The crisis over alleged “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority has exposed the underlying fractures in the Asian nation. As the country emerges from half a century of military dictatorship, a history of ethnic tension and repression have burst onto the international stage under new leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is an extraordinarily diverse country sandwiched between India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand. There are more than 100 ethnic minorities native to Myanmar, apart from the dominant Buddhist Bamar culture. They practice a number of different religions and often have their own language. One of the few experiences the minorities share is a history of conflict with the military dictatorship which ruled the country for over 50 years.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from the western province of Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State, is just one of many ethnic groups who face violent repression from the Myanmar military. Roughly half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh after the largest military campaign against the Muslim minority in history. There have been reports of indiscriminate killings, village burnings and rapes, amounting to “crimes against humanity” and “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations.
These accounts of rape and pillaging, however, could also be used to describe the experience of the Karen, Chin, and several other ethnic minorities from Myanmar. Yet only the Rohingya has been referred to, as The Economist does in this piece, as the “most persecuted minority in the world.”
Unlike other recognized ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Rohingya are denied citizenship, and effectively stateless. The Myanmar government, including de facto leader of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi, does not even acknowledge the Rohingya as a distinct people. Instead, they have referred to them as “Bengali,” an insinuation that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh instead of a group that has been in Myanmar since before the British colonial era. This lack of recognition from Myanmar society, which persists to this day, is what separates the Rohingya experience from that of other ethnic minorities, and has made their position more egregious.
Where are you really from?
Citizenship in Myanmar is essentially based on ethnicity. There are 135 ethnic groups recognized by the government as being native to Myanmar, and thus eligible for citizenship. The “Rohingya”, however, is missing from this list despite having origins in Myanmar that can be traced back as early as the eighth century.
This list of “national races” was established by the military dictatorship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, which is enforced until this day. Human rights organizations have long called for the repeal of this law, one reason being how it has systematically targeted the Rohingya.
Anwar Arkani, a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar in 1984 claims that his entire family had documentation of their citizenship physically confiscated during the time the 1982 law was being implemented.
“If you go to school, you need to register, and they need to see your paperwork, you come back two weeks later, then it’s gone, they never give it back to you,” Arkani told WikiTribune. He’s the leader of the Rohingya Association of Canada: “It happened at all levels of government. Unless you are some influential person, but how many Rohingya can say this”.
Living in Myanmar without citizenship, or a foreign passport, is challenging. Proof of citizenship must be shown for all travel between towns and interaction with government agencies. Without documentation, the Rohingya were largely sequestered to villages in northern Rakhine State and unable to access education as a result. According to a 2005 United Nations report, only 12 percent of refugees fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh were deemed literate in any language.
Regaining citizenship is next to impossible. Even the lowest levels of citizenship require government officials to approve that the applicant has “good character” and “sound mind”, as well as proof of ancestry in the country from before 1948, which is when Myanmar, then Burma, gained independence from Britain.
Few citizens of Myanmar could actually produce documents that prove their ethnic heritage spanning back generations, according to Amal de Chickera, Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, in the Netherlands. “Requirements to prove who your parents and great-grandparents are is impossible to fulfill because no one has documents in Burma that go back two or three generations,” De Chickera told WikiTribune.
Access to citizenship was a pillar of the recommendations made by the Rakhine Commission, a United Nations group led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, tasked with identifying solutions to the Rohingya issue.
The Myanmar military has never explicitly stated why the Rohingya are not on the list of national races, though religion is often cited as a reason behind the persecution. Nearly all Rohingya are Muslim.
A sense of Buddhist nationalist identity has become a political force in Myanmar, and Muslims have been its main target. The group Ma Ba Tha, a Burmese acronym for Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, has been a major source of anti-Islam messaging.
Despite claims from Buddhist extremists that Myanmar risks losing its Buddhist identity to Islam, the Muslim population has hardly changed. The percentage of Myanmar’s 52 million people who identify as Muslim was tallied at 4.3 percent in the 2014 census, up from 3.9 in the previous 1983 survey. Not all of them are Rohingya.
There are Muslims in most of the larger ethnic groups, non-Rohingya Muslims have also experienced discrimination and violence. In 2012, a violent mob of Buddhists killed almost 200 Kaman Muslims, a recognised ethnic group under the 1982 Citizenship act.
“The Kaman Muslims also have had problems gaining citizenship even though they are one of the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar, but some have had their citizenship questioned, and are treated the same way as the Rohingya,” says De Chickera from the Statelessness and Inclusion Institute.
While many Kaman denied nationality, the Myanmar government still considers the ethnic group to be native to the country. The Rohingya on the other hand, who tend to have dark skin, have been officially designated as “Bengali”. Several times over the last 50 years, large numbers of them have been forced to flee into Bangladesh.
Nowhere to go
Bangladesh is scrambling to accommodate the over half-million Rohingya who crossed the border within the past two months. Reuters reported that 1,000 acres of forest will be cleared in order to house the refugees.
