Pictures from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border tell the story of a people in crisis—smoke rising from burning villages, sprawling camps of makeshift tents, thousands in torn and soiled clothing teeming across rivers and marshes. The plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in northwestern Myanmar, has captured the attention of the international community, and cast doubt on the country’s once promising transition to democratic civilian government.
Who exactly are the Rohingya, and how did they come to be the victims of what the United Nations Human Rights Council has termed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing?” What are the prospects of a resolution to the crisis in 2018, and what role could actors such as the Myanmar government, neighboring Southeast Asian states, and the United Nations play?
A Brief History of Myanmar and the Rohingya
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was part of British India for much of the nineteenth century and remained a province of the Raj until 1937. In contrast to Hindu-majority India, Myanmar is 87.9 percent Buddhist, though it is home to a diverse patchwork of ethnic and linguistic groups. The country’s Muslims, including the Rohingya, make up about 4 percent of the population. As part of the wave of decolonization sweeping Asia in the wake of the Second World War, Burma became an independent nation in 1948.
The country’s modern history has been marked by the struggle to establish a stable civil society and government. In 1962, military junta took control of the country and instituted a single-party regime with severe limitations on press freedom and political dissent. 1988–89 saw violently repressed anti-government and pro-democratic protests, during which Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, founded the National League for Democracy. The NLD, a party committed to nonviolence and civil disobedience, performed consistently well at the polls, but the military government dismissed the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest several times between 1989 and 2010.
2011 marked the beginning of the country’s transition to civilian government, in part due to international sanctions and the weakening of the military junta’s legitimacy following a major cyclone in 2008. In 2012, during the country’s first multiparty election since 1990, the NLD and Suu Kyi won seats in parliament. Suu Kyi, now a Nobel Laureate, became the de facto leader of the country in 2015 and has represented the country in meetings with foreign leaders such as General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama. Her position is officially “state counsel.” However, since a constitutional clause bars those with foreign relatives from the presidency, fellow NLD member U Htin Kyaw is the de jure leader of the country.
Despite this progress, Myanmar remains fraught with ethnic violence, and there are several ongoing civil wars between minority groups and the dominant Bamar (or Burmese). For example, the Karen people, one of the 135 minority groups living in Myanmar, have clashed with the Myanmar government since 1949, and thousands of displaced Karen civilians have fled into neighboring Thailand. Shan State, located on the border with China, has also seen separatist violence between the Shan people and the Burmese following the collapse of an independence-era agreement allowing for Shan secession. Though a ceasefire ended hostilities between the predominantly Christian Kachin people and the Burmese state for seventeen years, violence in Northern Myanmar resumed in 2011, resulting in the displacement of more than ninety thousand civilians. Violence against Muslims regardless of ethnic affiliation is also common, with periodic rioting especially in the region surrounding the city of Mandalay.
The Rohingya are another stateless minority living in Myanmar, concentrated primarily near the border with Bangladesh in the Rakhine State. Accounts differ in regards to their origins, with Myanmar’s government claiming that they arrived from Bengal as the result of internal migrations within British India, while many Rohingya claim to descend from medieval Muslim traders from the Middle East. Following the 1962 military coup, the Rohingya lost their status as Burmese nationals and were designated as foreigners; a 1982 law erected further barriers to citizenship by requiring documented proof that one’s ancestors lived in Burma before independence.
Sporadic violence has occurred between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State in recent years, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency in 2013 and sharp UN condemnation of the Burmese government’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Current State of the Rohingya People
The latest and most severe outbreak of violence in Rakhine State began in October 2016, after armed Rohingya rebels launched an attack on government border posts as part of ongoing intermittent clashes with security forces . In retaliation, the Burmese government began what it termed “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages, the horrific details of which emerged in a UN report the following February.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), following eyewitness accounts from refugees, documents Burmese security forces’ use of gang rape, beatings, stabbings, and arson against Rohingya civilians. Witnesses have described soldiers and villager mobs locking entire families inside burning houses and stabbing babies in front of their mothers. Doctors without Borders estimated in December that 6,700 Rohingya have died as a cause of the most recent violence.
The Rohingya exodus has unfolded much more rapidly than those of other refugee crises. Though the total number of refugees that have fled Syria since 2011 is much larger (5.5 million from Syria vs. 422 thousand from Myanmar), the average number per week leaving Myanmar at the height of the crisis outnumbered those from Syria by nearly one hundred thousand.
Rohingya refugees have flooded across the border to Bangladesh in droves, especially following a renewed crackdown in response to a second rebel attack in August. The UN figures place the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at over eight hundred thousand, with more than four hundred thousand having arrived since August 25 of 2017. Bangladesh has accepted the large number of refugees but has not granted them permanent residency and is working with Myanmar on a repatriation deal.
