by the general public’s response to the Rohingya plight during his time as a Myanmar resident.

Mausert moved from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar in October 2010. He taught English at an independent private school catering to a “largely Muslim and Chinese community” for 10 months before moving on to the America Center, a US Embassy-run school and cultural center.

While not yet invested in his news-sharing site, Mausert said he had taken small steps like picking up a “Livestrong-type” bracelet at a bookstore and donating money to civil society organization in Myanmar, to make his position on the issue known to his friends and colleagues. Prejudice against the group by the rest of the population is no secret, he said, but it was quiet for a while.

Then the Rakhine State riots broke out in 2012. From June to October, sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, violence and arson erupted between the Buddhist and Muslim communities of Rakhine. An estimated 200 were killed, thousands were displaced, and echoes of the riots continued throughout 2014.

“I was at the American Center then,” Mausert recalled. “I was teaching a sort of mundane lesson on verbs and I gave the example of, ‘What should the president do?’ An open ended question and this sort of very quiet young man who went by the name of Andrew, a Chinese-Burmese student, whispered, ‘Kill all Bengalis.’ I was floored. It had elicited giggles from some of the other students.”

(“Bengalis” is a slur term used in Myanmar for the Rohingya and and other alleged “illegal immigrants.” It is said to imply that the group was never native to the country, but brought in by British colonialists.)

“Around that time, Facebook was starting to become more popular and students started adding me from the American Center,” he continued. “I relented but set my settings so they could only see what I posted publicly, so I started sharing news reports that I was reading. I could see that many of the students didn’t have much familiarity with international, independent media. At this point they had just started to lift some of the censorship rules related to independent print in the country.”

From there, his dedication to sharing news stories about the Rohingya crisis that had continued to unfold began to snowball. He dedicated a Facebook page to the content, calling it the Yangon Informer, to promote media literacy dedicated to issues in Myanmar.

“If I was living anywhere else in the country, of course there are wars happening still in other parts like the north—the 100,000-plus Christian Kachin refugees, for example, living in camps there—that’s what I would have been sharing. So it was really coming out of my view as an educator first,” he said.  

It was also Mausert’s way of understanding the reaction to the issue, he said, as well as understanding the culture as a whole.

“It was a conjunction of spending time with people who were covering the issue, thinking about how I could engage with the students, and … understanding what the hell was going on with this response, which was uniformly unsympathetic at the very best and aggressively hostile and genocidal at the worst.”

In addition to running the Facebook site, he moved from teaching the high school age students—where he would use the English language news articles to teach from time to time—to working with an organization that trained activists and “civil society advocates” for the last four years he spent in the country. In this program, as well as his English classes, Mausert had a number of Rohingya and Rakhine students. They were open about who they were, and in that moment, he said, “backs stiffened up. You could hear a pin drop.”

“Many of these people had never met any minorities. For many people, the Rohingya had remained a fiction of the media that they responded to as Western propaganda. When they met them, it complicated that worldview,” he said.

Though that didn’t affect everyone’s perception.  

“In that program, I met ex-political prisoners—people who laid everything on the line to advance these interests of democracy and social, political reform—and almost uniformly, with some hopeful and notable exceptions, they were totally unsympathetic if not outright hostile. I was stumped,” he said. “The image people have of Burma is this country nobley engaged in the struggle with its own military for democracy and human rights, but of course there’s this deep, deep, undercurrent of racist nationalism that has been cultivated by the army for many decades as its own version of national ideology. If you’re outside of that nationalist, racist project of defining who is Burmese, you don’t belong here… I discovered this attitude of hostility is pervasive at all levels of society.”

“It’s important to remember that this is not exceptional,” he continued. “Around the world, there are plenty of analogous examples to draw from, but it was deeply disappointing all the same.”

During his time running Yangon Informer from Myanmar, Mausert received a number of threats following a period of heavy news-sharing around Aug. 25, 2017, the one-year anniversary of the latest round of violence against the Rohingya. “People were threatening to sue me, they would mention the gallery that I sponsored, saying that they knew where I worked… even death threats,” he said.

Soon, he said, regional immigration officials were paying visits to his landlord and visa sponsor and stopping by his apartment.

“They really tried to rattle my cage,” he said. “I was undeterred, just sort of expected that this was not really about not having the right paperwork sorted for the apartment but they were looking for anything to harass me about. I was sharing lots of news articles. I probably should have felt more worried than I did, I was just more focused on not shutting up at that point.”

