By Leif Maynard
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority residing in Myanmar, one of the 135 ethnic groups of the South Asian country. The majority of the estimated one million Rohingya are concentrated in the Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, where they make up one third of the state’s population. The Rohingya have called the region home since the 15th century with the establishment of the Muslim Arakan Kingdom, and many more migrated to the region in the 19th century(1). “Rohingya” only came to use in the 1950s as a self-identifying term to promote political unity. Rohang is generally accepted to have originated from the word Arakan, and gya means “from” in the Rohingya language. In their very name, the Rohingya people assert their deep ties to the land that was once the Arakan Kingdom, land they are now being forced to flee.
For centuries, Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups and central government have persecuted the Rohingya minority, refusing to recognize their name and historical presence in the region. The roots of Burmese hostility towards the Rohingya can be traced to the era of British colonial control in Myanmar from 1885 to 1948. British policies in Myanmar favored ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya over the Burmese majority, and British forces imported large numbers of foreign laborers from India. Many Burmese regarded these policies as a deliberate effort by the colonial power to dilute their place in society after a long history of domination (2). Burmese Buddhist nationalism developed out of this environment of fear, and the Rohingya became the primary target.
How have they historically been treated in Myanmar?
In 1962, the nationalist military seized control of the newly independent Myanmar, institutionalizing ethnic hostility towards the Rohingya. Claiming the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the government has denied them citizenship and documentation, effectively rendering the entire ethnic group stateless. A brief attempt to franchise the Rohingya in the 1990s collapsed under pressure from influential Buddhist nationalist groups (3). Since then, the Rohingya have lived under apartheid conditions enforced by the state. Rohingya must gain government approval to travel, marry, and have children, and face heavy restrictions on religious freedom, education, and employment. Rakhine’s status as Myanmar’s least developed region compounds the suffering faced by the Rohingya.
These conditions, coupled with bitter religious tension between the Muslim minority and Buddhist nationalists, have lead to episodes of mass violence against the Rohingya. In 2012, after accusing two Rohingya men of raping a Buddhist woman, militant forces killed 280 Rohingya and displaced tens of thousands, many fleeing to Bangladesh(4). In 2016, after alleged attacks by Rohingya militants, the government increased its oppressive military presence in the Rakhine, inhibiting international humanitarian aid and advancing an agenda of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” according to UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein(5). Yet it has been the past few weeks that have consumed the Rohingya in the worst violence they have faced, and it continues today.
What led to the most recent conflagration?
The underlying tensions between the Muslim Rohingya minority and Buddhist nationalists, as well as the squalid conditions of Rohingya refugee camps on the border of Myanmar, set the stage for the current outbreak of violence in the Rakhine State. In recent months, displacement camps have suffered severe water and food shortages coupled with “mass atrocities” inflicted by Burmese military security forces, according to the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. On August 25th, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant Rohingya organization, launched an attack, killing more than 100 officers at military posts in the Rakhine. Rather than targeting the extremist group, the government has made no distinction between militant and civilian, torching villages and opening fire on civilian refugees(6).
The conflict has resulted in the greatest migratory and humanitarian crisis the embattled Rohingya have faced at any time in their history. According to an Al Jazeera article published on September 8th, more than 1,000 people have been killed since August 25th. The UN estimates more than 400,000 Rohingya—mostly women and children—have fled to Bangladesh to avoid the systematic military raids(7). Myanmar’s neighbors are struggling to provide basic services to the Rohingya already within their borders. Before the most recent event, Bangladesh hosted 400,000 refugees. Now, as tens of thousands of vulnerable Rohingya cross the officially closed border, the crisis threatens to further destabilize the region.
Is the Rohingya crisis primarily religious in nature or are there other factors driving the conflict?
While it is easy to characterize the conflict as soley rooted in religious intolerance, the importance of economic and socio-political factors in the crisis cannot be understated. Through the Rakhine’s history of severe economic underdevelopment, all populations within the region have felt economically exploited and neglected by the central government, leading the ethnically Burmese majority to regard the Rohingya as unrightful competitors for scarce resources, employment, and political authority. Instead of promoting unity and cultural reconciliation in the region, the military has backed the strong Buddhist fundamentalist faction to secure its own national interests in the resource-rich state, rather than the economic and political interests of the local population as a whole(8). Of course, the issue has religious undertones, but mostly in the context of the economic hardship of the Burmese majority resulting in the persecution of the more vulnerable ethnic minority, and the corresponding rise of Buddhist nationalism fueled by fear of political dilution by the Muslim Rohingya.
Where does Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi stand?
Long heralded as a global icon of moral democracy, the Nobel Peace laureate and civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced broad criticism for her lack of action and uncharacteristic denial of systematic human rights abuses against the Rohingya by the military. In 2015, with Suu Kyi’s victory in the first contested election for a civilian head of state in 25 years, many Rohingya were hopeful for change. These hopes have proved to be unfounded. The new government has neither offered any support to the Rohingya or tried to curb the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the military and militant Buddhist groups giving rise to the current crisis(9). In recent comments to the media, Suu Kyi acknowledged the need to address the conflict in the region, and said that those who committed human rights abuses would face the full force of the law. Yet Suu Kyi, who practices Buddhism, has not condemned the military outright, and claims the international community has exaggerated the crisis, adding to ethnic tensions.
