Repressing the Rohingya: The Government’s Role

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim group in the majority-Buddhist country of Myanmar. For decades, they have been subject to systematic discrimination and oppression. Over half a million have fled the country, many living as refugees in neighboring states. Though Myanmar is no stranger to ethnic conflict, the Rohingya stand out as a special case because of the extent of their marginalization and persecution. Even the term “Rohingya” is controversial: it is not officially acknowledged by many officials because it is viewed as legitimizing the group’s presence in Myanmar’s history.

In a divided country, the Rohingya have become a cheap point of unity as politicians have convinced Myanmar’s population to blame all of their problems on the group. Suspicion and fear of the Rohingya stem from the widespread belief that they are are illegally immigrating from Bangladesh in large numbers and reproducing at a “terrible birth rate.” A spokesman for the government of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the Rohingya live, has claimed that the Rohingya population is growing ten times faster than the population of native Buddhists, and Rakhine politician Zaw Aye Maung warned of the threat of being “overrun by these Bangladeshis.”

Predictably, this political and social oppression has bred destitution and misery within the Rohingya community. The northern Rakhine State is one of the poorest regions in Myanmar as a consequence of long-standing neglect and underdevelopment. Nearly half of Rakhine residents live in poverty, compared to a quarter nationally. Basic facilities and services such as health care and education are virtually inaccessible, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. To make matters worse, humanitarian aid organizations were forbidden from accessing the region following communal violence in March 2014. The groups were intimidated and threatened by Buddhist monks who accused them of giving preferential treatment to Rohingya, though the result worsened living conditions for all Rakhine State residents.

Of course, the government denies all accusations of oppression. Numerous reports detailing crimes of arson and rape have been denied by officials or have been dismissed as “fake news” and “propaganda.” In a report investigating the area, the government claimed that the “increasing population of Mawlawi, mosques and religious edifices are proof that there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution.” Drastic oversimplifications and distractions like this one reveal the government’s lack of concern for the Rohingya’s suffering. Moreover, Penny Green, the director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), stated that Rakhine State is “in effect an information black hole” where it is “difficult or impossible to independently verify [the facts]—because of state restrictive practices.” When satellite images showed villages being burned down, government officials said that the Rohingya were responsible for the fires. Nevertheless, some evidence is incontrovertible. A viral Facebook video showed unarmed Rohingya being violently abused by border patrol officers, and images of charred remains and huddled villagers have been circulating around social media.

This degree of oppression naturally breeds retaliation. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), despite its inactivity since 2014, has become synonymous with Rohingya militancy. The attacks on the border patrol office that occurred in October and November 2016 were at first falsely blamed on the RSO, before a new insurgent group called the Faith Movement claimed responsibility. The RSO was originally formed in the 1980s following a large-scale military operation, and not unlike the Faith Movement, its stated purpose is to secure greater rights for the Rohingya people. Its operations were largely confined to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where it carried out targeted attacks against the Myanmar Defense Services. Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Yangon, noted that both Faith Movement and RSO attacks were aimed at “security targets, not civilians or religious sites.” Matthew Smith, the founder of nonprofit Fortify Rights, agrees with this assessment, and finds that these two groups are “tiny compared to dozens of other armed groups and militia in the country.”

To be sure, evidence of widespread religious extremism among the Rohingya has always been weak. The majority of them eschew violence, believing that it will undermine their cause. In fact, the Faith Movement allegedly killed members of the Rohingya community, fearful that they would reveal the group’s plans to the authorities. Thus, the connection between the “Rohingya terrorist groups” and the Rohingya as a people is incredibly tenuous.

Nevertheless, it is the Rohingya people that the government holds responsible for attacks, claiming that they target security forces “in an attempt to damage the sovereignty of the country.” The government’s response to retaliation by the RSO and Faith Movement has been to increase violent suppression. After coordinated attacks by the Faith Movement last October and November, the impunity that the Myanmar Police Force enjoyed increased as they were responsible for “clearance operations” carried out at “full strength.” In the public’s eyes, the government has full license to pin the blame for any violent incidents on the Rohingya, as they did during deadly attacks on Border Guard Police patrols in February and May 2014. But according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), there is no evidence that the RSO retained operational capability after the early 2000s. Armed criminal gangs that are unaffiliated with the Rohingya and that frequently operate on the border may very well have been the real perpetrators. The government alleges extensive ties between the Rohingya and jihadist groups, though this is just another convenient myth to justify the counterterrorism operations. A press release by the government claimed that the attacks were “intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority Muslim population in the area” as well as to take over the region. The Faith Movement released videos following the border attacks in November, clarifying their mission to seek fundamental rights and to “free themselves from oppressors.”

There is good reason to believe that the government is not being genuine when it casts Rohingya groups as serious terrorist threats.The crackdowns have been justified as attempts to make the area “safe, peaceful and stable.”  However, the “clearance operations” might just be a front for further repression of the Muslim population. This is not unlikely considering the level of government complicity in the 2012 riots and past leaked documents outlining blatantly discriminatory plans to oppress the Rohingya.

But if the government does genuinely believe that harsher security measures will mitigate the terror threat posed by various Rohingya groups, then it is mistaken. In fact, the government’s repressive policies towards the Rohingya, ostensibly carried out in the name of “national security,” have been counterproductive. The misery and resentment caused by the security crackdowns will only serve to inspire violent retaliation motivated by a sense of hopelessness. The Faith Movement is enjoying growing support from many Rohingya who view it as the only alternative to their current desperate situation. By depicting the Rohingya as religious extremists, the government could be drawing foreign jihadists to take up the Rohingya’s plight as a transnational Muslim cause. Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International studies in Singapore, noted that the Islamic State is “slowly and steadily making inroads to influence the Rohingya issue.” Though this could prove a threat, the government’s claims of close association between jihadists groups and the Rohingya have been exaggerated and overstated. The fact that several men were recruited and joined the Faith Movement following the October attacks reflects the extended failure of government to address the Rohingya’s plight and legitimize their place in Myanmar society.

The coordinated attacks that occurred in October and November last year, instead of alerting the government that its policies are counterproductive, seemed to legitimize its use of excessive force. Problems that are as deeply entrenched as those between the Rohingya and the rest of Burmese society cannot be solved overnight. The animosity has been built up over decades, as Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from across the border in Bangladesh. But as argued above, the continual injudicious use of military forces, denial of humanitarian aid, and failure to acknowledge and legitimately address the Rohingya’s plight will only increase the risk of insurgencies in the future. Recognizing the Rohingya as a legitimate constituency in Myanmar and embracing peace instead of repression is crucial in ending the cycle of violence and ensuring a better future for all Rakhine State residents.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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