Mausert mentioned that around the same time, a prominent Muslim lawyer was murdered while getting out of a cab at Yangon airport. Ko Ni had worked for the ruling party, the National League for Democracy, on constitutional reform and spoken out against the military’s powerful role in government.

“I’m not anywhere close to that point, nor do I want to be,” he said. “They shot him point blank at the international airport. That was a high profile incident.”

By September 2017, Mausert was put on a list to be banned from the country, but didn’t learn that until he had returned from spending the holiday break with his family in Saratoga Springs to apply for a new visa in January 2018. Given information from a friend with connections inside the government, Mausert believes it was a decision that was made under the authority of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Power is very personal,” he said. “They don’t want you to know exactly where the line is so that people sort of hold their own tongue out of fear, which is exactly how the military operated for decades. I think they took the path of least resistance with me which was to just deny me a visa.”

“I was thinking, ‘I’m just this noisy foreigner posting things in English,’” he continues. “I knew this was a possibility once immigration kept looking for me, but…I left feeling like, ‘I’m still here. They didn’t haul me away. I’ll be fine.’”

Mausert is currently heading to Bangladesh to work in the refugee camps to continue political trainings. He recently spent a month there training on citizenship, federalism, strategic messaging and advocacy with groups who are trying to organize themselves and make their voices heard, concerning their own political future. He also continues to share Myanmar-focused news stories.

“At this point I’ve got nothing to lose and I’m truly unfettered,” he said. “The reality is that were moments when I sort of said, ‘Hmm. Maybe I should pull back,’ though I went ahead as much as I could.”

He recently came under fire by Myanmar’s president’s office after publishing a 10-page Memorandum of Understanding between UN agencies and the government of Myanmar regarding the repatriation of Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh via Yangon Informer on June 29, a document he tells The Alt he acquired on Twitter.

Journalists and activists tore it apart for failing to mention the Rohingya by name or address the country’s refusal to grant them citizenship and and for referring to children recently born in refugee camps as “born out of unwarranted incidents” rather than rape by Myanmar forces—among other issues.

A spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the online news organization who covered the outrage, “We don’t comment on leaked documents.”

Though initially published on Twitter, Mausert says the Myanmar government is “primarily concerned with Facebook, since Facebook is ‘the internet’ for most people” in the country.

“I think that’s been one of the biggest aspects of this so called ‘transition,’” he said. “Politically, we’re stuck in second gear but terms of connecting people with Facebook really, not even the internet, it’s begun to change society for people. Particularly for young people being exposed to new information. That’s sort of what I had in mind when I got into sharing the news.”

As has been heavily reported here in the states, that open door policy of information sharing isn’t always a good thing. A July article in WIRED even attests that the social network’s explosion in the Myanmar has contributed to the uptick in violence by it’s lack of “fake news” filtering, particularly in connection to the Rakhine riots.

Mausert has since set up a seperate website for Yangon Informer, where he hopes “Burmese people will be able to comment, share analysis and have a platform for up and coming generations to speak freely about what is happening in the country.”

While he is still set on growing the site, he hopes he can soon hand it off to a group of people dedicated to the project.

“What drew me into this was the shock of seeing people who are not versed in how to parse fact and fiction, or how to analyze the media that comes across—now—their screens. When I was inside still, I ran a few media literacy trainings at the organization. It was all about how to assess the reliability, the accuracy, the credibility, identifying bias, types of bias and this whole discourse of ‘fake news’ which Burma is way ahead of compared to America.”

Mausert recently observed that formerly exiled news organizations have begun moving their offices back into Yangon and that some organizations doing media advocacy work are still active, though none of them have been critical of the government and military’s ethnic cleansings.

Without calling out the military forces, Mausert doesn’t see a bright future for the Rohingya anytime soon. “It’s completely unaccountable to the elected government, constitutionally. Until the army, who is completely responsible for committing this genocide, is reformed or dissolved, this situation will keep happening.”  

He also made a point to call out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s careful wording in regards to the crisis, calling it an “abhorrent ethnic cleansing” but not a “genocide.”

“This was a genocide,” Mausert said. “Both from what’s been established by investigators as the partial destruction of the community and the planning, there was intent. This time last year they were sending people out to the state to prepare for this operation. The conduct fits with the term ‘genocide’ under international law. If the United States government doesn’t call it as such, they will be condemning the Rohingya to an even longer wait for the reforms that are necessary to get them back home where they belong.”

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