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Myanmar’s Rohingya: Minority at Risk of Genocide

Image credit: Global Risk Insights

In 2013, United Nations dubbed Rohingya, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim minority, as ‘the most oppressed people on Earth’—history and current events easily attest to the title. Reports from human rights groups by the likes of Human Rights Watch show systematic oppression, anti-Muslim violence, and gross rights abuses unto all of which have escalated to a refugee crisis that leaves many stateless and in unlivable conditions. Despite the alarming situation, no significant actions have been taken, putting Rohingya at risk of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The persecution of Rohingya Muslims is, in its core, a manifestation of Myanmar’s religious extremism and deeply rooted ultra-nationalism. Myanmar, situated in Southeast Asia, is a country dominated by the ethnic group Bamar and the religion Buddhism—89% of the 50 million people are Buddhists. Rohingya, meanwhile, are an ethnic Muslim group made of 1 million people from Rakhine State, the northwest side of the country. Rohingya make up a small 4% of Myanmar’s general population, and records in history show withstanding tension between them and Burmese people.

The History

Rohingya first came to Rakhine State, which had stood as a kingdom separate from Myanmar, during the 1400s. By 1785, Buddhist Burmese managed to conquer the kingdom and drive out or execute the Rohingya. The Burmese inhabited the area for some time; in 1826, Great Britain took control of Arakan after the First Anglo-Burmese War broke out, and former Rohingya who had fled were encouraged to migrate to Arakan, causing a sudden immigrant influx that strained Burmese-Rohingya relations further. When World War II transpired, the British abandoned Arakan; as they withdrew, the absence of a mediating power triggered both Rohingya and Buddhists to commit massacres.

The conflict of Rohingya against the Burmese is not exclusively participated by civilians. The extent includes Myanmar’s government and its refusal to acknowledge Rohingya. In 1947, after the mass killings, Rohingya approached the newly assembled Pakistan and asked for Arakan to be incorporated to Pakistan. This proposal helped shape current-day Burmese government’s attitude: Rohingya are seen to have threatened Myanmar’s territorial integrity, and are therefore not to be trusted. Consequently, in the following year of Myanmar’s independence, the government imposed limitations upon Rohingya. Those who had fled and returned were considered illegal immigrants, and refugees were not given help in resettling back to their villages.

The period after Myanmar’s 1962 military coup proved to restrict Rohingya even more. The government took actions in attempt to drive Rohingya out of Myanmar, including denying Rohingya recognition of their citizenship. Throughout the military rule of 1962-1987, more than 200,000 Rohingya were driven out because the military had forcibly evicted them; army brutality, rape and murder became widespread.6 The succeeding government, which rose to power in 1988, did little to improve the situation. When demonstrations took place because the military refused to hand over power, the government allegedly used the Rohingya as a scapegoat. Consequently, 1991-2 saw a drastic increase in human rights abuses. More than 280,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh after being subjected to forced labor, rape, and other forms of torture.

How Are Things Looking Now?

The oppression of Rohingya is clearly one that is deep-rooted in Myanmar’s history. Negative perception of Rohingya has developed into violations of basic human rights. The country saw possibility for change in 2010, when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to parliament two years later in 2012. Although elections could make way for political reform and dialogue on human rights, they could also heighten tensions and violence. This is especially true in Myanmar, where intolerance has shaped volatility. Evidently, in 2012 over 140,000 Rohingya were displaced after their homes were burnt to the ground; they were restricted from moving freely or accessing humanitarian aid afterwards. Millions faced persistent limitations on rights to work, travel, marry, and have children. Coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods became normality, with 4,682 structures destroyed and three mass killings carried out.

Situations came to an alarming pitch in 2015, when a refugee crisis occurred and sparked international outrage. In January-March alone, over 25,000 Rohingya attempted to flee through the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea. They got on rickety boats in large numbers, and remained stranded at sea as countries refused to take them in; 370 people died as a result, and mass graves were discovered. Those who were able to get to land usually end up in IDP camps and detention centers, treated as illegal migrants with no right to work or healthcare access. Though thousands are allowed to stay in neighbouring countries until this year ends, the future looks bleak. Based on leaked government documents, Yale’s International Human Rights Clinic pointed out the sporadic massacres, severe limitations and human rights abuses imposed on Rohingya; the extent seemed to indicate ongoing process of genocide. If no major actions are taken, Rohingya may become wiped out of existence.

Is There Any Hope for Reconciliation?

The current ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is a cause of global concern as gross human rights violations continue to occur. The international community serves to relieve Rohingya of their suffering for at least a short while; provision of humanitarian aid continues to flow (though it once as banned back in 2009 by the military regime) and other Southeast Asian countries function to host refugees (though the group of nations were criticized for their unpreparedness when the crisis first arose). In addition, from 1991-present, the United Nations presses on Myanmar to fulfill its international human rights obligations; there are more than 50 resolutions from the General Assembly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the UN Human Rights Council that push for the end of the widespread discrimination and the improvement in treatment of minorities.

International pressures, of course, mean little if internal powers do not take action. Myanmar’s government is frankly part of the problem; past events show authorities taking part in—and even fueling—the oppression of Rohingya. The police and military subject Rohingya to forms of torture, and the government does little to stop the human rights violations. Even the current government stated that the Rohingya crisis is ‘not a priority’ and figuring out where Rohingya belonged is what is necessary. This alone shows the authorities’ collective mentality: Rohingya are immigrants with few rights to defend. In reality, Rohingya have a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine, rendering Myanmar’s xenophobic acts nonsensical. As of now, the government has yet to implement the UNHCR resolution. The risk of genocide looms.

The complexity of the Rohingya crisis is not to be underestimated. To solve the problem would mean to touch on Myanmar’s longstanding ultra-nationalism. There needs to be substantial reform in the country’s political system, so that prominent oppressive officials are driven out and more human rights advocates are let in. A cleanup of the military and police must be done, in which those involved in coordinated attacks against Rohingya are put to justice. Policies that restrict rights must be amended, especially those regarding citizenship. These things are only scratching the surface; and should Myanmar ever be in the process of change, those already displaced must be accounted for. Humanitarian aid must be allowed, and Southeast Asia needs to prepare a better mechanism of responding to refugees.

Resolving the Rohingya crisis would be an arduous process. However, with thousands of lives on the line, we must take action. As the UN Special Rapporteur stated, “There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many.”

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