The latest round of violence in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state began on August 25 and has evolved into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with over one lakh Rohingyas fleeing the country to neighbouring Bangladesh, and thousands stranded in Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands.
For years now, we have been hearing about the Rohingya crisis. For most of us, this conflict is personified by photographs of hundreds cramped on delicate boats, of an impoverished minority continuously subject to state persecution, and of toddlers washed up on the shores of Bangladesh.
Below is an explanation and analysis of the violent conflict.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingyas are a Muslim Indo-Aryan population living mainly along the west coast of Myanmar. While they can be found in India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, the largest number of Rohingyas are found in Myanmar. Within Myanmar, they are concentrated in the Rakhine State, located along the west coast. They number around 1.3 million out of the 52 million people who live in Myanmar.
To understand the persecution faced by the Rohingya people, it is important to understand Myanmar.
Myanmar’s political history
Since it won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, Myanmar has been suffering from a continuous series of insurgencies. Collectively, they have been described as one of the world’s “longest running civil wars”. The players in the conflict are numerous and the causes are complicated. However, one can reliably state that Myanmar’s extremely diverse population (which is composed of at least 153 officially recognised ethnic groups) and the political instability that plagued post-independence Myanmar are major reasons for the prolonged conflict.
Following the 1962 Burmese coup d’état, the army overthrew the civilian Government. This began over fifty years of military rule in Myanmar. Through the course of the period, the country suffered numerous riots, protests, curfews, and many attempts to transition into a democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the end of military rule in Myanmar
The military Government also jailed and prosecuted many pro-democracy activists. The most prominent among these was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San (who is regarded as the “Father of the Nation” in Myanmar). Suu Kyi spent nearly two decades under house arrest, thereby becoming one of the most recognised political prisoners in the world. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.
Beginning 2010, a process to transition to a democratic form of Government began. Finally in 2015, after over 50 years of military rule, in a historic general election Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in both houses, thereby heralding a democratic Myanmar.
The extensive reforms eased the sanctions placed by many countries on Myanmar and drew appreciation from many quarters. However, the Government continues to face severe criticism regarding its inefficient response to the crimes against religious minorities in Myanmar.
Crimes against the Rohingya people
The majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhist. The Muslim minority is concentrated in the Rakhine State. These are majorly the Rohingyas.
The persecution of the minority Rohingyas is not a modern phenomenon. It has been recorded since the 16th century. Under British rule, divisions between Myanmar’s many demographics deepened – as it was wont to do in the rest of the British Empire.
Under the military junta, Muslim minorities were subject to many atrocities. Anti-Buddhist activities by the Taliban in Afghanistan were at times used as justification by the military to escalate human rights abuses against the minority. Several communal riots occurred, hundreds lost their lives. The persecution took the form of ghettoisation, withdrawal of fundamental rights and necessities, social isolation, and mass murders.
Meanwhile, a violent insurgency in the Rakhine State has led to the displacement of over 20,000 people. At least a quarter of a million people have fled Myanmar to safer shores over the duration of the conflict which rages on and on with no end in sight.
The crimes against Rohingyas have not subsided since the arrival of democracy in 2015. Military forces instigated a brutal military crackdown against Rohingyas in 2016 following attacks on police camps in the border of the Rakhine State. There were widespread violations of human rights including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, arsons etc.
In 2015, thousands of Rohingyas fled Myanmar in makeshift and small boats across the Andaman Sea. Hundreds died and thousands were trafficked. At least 139 graves have been identified with bodies of trafficked Rohingyas along the border with Thailand.
What has been reaction of the Myanmar Government to the Rohingya crisis?
In October 2015, following the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis, third-party researchers from the Queen Mary University of London found compelling evidence that the Rohingya people face mass annihilation and are in the final stages of a “genocidal” process. The study was published after an 18-month investigation into the State-sponsored crime.
Suu Kyi’s Government has been criticised for not doing enough to put an end to the violence. At times, like during the 2016 crackdown, the Government even denied the atrocities taking place or downplayed their magnitude.
What has been reaction of the international community to the Rohingya crisis?
The United Nations and human rights groups have repeatedly called for measures to protect the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The military Government has been accused of sponsoring the human rights abuses, and the current Suu Kyi-led Government has been criticised for turning a blind eye to the atrocities.
In December 2016, Amnesty International said that “The Myanmar military has targeted Rohingya civilians in a callous and systematic campaign of violence … the deplorable actions of the military could be part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity.”
In the same month, the United Nations called on Suu Kyi to act urgently and halt the violence.
13 Nobel laureates and 10 global leaders sent an open letter to the United Nations Security Council expressing outrage and disappointment over the gross human rights violations the Rohingya people have been subject to for years. The letter read thus: “… a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is unfolding in Myanmar … The Rohingyas are among the world’s most persecuted minorities, who for decades have been subjected to a campaign of marginalisation and dehumanisation … It is time for the international community as a whole to speak out much more strongly. After Rwanda, world leaders said “never again”. If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets, and we may end up being the passive observers of crimes against humanity which will lead us once again to wring our hands belatedly and say “never again” all over again.”
OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE SECURITY COUNCIL AND MEMBER COUNTRIES OF THE COUNCIL TO END THE HUMAN CRISIS OF…
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India and the Rohingyas
India hosts a significant number of Rohingyas in Delhi, Hyderabad, Kashmir, West Bengal and Northeast India.
The Indian government does not officially recognise them as refugees, but has allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate a programme for them. The UNHCR issued identity cards to about 16,500 Rohingya in India that it says help them “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation”.
Recently, the government took the decision to deport the Rohingya refugee population. The decision received much flak, with supporters of the move citing national security as the rationale behind the decision and critics saying the move, by forcing the Rohingyas back to Myanmar, would inevitably expose thousands to prosecution.
On Monday, September 4, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to give a detailed reply on its decision to deport the Rohingyas back to Myanmar.
All the evidence points to gross human rights violations in Myanmar. There has been State-sponsored violence against the Rohingya minority. This violence has taken the form of pillaging, displacement, rape, forced trafficking, and murder. It has resulted in one of the largest populations of internally displaced peoples and forced the exodus of Rohingyas from their homeland. This exodus has taken the shape of refugee crises where impoverished thousands are forced to flee across the sea, depending on erratic, unwilling foreign aid.
As of December 2016, one in seven stateless persons in the world is a Rohingya Muslim.
What is happening to the Rohingyas represents the heights of inhumanity. The Myanmar government must take swift action to secure them, punish the perpetrators, and safeguard human rights in a democratic Myanmar.