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  • Writer's pictureHelena Shilson

The Rohingya Crisis: Explained

The Rohingya are a minority Muslim ethnic group based in the Rakhine State in Northern Myanmar that have been subject to systematic persecution for the last 50 years. The Government of Myanmar no longer recognises the term ‘Rohingya’, rejecting their status as an ethnic group by referring to them as ‘Bengalis’ or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a country located in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand, Laos, India, Bangladesh and China. The ethnic majority, the Bamar or Burmans, comprises 70% of the population and control the government and military. 89% percent of the population practice Buddhism.

So-called ‘military crackdowns’ against the Rohingya have occurred in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2017, with almost continual violence since 2015. Since the escalation of violence in August 2017, 660,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violent military attacks from their home nation. The Rohingya have reportedly been subject to human rights abuses including sexual and non-sexual violence, murder, marriage and birth restrictions, and forced deportation. There are around 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and grooming by terrorist organisations as well as disease and malnutrition. Those who still remain in Myanmar have been driven from their villages by the military and forced into camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs)—isolated from education, healthcare and a means of supporting themselves.

The United Nations Human Rights Agency has estimated that approximately 10,000 Rohingya have been killed since August 2017 (a figure they label conservative). The agency has condemned this action to constitute Genocide, as have a myriad of human rights organisations including Medicine Sans Frontiers and Human Rights Watch.

How has Myanmar reached this point without more substantial intervention? How has Myanmar reached this point at all?

First and foremost, it is crucial to have a basic understanding of Myanmar’s history. Popular anti-Rohingya sentiment can be traced to colonial rule in Burma after it was annexed by the British in January 1886. British rule did not support the form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar, Theravada Buddhism, which requires its leaders to support and promote Buddhism. This led to anti-British sentiment in Buddhist communities but led to support from minorities including the Christian Karen and the Rohingya Muslims. When the Japanese invaded Burma during WW2 in 1942. Buddhist Nationalists supported the Japanese in overthrowing the British, whilst minorities stayed loyal to British Rule. In the violence, 100,000 Rohingya were killed and 307 villages destroyed. Here began the continuing ethnic segregation. Furthermore, in the wake of this conflict, Rohingya groups campaigned for the incorporation of Northern Arakan into Pakistan, driving the authorities to perceive the Rohingya as hostile outsiders.

The historical argument used against the Rohingya (which is promoted in Myanmar) is that the Rohingya did not descend from earlier Muslim groups in the region but were immigrants from Bangladesh (then British India) in the colonial era. However, there is substantial evidence that the Rohingya were in fact present as an independent ethnic group pre-colonial rule and before mass immigration from Bangladesh. British reports in the colonial period provide evidence of the early forms of the name ‘Rohingya’; reports refer to them as ‘Rovingaw’ and ‘Rooinga.’ The Rakhine at this time is described as containing two main social groups, the “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan’ and ‘The Rakhing who adhere to the tenets of Buddha.”

Burma became independent on 4th January 1948, and for the next 14 years the Burmese army was involved in several civil wars against minority groups. In 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup and introduced an authoritarian government, and in 1974 the constitution was changed to be that of a one party state, solidifying army control. This new regime, ‘The Burmese Road to Socialism’ heightened direct discrimination against the Rohingya. The new regime began to deny the rights of minorities, building a national identity focused on the practice of Buddhism. Under the 1982 Citizenship Laws the Rohingya were excluded from citizenship and now hold no legal rights as citizens of Myanmar.

It is true that Myanmar is slowly becoming, or appearing to become, more democratic (under the “Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy” introduced in 2003). In 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi gained a seat in the house of representatives for the NLD and in 2015 the NLD won 86% of seats. Although Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming President as her late husband and children are foreign citizens, she has been appointed de-facto leader of the State in the newly-created role of State Councillor.

However, despite widespread, internationally-held hopes, the movement towards democracy has not led to significantly improved rights of the Rohingya or reduced persecution. This is due to a complex political climate heavily influenced by the notion of Buddhist Nationalism and extremist Buddhist monks who champion this. The movement towards democracy, the highest priority in Myanmar’s recent history, requires support from extremist Monks— who are strongly anti-Rohingya. The extremist monks, who have a significant following, are the ideological leaders of the persecution of the Rohingya. The NLD is therefore unable to speak out against persecution without losing the support of the Buddhist Monks and the masses who support them.

Another reason that the situation for the Rohingya has not improved is that the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, remain very powerful. Despite the military party (USDP) losing the 2015 General Election, complete military control remains over key ministries: Defence, Border Relations, Home Affairs, and the General Administration Department (which oversees the registrations of births, deaths, marriages, land purchases, and tax collection). Under the constitution the military generals still control 25% of seats in government.

Ultimately, extreme anti-Muslim public opinion in Myanmar is rife and facilitates military action against the Rohingya: Myanmar military leaflets, textbooks and the media describe the Rohingya as a threat to Buddhism and national security, alleging links to international terrorism. Media is heavily controlled — the Reuters journalists who exposed a massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din, Rakhine State, have been sentenced to 8 years in prison for treason.

Additionally, Islamophobia in Myanmar has been heightened by the development of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army — a militant force which claims to fight for freedom for the Rohingya, engaged in armed insurgent attacks against the military and civilians. ARSA attacks against security forces in August 2017 (amounting to the death of 12 soldiers) were used to justify the latest military attacks against the Rohingya, on the basis that the Rohingya villages were allegedly sheltering members of ARSA. This atmosphere has been further worsened by online support for Muslims in Myanmar voiced by ISIL.

The crisis is continuing, despite recent news regarding repatriation schemes for Rohingya to return to Myanmar. Experts predict that those who return will be taken to IDP camps. Many refugees in Bangladesh have illustrated that they cannot return until their rights are returned to them. It is a very bleak image. The question remains; can a population change such deeply held positions ? Will it take international pressure to stop this ethnic cleansing?

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