The International Organization for Migration reports that an estimated 18,500 Rohingya, a minority Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar/Burma, are fleeing from the northwest of the country to find refuge in Bangladesh after a crackdown by the country’s military.
The increase in military action appears to be a response to a coordinated attack on 25 August by a Rohingya militant group, know as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which left 12 members of the government forces and 49 Rohingya fighters dead. A swift response to the attack came on 27 August when both civilians and the army stormed the Rohingya village of Chut Pyin and killed indiscriminately, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people.
A persecuted group
Often called the world’s most persecuted minority, the Rohingya have faced religious discrimination and persecution in Myanmar for over a century. The Rohingya are one of approximately 135 minority groups in a country whose ethnic tensions are so palpable they can even be found in the origin of the country’s name. Despite an official change to Myanmar in 1989, Burma is still commonly used and is derived from the name of the majority ethnic group, the ‘Bamar’.
Preferential treatment for the Bamar was most commonly observed through a ban on non-Burmese books and newspapers during the 49 years of military rule. The Rohingya have been considered to be the most disadvantaged of these minority groups both under the junta and since democratisation in 2011. Many Rohingya are denied citizenship as the Burmese government sees them as ‘resident foreigners’, not citizens, making them vulnerable to countless human rights abuses.
Old problems redressed
After momentary public outcry for the plight of the Rohingya in 2009, instances of widespread violence against the minority group intensified in 2012 when the government and civilian groups were accused of helping coordinate attacks that led to the displacement of 125,000 people. While this led to a formal declaration from President Obama in 2015, persecution has continued and many Rohingya have opted to take perilous sea journeys with the hope of reaching refuge.
However, these journeys have been fraught with instances of exploitation at the hands of gangsters and indifference from neighboring states. Tensions between the government and the Rohingya came to a head in 2016 when, in a similar fashion to the assaults on police and army posts last month, the military responded to insurgent Rohingya attacks. In the autumn of 2016, 86 Rohingya were killed and over 30,000 forced to flee. The most recent military response and subsequent exodus are a continuation of an ongoing trend.
An end in sight?
There are two issues that must be highlighted when discussing the prospect of ending the persecution of the Rohingya. The first concerns Myanmarese society and the rise of militant nationalist groups. One reading of the situation is that Buddhists in Myanmar feel that their religion is under siege and have used Islam as a scapegoat, a sentiment that has been propagated by Buddhist monks over the last several decades, as well as fostered through the consumption of negative global media coverage of Islam. In a country that is nearly 90% Buddhist, it is easy to see how religion is used as a bastion for national identity, often at the expense of minority groups, specifically Muslims.
The second issue concerns the government and the silence of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya. While the military retains huge power, Suu Kyi won the Myanmar’s first general election in 2015 and has since become the de-facto political leader of the country. Many believed that Suu Kyi’s experience as a dissident would inform a more conciliatory approach towards minorities in Myanmar.
However, her reticence to act in support of the Rohingya – and indeed her outright denial of evidence of human rights abuses – has allowed the Buddhist nationalist narrative of the ‘resident foreigners’ to go unchallenged. While the governing National League of Democracy is in the difficult position of running a newly democratised state, the silence of Suu Kyi is damning. It has even led some to argue that her Nobel Prize should be taken away.
These two issues point to an unwillingness to see the Rohingya as fellow citizens or members of the state deserving of equal protection under the law. The complex overlap of religion and politics in Myanmar has produced a climate where national identity is perceived by many not extend to Muslims. Unless the Rohingya are afforded not only a legal path to citizenship but also a socially constructed one predicated on the willing acceptance of the Burmese people, the persecution, displacement and murder of the Rohingya people will inevitably continue.