The Flight of the Rohingya

Emma Donahue, Staff Writer

Behind the Name

The term “Rohingya” refers to a religious ethnic group which practices a form of Sunni Islam who have historically inhabited the Burmese (or Myanmar) state of Rakhine. Their name is controversial because it derives from “Rohang,” their word for “Arakan,” the former name for the Rakhine State, the region of Myanmar which holds the majority of its Muslim population. Since this title is essentially a claim to a portion of Myanmar’s land, the government and majority Buddhist population are extremely wary of its usage by a Muslim group who are not officially recognized as citizens.[1] Despite having their own language and cultural practices, these technicalities and years of conflict with their Buddhist neighbors have left the Rohingya as one of the largest stateless groups in the world.[2]

Tensions flared in 1982 when the Burmese government identified 135 ethnic groups who were entitled to citizenship, yet the Rohingya were not included on this list, despite having been granted equal rights as citizens in the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.[3] Following the implementation of this legislation, the Rohingya were almost immediately stripped of their previous rights. Persecution ensued over the next several decades, including the enforcement of a two-child law, the banning of interfaith marriage, and a lack of access to government-funded education and healthcare.[4] Violence emerged in 2012 after Muslim men allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist woman, and over 100,000 Rohingya were displaced as a result of the assault. In response to the crisis, the Myanmar government offered to grant the group a reduced level of citizenship if they would register as Bengali rather than Rohingya, an offer not taken well by a group so connected to their identity and the suffering faced because of it.[5]

 

Continuing Violence

            In October of 2013, a group of Buddhist men carried out a series of attacks on Muslim villages throughout Rakhine. Three years later, an insurgent group formed within the state of Rakhine known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA attacked a number of Myanmar’s security outposts as a response to the recent violence towards the Rohingya and the fallout from these offensives caused the military crackdown that has displaced hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the past few years.[6] Over the next four months, Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, (which is unaffiliated with the civic government) was responsible for the alleged killing and gang rapes of countless Rohingya, who were forced from their homes with a scorched earth policy.[7] On August 25, 2017, ARSA attacked several police posts and an army base, spurring the most current influx of refugees into Bangladesh in light of the vicious counter attacks against the civilian population: rape, killing, brutal beatings, and more burning of villages.

According to Tom Malinowski, U.S. diplomat and former Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the Burmese military made the mistake of responding to extremist group ARSA with force towards innocent civilian populations, thereby using a religious conflict between the majority and minority populations to preserve their political authority over the Myanmar Buddhists.[8]

 

Myanmar’s Response

            Historically, the Burmese have been wary of the Rohingya claim to an autonomous area of land, which would be taken out of Rakhine territory near the Bangladesh border. The military believes this desire for sovereignty would create a breeding ground for ARSA-like militant groups.[9] While the Rakhines are also an ethnic minority in Myanmar, they are a predominantly Buddhist people, placing them on the same side as staunch Buddhist nationalists who do not want their country overtaken by Muslims (despite the fact that the overall Muslim population is 4%).[10]

Some responses to these issues have included the proposition of joint military action between Bangladesh and Tatmadaw against ARSA, as well as Myanmar’s UN commision under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan to review the 1982 citizenship law and issue recommendations.[11] While Myanmar’s civic government leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, embraced these recommendations, ARSA unleashed further attacks following the release of the government report which caused another military crackdown and further revenge violence towards the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi has faced much criticism from the international community for her silence regarding the ongoing persecution and subsequent refugee crisis. At one point, the Myanmar government slowed humanitarian aid to Rakhine, leaving those remaining with scarce food and water.[12] This action was explained as being a necessary counter-insurgency precaution rather than a human rights crisis, and Suu Kyi has been avoiding public statements because her power hinges on not being overthrown by the military, which she has no governance over.[13] Her office leaked a phone call made early this September to the President of Turkey, during which she is recorded saying that misinformation about the crisis is being spread to promote the interests of terrorists in Rakhine. Soon afterwards, she cancelled her planned visit to the UN. Many have remarked on the fact that she is in a difficult situation politically, as the military is backed by the majority of the country, while others have called for the recall of her Nobel Peace Prize.[14]

