Who Are the Rohingya and Why Are They Fleeing Myanmar?

by Courtney Yusuf

16 September 2017

EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

In the last 3 weeks, escalating violence in Myanmar (Burma) has forced around 380,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. With a UN official declaring on Monday that this is a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, who are the Rohingya, what’s behind this mass exodus, and what lies ahead?

With a total population of 52.9 million people, the south-east Asian state of Myanmar is demographically dominated by its Buddhist Bamar majority, who make up around 68% of the population. Nonetheless, the former British colony is also home to more than 100 other ethnic groups, including 1.1 million Rohingya people, a predominantly Sunni Muslim group who have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Some Rohingya claim they can trace their roots back to a group of Arab traders who were stranded in the region following a shipwreck in the 8th-century. It is also possible that the group have an ethnic tie to the people of southern Bangladesh and therefore an even longer history on the territory that spans the border between the two countries. The border itself was extremely porous under British colonial rule. 

After independence in 1948, the Rohingya were initially recognised by many Burmese leaders as a native ethnic group, although their status was disputed. This changed following a military coup in 1962, when the new government labelled the Rohingya as illegal Bengali migrants. A violent crackdown in 1978 sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into Bangladesh. Although those who left were eventually allowed to return, things got worse in 1982 with the introduction of legislation that did not designate the Rohingya as a ‘national race’ and excluded them from citizenship. Members of the minority group were denied access to education and restricted in their movement, all whilst facing intermittent violence. Today, the government of Myanmar continues to withhold citizenship (and all accompanying protections) from the Rohingya, and insists that they are all illegal Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Bangladesh rejects this claim, and so the Rohingya are stateless.

Largely concentrated in Myanmar’s western Rakhine province, the discrimination faced by the Rohingya arises in part from their Islamic faith. Owing much to the role played by Buddhism in Myanmar’s anti-colonial movement, Buddhism and Burmese nationalism are very much intertwined and a particularly exclusionary blend of nationalism was stoked by the military junta that ran the country from 1962-2011. With Human Rights Watch first warning of ethnic cleansing in 2013, sadly Myanmar’s recent steps towards civilian, democratic government have coincided with a worsening of the Rohingya’s situation. Today, the supposed security threat that the Muslim group pose is often used by the military to justify their continued presence in public life (and it was reportedly military meddling that lay behind the devastating 2012 Rakhine riots).

Trapped in poverty under the weight of oppressive, discriminatory restrictions, Rohingya have been leaving Myanmar since the 1970s despite receiving little welcome from their neighbours. You may even remember the Rohingya as the ‘Boat People’ that flashed on our news screens in 2015: stranded on rickety vessels without proper supplies of food and water after their pleas for refuge were rejected by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why the group has been described as “the most friendless people in the world”.

The current mass exodus of Rohingya can be explained in part by the arrival of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Labelled a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar state, this band of Rohingya militants asserts that its objective is to “defend, salvage, and protect” the Rohingya people “in line with the principle of self defence”. Poorly armed with homemade weapons, ARSA first burst on to the scene in 2016 when it killed 9 police officers in Rakhine, prompting a heavy-handed response by the Myanmar security apparatus that was deemed a “collective punishment” by the UN. Today’s military crackdown follows a similar pattern, triggered by an August 25th ARSA attack on 30 Rakhine police and military posts in which 12 people were killed.

With access for journalists and aid workers severely restricted, determining what exactly is going on in Rakhine right now is extremely difficult. And yet accounts told by many of the 380,000 Rohingya that have fled the country in the last three weeks all point to the same story: A massive overreaction to the ARSA attack in which Burmese security forces and Buddhist civilians are burning villages, raping, and opening fire on Rohingya civilians without restraint. When one hears the Burmese Army chief talking of tying up “unfinished business” from World War II, of reports that the Burmese military are laying fresh mines on the Bangladeshi border, and of harrowing massacres such as that at Tula Toli, it becomes near impossible to avoid the term ‘genocide’, as used on Monday by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s 72 year-old de facto head of state, has faced much personal criticism in the wake of the violence. Awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her years defiantly struggling to democratize Myanmar, not only has Suu Kyi failed to condemn the violence of the military, but her office has denied serious allegations of their wrongdoing (including rape), restricted access to Rakhine, and blamed much of the world’s outrage on fake news. Moreover, both Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, refuse to even recognise the term Rohingya, reffering instead to illegal ‘Bengalis’ and asking foreign diplomats to do the same.

Elected to power only 2 years ago, it is inevitably difficult for Suu Kyi to walk the tightrope of political loyalties between her civilian government, the military, and a Burmese society that, after being fed propaganda for decades, has come to hold the Rohingya in contempt. And yet Suu Kyi should know better, as summed up in a recent public letter by fellow Nobel prize-winner Desmond Tutu: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

Amidst a growing chorus of international criticism, as well as the particular demand for an end to the UK’s training of the Burmese military, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s warning to Suu Kyi that the attacks are “besmirching” the country’s international reputation looks particularly wet, especially in light of the £500,000 worth of  weapons sold to the Burmese government in the last three years.

With the Burmese government rejecting ARSA’s offer of a ceasefire on Sunday, it is unclear when the cycle of violence will end, particularly following the calls of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for retaliatory attacks against the state. After such a massive demographic disruption, and with Bangladesh now host to nearly 400,000 new Rohingya refugees, even if the violence were to stop tomorrow it will take a massive and concerted international effort to properly care for the displaced, let alone secure a future for the Rohingya within Burmese society.

For decades the world has shown how little appetite it has for the plight of the Rohingya people. If the world’s gaze turns away again, surely we have learned nothing from the horrors of Srebrenica.


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