The Bangladeshi government is reluctant to accept the Rohingya on a permanent basis due to both security and logistical concerns. Though condemning the Burmese government’s brutality against the Rohingya, Bangladesh acknowledges that the violence began when the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda and ISIL, launched attacks in Myanmar. Authorities in Bangladesh fear that refugee camps could become recruiting grounds for extremists, a concern similar to those of European countries housing refugees from ISIL controlled territory. Furthermore, the permanent absorption of the Rohingya refugees would represent a one percent population increase in Bangladesh, a difficult task for an already densely populated developing country without an established immigration system (in marked contrast to Syrian and Iraqi refugees who find themselves in highly developed immigration countries such as Germany.
In spite of fierce international condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have not only refused to support the Rohingya but have even engaged in an outright denial of human rights violations in Rakhine State. Suu Kyi’s government, like many civilians in the country, is dismissive of the notion of a distinct Rohingya identity—the Rohingya are often referred to as Bengali Muslims—and has justified the “clearance operations” on the grounds of fighting terrorism. What, then, explains this shocking inaction on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD?
A compelling piece by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen attributes it primarily to the incompleteness of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, and the precarious position of Aung San Suu Kyi in a military government. She seems to recognize that the military continues to control much of the government (she is barred from the presidency by a constitutional amendment), and that, should she overstep boundaries, the progress, in the form of democratic reform, that she has made will unravel quickly.
Cohen also links Suu Kyi’s opaque response to her lack of political experience and to the profound anxiety she shares with many Burmese Buddhists about the identity of the nation. Myanmar is mainly Buddhist in a heavily Muslim region, neighbors rising powers India and China, and continues to simmer with ethnic hatreds. All of these contribute to a popular image of the nation as one besieged internally by minority separatists and externally by international condemnation of its human rights practices, which turns nationalistic Buddhists and Bamars against religious and ethnic groups looking to secede.
The Rohingya crisis has attracted the world’s attention not only due to its catastrophic scale, but also since it stands in stark contrast to the overly optimistic narrative of democratic reform in Myanmar under Suu Kyi—a narrative that Cohen derides as a “simple morality tale.” Previous coverage of Suu Kyi often figured her as a peer of Gandhi or Mandela, but regional experts have argued that these accounts have oversimplified the situation in Myanmar and ignored the influence of complex ethnic rivalries on Burmese politics.
Prospects for 2018
The future of the Rohingya people is far from clear. With the Myanmar government susceptible to popular nationalistic prejudices, and the transition to a civilian regime tenuous, it is unlikely that domestic political avenues alone will provide a solution the crisis.
A comparison of events in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s to today’s Myanmar may lead to the idea that a UN Peacekeeping mission is in order, but such an intervention is likely to encounter several insurmountable obstacles. A UN Peacekeeping mission requires the consent of both parties to the conflict, but, given that the UN special rapporteur to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, was banned from the country in December, the Myanmar government would doubtlessly refuse to let UN troops into the country. Furthermore, even if such consent were granted, a resolution from the Security Council is also required. Last year China and Russia, two countries sharing with Myanmar restive Muslim minorities, vetoed the issue of a UNSC statement on the violence in Rakhine State.
It is also unlikely that neighboring countries in Southeast Asia will come to the rescue of the Rohingya. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) follows a policy of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of member states, of which Myanmar is one. The organization as a whole has not seriously condemned the violence against the Rohingya, and some members closely aligned with Myanmar, like Thailand, have turned away Rohingya refugees. However, the Rohingya plight has struck a nerve with the public in Malaysia and, above all, in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. In response, the Indonesian government has engaged in low-profile humanitarian aid in Rakhine State and has taken in about one thousand Rohingya refugees. However, life in exile remains difficult for the Rohingya—many live in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia illegally as migrant workers, and, in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are subject to strict limitations on their movement in and out of the camps due to security concerns.
The solution to the Rohingya crisis will come from a combination of international pressure and domestic citizenship law reform—no easy task given continuing military dominance over Burmese politics. Until the Burmese government recognizes the Rohingya as an ethnic group and offers them a viable path to citizenship, conditions are unlikely to improve in Myanmar. This is, of course, much easier said than done, but as the recent democratic reforms show, change is not impossible in Myanmar.
The international community must play an integral role in promoting the rights of the Rohingya, though at the same time must avoid alienating Myanmar and risk a backsliding into military rule. Actors such as the UN, the European Union, the United States, and ASEAN must put economic and political pressure on Myanmar to cooperate with fact-gathering missions, continue with democratic reforms, and respect the rights of its ethnic minorities. ASEAN, Russia, and China in particular must reject that “non-intervention” excuses flagrant human rights violations and allows neighboring states to turn a blind eye. Instead, they must take to heart the international community’s “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), a commitment adopted by all UN member states in 2005 that aims to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. Under R2P, sovereignty is not unconditional, and the international community has a responsibility to intervene in a country’s affairs in cases of human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Above all, the world must not forget about the suffering of the Rohingya people. The international community must work even more diligently going forward to provide immediate relief for refugees and secure a just future for the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Dave Marques is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.