The current exodus of Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh is the largest in history, but it is not the first. The problem is Bangladesh, a country dealing with widespread poverty, has refused to be a haven for displaced Rohingya, and has repeatedly pushed the stateless people back into Myanmar, or blocked them from entering altogether.
Between 1978 to 1989, the Bangladesh government sent back over 200,000 Rohingya refugees who had escaped the violence from Operation Dragon King, a clearance campaign initiated by the Myanmar military.
Mark Farmaner, the director of human rights pressure group, Burma Campaign UK, says that Bangladesh has a long track record of preventing Rohingya from trying to enter, often violently.
“[Bangladesh] is notorious for this. In October, they were even shooting at Rohingya trying to escape Myanmar”, Farmaner told WikiTribune. Those who are allowed to stay in Bangladesh are sequestered in camps that are poorly maintained on purpose.
“The Bangladesh government thought that if there are any decent conditions in the refugee camps, more Rohingya will come. So they’ve done everything they can to make the refugee camps as miserable as they can. It’s an appalling track record,” Farmaner said.
This is another area that separates the plight of the Rohingya from other persecuted minorities, including those native to Myanmar – they have no neighboring country for safe harbor. The Karen (Kuh-ren), an ethnic minority of southeastern Myanmar, experienced similar conditions as the Rohingya during the military dictatorship and fled en masse to refugee camps in Thailand. Displaced Karen refugees commonly stayed in Thai refugee camps for up to 20 years, tens of thousands remain there to this day.
The fate of Rohingya is a source of tension between the Bangladesh and Myanmar where neither government wants to accommodate the ethnic minority. Bangladesh has even considered moving Rohingya refugees to Thengar Char, a small island in the Bay of Bengal that is prone to flooding year around. The proposed solution has been widely condemned by human rights organizations. On September 21, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the UN General Assembly to support safe-zones in Rakhine State for refugees.
Bangladesh has begun to readily accept more Rohingya mainly due to pressure from the international community. Turkey has in many ways led the campaign by pledging aid and money towards resettling the Rohingya in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged 10,000 tons of unspecified aid in the beginning of September.
No political support
Inside Myanmar, however, the Rohingya have virtually no political support. Even Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign against the military regime, has failed to advocate for them. Ending ethnic conflict has been a priority of Suu Kyi’s since her party won control of parliament in the historic 2015 elections, but the Rohingya were never part of the initiative.
As de facto leader of the government in her role as First State Counsellor, Suu Kyi rarely addresses the military’s treatment of the Rohingya. She referred to the reports of human rights abuses in Rakhine State as “fabrications” in 2016, and rejects the UN’s claim that the ethnic group has faced conditions that have reached the levels of “ethnic cleansing”.
Reports of mass killings and sexual violence by the Myanmar military are hard to verify since journalists and humanitarian groups are denied access to most Rohingya villages. But based on medical opinions, satellite images and eyewitness accounts along the Bangladeshi border, there is wide consensus in the international community that the military is waging “crimes against humanity”.
Suu Kyi roundly criticised the international media for focusing on the displacement of Rohingya in September 2017. She and other authorities instead insist that armed Rohingya “terrorists” provoked the recent upsurge in violence. When speaking with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a vocal supporter of the Rohingya, she referred to reported atrocities in Rakhine State as a part of an “iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” according to the her office’s Facebook page.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed militia, took credit for a coordinated attack on Myanmar authorities on August 25th in which 12 police officers died, triggering the latest military offensive.
Steven Gumaer, Director of Partners.ngo, a pro-Rohingya organization, points to the historic mistreatment of the Muslim minority as a catalyst of the ARSA militia: “this is what you would expect after the wholesale slaughter of Rohingya.”
Suu Kyi’s rhetoric has changed in light of international condemnation over the latest military campaign against the Rohingya. She cites the repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh as a top priority, though there is no indication that they receive citizenship upon reentry.
An autonomous military
As a Nobel Peace-Prize laureate, Suu Kyi’s reluctance to offer any supportive words has stunned her international supporters. In reality, Suu Kyi has no real influence over military decisions, including the campaign in Rakhine State. The same Myanmar constitution that paved the way for a democratically elected parliament, also gave military full autonomy, free from any civilian oversight.
The constitution also guarantees that the military-backed political party retains 25 percent of seats in parliament. Legislation requires 76 percent of support in order to supersede a veto, leaving the military with the permanent ability to filibuster laws from the civilian government.
On October 12, the chief of the Myanmar military, Min Aung Hlaing, told U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel that the Muslim minority, which he referred to as “Bengalis” were “not natives” of the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the U.S. specifically holds the military responsible for the situation in Rakhine in a Q&A at the Center of Strategic and International Studies.
Critics of Aung San Suu Kyi, however, believe that while she has no political control over the military, she could offer verbal support. They see her failure to utilize her international platform to condemn the treatment of the Rohingya, even in the vaguest of terms, indicates a lack of interest in defending the Muslim minority. Most of whom voted for her in the elections.
“Suu Kyi’s silence is a betrayal for the Rohingya who voted for her”, says Gumaer.