The Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim community that is concentrated in the Rakhine State of western Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist state, are the victims of an on-going campaign of brutal killings, rape and starvation in what falls within the international definition of an ethnic cleansing as stated by The Final Report of the Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780.
This campaign, organised primarily by Buddhist organisations with the aid of State authorities in Myanmar, has the final aim of driving more than a million members of this ethnic group out of the country.
The roots of the contemporary conflict can be traced back to at least the beginning of the Second World War. The Rohingya sided with the British while the Rakhine Buddhists sided with the invading Japanese. Since then there has been tension between the two sides. However, whatever balance remained was shattered with the passing of the Burmese Citizenship Law in 1982. This law did not recognise the Rohingya, whose existence in Myanmar can be traced back to at least the 19th century, and has effectively left them stateless. Human Rights Watch and other international organisations have repeatedly requested that this law be repealed, yet it remains in force. Stripped of any kind of political power and the ability to hold governmental office, access education, vote and work as civil servants, the Rohingya became highly vulnerable to exploitation. Rohingya children as young as seven have been documented as working in forced labour camps, property owned by Rohingyas has been regularly confiscated, they have been displaced from settlements and the frequency of violence towards Rohingyas has been on the rise.
Compounding this situation, Myanmar has recently passed a population control law, allowing the government to subject selected areas to birth control laws. This is one strand in a set of four so-called “race and religious protection” bills that are being considered by the legislature and include bills granting governmental oversight for interfaith marriages and religious conversion. Proposed by the Race and Religious Protection Association these bills have received widespread support in what is developing into overt hostility towards not just the Rohingya but the ethnic Muslim population in general.
This hostility taps into ethnic and religious divides but is also fuelled by a particular fear – that Buddhism in on the wane and Islam is on the rise. In a country where Buddhists outnumber Muslims 2 to 1 and with many of the latter unable to vote, political expediency is perhaps why Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of opposition political parties have not voiced strong concern over the treatment of the Rohingya.
Worryingly, there are opportunistic extremist groups that are seeking to use the plight of the Rohingya as a means to radicalisation. Recently the Islamic State has begun targeting South East Asian states as areas for potential recruitment and action in order to further their goal of creating a global Islamic caliphate. If Myanmar continues to violently suppress its ethnic Muslim population, they will not only continue violating the human rights and dignity of its people but may also endanger itself and other countries.
The events of 2012-2013 encapsulate the Government’s attitude towards the Rohingya. In their chillingly named report, “All You Can Do is Pray” Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan [Rakhine] State,” Human Rights Watch documented evidence that in Rakhine:
“The two groups most influential in organizing anti-Rohingya activities in this period [2012 -2013] were the local order of Buddhist monks (the sangha) and the locally powerful Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP)”
These groups masterminded the distribution of leaflets directly or indirectly urging the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya as well as organising local meetings and giving instructions to the local Buddhist population to socially and economically isolate the Rohingya in order to starve them of food and currency. Those who chose to ignore these instructions were met with beatings and public humiliation. There are multiple reports of Buddhists who chose to give food and aid to Rohingya being attacked by monks with bamboo sticks.
This prepared the way for waves of co-ordinated pogroms against the Rohingya and Kaman (another group of ethnic Muslims). Thousands of Rakhine Buddhists descended on townships like Mrauk-U, Minbya, Kyauk Pyu, and Pauktaw on October the 23rd 2012, armed with makeshift weapons, knives, guns and sticks, killing hundreds.
Government forces, at best, did nothing. At worst, there is strong evidence that the government forces sided with the attackers and used lethal force in multiple areas specifically against Muslims. One man reported:
“I saw three people hit by bullets from the police… They were standing right in front of me trying to stop the fires. They had water buckets. When I was trying to pour water on the fire, a man next to me was shot in the back of the head.”
The man said those killed were Muhammad Rafi, 21, Ali Khan, 16, and Ibrahim, 17.
This violence gave President Thein Sein a pretext to order security forces to crack down on the Muslim population, forcing 100,000 people from their homes – increasing the already large population living in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The authorities continue to make regular arrests of the Rohingya based on their ethnicity, force them from their homes, watch as they are beaten to death and explicitly endorse the on-going ethnic cleansing in not just Rakhine but in states across Myanmar.
President Thein Sein has repeatedly denied that the Rohingya as an ethnic group exist, instead referring to them as Bengali. The government has committed to this revisionist view. Even the findings of the inquiry into the violence in Rakhine titled, “Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State,” read that:
“the Commission was able to conduct interviews with 2,000 people, comprising 1,200 Rakhine and 800 Bengalis.”
There is no evidence to suggest that the Rohingya are Bengali. The most widely accepted view is that they arrived in Burma in the 19th century though some scholars believe they may have descended from Muslims living in the area from the 16th century or were always indigenous to the region. Irrespective of that, they have lived in Myanmar for centuries.
Rather, this is part of a sustained State-backed propaganda campaign that has vilified the Rohingya as Bengali, terrorists bent on the destruction of the state and Buddhist values or Bengali terrorists bent on the destruction of the state and Buddhist values.
In a desperate bid to escape these conditions we have seen a mass exodus of the Rohingyan people out of Myanmar both through people smugglers and independently. Those that are lucky enough to make the perilous journey without dying or being abandoned at sea find their way to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The UNHCR report over 140,000 living in border camps in Thailand, and Bangladesh currently hosts around 200,000 refugees and are considering moving 32,000 of them to Thengar Char, an island that is underwater during high tide in a cruel move that is almost certainly designed to force them to leave the country.
Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that the UN called the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. World leaders ranging from President Obama to the Dalai Lama have called on Myanmar to stop these atrocities. President Sein’s administration has refused to take any responsibility, calling allegations of human rights abuses “pure fabrication”. If Myanmar hopes to transition into a democratic country that respects the rule of law it must immediately put an end to these divisive policies, take responsibility and open a real and positive dialogue with ethnic Muslim communities.
Yaseen Akhtar completed an LLB at King’s College London and have done extensive work for the Law Society’s International Action Team as well as working in Education in Japan and China – with a focus on English teaching and policy. Currently part of the 2015 Teach First cohort and continuing to try throwing the spotlight on Human Rights issues that may have been overlooked by the mainstream media. Particularly those in Asia. If you have any comments then do tweet me at @kyouryuuonice
*Cover image ‘Myanmar/Burma: Little hope for Rohingya IDPs‘ by European Commission DG ECHO