Myanmar has been under severe attack from the international community in recent times for what is being considered as ‘genocide’ against the Rohingya Muslims. Considered by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group in the world”, the Rohingyas are a stateless group of people concentrated in western Myanmar, and facing brutal assaults from the Burmese state and military. Since October, frequent reports have come in of the Burmese army burning down Rohingya villages, rapes and murders of the nature of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Faced with the savagery, about 10,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have rushed into Bangladesh for refuge. This is not the first time that this group has been seeking shelter from the Bangladeshi government on account of being brutally persecuted at home. Last time a mass exodus of the Rohingyas happened was in 2012 when communal clashes erupted between them and the Rakhine Buddhists who were later represented by the Burmese Army. While Bangladesh remains their favourite destination for decades now, they have been seeking out refuge in other neighbouring countries as well. According to a UN report, at present around 5,500 Rohingya refugees have been registered in India and are living in makeshift camps under precarious conditions.
Interestingly, while Bangladesh considers them to be unwanted refugees from Myanmar, the latter perceives the Rohingyas as erstwhile migrants from Bangladesh, leaving this group of about one million people to float in mid air, without a legal citizenship in any country. Who are the Rohingya Muslims and what is the nature of the conflict they face in Mynamar, these are questions Indianexpress.com tries to answer.
Why are the Rohingyas hated in Myanmar?
While Buddhism happens to be the religion of the majority in present day Myanmar, the region is believed to have been home to a thriving multi-ethnic society in the last 2,000 years. Muslim influence in Myanmar can be traced back to the 15th century. However, those who call themselves as Rohingyas have a more complicated origin which makes their presence within the current borders of the nation problematic in the eyes of the majority.
The Rohingyas trace back their ancestry to those who were brought into western Myanmar (referred to as Arakan previously and as Rakhine at present) by the British colonial government when they took over Burma in 1824. Majority of them belonged to Chittagong in present day neighbouring country ,Bangladesh and were brought over by the British to work as farm labourers.
The massive rate at which they entered Arakan was a cause of great resentment among the local population, among whom a strong sense of nationalism developed. Soon after the Second World War, the British departed and with them a large population of Indians who had been brought in also followed. However, soon enough, communal clashes started taking place between the local Buddhist population and the Muslims from Bangladesh who stayed on. Several among them formed groups demanding either an autonomous state for themselves or the discretion to join the newly formed East Pakistan. Over time Rohingyas went on to acquire the status of foreigners in the newly-formed state dominated by Buddhists.
How did the Burmese government ensure an institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingyas?
In 1982, the Burmese government passed a Citizenship law that continues to be regarded as unfair and discriminatory by the global community. The law that gave national citizenship to only those Burmese who could prove having ancestors residing in the country before British colonial rule, was the strongest case of institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingyas. They found themselves classified as ‘associate’ citizens.
The rules laid out for ‘associate’ citizens deprived the Rohingyas of holding any government office and several other citizenship rights. Further clauses of discrimination restricted their movements and even marriages and birth rates within the community were closely monitored and inhibited.
With the change in citizenship rules, frequent cases of armed struggles erupted that aimed at destroying Muslim villages and mosques, followed by mass outflow of Rohingyas into neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh and India.
A further confusion with their status in Myanmar is the denial of their Burmese identity by the Rakhine Buddhists. According to majority of the Buddhists, ‘Rohingyas’ is a fabricated religious identity. Citing historical documents and ancestry records, they claim that there was never any community by the name ‘Rohingya’ in the Burmese past. Whether or not the claims of the Buddhists are authentic is yet to be verified by scholars and historians. What is certain though is that since the 1950s a unique cultural and linguistic community did gain recognition in western Myanmar who consider themselves as ‘Rohingyas’.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the Burmese government’s denial of the Rohingya identity, Professor William Schabas, an expert on genocide, says “trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping that eventually they no longer exist, denying their history, denying their legitimacy of their right to live where they live; these are all warning signs that it’s not frivolous to envision the use of the term, ‘genocide’.”
Why did communal clashes erupt in October 2016?
On October 9, three border posts on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh were attacked by a group of Islamic militants leading to the death of nine policemen. The attack, that was reported to have been carried out by Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, was soon followed by a counter terrorism insurgency carried out by the Tatmadaw (Burmese military).
In the following months close to 100 Rohingyas have been killed, several others detained and about 1200 Rohingya inhabited buildings burned down. Reports suggest that over a dozen women have been raped and assaulted by army officers at gunpoint. Any form of humanitarian aid has been blocked in the areas under military attack and close to 30,000 people have been forced to flee for their lives. Most of those persecuted are rice farmers and petty traders who have been living in dire poverty conditions.
The Burmese government, however, has denied any allegations of rapes and assaults and suggest that the Rohingyas have themselves been burning down buildings in order to gain international sympathy. According to state counsellor, Aung San Su Kyi, those attacked were Jihadists and that the military lock down is a means to ensure state security against extremist organisations in the region.
How has the international community responded to the crisis?
While Human Rights Watch has called the military crackdown on Myanmar a case of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ the UN’s office of Human Rights has declared that the crisis in the South East Asian country ‘could tantamount to crimes against humanity’. In November 2016, the former chief of UN, Kofi Anan arrived in Myanmar with his team to look into the armed struggle, and was met by protesters who were against foreign intervention.
In Early December 2016, the Malaysian Prime Minister carried out a rally in protest against the torture of the Rohingyas. “The world cannot stand by and watch genocide taking place,” he said. In November, protests also took place in Dhaka where about 5,000 Muslims congregated outside the Baitul Mokarram mosque to denounce the military assault in Myanmar and the inaction of Su Kyi. They also demanded the Bangladesh government to give refuge to the Rohingyas. Similar protests were held in Jakarta and Bangkok as well.
The assault on the Rohingyas has been fast gaining attention from Jihadists around the world, making the ground ripe for extremism. The West has been particularly wary about the possibility of a breeding ground for religious terrorism as a response to Myanmar’s brutality and has been urging neighbouring Muslim majority countries to strongly resist the repression of the Rohingyas.