Despite this, she recently made a statement calling for a relief plan for the Rohingya Muslims. She wishes to set up a civilian-led agency to give aid and resettle those displaced from their homes by the violence- a number now greater than 500,000, most of whom are currently residing in Bangladesh.[15] Some have arrived in recent days, which is inconsistent with the Tatmadaw claim that it halted actions against the Rohingya in early September. One of Suu Kyi’s advisor’s claimed that the leader is attempting to make her government more transparent to the international community by accepting foreign aid to help with the migrant crisis, and that her previous silence was due to her precarious situation with the military rather than a lack of acknowledgement.[16]

 

Refugee Situation

            Currently, about half of the refugee population is residing around the Bangladeshi city of Balukhali in tent cities, and the rate at which it has grown over the past several months has made this the quickest mass exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.[17] They are living next to Kutupalong, another refugee camp home to the first wave of Rohingya who fled Rakhine in the 90s’. To say the Bangladesh government is overwhelmed would be an understatement; only a fifth of the newest arrivals have access to food rations (which consist of rice and biscuits), and aid agencies say water sources could run out in a few months. Furthermore, only 100,000 of about 288,000 children have access to any sort of education.

Both local and international organizations have been helping the government with humanitarian aid: the World Food Program and UN agencies set up relief centers in the camps, and local Bangladeshi groups have filled trucks with food and clothing and distributed the aid.[18] The government itself has set aside 2,000 acres in Balukhali for their military to set up a more organized camp, but construction has barely begun and it has been reported that the land is nearly uninhabitable. Refugees also need biometric forms of identification in order to receive aid distribution, and the process of creating these IDs could take up to half a year.

The level of poverty and disease within these camps are unthinkable. Besides the shortage of food and water, there is an absence of latrines or any form of sewage, so the ground is covered with waste and human feces. To prevent the spread of disease and further chaos, the government imposed travel restrictions on the Rohingya so that they are not permitted past a certain checkpoint; essentially, they are trapped in these camps and largely unable to return to Rakhine. Many claim to have seen landmines being installed along the border to prevent their return, and others are certain they would not be permitted re-entry as they are not identified as citizens.[19]

 

Possible Resolutions

            A local government aid coordinator for Bangladesh recently stated that the refugees only have a temporary home in their country, and that while they will feed and aid the refugees for as long as they can, it is not a permanent home.[20] Suu Kyi’s recent unveiling of her plan for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees is a step in the right direction, assuming she can keep the military at bay and protect her own authority in the process. However, a long term, comprehensive strategy needs to be determined regarding Myanmar’s treatment of their Muslim population, along with more thorough investigations into the soldiers’ behavior towards civilians to prevent the same tragedies from repeating themselves in the future.

 

Footnotes:

[1]  Megan Specia, “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis,” The New York Times,  September 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-Muslim.html

[2] Ibid.

[3]Krishnadev Calamur, “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis,” The Atlantic, September 25, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/

[4]Megan Specia, “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis,” The New York Times,  September 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-Muslim.html

[5]Krishnadev Calamur, “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis,” The Atlantic, September 25, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/

[6] Megan Specia, “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis,” The New York Times,  September 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-Muslim.html

[7] Ibid.

[8]Krishnadev Calamur, “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis,” The Atlantic, September 25, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12]Megan Specia, “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis,” The New York Times,  September 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-Muslim.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15]Patrick Wintour, “Aung San Suu Kyi unveils relief plans for Rohingya Muslims,” The Guardian, October 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/13/aung-san-suu-kyi-unveils-relief-plans-for-rohingya-Muslims-myanmar

[16] Ibid.

[17]Max Bearak, “One month on, a bleak new reality emerges for 436,000 Rohingya refugees,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/one-month-on-a-bleak-new-reality-emerges-for-436000-rohingya-refugees/2017/09/25/acbb2ff4-9d7e-11e7-b2a7-bc70b6f98089_story.html?utm_term=.2472dead6204

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bearak, The Washington Post

[20] Ibid.