To truly understand the Nobel laureate’s inaction, it is crucial to recognize the complex political predicament Suu Kyi currently faces in her country, where the military still holds formidable power. As the first civilian premier of Myanmar in a generation, Suu Kyi must strike a precarious balance between military, public, and international interests to preserve Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Those who defend Suu Kyi argue that any support for the Rohingya or condemnation of military actions against the minority could provoke a complete military takeover of the government, possibly resulting in full blown genocide in the Rakhine(10). Still, Suu Kyi’s denial of the factually reported severity of the conflict is alarming, and her decision announced Wednesday, September 13th, to skip the UN General Assembly meeting the following week prompted uproar from authoritative voices around the globe.
What is being done by the UN and the international community?
For years, the UN has monitored the events in the Rakhine and produced reports characterizing the Rohingya as the most persecuted peoples in the world, with crimes against humanity perpetrated against them. However, the current crisis has resulted in unprecedented attention and criticism of the Myanmar government by the international body. Per the request of England and Sweden, two emergency Security Council meetings have been convened on the crisis in the past weeks; the second meeting on Wednesday, September 13th, resulted in a formal condemnation of the situation(11). Notably, Myanmar has completely denied UNICEF, Amnesty International, and all other major humanitarian organizations access to the Rakhine region, an action that prompted particularly furious criticism from UN officials. While the UN cannot reach the Rakhine directly, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance is currently implementing a $7 billion plan that will provide food, water, shelter, and healthcare to refugees in Bangladesh through December(12). The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called the “dramatic tragedy” of ethnically motivated violence and exodus of Rohingya “completely unacceptable” and has urged the Security Council to do all in its power to prevent further escalation in the Rakhine and to aid the Rohingya(13).
While the U.S. State Department has voiced concern over the crisis in Myanmar, top officials have neither criticized Suu Kyi outright, nor acknowledged Burmese government involvement in the human rights violations taking place. They have also refrained from proposing sanctions for fear of destabilizing Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Rather, the U.S. has mostly advocated for humanitarian aid. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has called on the Myanmar government to lift the blockade against aid organizations in the Rakhine(14). Ultimately, the international community as a whole has been slow to act on rebuking Myanmar’s military leadership.
How has the Muslim world responded to the Rohingya crisis?
Over the past three weeks, popular protests have erupted in Muslim regions through Asia and the Middle East, most notably in Jakarta, Indonesia, where a small bomb was thrown at the Embassy of Myanmar. A handful of prominent Muslim leaders have expressed solidarity with the Rohingya people. Malala Yousafzai said her “heart breaks” over the terror faced by the Rohingya, calling for her fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to acknowledge and denounce military actions in the Rakhine. Pakistan and Malaysia, both Muslim majority countries, have urged Myanmar to hold those responsible accountable and intervene to resolve the conflict. Of all Muslim majority countries, Turkey and Indonesia have taken the most proactive stances condemning the crisis. Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey accused the Myanmar government of genocide, pledging Bangladesh financial support for humanitarian aid to refugees seeking safety in the country. Indonesia’s foreign minister traveled to Myanmar to speak with Suu Kyi and leading military general, Min Aung Hlaing earlier this month, beseeching them to work with the international community to secure the immediate safety of the Rohingya. Indonesia has promised to take in 150,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh(15).
Another important angle of the Muslim response is that of extremist groups who have rallied to wage ‘jihad’ on behalf of the Rohingya. It was, in fact, the militant Rohingya ARSA who provoked the military, leading to the current crisis. There is evidence that this group is funded by independent Saudi donors(16). Already, Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen has called for attacks on Myanmar. The possibility of an international extremist response was a critical factor in the strong responses of Indonesia and Turkey as a preemptive measure to curb radicalism among Rohingya. The Muslim response to the crisis in Rakhine highlights its intrinsically global nature and dire importance, not only in terms of the gross violation of human rights, but also the state of religiously implicated tensions worldwide.
What are possible steps forward?
Due to the decades-long oppression of the Rohingya, a plethora of reports issued by regional and international human rights agencies have been published with expert recommendations to the Myanmar government. Perhaps the most notable was the final report published in August 2017 by the independent Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. The commission, chaired by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was convened last year under the auspices of Aung San Suu Kyi’s office and the Kofi Annan Foundation, and consisted of six local and three international experts. They were designated with the task of making recommendations to the Myanmar government regarding the deplorable conditions of all communities living in the Rakhine state. In its final report, the commission identified the long-standing structural issues that have contributed to the crisis and “which affect the Muslim population disproportionately”(17)–these include severe economic underdevelopment in the Rakhine, lack of transparency and commitment to ensuring a legal path to citizenship for minorities, and a history of violence in the region amplified by ineffective security operations and segregation. In addition, the commission recommended concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of various communities in the Rakhine, such as lifting the ban on media and humanitarian aid, providing a transparent path to citizenship and the associated rights to all peoples residing in the Rakhine, enacting the UN plan on socioeconomic development in the region, training security forces in human rights, and ensuring education and employment opportunities and inter-communal dialogue are provided without ethnic distinction(18). The commission also called on the Myanmar government to establish a national body to implement its recommendations.
Such recommendations are realistic, if only the Myanmar government would commit to them. The depth of the religious, political, and economic divide in the country coupled with the military’s power have stymied any thought of real progress without tremendous outside pressure from the international community. Right now, when a short term solution is favorable to no solution at all, international pressure and rare unilateral action by the Security Council may be all that can curtail the suffering of the Rohingya, a people who can’t go home.